Neal A. Maxwell on Christ and the Cosmos

Kristine’s post got me thinking about something I’ve had laying around for a while. With Christmas coming up, I wanted to do a couple of posts with Christmas related themes. Here is the first.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, late apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints delivered an interesting vignette using an observatory as a backdrop (I thought it was Palomar but it doesn’t look like it now that I observe it) as part of a sequence of testimonies by the FP and Q12. His text follows, with a video link. It’s a favorite of mine for several reasons. One of which is his return to some of his frequent discursive themes, and another is the way he manages to get in a few painful digs at some profound questions. He always had a way with words but this time his remarks leave room for lots of comments. Anyway, here is the text:

This magnificent, far-reaching telescope is deliberately situated above the smog so this powerful instrument can better probe the galaxies. So it is with life and seeing by the lens of faith. If we are to see things more clearly, we too must lift ourselves above the secular smog. Then, in the words of the hymn, we can “in awesome wonder consider all the worlds [God’s] hands have made,” and “see God’s pow’r throughout the universe displayed.”[1] Otherwise, we will be kept from probing Jesus’ Universal Gospel and from seeing things as they really are.”[2]

Nevertheless, by viewing the stretching cosmos, we can humbly contemplate the vastness of divine handiwork. Long before he was born in Bethlehem, and became known as Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior was Jehovah. Way back then, under the direction of the Father, Christ was the Lord of the Universe who created worlds without number,[3] of which ours is only one. How many planets are there in the universe with people on them? We don’t know, but we are not alone in the universe! God is not the God of only one planet!

I testify that Jesus is truly the Lord of the Universe, “that by [Christ], and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.”[4] Having purchased us with His atoning blood in the great and marvelous Atonement, Jesus thereby became our lawgiver. It is by obedience to His laws and His commandments that we may return one day to His presence and that of our Heavenly Father.[5]

The foregoing cosmic facts should bring us to our knees even now, long before that later judgment day, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ.[6] I testify that Jesus fulfilled these great roles as creator and lawgiver out of His desire to immortalize all of Heavenly Father’s children, with the most valiant to live in His Father’s house which has many mansions.

When Christ comes again, it will not be to the meekness of the manger. It will be as the recognized Redeemer and the Lord of the Universe! Then, in a great solar display, stars will fall from their places[7] in a witnessing way with much more drama than at His birth when “the stars in the heavens looked down where he lay.”[8] Yet in the vastness of His creations, the Lord of the Universe, who notices the fall of every sparrow,[9] is our personal Savior, of which I give apostolic testimony in the holy name of Jesus Christ, amen!


[1] Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “How Great Thou Art.”
[2] The Book of Mormon, Jacob 4:13.
[3] Pearl of Great Price Moses 1
[4] Doctrine and Covenants, section 76:24
[5] PoGP “Articles of Faith” no. 3.
[6] Isaiah 45:23; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:8-11; Mosiah 27:31; D&C 76:110; D&C 88:104.
[7] Matt. 24:29; Reb. 9:1; D&C 29:14; D&C 45:42; Joseph Smith-Matthew 1:33.
[8] Hymns, “Away in a Manger.”
[9] Matt. 10.

Being the cosmology geek that I am, I find Maxwell’s approach here very interesting. His apt metaphor regarding the “lens of faith” strikes a chord with me. His “planets with people on them” reminded me of Sagan’s poke at the Mormons in his The Demon-Haunted World. Maxwell however, leaves open in this passage at least, what “people” might mean. I love Maxwell’s ability to hint at the grandiose dimensions of Mormon ontology/cosmology without getting into the nitty-gritty questions that would reveal a stance on speculative theology. Finally, here is the video clip:

Neal A. Maxwell on Christ and the Cosmos.

And don’t you love “commandments?”


  1. I miss Elder Maxwell like no other Apostle during my lifetime.

  2. Yeah, me too. His last Church address was in the Marriot Center at BYU- regional conference. I can remember his speech, but I don’t have a transcript. I’m sure the video is in some archive. I’d like to get it.

