Toward a Theology of the Material

[I was just sitting here – thinking about where the fun speculations of 19th century Mormonism might lead, and this is what came out. Excuse its ragged form.]

Mormonism has a uniquely materialist bent. It posits that the material is necessary for complete happiness.[1] That while the world is biphasic, physical and spiritual, both are material.[2] Modern physics divides much of its attention between the very large (cosmology) and the very small (quantum phenomena). In the large, physics tells us of a universe whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere and yet expanding. That expansion is apparently going on forever, never to stop.

The expansion of the universe along with the laws of thermodynamics dictate both a lessening of temperature variations among different spatial locations (proceeding to eventual uniformity[3]) and a dissipation of energy, overall system organization degrading to near non-existence. Barring a “big rip,” the first major end stage is the cessation of star formation in about 1013 years from now. It’s all down hill from there.[4]

The quantum world is mysterious by “design” apparently, with probability dictating the predictions of the relevant equations. Weird is the rule here: disappearance and reappearance of particles, time reversals, creation and destruction of “matter.” I’ll come back to this in a moment.

While the Mormon view of reality is biphasic, the material worlds are linked. Wherever there is regular matter, there is “spiritual” matter. The latter is apparently matter, but difficult to detect, something on the order of “dark matter.” Living beings are formed of both types of matter, and possibly all of the physical world overlays its doppelganger “spirit matter” version. This has support in some of Joseph Smith’s early revelations (JST, say) and their interpretations by the Pratt brothers in particular.

The “small” universe contains restrictions on what may be known. Further, depending on whether proton decay exists, the progress to an eventual universe steady-state varies. But no matter which version is correct, the large universe cannot support life as we know it beyond about 1050 years from now. The so-called “dark-era” begins about a googol of years from now. [5] Two different fates are possible from this point depending on whether protons are stable. If not, a sparse-state, where roughly all there is left locally will be electrons and positrons wandering at great distances from one another and that makes for not only a very dark place but an exceedingly cold one, eventually dipping to absolute zero. (There are various possible intermediate states I won’t consider here.) If protons are stable, then all matter will decay to iron isotopes which collect in “iron stars” and eventually these may disappear into quantum black holes. In any event, things get dark and as cold as can be.

The Mormon God is some kind of material being, and at least some strands of Mormon theology describe God as a part of the present physical world, even a resident on a physical planet. For purposes of this post, let us suppose this is the case. While God may be highly accomplished in manipulating the material universe on very short (not quantum) time scales, the speed limit of the universe (essentially the speed of light – although that must be defined more precisely than I will do here) defines the maximum rate of information transfer. Additionally, God is required to be local, very local indeed if he were to make visits to earth.

The physical universe offers somewhat limited possibilities in the way of building/sustaining life. Life – at least as we understand it – probably can’t exist outside a star system like our solar system. Moreover, in each such system there is a “sweet spot” – not too far from the central star – not too close. The earth’s orbit defines what is roughly that sweet spot in our particular system. Further, magnetic fields of some strength must exist to protect a planet in the sweet spot (from the rain of charged particles) which requires an internal dynamo system, like our own liquid iron core complex whose useful operation may depend on the moon’s existence. Additionally, solar systems are not generated in any useful stable fashion outside the “sweet spot” of spiral galaxies. Too near the central mass and the density of interstellar objects is too great for solar system mechanics to remain stable long enough to support life and its development (I’m assuming that evolutionary processes account for life here – but claiming some other mechanism doesn’t alter the essentials much). Too far from the central galactic mass and not enough metal is around to allow for planet formation (I use “metal” in a somewhat generalized sense). Our own solar system can be taken to define the galactic sweet spot orbit – though that is naturally considerably larger than the solar system sweet spot orbit. These are a few of the factors necessary to support life as we know it. If God shares the physical world with us and is embodied in matter (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.) then God is subject to similar conditions and barring technological solutions, would be found in the galactic sweet spot. However, speed limits still apply. No complex material system like a biological organism could approach the speed of light (except in science fiction). The amount of energy required would involve something like converting a large fraction of the mass of the moon to energy. And no material object may travel at the speed of light.

