Musings on Mormon Ideas, I.

What is the force of religion in history? Over the last century or so, historians of Christianity moved from the idea of teleologic morality operating within history to one where the notion of a good-directed society was submerged into the laws of chance.[1] For scholars of faith, it meant that while God was driven from the role of guiding the planets and the providential orbits of human lives, he was still present in the moral choices of men and women. But for others, seeing salvific or moral meaning in every event was a burden now left behind. We can argue the benefit or shame of this transformation, but it exists.[2]

Placing religion inside culture rather than the reverse has troubled many who encounter modern scholarship but there is no question that scholarship of all kinds has advanced by many measures in concert with this evolving frame of reference. In a way historiography was late to this party, probably for the same reasons that Mormon historical study has taken an even more circuitous and branching road during the same period. Indeed, the idea of historical accidents is still troublesome to many who repeat the mantra, “everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps we sacrifice a kind of reverence in the abandonment of a providential reading of the past but Elvis has left this building and is not likely to return.

The questions here interpenetrate Mormon thought in a number of related ways. Mormons have participated in the piety vs. morality debates of the past to some degree, but mostly to poke some occasional fun at the associated angst of Calvinists. I mean, who doesn’t find *that* a little stiff — sending big batches of people to everlasting hell on the strength a tenuous syllogism? But in Calvin himself, I find some Mormonism, if not in some of his intellectual or spiritual descendants. Calvin clearly struggled with all these ideas and some of his language suggests a somewhat broader view of things than what we tend to bind him with. That however, is for another day.[3] I only want to point out here that Mormon theologians of the past have found an uncomfortable if only briefly acknowledged interface here. One that requires at least a nod. Is God in control of everything, every life being planned to the “T” — events not being subsets of some huge probability space of outcomes? There is a certain comfort there and you may find support in Holy Books.

On the other hand this leads to the usual arguments from the absurd which are difficult to thoughtfully confront in all honesty. Many of the horrific events of human history are hard to place in any reasonable context of “probationary state.”[4] And then what do we do with those extraordinary punctuation marks of life? The ones where we experience the numinous, the clear testimony/grace/comfort/certainty that we sometimes feel and yet find hard to encompass in our mental constructs of reality. Everyone answers this in largely personal ways I suppose (as I step on bordering blooms of theological gardens).

I first encountered the faith in history idea as I sat in a course offered by Robert Helbling. As a newly minted returned missionary, I had serious ideas about what could be contextualized, and what certainly could not. As Helbling began a lecture about religion and the nature and concepts of God, I couldn’t help interrupting him to ask what God might think of all this. I don’t recall his answer. The point of my question was just this sort of conundrum: what are we really doing here? The answer of course was that we were talking history of human expression about God. A topic of human study. It is, in my opinion, really hard to study God. You can’t really get an interview on your terms, despite Joseph Smith’s worries that we might encounter counterfeits on some regular basis. It took me a while to think this through. I’m a bit slow. But Helbling was patient. I learned to wear two hats. One at university, one at church. While Davis[2] may have come up with a haberdashery product for all occasions, I have not.[5]

In part II, I want to continue by offering something about transitions and the influence of environment on theology. Unless I get distracted by something else.

[1] For this change and its effect on one well-known journal, see Amanda Porterfield, “Leaving Providence Behind,” Church History 80/2 (June 2011) 336.

[2] For a non-Mormon Christian’s approach here consider Don G. Davis, Jr. and his Fides et Historia. An interesting summary of Davis’s beliefs is found in John Mark Tucker’s article on Davis and Fides in Libraries and Culture 40/3 (Summer 2005): 460-474.

[3] If you’re intrigued, try Thomas J. Davis’s edited volume John Calvin’s American Legacy. Oxford UP, 2010.

[4] A term not in any way confined to Joseph Smith’s contributions. Is it useful to put the idea of probationary state in cultural context? I think yes.

