Exploring Mormon Thought: ± God

What’s my margin of error? Adam ± .33?

How much of me is not-me? How much of my own flesh is dark? How much of my own mind is a black box?

How much of me is broken and passed around like bread for others to live on? How much of me is gathered from the multitude like leftover loaves they were too full to eat?

It’s this kind of thinking that gets Mormons pinched as “not really Christian.” The problem for Mormons is that we think this margin of error may itself be made in the image of God.

As Blake Ostler points out in the first chapter of the first Exploring Mormon Thought:

Perhaps the greatest distinction between Mormonism and the Christian tradition is that for Mormons the persons of the Godhead are genuinely “other” even to each other. That is, they are “distinct” and “separate” in the sense that they have unique personalities. They are persons having full cognitive and conative faculties. They are separate “wills” and “centers of cognitive awareness” who do not reduce to just one will or one personality; rather, they are genuinely separate with respect to their persons. They have distinct spatio-temporal identity – they are not identical in substance to the extent that the substance referred to is something they are made out of. The bodies of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are distinct from one another. (7-8)

There are thirty fingers and thirty toes. The divine plurality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost cannot be reduced. No matter how penetrating their union, there is always a remainder that cannot be assimilated, a remnant that cannot be incorporated, a chased-tail that cannot be caught. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are translucent but not transparent. “The persons of the Godhead are genuinely ‘other’ even to each other.”

Ostler, however, does also claim that, for the members of the Godhead, their divine interpenetration is still

so profound and the unity so complete that the persons who share this unity have identical experiences, know exactly the same things, agree perfectly with the decisions by all others sharing this unity and always act in complete unison. This unity is so perfect that it is improper to think of one person in this unity acting without the others. In this sense, there is a single agency exercised by these beings. (10-11)

These two claims seem like a poor fit. How, given their (±) personhood, can the Godhead’s unity be “complete” or their experiences “identical”?

I don’t know what Ostler has in mind, but I will speculate that part of what they share involves the margins themselves. Their inassimilable remainders do themselves circulate.

Part of the Father is indigestible by the Son, part of the Son is indigestible by the Holy Ghost, part of the Holy Ghost is indigestible by the Father. Fine. But we must also remember that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are only Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in their divine relationship with each other.

Part of them remains withdrawn from absorption in their divine dance but part of them is constituted by that same perechoresis. Part of each is given to them by what is other than them. This is a gift they can absorb in part, but not in whole.

The Father gives all of himself to the Son, even the parts that the Son cannot receive. And the Son gives all of himself to the Father, even the parts that the Father cannot receive.

The Son is constituted as a son by what the Father gives him – perhaps especially by the given parts he cannot digest. The Son bears within him the whole of the Father and the character of his sonship hinges on how he will bear within himself those parts of the Father that will always remain “other” to him. The Father, likewise, bears within himself the whole of the Son and the character of his fatherhood hinges on how he will bear within himself those parts of the Son that will always remain “other” to him.

Father and Son, bound to one another in an eternal embrace by their willingness to share what they cannot give and by their willingness to bear what they cannot receive.

(Forgive me. I am writing, of course, about my own father and my own son.)

What makes their relation divine is not the absence of this margin but their faithful relation to it. They do not save each other by mastering it, but by pledging themselves to caring for it. They don’t erase the margin of error, they live in it.

The Father: always ± the Son.

12 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: ± God

  1. Adam, most excellent.

    I am of two minds about this. A left hemisphere and a right. In fact that is the model I that I think works best for thinking about the divine relationship. I think Ostler is wrong about them having identical experiences. I think that the Father and Son, create a single emergent unity like my single consciousness that emerges from the two separate hemispheres in my head. The two sides of my brain communicate so completely and interpenetrate so thoroughly that the emergence it creates is a new and higher thing. A divine ecology that is more than the sum of its parts–A godhead that is irreducible to just the functions and presence of its members.


  2. I wouldn’t say that Ostler asserts that they have identical experiences in every single respect. In other places where he speaks of God’s omniscience he gives the distinction between my feeling fear and God experiencing me feeling my fear. I agree that all experience is mediated and must remain so for personality to exist, therefore there must be a qualifier to the “identical” claim. That said, I’m very comfortable stating that the Trinity is and must be transparent to one another on a cognitive level all times.

  3. I believe that we learn from adversity from suffering that given enough time they create the opportunity and the motive to evolve us toward enlightenment. I think God’s role is to evolve humankind but the fastest route places unequal burdens on us. This creates a vast gray area that can be argued and I believe Christ argues for the individual. The Spirit is the great comforter easing this path if we will let him. So I think there are three separate roles acted out by three personages but they are highly connected thus one. I like SteveP’s example of two hemispheres and a shared mind.

