mortalityI have family members who have died recently, others who are dying, and some who tell me confidently every time we talk, “You know, I won’t be around much longer…” As distracted as we are, sometimes incorrigibly so, we can’t avoid our mortality – and not simply because we’re all confronted with our own and others’ demise, but because mortality structures the very nature of our life. It is the backdrop to the stage. It is the veil we soliloquize. This profound religious truth is also a profoundly mundane one.

Mortality likewise encompasses our finitude and insufficient knowledge. We are coerced to act on the basis of imperfection. One inevitable implication (and really this my whole point) is suffering. Sometimes our suffering is wrenching, profound and instructive, sometimes it’s a small buzzing fly, and sometimes it grinds on in a maddening, purposeless stupidity, the nauseating stench of carrion.

Prophets speak of the importance of mortality in school-ground metaphors – that it’s necessary in an eternal, progressional sense to undergo hardships and ultimately face the unknowable mystery of death. Among other things, mortality offers a context and an unique opportunity to be oriented toward God and Christ and to learn lessons that elude unembodied exaltations.

One common way to interpret this is by positing God as intentionally (thoughtfully, perhaps even lovingly) behind the various tragedies, losses, and puzzlements haplessly smeared across everyday: “God apparently needs me somewhere else, and not at that job I was just laid off from. I’m praying hard to find out where that might be.”

I struggle to wring from my heart more than a feeble sometimes. My obstinacy is less the result of profound grappling with various moral paradoxes that inevitably arise when we put God behind all details (particularly the bad stuff), than it is on account of my own vicissitudes and constant wavering back and forth in analyzing my personal experiences. Nonetheless, globally denying this interpretation likewise denies God the title of Providence and ourselves the virtue of gratitude. God forbid.

There is another interpretation which I have found as a firm foundation for my faith of late. Namely, our lives are mortal in the sense of their vulnerability to the senselessness and randomness that serves as at least one of the pillars of the grand temple of the cosmos. Sometimes the hardships we face happen not because God is pulling the strings with specific lessons or outcomes in mind, but simply because (Mormon heresy alert!) God’s fingers can’t reach the strings.

If we are to obtain eternal life – that is, if we are to learn to live God’s life – then we must learn how to resolutely and virtuously face up to the unpredictable whirlwind of existence in a way that ennobles ourselves and others. I do not believe that there is a Celestial Handbook dictating what Gods ought to do when when one of their brightest children rebel and exercise all agency and skill to impede others’ salvation. Part of being a God is an ability to cope with the mortality that underwrites existence in heaven as well as on earth – not according to prefabricated, general rules, but according to the particular, situational demands of divine life.

What does this make of heaven? Well, as Brother Brigham put it, “The only heaven we shall ever has is the one we build for ourselves.”

So, “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?”

No. It’s just turned out that way.

12 comments for “Mortality

  1. Gilgamesh
    September 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    I wouldn’t call it heresy. Eugen England’s “The Weeping God of Mormonism” would agree that sometimes “God’s finger’s can’t reach the strings.” This is what was so scandalous about 19th centruy Mormonism. It is only in the last century that the idea that God is in full control came into play.

  2. James Olsen
    September 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Gilgamesh – yes, I wasn’t very clear in that parenthetical. I meant that as a tongue-in-cheek warning and the “Mormon” to be descriptive of the specific kind of heresy – one that we Mormons share in contradistinction to most other religions today. There are of course other ways to interpret the various references to a limited God that sprinkle our scriptures, but the idea that “God’s fingers can’t reach the strings” is a common one – and one that I obviously support.

  3. Eliza S.
    September 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Super long copy-paste comment but this thought by Elder Maxwell (from the book All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience) is such a good explanation of how the omniscience/omnipotence of God might work with man’s agency:

    “Since–unlike for us enclosed by the veil–things are, for God, one “eternal now,” it is to be remembered that for God to foresee is not to cause or even to desire a particular occurrence–but it is to take that occurrence into account beforehand, so that divine reckoning folds it into the unfolding purposes of God.

    “…The actual determinations, however, are made by us mortals using our agency as to this or that course of action. For these determinations and decisions we are accountable. The essence of agency will have been present (and later at the judgment will be shown to have been provably present); otherwise the justice of our omniscient Father in heaven (another perfected attribute) would not have obtained. (Alma 12:15.)

    “Our agency is preserved, however, by the fact that as we approach a given moment we do not know what our response will be. Meanwhile, God has foreseen what we will do and has taken our decision into account (in composite with all others), so that His purposes are not frustrated.

    “…Traditional discussions of omniscience ignore the fact that this attribute is much more than God’s simply noticing and observing everything as it happens. It is a remarkable thing for God to notice every sparrow that falls. But God could be fully noticing and aware–and yet still be surprised, along with the rest of us. Yet the living God is aware of all things before they unfold. This supernal dimension of knowledge is a part of omniscience!