[5] I don’t wish to imply that I’m a split personality. Just that the language and concerns here don’t mesh well for me. Perhaps this means I need to repent.


  1. Excellent thoughts. I personally have struggled with this issue in the past – whether God is really responsible for every event in human history, or whether a lot of it is pure chance.
    I myself personally believe that God does the best He can, bearing in mind that He has to persuade other co-eternal beings with inviolable agencyto do the right thing. I also believe that every possible combination of character traits exists in one intelligence or another, and that even for the most wicked of us who will end up in Outer Darkness for the rest of eternity, we will still be happier in that state, having been through the experiences of mortality, than we would as an innocent, naive intelligence with no opportunity to learn or grow. Thus, I believe God’s plan involves all of us (or at least most of us) being sent to Earth at one stage or another, and God simply decides when and where based on what effect we will have on the people around us if placed in that position. That’s how I deal with guys like Hitler and Pol Pot.

  2. tmb, I share some of your cosmology here but I’m still working through things. As yet I have little faith in most global explanations.

  3. WVS, I can definitely sympathise with that point of view. There are still many things I’m trying to work out and work through and wrestle with in my own mind, so what I outlined in my first comment is merely my best guess, and how I personally deal with these issues and try to reconcile experiences, feelings and lines of reasoning that sometimes appear contradictory.

  4. Snyderman says:

    I tend to be of the opinion that God doesn’t know what’s going to happen–not for certain, at least. I think that would destroy agency. What God does know, however, is how to interpret situations and events in a way that betters one’s life. For example, say someone murders my mom. I could interpret this situation by saying that the perpetrator deserves to die and exacting revenge on him/her. Or I could interpret the situation by saying that the perpetrator probably needs a positive, uplifting relationship in his/her life and attempting to supply that. I think everything does happen for a reason; and, for me, God is God because He helps me decide what that reason is. The only thing is that the decision comes after the event took place. If that makes any sense.

  5. Snyderman, an interesting way to understand the phrase. Not, however, the way most people I hear say it, mean it. They desire to see a priori meaning in the murder of their mothers, not postmortem positive attitude.

  6. When they say he’s all knowing… I believe it, But he is still going to give everyone the best chance that can be given. I’d say he’s responsible for everything, either his hand in it is direct, or indirect, and people still have their agency; but all things are created by him, set in motion by him, so his hand can be seen everywhere.

  7. Snyderman says:

    WVS, agreed. Most people definitely do not mean the phrase that way.

    Zankin, I’ve heard two phrases used to support the idea that God knows the future: “all-knowing” and “knows the end from the beginning.” I’m not convinced that either phrase necessarily entails knowing the future.

    “All-knowing” could be a comparison phrase: “God is all-knowing because He knows everything that mortal man is capable of knowing.” And since man doesn’t know the future, God can be all-knowing without knowing the future either. Another way of interpreting “all-knowing” is captured in the sentence, “God is all-knowing because He knows everything that is knowable.” What if the future cannot be known? God could still be all-knowing without knowing the future.

    “Knows the end from the beginning” does not necessarily entail knowing the steps to get there. I once heard a lecture explaining this idea where the lecturer presented a hypothetical chess game between a grandmaster and a novice. (The lecturer attributed this to William James, but I haven’t verified that.) Either way, I can say I know THAT the grandmaster will win, but I cannot say I know HOW the grandmaster will win. Resignation? Checkmate? With which pieces and where on the board? I don’t know. God may know what the ending will look like without knowing all the exact steps that will occur between now and then.

    Which is not to say that God doesn’t have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen, because I’m sure He does (and by “pretty,” I mean “really”). But I don’t think He can know for certain.

