The Psychology of Foreordination

This guest post comes from frequent BCC reader Erich (comments under “Observer fka Eric S.”).

We took up Ephesians 1 and “predestination” last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine. After performing the requisite semantic dance with various terms, we got to discussing the concept of being “chosen” and “foreordained” for this or that. What struck me most was the way LDS culture perceives these concepts. The lesson dialogue focuses on prophets, leaders, and esteemed historical figures in the gospel and restoration period (e.g., Jeremiah, Abraham, Paul, Joseph Smith, etc.). It is reiterated that these individuals were foreordained and then chose their stations. Invariably, the discussion resorts to how grateful so-and-so is to be born in America, post-restoration, into a Mormon family, and on and on . . . . This seems to be the consensus of thinking around the topic.

Then, whether by express statement, omission, or by implication, the idea is presented that those who are not so privileged to live in Post-Restoration Mormon America were not valiant in a pre-mortal existence. Again, this is the consensus of thinking around the topic.

This led to a GA quote about pre-mortal valiance (and lack thereof), at which point I almost threw up. This rhetoric, and doctrine, raises at least two issues. First, does it entrench a communal perception and self-estimation of being of greater eternal worth than “the less fortunate?” Does the valiant Gospel Doctrine teacher subconsiously go through life viewing himself/herself as more eternally valiant than the kid who *chose* to be born addicted to heroin in India, or the Thai girl who leaves the village to sell her body in the city to visiting European men? Both of these kids are *good* kids who are doing what they can to survive. And most Saints would say these kids exclaimed in the pre-mortal existence, “Yeah, I’ll take that role in mortality! At least I get a body.” The perception of *gratitude* gets even more specific; for example, I’ve heard many a BYU student say how grateful they were to be at that school. None of these individuals know any better or worse what it would be like to be differently situated.

Second, our foreordination and choice doctrines raise an interesting theological paradox for Latter-day Saints: Would you choose a greater level of knowledge and accountability during mortality (which ostensibly leads to greater happiness during mortality and Gospel Doctrine class) or would you prefer a lesser level (which ostensibly could lead to greater happiness in post-mortality)? For example, the Thai girl has no clue about Christ in this life. Most Latter-day Saints would say these individuals have little, if any, accountability–other than maybe the knowledge placed on them by what we describe as the “light of Christ” (which they likely make no connection with). Moreover, most Latter-day Saints would also say that they must be given an opportunity in the post-mortal existence to learn and accept the Savior. On the flip side, those born into the Gospel will be held accountable to their level of knowledge (which is, ostensibly, very *high*) during this life. And most Latter-day Saints would probably say that if one does not abide that level of accountability, there will be some sort of suffering in the post-mortal existence. So which do we prefer?

In the end, my mind reverts back to the Savior’s response to those inquiring about whose sin caused the boy to be born blind: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” With his explanation, Christ shares the perception that we should probably aim to cultivate: that every single human being is placed in mortal existence because they have a divinely appointed purpose with respect to others. But in order for this to work, the observers must be able to perceive the inherent Godliness and value in each individual person that they encounter in life, and not only those who the community esteems.

Comments

  1. Gilgamesh says:

    I taught this lesson as well and emphasized the reality that all human beings are predestined for the benefit of Chirst’s ationement. We are all resurrected, whether we want to be or not. That makes Paul’s statement a reality. We are “predestinated” to recieve ” an inheritance” (Ephesians 1:11) in the reality of our bodily resurrection and placement in one of the kingdoms of glory.

  2. Ugh. Glad I teach in nursery. Though I have a pretty great ward so perhaps the I’m in a better situation so I maybe the “I’m in good situation so I must have been more valiant” rhetoric would have been avoided. I have heard a GA quote that refutes that idea. My brain is still in a post Halloween fog maybe later I’ll try and track it down.

  3. I think this easily takes the cake for the most pernicious doctrine we Mormons have ever promulgated. Nothing about it rings true, and the only thing I can take away from it is that those who believe it have *no* idea what sorts of horrible and wonderful things happen in this world. Horrible things so bad that no one could ever, ever do anything to deserve them, and wonderful things so miraculous that they make mincemeat of the idea that we are blessed above God’s other children for being able to excel at Gospel Trivia 101. I think it just shows how many LDS believe in exactly the God that drives so many people to atheism: the respecter of persons who sits on his cloud playing favorites, arbitrarily damning and saving for absolutely no reason other than to stroke his own ego.

