Monday, 16 September 2013

Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse


The King Follett sermon or 'discourse' was a speech made by Joseph Smith shortly before he was killed. The speech was not written but extemporized, and was taken down by various observers - and therefore the primary record is a parallel text by multiple hands:

King Follett is non-canonical for the LDS church - being very obviously a kind of 'thinking aloud', a philosophical speculation on the apparent implications of Mormon theology (in other words, the Prophet was not prophesying at this moment).


I find it a wonderful speech - and it elucidates for me the interplay between what is assumed and fixed in Mormonism, and what are possible consequences of these assumptions, but which are not of the essence.

This is the standard edited text. 

which is engagingly dramatized here:


The discourse reveals that the aspects of Mormon theology which seem strangest (and attract most horror and ridicule) are in fact a (speculative) consequence of following up several steps of implications from the primary assumptions of the nature of God and His relationship to Man.

Probably, all metaphysical systems contain infinities - in Classical Christian theology the infinities are given to God - creation from nothing, omnipotence/omniscience, omnipresence and the like. The basic metaphysic is one of statis.

For Mormonism the God of the Bible has none of these attributes; and God is our loving Father primarily and as literally as possible.

The infinities are pushed back and back, until they are out of the realm of our concern altogether - an infinite regress of other Gods in other universes unknown - which are logically implied, but are nothing to do with us in this world, with one God. The monotheism is what matters to us, here now and forever; the polytheism is an answer to a philosophical question. 


Another thing to look out for in King Follett is the dynamic nature of Mormonism (in contrast to stasis). The condition for God and for Man is one of eternal progression (another abstract infinite - no bound can be put to progression, exaltation, glory - in a particular sense, not even for God).

But since dynamism is nonsense if everything changes - progression also implies a stasis, against which progress is measured. Thus the necessary eternal existence of matter and laws of the universe 'within which' God works and progresses. Instead of creation from nothing, the Mormon view is that the primary things 'always' existed (from eternity) and always will exist, being re-organizable but indestructible.

In sum, this represents the final stage in a truly amazing theological achievement - one which quite simply, and therefore triumphantly, solves many of the most obvious and troubling - and, I believe, ineradicable - theoretical problems due to the conflict between classical philosophy and Christianity.



MC said...

Another possible speculation on the idea of things always having existed is that the moral laws of the universe may have existed eternally just as much as the physical laws of the universe. Thus, God may exist not only within time and space, but also within a moral law that even he may not change. To me that gives greater weight to the natural law than if God had merely designed a very complicated video game for which he expects us to learn the rules that he devised ex nihilo.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - Yes, I agree. This gives meaning to the statement that 'God is Good' - Good existed for as long as God, and presumably predated God's exalted status.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

There should be a word added before the last: ...the conflict between classical philosophy and Protestant Christianity. There is no such thing in Catholicism, unless you count Descartes, Kant and their followers as classical philosophers, which is a mistake. All of them were idealists, not realists, so they really were ideosophers, as Maritain explains.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - Obviously I disagree! The problems that trouble me are found in Western and Eastern Catholic theology as well as Protestant.

Adam G. said...

Speaking as a Mormon, I have found both the traditonal Christian and the Mormon views quite satisfying and edifying in their essentials, but much less so when pushed out to their 'infinities' and implications.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - This is Orson Scott card talking amusingly about the SciFi perspective on Mormonism