    “…Personality patterns, habits, strengths, and weakness observed by God over a long period in the premortal world would give God a perfect understanding of what we would do under a given set of circumstances–especially when he knows the circumstances to come. Just because we cannot compute all the variables, just because we cannot extrapolate does not mean that He cannot do so. Omniscience is, of course, one of the essences of Godhood; it sets Him apart in such an awesome way from all of us even though, on a smaller scale, we manage to do a little foreseeing ourselves at times with our own children even with our rather finite and imperfect minds.

    “Ever to be emphasized, however, is the reality that God’s “seeing” is not the same thing as His “causing” something to happen. We must not approach God as if He were somehow constrained by finite knowledge and by time.”

  4. James Olsen
    September 13, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Thank you Eliza.

    The quote makes me think of Big Blue defeating chess masters through sheer brute force, calculating out massively large numbers of possible moves in advance and so planning for all contingencies. If so, and if we’re right about God’s (lack of) access to all strings, then there must be an amazing anguish in foreseeing our agonies. This may be part of what we catch a glimpse of in Moses.

  5. September 13, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Trying to be like God was the essence of the 1st sin. The ‘fall’ into sin was improperly named. it was (and is) more of a ‘rising’. trying to be like God and know what God knows. God will not have it.

    We are to be what God created us to be, and no further. Yes, He declares us righteous and holy for Jesus’ sake. But we will always be His creation, His children…and nothing more.


  6. James Olsen
    September 14, 2013 at 7:04 am

    Steve Martin – Spoken like a true Protestant. As I suppose is obvious from my post, I can’t say I agree with any of it. Nevertheless, that theological approach to understanding God and our relationship to God certainly seems to have worked for millions of souls over millennia – and not just Christians, but a host of religious traditions. It just doesn’t work for me.

  7. September 14, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    That’s ok.

    Jesus said, “When the son of man returns to earth with His holy angels, will He find faith?”

    Will there even be any? That’s a question.

    But there will be plenty of man-made, self-ascendant religious ladder climbing. Like what goes on in Mormonism and many, many other religions that pout what ‘we do’ at the center.

  8. Chris Kimball
    September 14, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    It seems to me that a true omniscience including the future (“Yet the living God is aware of all things before they unfold. This supernal dimension of knowledge is a part of omniscience!”) plus *some* strings gets you back to God being responsible. Even if you had only one string to pluck, if you knew all things and could choose the right time and place you could move mountains. Even a clockmaker would be responsible if the clockmaker knew everything in every detail before it happened.

    Contrary to Elder Maxwell, I think God can be surprised. I think that’s inherent in randomness, inherent in a post-Newtonian world in which the next thing that happens cannot be predicted perfectly from all that has gone before. Is that similar/same/not unlike the “senselessness and randomness” that you call for?

  9. James Olsen
    September 14, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    Chris Kimball – Yes, that’s the sort of thing I’m thinking of, together with the inherent randomness associated with a strong notion of agency. The “senseless” aspect is the lack of any intention behind or inherent meaning within certain events – including misfortunes.

  10. annegb
    September 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I am of late coming to a similar conclusion—not necessarily about God not being able to reach the strings, but about the serendipitous nature of our existence.

    As I age (I will be 61 next week)I find that life is rushing by; I celebrate New Years and turn around and it’s September. My mind can’t keep up with everything that’s going on and I make mistakes. Others make mistakes. I believe that the progress we make towards Godhood (God forbid I should ever be a Goddess, who wants millions of kids) is in the evolution of attitude, rather than a plethora of good works. Although good works follow attitude change. But in order for the score keeping and record keeping to be fair, it must include things like “Subject woke up with a migraine and tripped over dog, breaking arm. Went to ER, where tired nurse was rude, causing subject to use bad word and be in an even worse mood. Subject had bad day. Next day, subject slept well and felt well; everyone she met was also having a good day. Subject repented of previous day and went on to be a wonderful person for today.”

    I’m not making sense. But if we are going to count every single bad thing we do, every single day, as we go on that roller coaster ride Elder Hinckley talked about, there’s no hope. I can’t keep up with my sins enough to repent of them anyway. I forget what I was doing when I ended up on T&S.

  11. James Olsen
    September 15, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Annegb – Thank you for your thoughts. My own life confirms the old adage about life speeding up as we move through it. I’m personally drawn toward the literal meaning of the word ‘repent’ as a turning back towards God, a return. The idea of perfection as never committing an ordinary indiscretion makes less sense to me than the idea of perfect commitment and unwavering diligence. My best wishes in your attempts.

  12. jill
    September 17, 2013 at 3:13 am

    It makes sense because offspring become like their parents.

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