  4. Chris Gordon says:

    I challenge the assertion that the consensus view is “more righteous=prosperous class in a prosperous nation with the gospel” and “less righteous=heroin addict in India.” I don’t think that a sense of being put in a place that matters to you and those around you needs to or necessarily leads to the sense of hubris you rightly decry. You hit it spot on that all of us were predestined to be beneficiaries of the atonement, and while every ward has its vocal crackpots, I would assert that they are the loud minority when, if forced to think the issue through, would come to the true majority view that all of us are put where we are because Heavenly Father thought it would put us in the best position to be beneficiaries of the atonement and exaltation, be it in this estate or the next.

  5. I obviously don’t have any statistical data to back this up, but as I’ve preached on this subject in my ward in Utah Valley, it has seemed that the “less valiant” thinking is dominant. At least before my lessons ;-). It’s easy enough to dispel by pointing out that only positive things are said about fore-ordination in the scriptures. I can’t imagine a loving Father in Heaven sending anyone off with something other than a positive blessing, and no one else can either after they actually think about it. It would be like me blessing one of my daughters that she would be bullied at school or just refusing to give her a blessing when the others were getting one. It’s a stupid idea for people who are scared that there might be things they can’t explain about the world.

  6. “Then, whether by express statement, omission, or by implication, the idea is presented…”

    I think you are a bit heavy on the omission and implication side of things. I dare say the consenus in almost any EQ would be that it is not for us to judge who is or was better or more valiant than who. I also think you need to tone down your angst for grateful people. I see your point, that expressions of gratitude can be another method of masking pride, but I think in most situations, possibly including the ones you described, people expressing gratitude are just trying to give a simple thanks to God and men for blessings received. It is not requisite for a man to know if his situation is better than an alternative to rightfully and honorably express gratitude.

  7. observer fka eric s says:

    Good thoughts. With respect to the atonement, our doctrine fully embraces the concept that all mortals will resurrect and eventually have a full and fair opportunity to avail themselves of the atonement. But that doctrine has become disconnected from the perception of pre-mortal valiance and its mortal consequences. It is a narrative the helps us explain disparity in the world. For instance, it does not take too much of a search to learn that “the less valiant” rhetoric was expressly taught for the better of almost a century. So it is only natural that we still see faint vestiges of that today, even though it is not applied to a particular group of people. I think Owen is well off to shift the perception or the direction of thought with things like this: “It’s easy enough to dispel by pointing out that only positive things are said about fore-ordination in the scriptures.” This means there is something positive to say about all foreordinations regardless of how they manifest themselves in mortality. And I believe that’s what Christ meant in the scripture I used.

    Mr. Xingfu, I have no angst towards people who–regardless of their objective situation–feel a sense of gratitude to God. But when comments and thoughts about the “less valiant” are juxtaposed with expressions of gratitude for sort of mundane temporal pleasantries then yeah I sort of get even more uncomfortable in my metal fold-out chair.

  8. Here’s the thing that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes people are like, oh, people with significant trials were presented/”blessed” with those trials because God knew they would be able to handle them, or because they stepped up to the plate to take such trials on.

    Really?? So apparently, God has a certain number of really hard trials He has to dole out among His children, and He’s like, “oh, sbagleysd, you can totally have this one, I know you’re good for it. Phew, that’s one less I have to hand out. Okay, who’s next?” Is that supposed to make me feel better somehow?

  9. I challenge the assertion that the consensus view is “more righteous=prosperous class in a prosperous nation with the gospel” and “less righteous=heroin addict in India.”

    the true majority view [is] that all of us are put where we are because Heavenly Father thought it would put us in the best position to be beneficiaries of the atonement and exaltation

    I’m guessing that for the Indian heroin addict, this is what might be called a distinction without a difference.

  10. I am not really sure that I want to judge who was “valiant” and who was “non-valiant” in the pre-existence, but, in my opinion, the people who think that they were more valiant in the pre-extense than were some other people, are showing that they themselves are “less valiant” in this life when they make those statements.

