Brothers: A Speculative Drama in One Act

Mike stared incredulously at his brother. “I can’t believe I’m hearing what I’m hearing.”

There was a self-assured quality to the look in his brother’s eyes right now, a strange blend of confidence-inspiring beauty and what Mike viewed as arrogant self-righteousness. Then again, his brother had every reason to feel supremely confidant in matters such as these, as their father seemed to trust him implicitly. Yet precisely for that reason, Mike was uncomfortable, knowing what his brother’s words implied about their father’s authority, even sanity.

“He is wrong – at least about this. I know it’s hard to hear, but the logic is as inescapable as it is self-evident.”

“You should be careful…” was the only response Mike could muster. “Have you spoken to Josh about this? What does he think?”

“He has no idea. And, quite frankly, I’m not concerned with what he thinks. You and I both know how he’ll react. The sycophant is as predictable as he is useless. Dad likes a lapdog as much as the rest of us, but he’s also smart enough to know not to give him any power.”

“You mean, like, by making him executor?” Mike snapped back.

“Meaningless title. He has exactly one duty to perform, and, even setting aside the question of his competence to perform it, it will be of virtually no consequence provided I can get board approval for the improved plans.”

“Dad can override a board decision if it isn’t unanimous.”

“You’re presuming that dad won’t see the light himself. It’s not as if I’m proposing something radically new, something that hasn’t been done before, and with great success.”

“Still, this is his project. He fronted the capital, he wrote the mission statement –“

“Maximizing returns, how brilliant and innovative!”

“He gave you your position.”

“And you yours.”

Mike wondered: does he even remember that I technically have the authority to arrest him?

“It doesn’t matter – ”

Is he reading my mind?

“ – He can shut his eyes and plug his ears and whistle like a stubborn old man. It won’t matter. The board’s power is a window-dressing – they’re basically a glorified advisory body. The stakeholders have all the real power.”

“I don’t think you’ve thought through the risks here,” replied Mike, subtly alluding to his own authority.

“I don’t think you’ve thought through the risks here, Mike. The risks that the whole venture could result in unmitigated disaster for virtually all involved. Dad seems positively oblivious to the plausibility of that outcome. And, like it or not, it is a real possibility. And letting Josh, of all people, intervene as a contingency strategy. Not exactly confidence inspiring…”

“Actually, it seems to be tremendously confidence-inspiring, particularly among the stakeholders whose judgment you claim to trust so much.”

“They won’t for long, not when they learn anything about him other than his public persona.”

Mike chuckled at the irony. “Oh, like you’re not the most stage-managed, consultant-driven personality in the whole family.”

“Back to the point at hand.” His brother’s blood pressure seemed to have slightly upticked with his last response. “I’m proposing a solution that leavens risk, spreads it across an aggregate, and reduces it to the point of virtual elimination.”

“A solution that just happens to grant you virtually dictatorial authority.”

“You of all people should know that there’s nothing wrong with authority, only with its abuse. What I’m proposing is hardly abusive…”

“Not in its ends. But it’s a question of means. You’re talking about eliminating free will. You’re taking a rather terrifying vision of authoritarian religion and turning it into a plan for making men into gods.”

“I’m not eliminating free will; I’m honoring it in the fullest sense. People know that I understand the nature of god and godliness, of what attaining those things entails. It’s rational for them to put their trust in me, their leader. They know I know better.”

“I don’t think you understand the point of choice.”

“Dad’s way is unacceptably risky. Virtually assured to fail, precisely because it presumes that people can be trusted to consistently choose right. We’re not talking about a risk that resources will be allocated across a marketplace in a less-than-efficient manner. We’re talking about people’s lives, their eternities, everything.”

“You can’t just take choice away.”

“I’m not taking anything. I’m asking for them to freely give it. To choose me. To have faith in me, in my ability to make things work. Obedience is the first law of heaven. The only choice that matters is the choice to obey, to turn over to me, as father’s chosen servant, as one having proper authority, and superior knowledge. It’s a single choice, a choice to submit, to trust, to have faith that I see what they don’t – and it’s the most important choice any of them will ever make. Obedience doesn’t eliminate freedom; it is freedom’s ultimate expression.”

Mike thought for a moment. “That’s clever. And highly appealing, especially since, as you’ve pointed out, father’s way of doing things is far from foolproof.”

“Indeed, it’s fool-dependent.”

“Josh is hardly a fool. And father is hardly the kind of leader that seeks mere mindless submission.”

“It’s not mindless. No one’s being forced to do anything.”

“Still, there’s a reason why father has made individual access to the Spirit paramount.”

“People know that there is nothing the Spirit can tell them that I can’t tell them just as easily. The Spirit will tell them to follow me, to obey me. That simplifies things considerably. Father’s house is a house of order. We can’t have a chaotic mess of individuals trying to discern vital things for themselves, misunderstanding, misinterpreting, every man an oracle unto himself. We have to streamline access to father’s will and power. Make the whole thing efficient. ‘Order’ means that everyone fits in a proper place on the chain of command, everyone submits to a higher authority.”

“And because you preside over it all, you get credit.”

“I give glory to father. If any choose to glorify me, that is their business. I am only bringing to pass father’s wishes.”

“But the gods became such not by simply meeting some list of technical requirements, regardless of means. It’s not about just crossing the finish line, even if you’re dragged across, knees bent and arms folded, by a stronger runner. It’s about becoming, through the process of the race, the kind of being capable of walking across. It’s not just about being able to learn what’s right because you know who to ask; it’s about learning to discern it for yourself. You can’t bring people to exaltation by playing puppet master.”

“You had to go there.”

“It’s not personal. It’s not my fault you lack any sense of irony.”

Iblis thought for a moment, before speaking again: “These abstract issues and semantic niceties don’t matter. In the end, all that matters is whose approach produces greater returns. I’m confident mine will, and that others will see things in the same light.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate Josh, either. Say what you want about his radical idealism, he’s not an idiot.”

“Hey, I completely trust his intentions. What I don’t trust is his ability to actually execute the job. You fault me for having everyone rely on a single person, but dad’s whole contingency strategy entails precisely the same thing.”

“But it does so without reducing free will to a single choice of absolute submission.”

“That is free will, par excellence. The real difference is that my version minimizes risk, while dad’s version lets it run wild, unconstrained.”

“People must think to become like father. Under your plan, you, as leader, will be the only one who needs to do any thinking. To equate blind obedience and mindless submission with the kind of freedom capable of turning men into gods is a mistake of the highest order.”

“A folly rivaled only by the belief that men are capable of independently exercising free will to any but the most destructive ends. You’re not even talking about something that could be reasonably described as religion, more like some kind of zen spirituality where authority does not, cannot, exist. The world will be a terrifying place, filled with uncertainty of every kind imaginable. Father will not be there. In a certain sense, he will be inscrutable, unknowable. Good and evil will be impossible to discern, especially in cases where neither really fully exists. People will accept what I’m offering because it provides them with an imaginative universe where the good not only exists but is always easy to find and to embrace, where it is possible to identify and eliminate evil. Where you see freedom, all I see is chaos. Where you see authoritarianism, I see priesthood. Where you see blind submission, I see the supreme expression of true freedom.”

“We’re talking past each other. But, a warning.”

“By all means.”

“If you take this to the board, or to the stakeholders, and things go badly, do not be surprised if father orders me to throw you out of the building.”

“Ha! Now that’s what I call authoritarian.”

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Comments

  1. Brad,

    I want to reserve praise for another read-through to process it all entirely, but…

    …this is fantastic. Well done, you.

  2. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Brad, as you know, I think this is well written, and I’m ultimately sympathetic to the perspective you’re advancing. That said, something about this piece makes me a little uncomfortable.

    I think it’s this: I feel as if some of the lines of dialogue feel a bit too torn from the Mormon headlines, as it were. It’s as if you’re taking contemporary LDS debates between positions that privilege individual quests for truth and development and those that emphasize authority and orderliness in the divine truth economy, and then projecting those debates onto pre-mortal epic and/or mythic history. When you do this, the reader is shocked to learn that your favored position is aligned with God, and the position you least support is found on the mouth of Satan.