But we are speaking of God here and therefore it seems permissible, within the boundaries outlined here (material body) to allow for God being able, by some sort of technology, to travel near the speed of light. Say 90% of c (or about 168,000 miles per second). Getting up to such a speed would involve reasonable rates of acceleration and deceleration. That adds significantly to any journey time. But let’s assume that God is only minimally inconvenienced by such things. In order to visit the earth, say, to speak face to face with Moses for example, requires that God is relatively close during potential communication episodes.[6] Say within a few light years (how about 12,000,000,000,000 miles). His other administrative domains might require absence of many years, perhaps a few hundred or maybe even a few thousand years.[7] That seems to require an established administrative network, under long-term contract so to speak. I’m ignoring questions of reliability here. Presumably if there is one God-being, and he is in the process of building others like himself, then the existence of reliable administrative networks (think, the steward system in Gondor (grin)[8]) is tenable. All this fits our heavy theological emphasis on obedience and consistency.

Material systems probably age in a very fundamental sense. Aside from electrons and their antiparticles, the rest may be unstable (folks are looking for evidence of proton decay now) possibly over huge time scales – that only shortens the estimates for time until the “dark era” etc. above. In the end, all material objects will disintegrate, including God’s body – assuming it is some kind of biological system. Thus, in spite of a resurrection and “eternal life,” after interminable years (see above) all biological forms will disappear from the universe. Hence God will have a finite (if extremely large) lifespan. Given the apparent tie (see above) between spirit matter and physical matter, there could be no refuge in retreating from the physical universe.

Hence a theology of the material requires a finite God-span if you will. On the other hand it clearly suggests a progressive God, perhaps even one who evolved from a man-like state.

Further, some ideas in Mormonism must be reinterpreted in this case. The idea of truly infinite lifespans must be cast aside.[9] Intelligence should be thought of as an emergent quality, independently in the physical and spiritual realms. Not in terms of some kind of eternal consciousness, but having finite, perhaps unfathomable spans, not infinite in any objective sense though.[10] A being may perceive its own lifespan as so long that its ending is functionally infinitely far in the future. There are various scenarios to rescue this part of classical Mormon theology, but the idea of ending life is coherent with early Utah speculations of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, the Pratt brothers and others.[11]

So, we can be thought of as existing in the “sweet spot” of time as well as space. The universe is at present life-sustaining, (and in this sense, God-sustaining if you will).

Theological considerations like justice, mercy, atonement, sin, repentance, commandments, revelation, prayer, heaven[12], hell, may all be reinterpreted in a finite system like this one. In some cases, they are not as satisfying or may seem less effective, but given the fundamental limitations that exist in the universe, they are the best of all possible versions.

Could God be material and yet somehow unaffected by space and time? Not in the physical sense of this excursion. Other distinctions may be possible but they distance God from man in important ways that are, at least in classical Mormonism perhaps, almost heretical. (Part of the point of this business is to trace some of the consequences of the naive materialism of the 19th century when accepted uncritically.)

It may seem fatalistic, but the potential future is so long as to be beyond the ken of anyone. Nevertheless, it will come to an end. Omnipotence in the classical sense is certainly sacrificed. Its logical limits are undoubtedly far outside its practical limits in a material system like this one. Hence, scripture and theological language terms like “forever” and “eternal” and such would have to be thought of as “very long indeed.” Omniscience also cannot exist in the classical sense. While administrative domains might be set up to perceive and react to things, God could not know instantaneously what is happening anywhere. Even if God is present locally then we have to allow for the idea that he receives information at the speed of light, but no faster. Another issue with a material God is the question of knowledge. Distributed knowledge is a possibility, but “infinite” knowledge seems an impossibility. Even extremely large caches of information require technological assistance to a material brain. “Perception” leads to other questions that suggest physical limitations on incoming information. I won’t explore these here except to say they are serious problems and involve us in questions of speed again.

The end of “time” will be a slow process. Eventually new life ceases to come forward, so more intelligent beings cease being produced. Those intelligent beings in existence would still have a “work and a glory” but the end of all things would be in sight. Our present mortal lives are models of this in miniature. Or they can be. Loving and caring for one another is the essence of the good life, even if it is finite.

It seems clear that most religions are quite willing to give up materiality in favor of an unfettered God (or an unfettered soul perhaps). But in Mormonism, the choice seems more difficult and fraught with curious assertions sometimes made in favor of science fiction rather than science.

Personally, I find myself stuck in Joseph Smith’s claims on reality. I have faith in the restoration and I’m a believer. But I also find myself puzzled by the way Mormons often approach science. We’ve got a lot of weird cognitive dissonance sitting around (not that we have a corner on the market).

Rather than the extreme materialist view, I tend to believe that we take some passages of modern scripture too seriously and acontextually (such as the Pratt extraction from the Ramus reports). I’m not taking a materialist theology to heart because I reject the limitations it offers. But that is a matter of faith.