  11. I used to believe that LDS Pre-existence theologies were only pernicious in racial contexts, only later to become convinced that they’re nearly as bad in non-explicitly-racial contexts as well. I actually prefer to believe in a God that assigns us to our mortal travails randomly, rather than one who employs sorting criteria that we will inevitably use to draw groundless conclusions about spiritual hierarchies and our (inevitably privileged) place within them. No thanks to all this garbage.

  12. “On the flip side, those born into the Gospel will be held accountable to their level of knowledge (which is, ostensibly, very *high*) during this life. And most Latter-day Saints would probably say that if one does not abide that level of accountability, there will be some sort of suffering in the post-mortal existence.”

    Don’t forget to add to this category those who aren’t born into the Gospel, but who later join the Church. This is honestly why I occasionally had serious misgivings about baptizing certain investigators whom I suspected would behave badly after baptism.

  13. “This led to a GA quote about pre-mortal valiance (and lack thereof), at which point I almost threw up.” In my class several weeks ago, perhaps the same quote was presented by the teacher as revelation — not revelation, I said, just a man’s attempt to explain things — no, the teacher said, revelation to a prophet of God — he wasn’t a prophet when he wrote it, I said — but, the teacher said, he became a prophet and God wouldn’t have let him say it earlier knowing he was on the road to being a prophet unless it was correct. I wanted to cry — I wanted to rage. I left the class.

    The same apostle who wrote this false doctrine (a quotation from his father-in-law apostle) later said that we should forget everything he and others had spoken on the topic because they spoke in darkness and God had revealed something new. But we haven’t forgotten — indeed, it seems like we treasure these false doctrines. Shame on us.

    Let us be grateful for many blessings, but let us never be like the pharisee at the temple for prayer who thanked God he wasn’t like the other fellow praying there.

  14. StillConfused says:

    I have always felt that we were the ones who chose our trials. I have these very unique illnesses. I can totally see that I would have chosen that. (I have too much ADD to stand in the hear attack line.)

  15. StillConfused says:

    make that “heart attack”

  16. Aaron B. (11 & 12),
    It seems that there are 3 options for how we might have arrived into the particular circumstances that we’ve arrived in:
    1. God chooses where we start life (based on some criteria that only He knows)
    2. God places us randomly
    3. We choose for ourselves where we start life (based on some criteria that we ostensibly valued at the time of decision)

    You mention your disdain for the first–or at least a preference for the second relative to it–but I’m curious about your opinion on the third.

  17. I ask, I suppose, because as awkward of a position as it is to defending the idea that someone would have chosen to be born into a drug-infested war zone, it is nevertheless the scenario that seems most likely to me, if I envision myself sitting across a table with God the Father in a pre-mortal realm where these decisions were made. Similarly, it seems contrary to everything else I believe about God that he would force us into (even if you substitute the word “force” with “lovingly place,” it’s still force) a particular “existence” without our signing off onto it.

    This is certainly of zero comfort to the suffering masses (‘s okay, guyz! you totally chose this life, yo!”), but it seems to be the only way to properly align moral incentives to help one another in mortality.

  18. Sharee Hughes says:

    I believe that there were some people, such as Joseph Smith, for example, who were foreordained to a certain role in life, which would be based on their worthiness in this life. It doesn’t really matter how worthy we were in the pre-existence if we blow it in our mortal life. There may have been others who were foreordained to some great calling, but who failed to be valiant in this life, so did not achieve the position to which they had been foreordained.

    Some people have been told in blessings that they chose to come to earth with a certain disability, but I’m not sure that is true of all of us. There are those who believe they chose which family they would be born into, and maybe they are right, maybe they aren’t. I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. I believe that what is required of us is to be as valiant as possible with whatever light we receive on this earth. For those who have received more, more is expected. Christ’s atonement takes care of the rest. Since we don’t remember our pre-existent life, all we can know is that we did not follow Satan. Was President Monson more valiant in the pre-existence than the Thai prostitute or the drug addict? We don’t know that and it is not our place to judge. We just need to be sure that we live up to the light and knowledge we have been given.

  19. observer fka eric s says:

    To be fair, maybe I should have pointed out that the perception of comparatively-blessed mortality is not unique to LDS. Yesterday I read this article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/28/patriotism-and-the-god-gap/. But it doesn’t end with religious America either.