    This is really as close as I think you’re personally capable of coming to saying that Mormons who emphasize authority over individual trial-and-error development are absolutely and eternally wrong. It seems hard to understand how a fallible human who believes in the trial-and-error mode of individual progress could feel comfortable making a fully categorical statement along these lines, and you don’t. But the tendency in that direction strikes me as unnecessarily raising the stakes. It seems most probable to me that the people who take authority-emphasizing positions are trying to solve problems that you and I also recognize and experience. I oppose some aspects of their solutions, as you do, but I hope that we can express such opposition without demonically mythologizing their positions.

    Still, this is a great piece of writing, and I really do look forward to other people’s thoughts about it.

  3. Good job, Brad.

  4. JNS,
    I get the uncomfortableness. On some level, I was uncomfortable writing it for fear that it would engender that kind of response. In the end, though, I was less interested in definitively labeling certain positions as demonic or wicked than I am in exploring the possibility that Lucifer’s plan likely was compelling in ways that appeal to all of us, that it led many astray precisely because it was far from obviously or self-referentially evil. This represents my own subjective effort at imagining a war in heaven that truly and sincerely divided people.

  5. Wow, I didn’t read that much into it (Referencing #2). I thought it was a fascinating bit of speculation on why the Adversary’s plan might be so tempting as to drag a third of the hosts of heaven to his side.

    The metaphor kinda breaks down once you introduce the Spirit, but I think most people will get what you’re talking about by then. I was surprised to see the name “Iblis” suddenly pop out. (I was expecting Lou or Louis)

    All in all, very entertaining and thought-provoking!

  6. FHL,
    I actually debated Luke or Lucas, but in the end went with the Arabic rendering of Lucifer (itself a transliteration of the Latin for “Day Star”).

  7. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Brad, I can see that, and I appreciate it. My concern, I suppose, is that some small moments in the dialogue approach satire of common contemporary Mormon usages. Consider Satan’s line:

    Obedience is the first law of heaven. The only choice that matters is the choice to obey, to turn over to me, as father’s chosen servant, as one having proper authority, and superior knowledge. It’s a single choice, a choice to submit, to trust, to have faith that I see what they don’t – and it’s the most important choice any of them will ever make.

    I think that at least some Mormons could recognize this as a satirical exaggeration of their own position with respect to prophets and church leaders. Satan’s argument could be expressed without the SLCisms — first law of heaven, chosen servant, etc.

  8. Yes it could, J. But then it loses some capacity to enable the reader to find something compelling in Lucifer’s arguments. My point is that we likely all found his alternative compelling in one way or another, and rejected him in spite of it.

  9. StillConfused says:

    Is this about the war in heaven or Obama’s presidency?

  10. I think you’re confused…

  11. Pretty interesting, and I have to admit speculating on just exactly how this went down, and the ability for Lucifer to pull a third away with him. Certainly, some parts are particularly compelling.

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around this exchange, though:

    “Actually, it seems to be tremendously confidence-inspiring, particularly among the stakeholders whose judgment you claim to trust so much.”

    “They won’t for long, not when they learn anything about him other than his public persona.”

    Mike chuckled at the irony. “Oh, like you’re not the most stage-managed, consultant-driven personality in the whole family.”

    I’ll ponder that, and see what others think.

  12. Stephanie says:

    Oh man, StillConfused, you stole my line!

  13. Stillconfused,

    I was thinking it might be Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. And I’m not saying which one I thought was Iblis.

  14. I’ll just note that it requires a special kind of cognitive gymnastics for a Mormon to read this post and immediately think: Aha! Barack Obama.

  15. Very nice, Brad.

  16. What you probably didn’t know is that Obama’s REAL birth certificate (from the not U.S.) shows his middle name is actually Iblis….

  17. Stephanie says:

    #14 – Well, my thought was “Is this about pre-mortal life or politics?”, but #9 was close enough.

  18. Well, in that case, the answer is: yes, both.

  19. I think that at least some Mormons could recognize this as a satirical exaggeration of their own position with respect to prophets and church leaders. Satan’s argument could be expressed without the SLCisms — first law of heaven, chosen servant, etc.

    Satirical? Exaggeration?

  20. This was excellent… very thought provoking. I do think, though, that the end was a bit heavy-handed in its criticism of the “sheeple” in the church. Still, though- Wow.

  21. #19: I did not find it “satirical exaggeration”. More flannel board.

  22. Nicely done! I liked the depth you added to the story. It often gets told as, “Let’s see should I choose Evil? Or Good? Evil? Good?” With a third saying, “I know! I’ll choose Evil!” There must have been subtlety such as you suggest.

    What your story has left me thinking about is how authority can become an object of adoration and worship. There is danger in that. That’s why I particularly liked this:

    “It’s about becoming, through the process of the race, the kind of being capable of walking across. It’s not just about being able to learn what’s right because you know who to ask; it’s about learning to discern it for yourself. You can’t bring people to exaltation by playing puppet master.”

    When people quick thinking, they’ve ceased making choices, and they have abdicated free-agency.

  23. This highlights something that I have thought has been one of the most outstanding aspects of our pre-mortal narrative. That is the faith in Jesus required.

  24. Very Cool. I have often thought it was not Lucifer’s Plan that was ultimately what got him thrown out, but how he reacted to not being picked.

  25. Eric Russell says:

    It’s about becoming, through the process of the race, the kind of being capable of walking across. It’s not just about being able to learn what’s right because you know who to ask; it’s about learning to discern it for yourself.

    Amen.

    Obedience is the first law of heaven. The only choice that matters is the choice to obey, to turn over to me, as father’s chosen servant, as one having proper authority, and superior knowledge. It’s a single choice, a choice to submit, to trust, to have faith that I see what they don’t – and it’s the most important choice any of them will ever make. Obedience doesn’t eliminate freedom; it is freedom’s ultimate expression.

    And Amen.

  26. Latter-day Guy says:

    Wow, Brad. This is quite something. It will certainly bear a few readings! Thank you!

  27. I like this a lot, Brad. A whole lot.

  28. ummquestion says:

    To Eric Russell #25

    What you said.

  29. Very provocative piece! Thanks!

  30. Interesting

  31. Very interesting dialogue. Thoughtful and probably more accurate. As to the paragraph
    [Obedience is the first law of heaven. The only choice that matters is the choice to obey, to turn over to me, as father’s chosen servant, as one having proper authority, and superior knowledge. It’s a single choice, a choice to submit, to trust, to have faith that I see what they don’t – and it’s the most important choice any of them will ever make. Obedience doesn’t eliminate freedom; it is freedom’s ultimate expression.]
    Of course Lucifer would have taken some truth and mingled it with false hood. It would have been subtle, confusing and doubt causing. For most of us this is still the way he works to get us to choose him in our mortal state. Or at least casts doubt in our mind on Christ’s ability to save us.

  32. Excellent piece.

    I still kinda want to view Satan’s plan as removing accountability rather than choice.

    But this is really well done.

  33. I still kinda want to view Satan’s plan as removing accountability rather than choice.

    I don’t think the distinction much matters. Choices are not meaningful if we are not accountable for their consequences.

  34. Coffinberry says:

    Spot on. You’ve captured quite well how I have long imagined the situation. (Including why I absolutely hate it when someone feeds me the “obedience is the first law of heaven line” when they want me to do what they say.) Bravo.

  35. Thomas Parkin says:

    I think it’s great.

    For quite a while I’ve wondered if Lucifer’s original itch against the Plan of Salvation wasn’t an abused sense of justice. He looks at the stratified universe and wonders: it isn’t fair, why can’t everyone win? ‘Especially me.’ But the ‘especially me’ might have come later. His first thought might have been ‘what about them.’ Then, that concern takes on too large a place in his psyche, and once distorted preempts all other considerations, becomes something that he cannot give up to restore himself, even to restore himself.