[1] D&C 93:33-4, 45:17, 138:50. I’m not suggesting that this post is anything more than thinking out loud.
[2] See Orson Pratt’s extraction forming D&C 131:7.
[3] Second law. Closed systems suffer entropy-death.
[4] The “big rip” is a strange kind of expansion that tears everything apart only a few billion years hence. (Caldwell, et al., “Phantom Energy and Cosmic Doomsday”. Physical Review Letters 91 (2003).)
[5] A “googol” is 10100, a number so astoundingly large as to be beyond discussion. The numbers get much larger in the iron decay scenario.
[6] Here I’m not allowing for the rather silly speculations that propagate like living things traversing “worm holes” and such. Even assuming such things exist, regulating them is something for Star Trek, not star fact.
[7] D&C 88 might be taken to suggest that there are 12 such domains. But that is outside the realm of the present discussion.
[8] J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
[9] Given the spiritual domain as material, it is not be exempt and there is no real “eternal now” available for refuge here. Such language must be thought of as poetic as it appears in scripture for example.
[10] It may be that in a subjective sense, life might be eternal or that under some circumstances an observer may think another’s life lasts forever.
[11] The material nature of the spiritual was exploited to a large degree. The “recycling” of spiritual beings was an occasional theme as was emergent intelligence/individuality.
[12] Orson Hyde: “Where is heaven? Not beyond the bounds of time & space.” Samuel W. Richards notebook, MS 1941, Church History Libarary.


  1. I guess there are two ways of looking at it:
    a) All one needs to do is to pull another big bang out of the big bang hat, or
    b) apply the D&C 19 to the problem:

    6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this life, but it is written endless life.
    7 Again, it is written eternal life; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.
    8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
    9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
    10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the life which is given from my hand is endless life, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—
    11 Eternal life is God’s life.

  2. Your imagination is profound. I loved reading this. I found myself waiting for a citation to Tipler’s “Physics of Immortality,” whose imaginative flights almost made my brain boil and burst through all facial orifices as I tried to follow his arguments. Unable to (follow him), when his book first came out, I became convinced that Tipler was an atheist. Turns out he’s just a Denethor :)

  3. Interesting stuff, wvs. I’ll agree that what Mormons mean when they say spirit is matter and that God has a body of flesh and bone, really isn’t evident. If pressed, I generally think that they think it means spirits are real and God is real.

  4. I’m not sure we can take the current state of understanding in physics and astronomy and map it on to theology. It is a fun exercise, but not much more. A few years ago we were told that there was going to be a big crunch, now we are told the universe’s expansion is accelerating. There are all kinds of theories now about alternate universes just a breath away from our own. Light bends in unpredictable ways, neutrinos are moving faster than the speed of light, etc. When I was a kid, my bah-humbug science teachers assured me that we didn’t even know if stars produced solar systems and that they probably didn’t. Now we are told that it is pretty much always a part of star creation to form orbiting planets, that the universe is full of them.

    Meanwhile, plunging fully into the material universe we have rightly taken to be a move forward. A spirit does not feel the wind in its hair, or the sand between its toes. It does not feel sexual pleasure. It might not even see in the way those with physical eyes see. All those exploding stars to see. No wonder we shouted for joy. No wonder we wanted to be like God.

    The dissociations that seem to be troubling you are temporary. Onward and upward.

  5. Thomas, I’m not a cosmologist (nor a quantum physicist) but I occasionally play one at work. I’d say your assessment may be comforting in a hand-waving sort of way, but it doesn’t really address what’s happening.

    Paul2, interesting rewrite!

    Brent C, well I’m neither atheist nor do I have enough blue blood to be Denethor. (grin)

    J., you may be right, but maybe you should visit my high priests group some time. The wonderful flights of fancy that can take place there might astound you.

  6. There is a strand in positivist kind of ways of approaching things that seems to me to like to deal in death, though. I never understand it. It reminds me of my ex-wife. As long as it ends in death, she’s good with it.

    In case you thought I was making any kind of attempt at dealing with this in a scientific way. *wink*

  7. As you may know, WVS, I’ve read many of your writings, and I don’t want to leave it out there that I might ever suppose you to be atheistic, or to encourage others to suppose this is what I’ve drawn from your marvelous essay. Though I might take issue with your modesty in feeling too ignoble to hold the stewardship. (dbl wink)

  8. I blush sir.

  9. Probably my comment came off as being too dismissive.

    I always wonder when people don’t love particular kinds of poetry. Kinds that I love. Besides the fact that their indifference makes me feel lonely, I honestly don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to read Burnt Norton over and over and over again. On the other hand, someone might wonder why I feel a need to romanticize, or add something poetic, to everything. It is because my nature finds it satisfying, in a hand-waving sort of way, but also because it is the best way I know how to penetrate what is otherwise only data. It is the best way I know to apply my being to reality. Among friends of mine, some have felt that this amounts to an evasion, fear of death, or whatever – and that is nothing more than the tension between Science and the Humanities: what teaches us more about reality? But, I promise, I care about nothing more than what is true, and I want to get into the nitty gritty of it.