  4. I like this very much. But I still have questions (not so much objections, I think). So there’s an irreducibility of Father and Son(and Holy Spirit). We can’t lose sight of that. But then what sense do we make of their unity? What does it mean for them to be one, for one even to speak as the other? The example you give of your father and you and your son works for showing that separateness maintained within a unity. But isn’t there a sense where the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are one in a way we are not? We’ve been invited to that unity, but we aren’t there yet either with them or with each other.

  5. One common way of reconciling this tension is to say that as their unity they have shared knowledge, experience and so forth but as individuals they don’t. I want to say this was a distinction pressed by Orson Pratt but I don’t have time to go through his writings and double check that he actually said that.

    The analogy (and this is going by distant and perhaps distorted memories of Pratt) is akin to pointing. I can talk about my finger pointing and I can talk about I point. Clearly when I point (to Pratt) the whole is in a single disposition and experience. We can’t talk of me pointing independent of the finger and the whole is in an unified state. Yet when we talk about parts we can talk about the finger independent of the whole. Clearly the finger also points. And clearly as the finger points it is in different states and dispositions from say my brain when it points.

    You’ll note the parallel to certain conceptions of OOO in this.

    Now the problem with this is to then ask what the unity of God is when we talk about will, experience or so forth. For Pratt this was a higher order being that was the unity of all divine exalted being (i.e. God the Father, Jesus and all others of that sort) along with the Spirit (a kind of interpenetrating fluid in and through all things). All of this together was one. Thus Jesus and the Father are one in their oneness but with respect to individual persons they don’t have the same experiences. (This then runs into the question of whether Christ experienced everyone’s experiences vicariously – but we’ll leave that alone for now for simplicity’s sake)

  6. What this description doesn’t do is attempt to define or describe those parts that can be shared in the manner in which they are different from the parts that cannot be. My guess is that when we come to sufficient understanding of what can be shared it will be those same kinds of things we share when we say that we give of ourselves to others and not any kind of simultaneous experience or consciousness. That the most revealing model will be really healthy and alive friendship, rather than two halves of a single brain.

  7. Nice, Adam. I have a load of questions about what Blake’s doing in this first chapter itself, but they seem out of place in response to the direction you’ve taken….

  8. It’s a good thing, Joe, you can talk about whatever you’d like next week. I was just trying to save you some space ;)

  9. Joe: I say go for it. For the record, I later qualify the assertion that whatever the Father knows, the Son also knows. That comes in later analysis. This was really an introductory chapter to introduce some of the issues and rules of inference and logic.

    If F is omniscient, and S is omniscient, and if to be omniscient is o know all that is knowable, then both F and S know all that is knowable. However, there are some things that F can know that S cannot. For instance, only F can have first person reflective knowledge that “I am F.” Further only S can have experiential knowledge that is unique to S’s experiences. So all knowledge that is not first-person reflexive or based upon the unique experiential perspective is possessed by both F and S. Both equally know all truths of mathematics for instance. Only S knows “I am the one who suffered this.”

    It also follows that we must disambiguate statements about “God” because it is ambiguous. I respectfully suggest that your post fails to pay attention to precisely the ambiguities I warn against in the first chapter. For instance, “God” knows all things” is true, but the assertion “Jesus is God and he knew all things” is not true.

    However, there is another issue raised in the first chapter that I believe is worthy of extended consideration. Must God be the greatest conceivable, the greatest actually existing or just a very good and powerful being? The Lectures on Faith take the approach that God must be sufficient to be able to overcome all challenges to threats to our salvation to be the one in whom we have faith. I take the position that God is the self-surpassing surpasser of all.

  10. With respect to divine action, I accept with David Paulsen that all actions ad extra are actions of the Godhead. I discuss this at some length in volume 3. In this discussion it is essential to distinguish actions done through shared divine power, such as sustaining the world through the light that is in and through all things, and actions of individual divine persons. For instance, it is true that “God (as a Godhead) is all powerful.” It is not true that when Jesus exercised power to lift his arms to eat fish that “the Godhead at fish.” All actions inter se (by just one of he divine persons) are not the action of the Godhead.

    I also want to second what Keith said. The interpenetration of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost by sharing fully their interpenetrating light, power, knowledge, glory, and intelligence is different than the a mortal father’s genetic and nurturing embodiment in the son or daughter. They are transparent to each other in virtue of shared knowledge of all things ad extra in a way that mere mortals cannot be. There is no secretiveness in the way that exists in moral relationships that would allow for dissembling.

Comments are closed.