    The other main question I have about Lucifer’s rebellion: was he, right under Father’s nose, tempted to take his positions (and if so by who??), or did evil spring up independently in him. Either position is truly frightening. ~

  36. Ironically, the same General Authority who talks about obedience being a law of heaven, etc. also delivered one of the most direct sermons expressing the following:

    It’s about becoming, through the process of the race, the kind of being capable of walking across.

    SteveP, are you sure that the story “often gets told as, ‘Let’s see should I choose Evil? Or Good? Evil? Good?’ With a third saying, ‘I know! I’ll choose Evil!’? You really do have a very poor view of your fellow sheeple in the Church! (Not even the Godmakers presents it this way.)

  37. My first paragraph in comment # 36 refers to the irony that the principle that the original post tries to deconstruct by putting it into Satan’s mouth — that obedience is the first law of heaven — is actually taught together with what is presented as its foil, that each has to live, learn and experience life for one’s self in order to become someone (through the perfecting power of Christ’s grace) who would be happy living a celestial law (i.e. in the presence of God).

  38. I think that at least some Mormons could recognize this as a satirical exaggeration of their own position with respect to prophets and church leaders. Satan’s argument could be expressed without the SLCisms — first law of heaven, chosen servant, etc. – JNS #7

    It’s interesting that JNS uses the label satire. I think that the paragraph he to which he is referring accurately sums up the view of most of the active LDS in my part of the world, without exaggeration or satire.

    Of course Lucifer would have taken some truth and mingled it with false hood. It would have been subtle, confusing and doubt causing. For most of us this is still the way he works to get us to choose him in our mortal state. Or at least casts doubt in our mind on Christ’s ability to save us. – Aimee #31

    Why do we have to think that Lucifer was evil in the pre-existence and that he was mingling falsehoods in presenting his plan? That seems to be a very Miltonian or “My Turn on Earth” view of the pre-existence. Isn’t it possible that he was just as good and righteous as any other, including Christ, and only became The Father of Lies after he fell? I think that Brad has done an excellent job in presenting the possibility that each plan was the honest held view of the one presenting it.

    One last general question, is there any scriptural support to lend credence that we, “the stakeholders,” actually voted on any plan? At least in any way other than staying with God rather than following Lucifer when he was expelled?

  39. I liked the beginning, but then it became too obvious a rewrite of Moses 4:1-4 at the end. I would have preferred you to keep symbolic/hidden a little more as it was in the beginning. Show the concept, don’t explain it.

    Also, while it is a general LDS belief, no one voted on the plan of salvation. Abraham 3 clearly tells us that the only question was “whom shall I send?” It would have been closer to scripture to have him explaining how he is vying to be the next CEO, rather than (Josh/Jesus), and if necessary having a stockholder’s revolt to accomplish it.

  40. That’s the vote — a vote with our feet that caused real strife such that it was described in scripture as a “war”.

    There’s no scriptural support to suggest a democratic vote between different plans.

  41. It’s interesting to think about how different our religion would be without the “war in heaven” myth. It’s the backbone of our beliefs about eternal progression, and it provides a unique perspective on the theodicy question. Without the books of Moses and Abraham, agency wouldn’t have such significance in our theology. And I’m thinking on the fly here, but I think the Pearl of Great Price may be more significant than the Book of Mormon in differentiating Mormonism from other Christian faiths.

  42. I think agency would be just as enshrined based on such Book of Mormon scriptures as 2 Nephi 2, 2 Nephi 9, Alma 22, Alma 34, Alma 40-42, not to mention scriptures in the Bible that teach about agency/accountability.

  43. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John F., true enough, although what exactly “agency” means is never made particularly clear on the basis of any of those passages.

  44. JNS — that’s true. I don’t think that “agency” is even directly mentioned in a number of them except that the passages are discussing the point of agency — accountability for choices and the results in the world to come.

  45. I think we may have overlooked the fear factor involved, assuming fear (or uncertainty, at least) was an emotion that we could feel in our pre-mortal state.

    The argument goes like this: ” You’re going to go to this new earth, and when you are born there, you are more than likely to be born into poverty, in a place where God’s word won’t be heard in its fulness. Not to mention that when you are born there, you will have completely forgotten all about this state, and all the things you learned, and you’ll be completely dependent on someone else coming along and telling you the truth, and hoping that you will recognize it. Chances are, that might never happen for you. Are you sure you want to take the risk?”

    I can see people choosing the authoritarian plan over the free agency plan, when faced with an argument like this. As was pointed out, it almost certainly was not a “choose good, or choose evil” plan, but something much more subtle, and a promise of ultimate success, in spite of our weaknesses. In reality, it is our weaknesses that help us to understand the importance of agency, and its relation to obedience, coupled with faith. Through faith and the struggle with weaknesses and opposition, we become those who are capable of walking across the finish line.

  46. #45: ” you’ll be completely dependent on someone else coming along (while you are on the earth) and telling you the truth”.. [in order to cross the finish line to exalation].
    Without the above, you can be saved, but not exaltated..ever.(?)
    That is how I read the Oaks semon in #36.

  47. charlene says:

    Brad, nice Screwtape-ian twist to the story.

    I agree with others that it may be a bit heavy-handed. It implies a devious nature in Iblis and the assumption that the Father did not perceive that nature. Suppose that both Iblis and Josh were motivated by a true love of the “stakeholders” and Iblis interpreted the mission statement, “maximizing returns,” as quantity where Josh interpreted it as quality. This follows from these two comments:
    #35 “The other main question I have about Lucifer’s rebellion: was he, right under Father’s nose, tempted to take his positions (and if so by who??), or did evil spring up independently in him.”
    And #24 “I have often thought it was not Lucifer’s Plan that was ultimately what got him thrown out, but how he reacted to not being picked.”

    Finally, to me, the real meaning of choice is not
    #31 Or at least casts doubt in our mind on Christ’s ability to save us.”
    But rather, do I make the choice and have the strength of faith to hang on to the lifesaving rope he dangles before me?

  48. I think we also believe that Satan’s plan actually was born of evil — it is evil to wish to usurp God’s glory and that was the motivation behind Satan putting his plan forward.

  49. I sometimes find myself pondering the Mormon narrative of the gospel plan and wondering how Lucifer could have missed what should have been most blatantly obvious (he is supposed to be cunning, right?).

    Lucifer, as a spirit who has not been born (not received a body), not gone through mortal experience, not died, not resurrected, etc. could somehow jump ahead of all those levels and take God’s glory – presuming here that God (unlike Lucifer) had a physical body and exalted glory.

  50. RE: #49,
    I think Lucifer (mis)understood “glory” in roughly the same manner we do, i.e. as an exaltation of the individual, of the self, as an increase in power and position and authority and greatness — and the acknowledgment of such by others.

    For the Father, on the other hand, glory is defined as the inverse of that conception: it is had and acquired in direct proportion to a being’s success at elevating others, even at His own expense (the Father had to pay the ultimate price for us to be exalted to His level, a price that Jesus both shared and embodied), without any recompense.

    Lucifer’s “glory” became the glory of Satan (the God of this world), which means that it became the glory of the world. An unfortunate side effect, I think, is that we humans (including we Mormons) tend to imbibe Satan’s definition of glory and to refract our image of the divine through that prism. We are predisposed to view the Father in the image and likeness of the God of this world. Only revelation can cut through the Satanic inversion. Even then, the temptation to view God as basically a self-serving, glorified glory-hog who condescends to elevate us but only to the extent that he is further exalted by the process can be overpowering.

    But the God whose power is described in D&C 121, for example, is in a certain sense a powerless God — at least a God whose power bears no resemblance to power as it is exercised in this world or in any manner familiar to us. The exercise of traditional power kills priesthood, like a circuit breaker. The Father, as represented in the temple drama, has virtually no power except the ability to communicate with other beings who, hopefully, will carry out His will, but whose own power is also limited to slow, laborious acts of colonization — taking stuff (matter, seeds, animals, etc.) and transplanting it into a new space and then beginning the process of peopling a new colony.

    A powerless God is an unimaginable, almost nonsensical, and thoroughly terrifying possibility. But it seems to me to be a reality we must eventually come to grips with, casting aside Satan’s intoxicating decoy in the process.