    Just a tangent, and I don’t mean to distract. The thoughts that this writing raise in me.

  10. I’ve often thought along these lines as well, and I enjoyed seeing it put to words.

    The 3rd law of thermodynamics is not just a suggestion, its the law. That being said, we do have some particular idioms within our temple ceremonies which seem to suggest passing through multiple time generations. It makes me wonder if entropy can somehow be escaped in the end. Is their life after the afterlife?

  11. Isaac Asimov wrote a short story that really resonated with me. It also felt very mormon, in its dealing with entropy of the Universe and its inhabitants.

  12. I like hyperspace. It’s a great go-to.

  13. “Those intelligent beings in existence would still have a “work and a glory” but the end of all things would be in sight.”

    This is the saddest thing I’ve read all week.
    It’s a brave thing to say.

  14. Affirming endless renewal requires an endless source of energy. Something which can be endlessly tapped. Not a hard thing to believe in, maybe. No harder than believing in any kind of God, yes?

    Sorry … have the day off, and your writing has effected me. Obviously.

  15. Hi WVS,

    Instead of doing another separate big bang, or accepting the death of the universe, there is another option.

    This option is one for a minority of physicists. Assuming that a quantum theory of gravity is eventually produced and that Schrodinger’s equation is valid for the universe as a whole and not just a subset that could be measured by another subset, then the whole universe must be undergoing unitary evolution and eventually the phase of that Great Ket, the state of the universe, will complete its great eternal round. After an untold aeon of years, we will eventually find ourselves once again here, speculating on the future of the universe. Then the second law of thermodynamics is just a very artfully contrived illusion and there is no chaos at all, just hidden order.

  16. it's a series of tubes says:

    His other administrative domains might require absence of many years, perhaps a few hundred or maybe even a few thousand years.

    WVS, this post makes me nervous from the get-go, because the partially-trained (undergrad only) physicist in me looks ahead in genuine fear to the heat death of the universe…

    but what you posit here has me positively quaking in my boots in light of D&C 88:45-61.

  17. series of tubes, I had reference to that in note 7, in case it was not clear. It is an interesting passage and while seemingly set up as parabolic, it fits the profile I’m suggesting.

  18. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    Gotterdammerung! The end of all celestialized beings, their ‘works’ and all of the inhabitants thereof, including the three Great Patriarchs who brought the whole shebang to pass in a long forgotten creation. So out of the dissolution do all revert into “intelligences”, another big bang occurs and we are off again to the races? Could it be that there are yet another set of “higher laws” that govern these things that we mortals have not yet stumbled upon? Brings to mind one of Hugh Nibley’s
    favorite comments, “All the evidence isn’t in yet.” Or as a rabbi I knew as a child used to say, “Ein adin ka Adonai”, i.e. “there is is no one greater than God”, underscoring the mortal minds total inability to comprehend even the nature of God, much less His knowledge.

  19. Thanks for hanging out Thomas. Always appreciate your words.

  20. Very very interesting thoughts WVS. I suspect that life itself might be the secret that allows an escape from the inevitable decay. One of the things life does is continue. Whereas a Nucleic Acid has only a very short life time if left floating in the universe, but life renews it, patches it, and repairs it. It may be that heavenly biology similarly replaces old protons with new, gathers things dissipating, and creates new niches and processes creating ever new evolutionary structures and opportunities for persistence and survival. Cells onces ran around in the premortial soup singly, but soon joined forces, organized, formed societies, and divided the labor into new things that allowed the old cells to persist through repair, growth and renewal. But these are great things to think about. I really liked this.

  21. SteveP, I love it when you get philosophical.

  22. I think you need to consider more quantum states, much like light is a wave and a particle, spiritual matter is both matter and spirit …

  23. It was with me all day, WVS. Got me to write a poem in Spanish (the only language for me write poems in.)

    Hay una iglesia pequeña
    con paredes maltrechas,
    hecho de la arcilla
    de la llano eterno
    donde está situado,
    Se sienta como
    algun anciano ciego
    en el mundo viejo.

    No hay otro edificio
    sobre la llano sin cuento,
    solo briznas secadas en la
    tierra secada por la iglesia.
    Detrás de la puerta
    no hay nada, solo polvo
    y iconos yacen en el polvo.