    It made me think of my mission, and how extremely patriotic and proud the citizens were to be Ecuadorian. Some of the most grateful patriots lived in what I thought was poverty. But they viewed themselves as living in the best, most humble and “tranquilo” place in the world (minus periodic rough economic conditions).* The tendency to compare and convince one’s self that he/she is in a more blessed situation seems to be an issue of the human condition and not one that is unique to LDSs. I guess I just have a higher hope and expectation for our faith in this regard.

    *As an aside, I feel no sense of patriotism now, after internalizing impoverished patriotism over two years, and in the years since with respect to other countries.

  20. Envisioning God the Father sitting across the table from each of us, makes me think that his life is something like SteveP’s hell. On the other hand, it has been advertised with some degree of uniformity (think Neal A. Maxwell for instance) that life’s problems are tailored to the individual in some sense. I have some problems with that but those might be due to mortal short-sightedness (where does the determinism start/stop).

  21. observer fka eric s says:

    @Sharee ” Was President Monson more valiant in the pre-existence than the Thai prostitute or the drug addict? We don’t know that and it is not our place to judge.” Amen, sister. I guess that is the perceptioin I hope for, instead of a comparative discussion of less/more valiance. Or to go a step further, where we value and view all foreordained stations as noble because they really are!

  22. This dovetails with a post I did recently looking at the use of the phrase “chosen generation” in general conference. Since 1970 it has increasingly been used to highlight that the youth are a “chosen generation” held to come forth at this particular time. I often wonder if when we push forward the idea that we are somehow inherently special if we severely handicap ourselves. Not unlike this study: http://my.psychologytoday.com/articles/199709/praising-your-child Just replace calling your child smart with calling your congregation foreordained.

  23. Eric (19): I too lost my sense of patriotism in large part due to my mission in Ukraine. I think though that a big part of why people just tell themselves that their situation is ideal is because they feel powerless to do anything to change it. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111101171033.htm

  24. WVS,

    Envisioning God the Father sitting across the table from each of us, makes me think that his life is something like SteveP’s hell.

    Perhaps you’re right. I don’t know. One of my first posts–a guest post, actually–was a (secretly) serious pondering of this idea.

  25. Rob Osborn says:

    We need not forget that at least our leaders, have indeed been fore-ordained for the ministry within the kingdom-

    55 I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.
    56 Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 138:55 – 56)

    That said, we cannot classify those “chosen” or foreordained as being specifically “more valiant”. We do not know perhaps what everyones role is or was throughout the world. There are many perhpas sent to communist China to slowly change the generational thinking which will cause Christianity to blossom in there. The same with India or even Iraq. I personally believe that everyone was preordained for some purpose of God’s work within his kingdom. Some work within the church, others work without the church but still serve the same purpose of furthering God’s will. What about the men who invented electricity? What about those who work within government to uphold laws? What about those who work on testing safety equipment in vehicles and planes? Are we not all forordained within our certain capacities and abilities to serve God in those manners? What about converts? Did they just get lucky? Everyone who came here agreed with Christ and was on his side.

    I am led somewhat to believe in the knowledge that it is obvious some of us were more “diligent” in keeping God’s laws in the premortal life. It seems obvious that some were more diligent in obtaining knowledge and wisdom than others. It also seems obvious that some were more apt to staying the course while others were more prone to be easily led astray. It seems obvious that there were both weaker and stronger spirits and we all knew that. It would thus seem apparent that God would forordain certain individuals who were more diligent to carry out the important and exactness of work pertaining to that of His church- His Kingdom on earth.

    We should be careful however when we start making absurd assumptions about being “more blessed” or being “more valiant” just because we are born in America to godd LDS homes. We do not know the mind or will of God in all of his works and children throughout the world through all ages and in all dispensations.

  26. I agree with what Rob Osborn says but I would go further: Nearly all of the discussion concerning people being more or less valiant in the pre-existence is baseless and idiotic and serve only as a way for us to stand on our ramp and thank God that we are not one of “them.” The sooner we ditch this folklore comletely the better off we will be.