  51. I should clarify that I am delimiting “power” in the previous comment to the realm of human-to-human, being-to-being relationships. A powerless God is a God who lacks any coercive power whatsoever, who cannot manipulate others or exercise authority over them. In short, a God whose “power” is described in D&C 121: 41-46, whose scepter and dominion exist without compulsion.

  52. Matt Rasmussen says:

    This was really well written and thought out. At first I thought the brothers were arguing over family duties and was thrown off when they start talking like Wall Street executives fretting over the board’s opinion, stakeholders and capital. But at that stage of the pre-existence, it really was more like a CEO taking control of an organization rather than a dictator infiltrating a country like it is now. Creative props for the Arabic version of the name which I didn’t know. I can see how you would lean toward Lucas but it would have been lazy to use Lucious.

    Lucifer’s plan had to have been very convincing to lead so many away. He was a bright star. But I think the beginning of his downfall wasn’t taking away agency — although that’s a key aspect why God didn’t choose Lucifer’s plan — but it was that he wanted the glory. I really like your line “In the end, all that matters is whose approach produces greater returns. I’m confident mine will, and that others will see things in the same light.” Getting rejected after such self-assurance would have added to his fall.

    I hope there’s an act two of the presentation to the council in heaven.

  53. Matt- #52, do you have a sister named Brenda?

  54. Brad, I’m interested in your concept of a ‘powerless’ God. It’s an interesting idea. From the D&C 121 perspective, it makes sense when you define power as an exercise of coercion over souls and that this kind of power is devilish rather than divine.

    However, at the end of Section 121 refers to a dominion flowing without compulsory means to the righteous bearer of the priesthood – God clearly inspires such love in his followers so that those who follow him do so voluntarily and completely. Coercion, in that sense, is the opposite of power – because those who are coerced would escape if and when they are able. Real power holds people/souls because of the exercise of their free will and because they love the being who has that power, because of his/her nobility, kindness, intelligence, etc. and etc.

    Setting asides souls (things that act) and considering the elements (things that are acted upon) – one might consider that when God has his conversation with Job, he seems to indicate that his power and greatness are demonstrated by his ability to create the heavens and the earth. In a sense, it seems to me then that God is saying his power arises from his ability to manipulate things (i.e., the elements). He can stretch out the sky and form mountains, etc. and etc.

    I do not know if that also would be considered ‘coercive’ power.

  55. True, God is often depicted in scriptural stories as extolling His own power to create. But even in this realm — control over elements — Joseph reveals to us a God who, by comparison to more traditional monotheistic renderings, is stripped of power. He cannot create anything. He organizes preexisting materials. Further, He seems to do this primarily through his influence over other sentient beings (who accomplish his purposes through either naturalistic or unspecified means). This God, the creator of heaven and earth, wields power only by virtue of the fact that other beings love Him and freely choose to carry out His will. Even Gandhi exercised more coercive power than this, I think.

    That said, there are clear traditions that ascribe to God (or His proxies or servants) a certain ability to manipulate nature and the elements. That is an entirely different topic than human/god/human interactions. Even in the case of non-human objects, God’s power is clearly non-maximalist — perhaps limited precisely by His lack of coercive power over other gods/men (i.e. He cannot manipulate anything when the consequences of the act would be the coercion of other beings).

  56. He cannot manipulate anything when the consequences of the act would be the coercion of other beings.

    What about Jonah?

  57. I think the Jonah story reflects the image of God held by its author. I don’t think it is any more useful for generating an accurate image of what God is actually like than, say, the Iliad.

  58. ummquestion says:

    To Brad-

    “True, God is often depicted in scriptural stories as extolling His own power to create.”

    Scripture does not always indicate clearly which “God” is talking. Jehovah was a God prior to mortality and He created this world and everything in it out of pre-existing elements. Considering the “power” that it takes to even split one atom, I consider the power wielded by the God(s) to create one world to be incomprehensible.

    “He cannot create anything. He organizes preexisting materials. Further, He seems to do this primarily through his influence over other sentient beings (who accomplish his purposes through either naturalistic or unspecified means).”

    I think your view is overly simplistic here. You seem to view the organizing of pre-existing materials to be something along the lines of creating a cake by organizing flour, sugar, eggs etc in a bowl. In reality it would be more like creating a cake by organizing the elements that make soil, and wheat and sugar cane and chickens and plastic in an empty part of a universe.

    “Further, He seems to do this primarily through his influence over other sentient beings (who accomplish his purposes through either naturalistic or unspecified means).”

    Again, teaching someone else how to make a cake isn’t the same thing as teaching someone else how to manipulate molecules and atoms. It is by and through God’s power and authority that other beings accomplish His purposes-without the power He possesses those other beings could accomplish nothing.

    “This God, the creator of heaven and earth, wields power only by virtue of the fact that other beings love Him and freely choose to carry out His will.”

    I do not agree. God wields power by virtue of His obedience to eternal laws and principles and the authority given Him to exercise that power. God’s power flows into our lives when we love Him and choose to obey His will-but that power is His whether we love Him or not or obey Him or not.

    Gahndi never “forced” anyone to listen to him or to act as he did and neither does God. God can and does warn and teach and punish without forcing us to make choices. God can send fire from heaven (manipulation of elements) as punishment upon the wicked even if doing so causes other beings to become more righteous or fearful etc. Those whose feelings or faith changes based upon such events are still making a personal choice to change-God is not forcing them to change.

  59. Merely claiming that God creates wheat by organizing subatomic particles does not make it so. Did you ever consider that telling Mike and Josh to take wheat from one place and plant it in another might imply that He did not, in fact, create it from quarks? Asserting that God created stuff by magically arranging their particles presumes that God has the power to do so. It is not an argument in favor of God’s power to do it; it is a declaration that takes it as axiomatic. Of course, you’re free to presume whatever you like about God (as am I). My musings here are not meant as a definitive theory of God’s nature which I expect everyone to accept, but rather a set of speculative propositions which I hope people will think about and discuss.

  60. >>“This God, the creator of heaven and earth, wields power only by virtue of the fact that other beings love Him and freely choose to carry out His will.”

    >I do not agree.

    ummquestion,
    Brad’s take on it sounds an awful like something the Lord has said from time to time about his inability to perform miracles in a faithless society. What is faith in this context beyond choosing “to love Him” and “carry out His will?”

  61. Hi Brad,

    I’m intrigued by your thoughts about God’s power. Certainly D&C 121 would suggest that the vast majority of us are so consumed with ideas about worldly power and the fruits of that power that we fail to comprehend priesthood power. I have a question about the following statement:

    “He cannot manipulate anything when the consequences of the act would be the coercion of other beings”

    How do you reconcile this thought with Alma 32:13. Alma seems to be teaching that at times God does manipulate things in order to compel/coerce us to be humble. Am I reading Alma wrong?

  62. In Jonah and Alma 32:13 there seems to be a concept of God having this Truman show like manipulative power to move the pawns around until they “GET IT”. God does have the power to change hearts, wouldn’t it be easier for Him to just change them.

    God can as Alma 32 suggests and Job states…create very humbling circumstances, yet the reaction to the circumstances is still ours. We can choose to be softened in our humility or hardened.

    The lesson of the scriptures is God seems to generally take more of a hands off approach, not manipulating us like we are pawns, but inviting, encouraging and inspiring us. God letting things happen, then coming in with the seagulls after we have done all we can possibly do.

    We are to have faith in an all powerful God when the most frequent story we hear is about his non use of that power in allowing His son to die. We are to have faith that He really does have the power to save us when it appears he did not save His son.

    We get tried and tested which could be God with lightening bolts or God letting nature take it’s course, or God subtly guiding nature’s course.

    God has all power yet he remains the non-manipulative parent who is frequently silent.

    Perhaps God’s wisdom is inexorably connected to God’s power and He understands that it can’t really just be given to us. We must learn it be doing and feeling and choosing. Otherwise we could have had premortal life school with lectures and multiple choice testing and called it good.