  8. Zankin, I’m not sure I understand your comment. Could you elaborate?

  9. I think an all-knowing God refers to an eternal perspective. Man’s free agency is alive and well, imo.

  10. Snyderman, I believe in God’s absolute perfect foreknowledge based on my compatibilist and deterministic understanding of freedom, but I also believe this idea is taught throughout the scriptures. For example, take 1 Peter 1:2 – “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”, would suggest that God foreknows who will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom and who will not, which would imply perfect foreknowledge of our actions, which is possible only because of the comprehensive, internal way in which He knows us – He knows perfectly the way our mind works, so He knows what eventual decision we will make in all circumstances throughout our life.
    As another scriptural example, take 1 Nephi 9:6 – “The Lord knoweth all things from the beginning” is fairly unequivocal. He knows not just the end from the beginning, but all things from the beginning. This idea is reiterated in the Words of Mormon – again, “The Lord knoweth all things which are to come” leaves little room for interpretation, as does Helaman 8:8 “He knoweth as well all things which shall befall us”.
    I bring these scriptures up, not to try and Bible-bash you into accepting my point of view or condemn your opinion as heresy – I’m the last person to lecture others on not accepting doctrines which are clearly prominent in the scriptures, and the scriptures don’t agree with each other anyway – but rather to show that the idea of God’s comprehensive foreknowledge of all future events does have a comfortable home in Mormonism. I disagree with your point of view, but I am sure you could probably find several scriptures which contradict the idea of God’s complete foreknowledge. All I am trying to suggest is that both of our views have a home in Mormonism.

  11. Snyderman says:

    Themormonbrit, of course both perspectives have a place within Mormonism. I never meant to imply otherwise.

  12. I don’t know that I grew up completely buying into “everything happens for a reason”, but I do know that the idea it expresses didn’t really leave me until later in life when I first experienced the potential magnitude of the “unfairness” of life. “Everything happens for a reason” tends to suggest that God is directly or indirectly involved in each and every circumstance we participate in while in this life. And while that’s not entirely untrue (He very well could be involved at that level…but perhaps not in the way we are prone to think), the problem is it doesn’t seem like it can always be true. (I recognize this is exactly the conundrum you are posting about)

    For example – those who say “everything happens for a reason” are more often than not those who, through the benefit of hindsight and looking at past experiences, can now say that everything has worked out for their ultimate long term benefit (ie. “Thank goodness I lost that job and was unemployed for 6 months. At the time it felt miserable and I felt abandoned…but had I not been unemployed I never would have been introduced to so and so and then found the job of my dreams. You know what they say…everything happens for a reason”). That story is nice and all…we’ve probably all had some experience like that where what seemed unfortunate turned into a blessing.

    But that’s not how all unfortunate circumstances go. We are not always temporally delivered from trials. This became clear to me when someone I knew lost their child in a very untimely manner. I remember hearing some of the statements that were meant to comfort…”everything happens for a reason” was among them. The problem is, this led this particular family to wonder “what was it that we needed to learn that could have only been learned from this tragedy? If God is directly or indirectly behind all things…what on earth made Him think that this was anything that was going to help me and my family? Did we do something to deserve this? Do I now have to actually listen to people bear there testimony about how God helped them find their keys when He couldn’t inspire a single person to be there at the right time to help my daughter? Was I not worthy of that inspiration?”

    It’s not likely that even with hindsight, this family is ever going to say anything like “everything happens for a reason”. Nor should they. We sometimes think God is behind the scenes causing things to happen at just the right time to help us grow in ways we couldn’t without those trials. We think that in His All-Knowingness, he’s planned just the kind of life events that are most likely to help us get to the celestial kingdom. Well…not in this particular case. There are other families that would have been better mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepared for such a tragedy and just may have found a new closeness to God in the midst of personal tragedy. But this wasn’t that family. They were already teetering on the edge, and this event pushed them over. It wasn’t just the straw the broke the camel’s back, it was the 800 pound gorilla. I doubt that God, in his All-Knowingness, would have ever wanted this particular circumstance to happen, and He probably never would have thought “this will all be for their good”. If anybody knew that something like this was likely to break them…He did.

