Friday, 11 July 2014

The superiority of bodily incarnation in Tolkien and Mormonisn

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One of the most striking aspects of Mormon theology is that incarnation, to have a body, is regarded as superior to a spiritual existence.

This is - of course - spontaneous, universal common sense about divine things (something that seems to be innate to all children); but stands in contrast to the Platonic (and gnostic pseudo-Christian) traditions which regard the spiritual as superior to the incarnate - the the spirit as being 'dragged-down' by the body.

Mainstream Christianity has historically been ambivalent on the matter of the body - the essence of Christianity being focused on the incarnation of Christ and the resurrection of all Men, yet with strong trends in the opposite direction of regarding the body as bad, corrupt, weak; and the spirit as purer and more perfect.

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For the Restored Christianity of Mormonism, humans lived a pre-mortal spirit life - and some humans chose to be incarnated as mortals, and to die; and one reason for making this choice is that to have a body is superior to being a disembodied spirit. Living as an incarnated mortal and then dying leads to resurrection - and to be resurrected (and perfected by Christ's atonement and our repentance) allows spiritual progression or theosis - to become divinised as 'Sons of God'.

So higher divine beings are incarnate beings - and therefore not just Jesus Christ but also God the Father are incarnate beings with bodies (this reality was also a revelation given to Joseph Smith).

The implication is that the body is an enhancement of power, not a diminution. This is quite an alien and hard-to-grasp idea for the Western intellectual consciousness - indeed, some mainstream Christians apparently regard it as self-evidently ludicrous and incoherent that God the Father should have a body - presumably because they feel this would be a limitation rather than an enhancement.

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In understanding the idea of incarnation as an enhancement, the work of Tolkien provides some help. Tolkien's gods/ Valar - including the minor gods or Maia - are incarnate (the nature of Eru, God, The One, is not described).

In particular the history of Sauron suggests that power is enhanced by the focus and concentration provided by a body - and that the periods of time when Sauron's body had been destroyed (when he was caught in he ruin of Numenor, and after the One Ring was cut from his hand by Isildur) were times when he was weakest. At such times he was a spirit of malice, like a black mist; but he needed to condense and form a body in order to become powerful.

Also in Tolkien is the idea that the beauty of the body is linked with the spirit which inhabits it. Sauron was at first and for a long time exceptionally beautiful, which was part of his ability to 'charm' and deceive the Numenorean King Ar Pharazon, and the Noldorian Elven smith Celebrimbor. When Sauron's body had been destroyed in Numenor, he was unable to remake it as beautiful; and the situation was worse after he infused much of his power into the One Ring - these were weaknesses.

Analogously, Morgoth began as the greatest of the Valar, incarnated in a body, and beautiful - but as his corruption and evil work proceeded he infused much of his nature into Middle Earth itself, and his armies of creatures such as balrogs, dragons, orcs and trolls. He ended up shrunken, blackened and physically weakened - and it seems his body was destroyed and his discarnate spirit shut out from the world of living creatures.  

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So, Tolkien's mythology provides an example of incarnation regarded as a focusing and enhancement of power; and a purely spirit existence as relatively weak and lacking in focus - and in this respect it is a helpful analogy for understanding what is (for Western intellectuals, at least)  an unusual aspect of Mormon theology.

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