    Maybe all the changes in circumstance that God could manipulate, even the change of heart wouldn’t change our desires. The difference between manufactured automatons, or the stepford wives version of heaven, and the city of Enoch version-people who choose not to take offense or be selfish.

    I’m obviously rambling.

  63. God has all power but because He is God he exercises it righteously and does not use it to deprive most people of agency in most situations. If he were to do otherwise, he would cease to be God.

    I don’t think that Mormons believe in a “powerless” God, even if it sounds fanciful and poetical to speculate about it in a blog post.

  64. I don’t think that Mormons believe in a “powerless” God…

    I don’t think anyone made that claim on behalf of Mormons.

  65. Are you saying that you believe in one based on Mormon scriptures but other Mormons don’t?

  66. britt,

    I hear what you are saying and obviously we always have our agency, but Alma uses the word compel, which sounds a lot like coercion or manipulation to me.

  67. John F., what does it mean that God would cease to be God? Does it mean that he would lose His power? Is it an expression of bounds on God’s power? Or is that phrase, in its context, merely a way of showing a ridiculous conclusion as a proof for one’s logic?

  68. The way it reads in the Book of Mormon, I think it is the latter. It is an impossibility — God cannot cease to be God. In a certain sense though it is a sixth-century BC channeling of the tongue-in-cheek type ruminations on the theme of whether God can create a stone so big that he cannot lift it, but its literary purpose is hyperbole — of course God, an all-powerful being that created all (2 Nephi 2:14-16), will not and cannot cease to be God. This drives home the point that we can have confidence in his perfect righteousness and justice.

  69. Peter LLC says:

    John, you should be swimming in the Donau right now. You will be missed.

  70. Brad,
    My first thought is – that’s “classic Brad.”

  71. Peter, no doubt. I really wish I could be there. Just don’t drown.

  72. Are you saying that you believe in one based on Mormon scriptures but other Mormons don’t?

    Speaking for myself, the answer to the first part is yes. I won’t presume to speak for other Mormons, one way or another. That’s clearly your prerogative .

  73. John F., God cannot cease to be God? Your wording suggests that you are placing a bound on His power — and I think the scriptures don’t use those terms.

  74. ummquestion says:

    To Brad- #59
    “Merely claiming that God creates wheat by organizing subatomic particles does not make it so. Did you ever consider that telling Mike and Josh to take wheat from one place and plant it in another might imply that He did not, in fact, create it from quarks? Asserting that God created stuff by magically arranging their particles presumes that God has the power to do so. It is not an argument in favor of God’s power to do it; it is a declaration that takes it as axiomatic.”

    Your presumptions about my comments are equally axiomatic and do nothing to support your argument in favor of God’s lack of power. Merely claiming that God told Mike and Josh to take wheat from one place and plant it in another does not make it so, on what Mormon scripture do you base that claim? The assertion that God told Mike and Josh to collect wheat from one planet and plant it on another presumes at very least that 1) God had the authority and power to command them to perform such an act, and 2) God knew that Mike and Josh had the power and authority to fulfill His command.

    Who gave them that power and authority? Who organized them as spirit beings in the first place?

    It is in your own words “nonsensical” to believe that the scriptures reveal God as a being whose power and authority is not sovereign, but rather is controlled by other beings who love and obey Him.

    To Scott B.
    “Brad’s take on it sounds an awful like something the Lord has said from time to time about his inability to perform miracles in a faithless society. What is faith in this context beyond choosing “to love Him” and “carry out His will?”

    The electricity directed to my home doesn’t diminish when I shut the lights off-I just block access to it. The power company has an “inability” to make toast in my kitchen if I don’t have the faith to plug in my toaster, or just don’t want toast at all, but the power required to make toast hasn’t diminished.

    The reason that God cannot perform miracles in a faithless society has nothing to do with His power. God’s power and glory is unlimited and our lack of faith or love has no effect on it. Lack of faith and love limits OUR ability to be blessed with miracles.

  75. ummquestion,
    I never claimed that my argument was without controversy. But you’re going to have to do better than pounding your fists and insisting that God is all powerful. Asserting that God told some beings to do X and that they subsequently did X does not presume any power to coerce beings or any kind of “authority” on the part of God. No authority is required to take seeds from spot A and plant them in spot B, and the “power” such an act necessitates has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability to coerce others.

    We all grant certain things axiomatic status when we talk about what God is like. I’m trying to figure out what your starting point is, other than the belief that God absolutely must be all powerful. That is certainly a widely held belief, so there’s no shame in holding it yourself. It is a belief I personally reject. My reasons are threefold:

    1) The singular, culminating, crowning event of all relevant history is the story of a powerless God — a prostrate being, in painful submission, powerless over his disciples, powerless over his enemies, taken and moved from place to place passively, judged, interrogated, tortured, and executed like a common political prisoner, abandoned by the Father. He exercises no power. All worldly power is directed at him, and he absorbs its violence with his broken body. The only power he has is the power to reanimate his own body, to resurrect. With this accomplished, he tells his disciples that he has all power in heaven and earth. And what does he do with it? He talks for a while over a fish lunch, shares a meal with some vagrants, then leaves. He is the antidote to power, like a pressure valve that absorbs it and releases it into a vacuum. The powerless God is the God that saves us, saves the world, conquers the kingdoms and dominions of Satan.

    2) The most direct and explicit description of what we typically think of as God’s power — i.e. the priesthood — is the final few verses of D&C 121. This presents priesthood as the antithesis of power, at least power as we are capable of conceiving it by drawing from our experience in the world. We become more godly by exercising less power and authority, whereas if we try to use the priesthood to maintain power or influence over others, our priesthood is nullified by the withdrawal of the Spirit.

    3) If you think that Satan hasn’t exerted enormous influence on how human beings — including the devoutly religious — understand what it means to be a God, you have not been paying attention (assuming you are a temple-going Mormon). Satan is the one obsessed with power and who identifies priesthood with power as exerted in this world.

    Again, the belief that God simply must be all powerful is widespread, and mostly non-controversial; it is particularly the vision of God against which most atheists rail. But it is unnecessary, and it is a derivative of traditional Christian philosophical speculation. Indeed, it is a product of a (apostate) Christianity that was becoming increasingly comfortable exercising worldly power in its most raw, unbridled, and awesome form. The timing of official creeds declaring God to be all powerful, relative to Constantine’s adoption of the religion of Jesus as the religion of empire (!) is not coincidental.

    For my money, the only power necessary to exalt is power over death. And I can think of no power less susceptible to being exercised in an abusive manner. All other power corrupts.

  76. So, Brad, if I can summarize:

    The power to click the “Submit Comment” is not impressive, is easily abused, and has a corrupting effect. The power to unclick “Send Comment” and retract a too-hastily worded comment is the only power necessary to exalt.

    Sadly, such a miracle is beyond my ability. :(

  77. Dan, you’re hired!

  78. ummquestion says:

    To Brad,

    That Christ did not act in ways that you define as powerful does not make Him “powerless”. Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Section 121 warns of exercising the Priesthood “in any degree of unrighteousness” but certainly Christ used His Priesthood in perfect righteousness and He demonstrated far more than just the “power” to reanimate Himself.

    He calmed the storm, He walked on water, He turned water to wine, fed thousands with insufficient food, He healed the lame, the blind, the leper and raised several other humans from the dead. He read the secret thoughts of those around Him, cast out devils, withered the olive tree, and when He spoke the words “I am He” in the garden after the Atonement and the officers, priests, and guards present “went backward” and fell to the ground.

    This is the same God who sent plague after plague upon the Egyptians in an effort to “compel” Pharaoh to free Israel. This is the same God who rained fire on the disobedient, opened fissures in the earth to swallow the wicked, and who “forced” the moneychangers from the Temple.

    Perhaps you can only go as far as claiming to have a theory of what God is like is based upon musings and ‘”speculative presumptions” but why do you assume that everyone else is in the same place?

  79. ummquestion:

    I think your pseudonym does you injustice. Perhaps you might consider changing it to ummanswer?

  80. Oh, curses. I tried to unclick “Submit Comment” but was powerless to take back what I just wrote. Oh well, an apology will have to do.