  27. RE #18: “Some people have been told in blessings that they chose to come to earth with a certain disability”.

    From the new Handbook (2) 21.1.26:
    [quote]Leaders and members should not attempt to explain why the challenge of a disability has come to a family. They should never suggest that a disability is a punishment from God (see John 9:2–3). Nor should they suggest that it is a blessing to have a child who has a disability.[/quote]

    The whole idea of us choosing our trials doesn’t wash with me since so many trials literally break people and can even turn them into monsters. The Atonement can heal even the most horrible things mortality inflicts (although not in this life), and perhaps God is wise enough to select these things for us, but I would no sooner consult my toddler about whether she should have a vaccine injection than I think God would try to make some people choose to have damaged brains that force them to commit horrible crimes against their spiritual siblings. I personally like the idea of it all mostly being random, with the Atonement as an equalizing backstop, but I can also think of God the Father as a hard-core enough dude that he could handle taking responsibility for the really nasty stuff that agency results in. I happen to think He thinks all of His creations, especially his children, have always been awesome throughout the ages, so it makes a lot of sense to me that he might use random assignment for putting a jerk like me here in this time and place of security and leisure and one of his lovely daughters in the middle of the Black Plague where not only would she die a horrible death at a young age but also live her short years as an object of abuse and mistreatment. Random assignment makes a lot of things much easier to square with divine justice and makes the necessity for the Atonement even more profound.

  28. I think we grossly over-estimate the difference in quality of life in different places vis a vis heaven.

    I remember visiting the palace of the Sun King and realizing that my bed was more comfortable, my heating and air conditioning worked better, my food was fresher and more palatable and more varied. If I wanted, I could have more mirrors, of better quality. All I did not have was the various parasites he had. L 14 wasn’t that many years away from today. He had what was considered the best lifestyle in the world at the time.

    Anyway, the new Handbook (2) 21.1.26 is spot on. Most of what people say is not for the comfort of those who are listening, but to inoculate themselves against what is possible, regardless of reality. Thus the stream of “you chose that” or “you deserved that” or …

    Like any other truth, foreordination can be twisted. This essay works well as a warning about that, but …

  29. To comment #6:

    , but I think in most situations, possibly including the ones you described, people expressing gratitude are just trying to give a simple thanks to God and men for blessings received.

    It seems to me a better way to show gratitude would be to do a better job of trying to rectify inequality through specific actions. Because I have been given much I too must give…

  30. Oh, and great comment, #8.

  31. Re: greater valiance and its relation to our position in the Kingdom, I am reminded of the 2 disciples who were concerned about their placement relative to Christ, and Christ rebuked them for thinking about it and instructed them to be servants to all.

  32. observer fka eric s says:

    (25) Good thoughts, Rob. What are the effects of a community’s world view, if any, in knowing that it was more diligent, more valiant, and that it must have done things right in the pre-mortal existence? Does it influence the way the group perceives its relationship to others?

    I think your post explores the back and forth and the “we know that X, but then again there is Y to consider” that attends or views on foreordination. I believe in the concepts presented in versus 55 and 56 that you share. I think the issue is that scriptures that esteem others as having equal if not greater calls in mortality are not shared in the same conversation/lesson.

  33. Rob Osborn says:

    One of the issues in our church is that we somehow feeel that just being “members” and thus having callings (go hand in hand) somehow places us in the category of forordained to be such. But the paradox here is that under this thought, only those forordained to be members would join anyway. That is like saying that we are eliteists and don’t really believe in agency. The whole thing clouds our judgment under this view. It causes there to be a separation within God’s kingdom itself. Others outside or even within the church can see this elitism philosophy and I believe that it really takes shape where the rubber meets the road- actual missionary work. I think somehow we take this forordained elitism thing so far that it even effects our work in bringing in the lost sheep- the sinner to the fold.

    So are we thus saying that some are just forordained to never be celestial material? All because of our elitism belief in a forordained part of the fold/not part of the fold, and we are only seeking those elites in the world forordained to be members of some elite group that gets the inheritance of the highest glory?

    This is how others I believe view our church and it’s members. What we fail to realize is that everyone of us here are trying to get to the same place- the kingdom of heaven. What do we suppose we will be doing during the millennium? All the souls of men who have ever lived who will be justified an inheritance in the kingdom will be living on earth perfecting themselves working towards that inheritance. How will we view ourselves then when the whole world will have equal footing on things? I think it may be very humbling for many to realize they aren’t some elite fish in a very small pond but rather a mere sardine in a school of billions.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,640 other followers