  3. Yeah, I miss him, too. Elder Maxwell spoke at the Provo MTC when I was there and his talk centered on this wonderful theme. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that talk. Elder Maxwell gave it so earnestly, too — I can remember tears streaming down his face, but without a hint of any feigned emotion in his voice. He just kept delivering mind-blowing line after mind-blowing line. It really made an impression on me — I had to duck into the restroom afterwards to regain my composure.

  4. Chris Spencer says:

    I also appreciate the vagueness of Elder Maxwell’s comments concerning other populated planets. In a round about way and using a fairly convoluted train of thought, I can see the potential for some interesting hypotheses concerning the creation of “man” and the “image of God”.

    If we can accept that the body of man was created through the process of evolution, what then is the image of God. Human evolution on our own planet has produced a wide array of human forms (i.e. the less than 5 feet tall pygmies of the Congo versus the average Anglo-Saxon). I believe, that despite the differences found among the human family, we are all created in the image of God. Following this with the idea that we are all created in the image of God, I assume that God and I have the same genome. If then, because my genetic makeup is what makes me the “image of God”, another being that has the same genetic makeup, but followed a different path of evolution on some distant planet, it too could be considered created in the image of God. If on this distant planet, it was necessary to be 12 feet tall and have softball-sized eyes in order to survive, although the outward appearance would differ from my own, the genome could, theoretically remain the same.

    This idea leads to the hypothesis of directed panspermia, i.e. the seeds of life may have been purposely spread throughout the universe by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization (God?). Theoretically, a terrestrial spacecraft or meteorite travelling to other celestial bodies could carry with them microorganisms or other organic materials ubiquitous on some other life sustaining planet (orbiting Kolob?). If then the creation of life is accomplished by God sending “microbial payloads” in all directions in the universe, and assuming that God knows the evolutionary process from beginning to the end, it is plausible that the other populated planets host a myriad of sentient beings all sharing the same genetic makeup and yet remain anatomically distinct. So even the little green men might be our brothers and sisters.

    This idea was first postulated by Nobel prize winning molecular biologist Francis Crick and theoretical inorganic chemist Leslie Orgel. I think the idea was also proposed in a Hollywood movie some years back. Crazy stuff I know, but hey God’s way are not our ways.

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    “interesting” is one label for the above speculation. Not the one I would choose.

  6. “His “planets with people on them” reminded me of Sagan’s poke at the Mormons in his The Demon-Haunted World.”

    What did Sagan say?

  7. Just to submit a dissenting voice, I find it embarrassing when church leaders cherry pick science to justify faith. While Elder Maxwell was undoubtedly a great man, I would never consider him an expert on cosmic matters. In Sagan’s books such as The Deamon Haunted World, more truths (and falsehoods) about the universe were addressed than in any prophetic talk. I think it is easy for us of faith to reason that if science doesn’t know Everything about the universe there is still room for us to be right. I know the post was centered on Maxwell, and I’ve gone elsewhere, but I do wish there were more in-depth discussions about the reality of the universe and its implications on our faith.

  8. Chris Spencer says:

    @ Wes:

    So what you are saying is that in order to use science to justify faith, you must first be an expert in some scientific field. No, Elder Maxwell was not a cosmologist, but in his perusing of cosmology he found something that resonated with him, so he ran with it. Also, there is no evidence that Maxwell is cherry-picking. According to this snippet and others, there doesn’t exist a time when Elder Maxwell sought to explain away scientific theory with faith.

    Also, I do find it a bit disconcerting that “church leaders” are generalized as one entity. Since the days of Talmage and JF Smith Jr. church leaders have agreed on little in the realm of science. It is a gross overgeneralization to assume that all church leaders, regardless of their field of expertise cherry pick those scientific principles that seem to mesh with their beliefs and entirely disregard those that do not.

  9. (6) Sagan pointed out that (to him) it was ridiculous to suppose that inhabitable planets were peopled with humans.

  10. No, I don’t think all church leaders are scientific cherry pickers. To restate what I said, it bothers me when they do it. I don’t think one has to be an expert in a field to appreciate it, but when Maxwell (and other leaders/authorities/elders)only points out scientific cases or data that seem to confirm a Mormon position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases that contradict Mormon doctrine, they are cherry picking. People seem to be praising Maxwell for keeping his opinions vague. I think it is fair to say that vague opinions by a spiritual leader can be misleading and likely to perpetuate false or unknown ideas.