  81. Steve, he cannot cease to be God because he won’t. He is all powerful and thus could, but we can have absolute confidence that he won’t and therefore can speak of it with the term “cannot” — it is unthinkable.

  82. Brad, what does it get you to believe that God has no authority or power?

  83. Brad, to take # 82 a little further since it was very terse, I’m not seeing what you see in the Atonement if you believe that Jesus Christ suffered the things that he did because he didn’t have power to stop them. The tragic irony/beauty in the image of Christianity’s suffering God is that he could have stopped it — had the power to do so — but chose in perfect righteousness not to do so in order to perfectly fulfil the will of the Father in all things. To believe that Christ simply didn’t have the power to intervene in his mistreatment and execution loses some of the meaning of the infinite and voluntary Atonement by which Jesus Christ became our Savior and fulfilled the law of justice, giving us access to mercy.

    D&C 121 refers to how humans should be wielding priesthood power — that a key to doing so is avoiding priestcrafts, whether they are in the form of preaching to get gain or respect rather than out of a true interest in benefitting Zion or in the form of exercising unrighteous dominion by virtue of one’s holding the priesthood. D&C 121 doesn’t place limits on God’s exercise of his own priesthood.

    We become more godly by exercising less power and authority, whereas if we try to use the priesthood to maintain power or influence over others, our priesthood is nullified by the withdrawal of the Spirit.

    It is a forced reading of D&C 121 to say that it means that we become “more godly by exercising less power and authority”. D&C 121 warns that people who exercise unrighteous dominion on the basis of their position as a priesthood holder will find their priesthood to be nullified. The section does not require the premise that any exercise of power or authority is de facto wrong — the power and authority exist and are there and are meant to be exercised by priesthood holders righteously. In some situations, this has been done in ways that have restricted or taken away agency, and this was done in righeousness. There is real power in the priesthood, and authority is a righeous concept in God’s society — because there it is understood and exercised righteously.

    God teaches us through the revelations found in scripture that priesthood is his own power and authority delegated to us to exercise in love and always with the best interest of Zion as our motivation. But it is real power and authority.

    God has all authority. Everything that is acted upon — all of creation except human beings — obeys God’s commands with exactness. Human beings, God’s children, are asked to obey Him with exactness and succeed to varying degrees, but no one does so perfectly. In most cases, God does not interfere with his children’s agency to reject his will but this is not true in all cases. There are enough exceptions to fill up four volumes of scripture so far, and tons of biographies. The most we can say, I think, is that God does not directly restrict most people’s agency most of the time (although at all times he allows the natural consequences of people’s exercise of their agency to restrict their agency).

  84. John,
    That’s a very nice articulation of a very widely held (especially among creedal Chrisatians) vision of God. The impulse to surrender to a benevolent tyrant appears to be a virtual human universal. We want God’s sovereignty to be absolute over all creation. Yet, when His apostles jockey over power and position in the kingdom, Jesus tells them that God’s sovereignty is epitomized by the most powerless of beings: a child. Greatest in kingdom — the space where God reigns sovereign — is least in the world. God is sovereign in a space where peasants share food freely with each other; where the only meaningful source of power is Jesus’ body, which can transform death into life, and which remains with his disciples in the form of the shared meal (“this is my body”); where the last is first and the first is last; where blessing is extend freely and nobody exercises dominion over another in the least degree, not even Satan or his demons. Christ need not have had the power to prevent what happened to him. Power over death overturns and nullifies all of it. It’s the only power that matters, because all power in this world — all power to coerce — is rooted at its core in violence, the power to kill (one kind of power over death).

    God’s sovereignty in all forms consists precisely in the power to overturn worldly power, without compulsory means. At least that’s the way I see it. I have no attachment whatsoever to traditional Christian views of what God must or must not be, to the creeds that arose from efforts to reconcile the religion of Jesus of Nazareth with the power of empire, to the ontological categories of Augustine, or Aquinas. The great truth is that a peasant from Palestine can overthrow the whole thing, despite his unwillingness to exercise any worldly power, simply by conquering death. It is a truth overshadowed and concealed by the image of God as an almighty, all-powerful, though (hopefully) benevolent tyrant.

  85. Brad,
    D&C 121:37 “when we undertake to…exercise control or dominion or compulsion…in any degree of unrighteousness”
    Doesn’t this suggest that if there is an unrighteous way of doing things that there is also righteous control, dominion and compulsion? Verse 39 also talks of unrighteous dominion suggesting that there is righteous dominion, no?
    Doesn’t v41 suggest priesthood power and influence can be exerted over the souls of men but that it must be in very unwordly-powerful ways – persuasion, gentleness, love,etc?
    I’m genuinely interested in your perspective on these verses as I am somewhat persuaded by your thoughts on God’s power.

  86. Yes, I think v 41 is a real key. Clearly for any kind of sustainable sociality to be possible, beings must be able to influence others. But in the place where sociality is most sustainable — the celestial kingdom — that influence must be stripped of any kind of coercive power or compulsion, and even Gandhi used a form of compulsion.

    I’m highly skeptical that any system wherein power to coerce is exercised can exist eternally, counter the effects of entropy, let alone enable those who participate to progress.

  87. Brad, the Marxist reading is a very strained one.

    The impulse to surrender to a benevolent tyrant appears to be a virtual human universal. We want God’s sovereignty to be absolute over all creation.

    God is self-referentially sovereign over all creation — this isn’t a creedal Christian invention. He has been very direct in mandating his sole authority and has prohibited opposing his sole authority by worshipping other gods. (As Mormons one could argue that we have an even closer attachment to the Ten Commandments than Evangelical Christians since we don’t follow their mis-interpretation of Paul on grace and we believe, in conformity with the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus, that God expects something of us and our behavior/intentions.)

    Yet, when His apostles jockey over power and position in the kingdom, Jesus tells them that God’s sovereignty is epitomized by the most powerless of beings: a child.

    When Jesus’ disciples were irritated at children hanging around Jesus, he explained to his disciples that they should let the children flock to him because “of such is the Kingdom of God”, i.e. each disciple of Jesus Christ should be as those little children and wish to flock to Jesus — that is the desire that should be in the hearts of disciples of Jesus Christ.

    God is sovereign in a space where peasants share food freely with each other;

    God is also sovereign over Herod and the Romans, over all of nature and over the devil and his minions — the New Testament provides insight into each of these (i.e. this has nothing to do with medieval creedal Christian philosophies — a Mormon can learn this about God from the face of the New Testament, not to mention the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon).

    where the only meaningful source of power is Jesus’ body, which can transform death into life, and which remains with his disciples in the form of the shared meal (”this is my body”);

    Another very meaningful source of power that is described and discussed in the New Testament (and OT/BoM) is the priesthood that Christ himself uses in performing miracles (an example of his sovereignty over creation and real power and authority) and that he gives to his Apostles to use for the same purposes, which they do in healing people and raising them from the dead etc. The sacrament is a meaningful symbol but now you are the one dipping into creedal Christian philosophy in mystifying the “Eucharist” as Christ’s actual body, rather than as a symbol to partake in remembrance of such.

    where the last is first and the first is last;

    It is true that Christ speaks of the irony that in the Gospel/Kingdom of God, the “last will be first and the first will be last”, widely understood — at least on one level — to refer to the Gospel first being accepted by the Gentiles, who had been the “last” under the Old Covenant, and only thereafter being accepted in earnest by the Jews. But this phrase can also have much broader meaning, as you note, but it by no means needs to be interpreted in a Marxist paradigm or other paradigm in which “power structures” are taken as a fundamental premise to be negative such that God himself is framed as being without power or authority. The scriptures seem too replete with teachings on God’s power and authority — particularly if you are taking the Old Testament into account — to run with that interpretation. The insight of the last being first and the first being last is very weak evidence that God is without power or authority — the argument should be supported by something much stronger than this inference, particularly given the weight of the scriptures in suggesting that God does indeed have power and authority — that he is all-powerful and reigns supreme. Our scriptures also show that God is just and seeks to protect people’s agency in most situations, as that is of primal importance to the Plan of Salvation.

    where blessing is extend freely and nobody exercises dominion over another in the least degree, not even Satan or his demons.