    This is a really long way of explaining why I dislike “everything happens for a reason”. I instead use the phrase “There can be meaning in all things”. That to me is universally applicable. It would seem to me that some things just happen. And that’s part of what we signed up for when we agreed to come to this earth. I’m sure we understood that a whole range of terrible things could happen to us on this earth, it’s all part of the mortal probation and the fallen world we would enter. We still agreed, inspite of the knowledge that one day it might be us that loses a child too early. We agreed not because we thought God would perfectly time things for when we’d be ready for them (there are all sorts of horrors committed against children that wouldn’t fall under that category), but because we believed ultimately in Christ’s power to heal, no matter how terrible the wounds. We believed that through the atonement of Christ, there could be meaning and growth in all things…but that whether or not we experienced that growth/meaning would depend largely on us and whether we chose faith in the face of fear, hope in the face of doubt, and love in the face of anger. As we follow the Savior and adopt virtues consistent with his teaching, we can be lifted up even as He was, because simply by the adoption of those virtues we already begin to become partakers of the divine nature (and divine healing that comes with it). Ultimately, whether there is meaning in all things is up to us…and it is the ultimate expression of the power of our agency.

    Sorry for the long reply….hope it’s not a thread-jack.

    I think Mormon thought allows for a level of agency that existed before this world wherein we chose to live in such a place where these great and unexplainable evils would exist (unexplainable if God really is causing all things to happen that is), because it is part of the agreement we have with God in coming to this fallen world. It also shows what kind of faith we had, knowing we just might be one of the children born in the Sudan and part of ugly warfare, that we were still willing to do it because Christ is mighty to heal and to save. I imagine with that faith in his power to save/heal was an equal faith in his justice and mercy. All would be judged fairly according not only to their actions, but also according to the circumstances of their life and the evils that were thrust upon them. All tongues would confess His righteousness. Apparently we had complete confidence in Him and His plan. Pretty powerful stuff.

  13. I reject the notion that “everything happens for a reason”. I think things just happen due to our own and the agency of others. I think “everything happens for a reason” is a broken human attempt to put a happy face on everything or every cloud having a silver lining. Well, it doesn’t. Sometimes it just rains! It is okay to be angry, and frustrated, and mad, and sad, and every other emotion. We must travel through these emotions to process devastating events. Sometimes we need help to gain the strength to not get stuck on any particular emotion, that is true, but this errant Christian ideal that one must plaster their face with a smile all the time is extremely damaging to many people. People who give praise for everything good that happens are bound to blame God when something bad happens. It is poison to see God’s hand in all things, imo. It is the root of prosperity gospel and I won’t even go into how I feel about that. God gets angry, Jesus gets angry, yet somehow we feel that we should be above it. Blasphemy, imo.

  14. Peter LLC says:

    I reject the notion that “everything happens for a reason”.

    Same here. In my view, the role of the gospel is not to provide pat explanations but to insulate short-sighted mortals from long-term negative consequences.

  15. Snyderman says:

    Danny, my re-interpretation of “everything happens for a reason” in comment #4 was meant to express what you describe. Although I probably didn’t explain it very clearly. Anyway, I completely agree with you.

    EOR, I also completely agree with you. I got my bachelor’s in psychology, and I always hated the whole idea of “positive” vs. “negative” emotions. Emotions are not positive or negative, they just are. Which is not to say there are not better or worse emotions to have in a given situation, but sadness, anger, frustration, etc. are not negative. In fact, some of the most spiritually profound moments in my life came when I was sad/angry/frustrated/what have you.

  16. Joining the echo chamber about not believing in “reasons” for everything. Thinking everything has a reason or is directed by God causes me waaaaay too much misery and cognitive dissonance. Like Danny said above, it’s destructive when the belief in God as puppet master crashes up against the inexplicable.

    My grandmother, who was devoted to the gospel and lived a quiet and Christlike life (seriously, she’s my earthly idol), lost her mother when she was very young and was then subjected to an un-loving stepmother. She was always indignant about people who told her it had happened for a reason. “I don’t know what reason could have been more important than children who needed their mother.”