  11. I think it is fair to say that vague opinions by a spiritual leader can be misleading and likely to perpetuate false or unknown ideas.

    Well, I suppose there is that danger. On the other hand, not approaching the brink of firm declaration leads to the possibility of finding ones own reconciliation without feeling condemned or coerced. I think the attitude of the Church now is public simplicity. While Maxwell had his private beliefs, he didn’t express them necessarily. But his circle of public subjects was broader than most.

  12. This conversation overheard some 55 million years ago in our vicinity:

    “Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, that’s all we have got from the last 3,213,577 planets!!! I want mammals!!!”

  13. I loved Maxwell’s broad knowledge of things. He was an awesome example of blending religious ideas with politics and ‘real life’. I’m actually guilty of cherry picking this talk from his huge body of great teachings.
    I just get worried about what people will end up believing when metaphorical language gets mixed in with sciency ideas. In this case I think that sentences like, “How many planets are there in the universe with people on them? We don’t know, but we are not alone in the universe!” and talking about stars falling from the sky reflects the thinking of a broader range of church members. One line of reasoning usually goes: We don’t know, therefore we can assert anything we want. The other is a repetition of figurative language that is irrelevant at its most benign, and harmful to those who fully accept what is said by authorities.
    Again, I don’t consider this talk representative of Elder Maxwell’s knowledge and perhaps I was just in a contrary mood today. Sometimes it can be hard reconciling ideas from wonderful men like Sagan and Maxwell.

  14. I don’t think Maxwell was trying to use science to justify faith. He was merely using astronomy as an analogy to the gospel. I make all sorts of gospel analogies to every day life things, like sports or cars, with little professional expertise in any of them. Neither the world or sports nor automobiles need be offended by my analogies.

  15. I’m with you Scott and WVS — I really miss Elder Maxwell. His talks were easily the highlight of every general conference.

  16. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    This is very timely with NASA’s announcement to be made today at 11 PST re “astrobiology” and the hypothesis–which the scientific community modernly co-ops as it’s own notwithstanding videos such as the foregoing and ancient scripture–that there *may* be life on other celestial bodies. I like the emphasis on “inhabitants” and “how many planets” have people on them. It’s not “if” there are people on them, it’s how many.

    Anyone ever wonder what the point of having “worlds without number” is instead of just having one huge gigantor massive beast planet with all the people you want on it? And what’s the point of making another world, then another, then another, then another . . . ? I have trouble seeing the value or joy or fulfillment etc. in that exercise, which is apparently one of the ultimate virtues in our faith.

  17. Systems have to be in the heat/cold/gravity/metal/radiation sweet spot to have a chance for existence with time for extended evolution.

  18. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    WVS – That’s a good point. How long has the bacteria in Mono Lake been floating around in that poisonous soup? Probably not as long as the Phosphate that other life forms and bacteria are built on. Hence, the rarity of the new discovery, which was only found at the bottom of a poisonous lake that’s only 760,000 years old (by Wiki estimations). We should check back in about 10 million years to see if the bacteria in Mono Lake is still alive or has become a fish.

    The NASA release was such an overplayed turd. The media surrounding it built it up to be an announcement re an extra-terrestrial bacterial discovery. It’s a very interesting and important discovery nonetheless. But the nature of the discovery was not promoted accurately at all. I’ve ran some searches to see where, in the universe, scientists have detected traces of arsenate. No luck so far; that’s the next piece of this new info–where is there arsenate in the universe other than Earth.

  19. W.V. Smith’s statement regarding: “Neal A. Maxwell on Christ and the Cosmos”.

    You say that this is one of your favorite texts for few reasons, one of which was because… “his return to some of his frequent discursive themes”. I’ve never known Neal A. Maxwell to possess a digressive nature to ramble on aimlessly on unrelated topics. Would you be so kind as to show such a discourse. I don’t find the topic quoted here to fit that definition.

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