    It is easy to see how in the Kingdom of God nobody exercises dominion over Satan and his demons because they won’t be in the Kingdom of God. You make a good point, though, that it is difficult to conceive of anyone in the Kingdom of God exercising any kind of dominion over anyone else. Even if that is true, which it seems like it would be (just based on common sense — I’m not sure this follows from any particular scripture), it is not clear how this leads to a conclusion that God does not have power or authority.

    Christ need not have had the power to prevent what happened to him.

    In theory, I suppose that could be a true assertion. But the scriptures show us a Christ who did have all power. His resistance of Satan’s temptations were remarkable because he had the power to do the things he was being tempted to do — and, foreshadowing his choices in the final days of his ministry — he chose not to use his power for purposes that were against God’s will.

    Power over death overturns and nullifies all of it. It’s the only power that matters, because all power in this world — all power to coerce — is rooted at its core in violence, the power to kill (one kind of power over death).

    Christ’s power over death is only one part of the Atonement — his power over sin is equally remarkable. Also, Christ’s power over death is not the only power that matters in life — the scriptures contain a lot of material relating to the power of the priesthood and how much that matters to disciples of Jesus Christ during their natural lives. This shows that there is real power in this world that is not rooted in violence: the power and authority of the priesthood, which was Christ’s own power. Satan’s counterfeit of this power is coercion and violence and murder. That Satan deals in counterfeit power does not mean that God has no power in this world — the scriptures arguably show that God’s power in this world far exceeds Satan’s coercive power. God has not been shy about showing his power on occasion as well, such as through the miracles done by Moses or when he sent fire to light the soaking wet sacrifice and to devour the priests of Baal or when he smote Korihor dumb in response to his sign-seeking, or other such examples.

    Perhaps your expression of amazement that God is so willing to avoid infringing on agency does not require you to theorize that he has no power or authority?

  88. Every reading you just gave presumes, rather than demonstrates, God’s omnipotence.

  89. To say nothing of what it presumes about the nature of scripture, a “priesthood” being described on the face of the NT, etc…

  90. Put differently, it is by no means surprising that a fundamentalist approach to scripture (proof-texting verses and stories presumed to convey literal, factual, historical truth) yields for you not only the precise result you seek but also a decidedly fundamentalist vision of God.

  91. Lastly, what does Marx have to do with the price of tea in palestine?

  92. Brad, knowing that you have a healthy knowledge of the scriptures, I didn’t feel the need to clutter up my comment with literally hundreds of scriptural references that, on their very face, witness to God’s real power.

    Also, I wanted to point out that your original post doesn’t require the Marxist reading either — it works perfectly with a more mainstream understanding that God has real power and authority in the world, and yet still desires to respect most people’s agency most of the time (but not Pharaoh’s, Baal’s priests’, Ananias’ and Sapphira’s, Laban’s or Korihor’s to name a very few).

  93. Thomas Parkin says:

    gomez #85,

    You need to read through to the end of the section, where we read that we come to a state where things flow to us without any compulsory means.

    I’d note also to this discussion, and all similar discussions, that God respecting agency doesn’t mean that He allows any possible choice in any circumstance. Many things remain impossible exactly because of the circumstances we are placed in; for instance, Laban getting up the next morning is not going to be a choice for him. See Sec 93. “Truth”s are free to act in the sphere in which they are placed. “The sphere” is delimiting, and God does the placing. I’ve come to the conclusion that the basic choice involved with agency has to do with making a choice centered on Christ, or any other choice. God is able to exert influencing power without compelling against this fundamental ability to choose. ~

  94. Put differently, it is by no means surprising that a fundamentalist approach to scripture (proof-texting verses and stories presumed to convey literal, factual, historical truth) yields for you not only the precise result you seek but also a decidedly fundamentalist vision of God.

    Brad, just listen to yourself. Do you really think that my arguments rely on proof-texting and fundamentalism (in the demeaning way that you describe fundamentalism)?

    I should note that your own counter-interpretation of the scriptures to mean that God has no power and authority — each reading you gave intended to support this theory — also merely presumed, rather than demonstrated, God’s lack of power and authority. That point was actually what my comment # 87 was about — it was meant to show that your “readings” as put forth in your # 84 don’t show that God has no power but rather presume it and then take your own proof-texted tidbits as support, without any demonstration that such a reading is what the text means.

  95. Our experience of who God is is always mediated by who we are. I’m not surprised that tribal nomads who ethnically cleansed their enemies to expropriate their land knew and worshiped a warlike, vengeful, capricious, sometimes genocidal, jealous god. I am surprised that you think that such stories can tell us anything meaningful about what God is actually like.

    When it comes to learning about God, we all have to make choices about which sources of information, which traditions, which stories and accounts, to privilege. The passages/accounts I give priority to are:

    The descriptions in the gospels of the most close-up, flesh and blood encounters with God — and even those require us to make choices to parse the confusions and contradictions they convey.

    The vision of God that JSJ came to late in life. Again, this requires choices regarding the parsing and interpretation of various statements (or the remembrances thereof), writings, revelations, stories, dramatic presentations, etc.

    D&C 121, received at a time when Joseph was in the most powerless state he ever experienced and whose questions seem prompted by an acute sense not just of his own powerlessness but what he viewed as God’s apparent powerlessness. I think this is a description of the nature of God’s power (and men are supposed to exercise it according to the imperatives outlined precisely, we learn later, to become beings like God) that takes precedence over all others.

    As we make choices regarding scriptural accounts of God, we have to bring certain presumptions to our readings. I have chosen, based primarily on section 121, to set aside the presumption that God must be all powerful. Of course, D&C 121 can be read from the presumption that the God it describes still technically is all powerful, just chooses to behave as if He weren’t, but there is no reason to import that axiom into the reading. On its face, it describes the exercise of righteous, godly power as one that eschews all forms of coercion or compulsion. If God doesn’t exercise compulsory power, then we can either call him powerless, or say that, “well He could if He wanted to — after all, He is all powerful — but just chooses not to, except when he feels like it, like the genocide of the canaanites.”

    The God we experience in the temple is a God who exercises only the power to restore our bodies and bring us into his presence, where we recognize him as a being like us, who rescued us from the dominion of Satan without exercising dominion over us.

    And, for what it’s worth, Kingdom = children, because they desire to be close to Jesus? Really? I mean, really!?!?

  96. it was meant to show that your “readings” as put forth in your # 84 don’t show that God has no power but rather presume it and then take your own proof-texted tidbits as support, without any demonstration that such a reading is what the text means.

    Take, for example, the Mark’s account, widely granted temporal priority among the gospels. My reading is much more closely aligned with the actual text. At no point is there so much as an intimation that Jesus has the power to stop what is happening. Your assertion that He had power but chose not to use it must be read into the text (even if it is just a transplantation from John’s account, which contradicts Mark on a number of counts).

  97. By the way, I do believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the richness it offers us precisely because of that fact. If that makes me a Jesus Camp Fundamentalist in your book then so be it. That is indeed far from the truth though. Faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon (in addition to and in massive support of its religious message) is no more irrational, really, than faith in the Book of Mormon as pious fraud, inspired fiction or great novel-writing.

  98. Faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon (in addition to and in massive support of its religious message) is no more irrational, really, than faith in the Book of Mormon as pious fraud, inspired fiction or great novel-writing.

    What does that have to do with anything? Believing that the BoM is an ancient account does not mean believing that its authors viewed God without the same constraints that characterized the authors of the book of Joshua (also an ancient account). Believing in the “historicity” of the BoM does not mean believing in the infallibility of its authors’ descriptions.

  99. Marx? Pious fraud? You don’t have a better use of your time than disarming strawmen?

  100. Brad, Markan priority really doesn’t have anything to say on the point of God having no power and authority. Even in Mark, I see Christ performing miracles, performing the Atonement, the Resurrection, the importance of priesthood authority and the delegation of that authority to authorized agents (the Twelve) both during his ministry and after his Resurrection etc. The Marxist anti-power, anti-authority reading must similarly be read into the text. I would prefer to read John’s insights into Jesus’ nature and mission into Mark than such extrinsic philosophies — whether creedal Christian or Marxist.