    En una época antigua
    de la iglesia pequeña
    dieron gritos los creyentes
    para las luces crecientes.
    Se dispersaban por las casas
    debajo las estrellas y lunas
    y estaban lleno del sol.
    No pudieron sentir
    el primer viento
    de la noche.

    (In English, more or less … there is a little church, with ruined walls, made of the clay of the eternal plain where it sits like an old blind man on the old earth. There is no other building on the plain without end, only dry grass in the dry earth around the church. Behind the door, there is nothing, only dust and icons lying in the dust. En an old time of the little church the believers shouted out to the growing lights. They would disperse to their homes under the starts and moons, full of Sun. They could not feel the first wind of the night.)

  24. Neither science or religion know as much as they think they do. But it fun to draw some lines in the sand evaluate where we think we are. You draw a nice line WVS.

  25. Doesn’t Lehi explain that nothing of value would exist if there was no God, and that without the Atonement of Christ whatever did exist would eventually dissolve? We have a hard enough time understanding God and the Atonement in our own lives. I don’t see why there can’t be forces that exist that us mere mortals have not so much as a clue understanding. There are things in Heaven and Earth that are not dreamed of by Science.

  26. This theology of the material sounds very, very similar to the speculative history of everyone’s favorite ancient alien theorist, Zechariah Sitchen and his “Earth Chronicles” series. He proposes that the gods, the Anunnaki of ancient Sumer, live on a planet called Nibiru which rotates around the sun at an ellipse and distance quite different from the earth. From there they make periodic visits to the earth (once every 3600 earth years) and their apparent “eternal” nature is only because their bodies are programmed to live based on the unique circumstances of their planet. To us they would seem like immortal beings but they, much as the God proposed above, eventually die.

    I propose a synthesis of the two ideas.

  27. When I read the Silmarillion and came to the part where Ungoliant and Melkor invaded Valinor itself, destroying the Two Trees, I was unaccountably disturbed. The idea that the final resting place (heaven, if you will) for elves was vulnerable to attack, death and destruction was a fearsome thought.

    In any case, I think that our Parents are not constrained by the same laws of physics that we are constrained by. There is so little we truly understand about the way the universe works, and so many things that once were science fiction are now science fact. I think that assuming that we have anything more than a tiny fragment of Truth is just unsustainable. :)

    Thought provoking post, nonetheless.

  28. If you consider that matter, necessarily, is bound in three dimensions, and that mathematics posits considerably more than that, it seems reasonable to assume that deity, being by definition unconstrained, would not be limited to up, down, and sideways, but would exist in places we can only imagine as strange, infinitely small mathematical possibilities.

    Of course, being unconstrained, deity would also be capable of showing a divine self in a more limited manner, but due to our material limitations wouldn’t be able just to point in a direction on the x10 – y5 axis and say, “I’m over there. Meet you when you ditch the stupid 3D masses. In the meantime, enjoy ice cream. I’m particularly fond of it.”

    Talking about the body of God in limited terms is just a useful analogy that in no way actually expresses divine nature. Sort of like…saying that 11 dimensions are curled up in subatomic particles. It’s not true, but the truth is so far beyond our current understanding that it’s as true as it will get.

  29. The inflationary model of the Big Bang, along with the observed Dark Energy that appears to be driving the acceleration of that expansion, suggests that there is such an abundance of energy (= matter) in the universe that at any moment a new universe can bud off from ours and become a new Big Bang. While an individual cosmos may be destined to run down, a mechanism for infinite renewal is already proposed by current cosmological theories. Given the way observations of reality have far surpassed our ability to explain it theoretically, there is clearly a lot about the scientific principles governing the universe that we don’t understand. God is by definition smarter than all physicists, so discrepancies between current theories of science and information God has revealed are most likely due to human shortcomings not God’s inability to live up to his press releases.
    As to instantaneous communication at a distance, quantum entanglement of two distant particles allowing faster than light transmittall of is precisely the basis for what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”

  30. Isaac Asimov’s story “The Last Question” was adapted into an award winning planetarium show that was the first one produced at the Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake when it first opened. Its “popularity in Utah was obviously related to its resinance for an LDS audience. The question is about the reversal of entropy at the end of the universe.

    Modern physics takes seriously added dimensions. One idea is that gravity is weak because it bleeds into parallel dimensions. A spirit world that is displaced from our earth by a short distance along a fourth dimension could even be one source of the extra gravity we attribute to Dark Matter.

  31. @WVS, this is really fun and terrifying (I just wanted to use that word, so what?). You paint in explications and I dig it.

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