  101. Brad, my statement about historicity was a response to your dismissal of my comments on this thread as a product of proof-texting fundamentalism borne of a belief in historicity. I owned up to a belief in historicity immediately because I believe it is on very solid ground.

    As to your statement about historicity not meaning that the authors were infallible, etc. I fully agree with that and have written elsewhere about the implications of having such a wide array of authors whose writings over hundreds of years were compiled into a quick and dirty summary by Mormon. Awareness of the implications of that is different than holding that Nephi was not a real person but only a fictional character in a story book.

  102. I never claimed he lacked the power to heal bodies. I claimed that he performed the atonement and resurrected precisely in his state of powerlessness. And I described his delegation of the power to heal to his disciples. Where is the power to coerce? To interfere with choice if he feels like it? If you don’t think the idea of an omnipotent God is extrinsic to the text of Mark, you’re not reading it.

  103. The only person here to so much as bring up the possibility that Nephi might be a fictional character is you.

  104. Brad, you dismissed my comments as the product of historicity-induced proof-texting fundamentalism. Nephi was just an example. Unless you have condescending feelings toward people who believe in historicity (e.g. that Nephi or Joshua were real people and did more or less what the stories that we have say they did), then your comment in that regard makes little sense.

    I see God’s coercive power and his willingness to wield it in numerous scriptural examples. I named a few parenthetically above but didn’t see the need to provide citations and I view you as being well versed in the scriptures. God coerced, literally forced, Pharoah to let the Israelites go; God rained down fire on the priests of Baal in an act of removing their agency to continue their blasphemy and leading the people into apostasy; God coerced his disciples into living honestly in a United Order-type situation in the Book of Acts when he struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying about their consecration — this deprived them of their agency in continuing in their lying ways and it also, I am guessing, scared the rest of the community into being honest about their consecration; God commanded Nephi to kill Laban, thus removing Laban’s agency to further withhold the plates from Nephi, after he has stolen all of Lehi’s treasure in Lehi’s sons’ attempt to buy the plates; Korihor was struck dumb, a direct imposition on his agency in that he no longer had the ability to lead people into apostasy as we learn from prophecy in the text that this was his ultimate intention, even despite his apologies. These aren’t empty examples that simply presume God’s power and authority — they demonstrate it and also that God, at times, is willing to exercise his power and authority in the world in a coercive manner. I think, however, that we can rightly say that he will never exercise his authority and power in a manner that would coerce anyone to be saved — agency is the ultimate key to that and one must therefore choose for oneself whether or not to accept the Atonement of Jesus Christ and submit oneself to the ordinances performed by the proper priesthood authority. If one exercises their agency to do that, then one is on the road to becoming the type of being that can be happy living in the presence of God because that type of person, once exalted by the grace of Christ, will simply never use his or her agency to choose something contrary to God’s will. Therefore, it is true that in the Kingdom of God, there will never be any coercion because there won’t be any need for it.

  105. And, for what it’s worth, Kingdom = children, because they desire to be close to Jesus? Really? I mean, really!?!?

    Yes. What, is that stupid or something?

  106. I have far more faith that Nephi was a real person than Joshua — and, again, I do not take anything from the stories of Joshua as substantively contributing to our understanding of the true nature of God. The great thing about the Book of Mormon, is that the historical and factual accuracy of its descriptions and the reliability of its authors can be impeached without it affecting the broader claims that the book makes about JSJ’s ministry. Joseph could have translated, by the gift and power of God, an ancient record of ancient people who had dealings and experiences with God, and that record can be just as subject to historical problems as the OT, without diminishing Joseph’s seership. Which is to say, I think that Alma’s descriptions of the nature of God could be just as problematic as, say, the author of 2 Samuel’s are, while still believing that there did, in fact, exist an ancient prophet called Alma, whose writings were edited and redacted by another ancient prophet called Mormon and translated by a modern prophet called Joseph.

    I think, however, that we can rightly say that he will never exercise his authority and power in a manner that would coerce anyone to be saved.

    So he just uses it to coerce people in the service of other ends, then?

  107. Look, John. I’m not trying to be argumentative for its own sake. I fully acknowledge (and already have here) that the vision of God I’m articulating is controversial, even heretical, in that is diminishes God’s omnipotence (though, I should point out that if it needs an epithet, it is more Foucauldian than Marxist). I have no intention of convincing you to change your position, and don’t presume that I could even if I did wish to. You’re a gentleman and a scholar, and I’d rather not have a public interaction with a respected friend raise my blood pressure. I’m bowing out, leaving you, should you wish, the last word.

  108. John (#105) – based on other scriptures commanding us to become like a little child, I think that your interpretation of the event in #87 is probably not the mainstream one, although it is plausible. I think most people probably view it more along the lines of Matt. 18:2-5 and in the Book of Mormon, as in we adults are to emulate the attributes of little children: trusting, teachable and humble.

  109. Brad, I don’t understand the appeal of believing in a powerless God (and I don’t believe it’s supported by any reasonably well grounded reading of the scriptures) so, yes, I was kind of trying to convinve you out of it, but only half-heartedly. I see the appeal of a “Foucauldian” or Marxist approach to politics and real life issues, just not as applied to God’s nature. Whatever floats your boat.

  110. ummquestion says:

    To Brad-

    I like John do not understand the appeal a powerless God seems to have for you, other than perhaps a false sense of comfort one might gain if one falsely believes that “tradition” proves God to be a “tyrant”.

    That said, the assumption that Joseph Smith viewed God as “powerless” based “primarily on section 121 is completely illogical. Why would a man with an “acute sense of God’s apparent powerlessness” plead with God to do things that he believed God was powerless to accomplish? Joseph’s words-“Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs” are not those of a man who believes in a powerless God.

    In Section 121 Joseph provides further “description of the nature of God’s power” in his own words-“Lord God Almighty” (all powerful, having absolute, unlimited power) “maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are AND who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol”.

    I did not pound my fists when I noted that Joseph refered to God as the “maker” of ALL things in heaven and on earth and not as the “transplanter” or “redistributor” of all things.

    In Section 121 God proclaims that He has the power to “change the times and seasons and to blind the minds [of those who oppressed the Saints] that they may not understand his marvelous workings; that he may prove them also and take them in their own craftiness;”

    “On its face, [121] describes the exercise of righteous, godly power as one that eschews all forms of coercion or compulsion.”

    I’m sorry, but this statement is nothing more than an “axiom imported” by YOU Brad. The exact text “on its face” eschews exercising “control, dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness”. That qualifier is important enough to repeat again two verses later when he refers to those in authority exercising “unrighteous dominion”.

    Joseph declared earlier in 121 (noted above) that God “controls and subjects” the devil and his dominion. Either Joseph is wrong or your conclusion is because according to the Prophet’s own words “the exercise of righteous, godly power” does NOT “eschew all forms of coercion or compulsion” if God controls and subjects those spirits.

    You may well believe that it is impossible for any being, even an exalted one, to exercise “righteous” dominion, control or compulsion, but there is no evidence in 121 to support that argument.

    I also challenge your statement that:
    “Christ need not have had the power to prevent what happened to him. Power over death overturns and nullifies all of it. It’s the only power that matters”

    Christ’s power over death only saves and restores the physical body to the spirit that once animated it. Power over death does not nullify the consequences of sin, nor can it rescue resurrected beings from the Second Death. Resurrection is not synonymous with exaltation.

    D&C 29:41 is interesting in the context of this thread because it declares that Adam’s “first death” was his spiritual death which will be the “second death” pronounced upon the wicked in the end. A whole new way to examine the “first shall be last and the last shall be first” don’t you think?

  111. It’s way up at the top, but I think the title of this post was revealing, specifically the “speculative” part. I’m glad a few commenters were able to bring the drama.

    Thanks again, Brad, for an interesting post.

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