Friday 11 July 2014

The superiority of bodily incarnation in Tolkien and Mormonisn


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.


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.


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.  


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.



Wm Jas said...

I discussed the Mormon idea of an embodied God some years ago in this post:


When I say of a particular body that it is my body, I mean that I see with its eyes, feel with its nerves, know what its brain is thinking, and can control some of its muscles at will. None of this is true of other bodies, which is why they, by contrast, are not mine.

But if God is omnipotent and omniscient, he sees through all eyes, knows the thoughts of all brains, and can control all muscles in the universe at will. Given that, it’s not clear what it can possibly mean to say that God “has” a particular body in a sense in which he does not “have” all the other bodies in the universe. To “have” a body in any meaningful sense is to be limited by that body...


An embodied God is, necessarily, not omnipotent and omniscient -- but of course this may be a feature rather than a bug of Mormon theology.

Seijio Arakawa said...

I think the issue is in the theological idea that a person is a body, rather than having a body (which could potentially be discarded / replaced by a series of more perfect bodies). In conventional theology, the disembodied soul is frequently regarded not merely as a crippled state as you say (the same person, lacking power), but more like what you would get if you took out a brain hemisphere and tried to get it to function on its own -- you could maybe do it, but you couldn't say the resulting Frankensteinian experiment was the person, even a crippled version thereof, even though it might have some of the entire person's pattern of behaviour and memories.

Likewise to get the original person back you'd have to pair them back with the same opposite hemisphere; the notion of replacing it with a different hemisphere would be manifest nonsense on this model.

I think this is the underlying notion that most people react to as limiting since it means that whatever body one has now, one will be (in some sense) 'stuck with' for the rest of eternity.

Tolkien's Valar are a lot more dualistic than that, and I'm not sure if you're suggesting that the body in Mormonism should be thought of in the same way?

There is a lot of talk of Sauron and Morgoth losing their bodies, making different ones (which can only be blackened and evil -- because, it is implied, they have lost the ability to make any other kind; or perhaps they prefer to think of themselves this way, and cannot set that self-image aside long enough to work a successful deception*), or 'infusing part of themselves' into some other object or being to attempt to gain dominion over it (trying to forcibly make it part of their 'body') -- something which is clearly possible, if ultimately a mistake.

(* Interestingly, something the opposite is the case, for say, Gandalf, who as an ageless Maia on the side of Good you'd think would be primarily suited to appear in glory, but he has absolutely no problem setting that self-image aside and taking on the body of a frail and irritable old man to walk Middle-Earth in. Saruman, on the other hand, puts on an irridescent cloak immediately to signify the darkening of his purpose.)

So, this seems to be more a model where the soul exists, and gains the ability to 'grow' a body for itself to dwell in. This can be thought of as a house -- a person aims to live in a house indefinitely; but to change or remodel the house would not be unheard-of, likewise moving to a different house entirely. Likewise, the greater one's spiritual state, the less 'limiting' the body will be, in the sense of being locked to a particular undesirable form.

What the real question is -- a mortal body is merely something like a field in time, rather than any particular collection of matter; this is true because any given particle of matter in the body may be replaced in the course of its existence. Then, should an immortal body be thought of as a body where this is no longer the case (its perfection is basically in being unchangeable; a notion that Aquinas put forward, then struggled a bunch to clarify because it made a hash of Aristotelian theories of biology), or a body in which this process of replacement of matter can still obtain -- which implies a body that can change, or become damaged and heal, under perfected versions of processes that occur even in an ordinary body?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas -Actually, and unusually, here I think your argument is completely fallacious!

The reason can be seen from my favourite question to ask when discussing 'ultimate' matters - when somebody argues that a theory is incoherent or nonsensical: "Compared with what?"

All critique must come from a set of assumptions, from a theoretical stance - and no theory can legitimately be disposed-of without demonstrating the superiority of the stance which is doing the critiqueing.

Here you say that it is not 'clear' how God that has a body can yet see through all eyes, know the thoughts of all brains and control all muscles in the universe at will.

My answer would be 'not clear' compared with what? Of what kind of being is it 'clear' that it can do - and does - such things?

The Mainstream Christian concept of an un-embodied god is something very abstract and UN-clear. It is a black box.

So this argument amounts to you saying it is absurd to suppose that an *incarnate* being could do all this stuff - and the assertion that it is, by contrast, easy to understand that a Black Box *could* do all this stuff.

How? Well only because of what it isn't.


But I am not in fact sure whether God really can (for example) know everything of what everybody is thinking - because of agency/ free will - after all, God asks questions (e.g. Abraham and the 'sacrifice' of Isaac).


And - yes - an embodied God is NOT omnipotent or omniscient; just as the God described in the Bible is neither omnipotent nor omniscient - but is constrained in the ways he works and has interactions which are consistent with Him NOT knowing the outcomes.

As you have heard me say dozens of times, an omni-God leaves no space for free will/ agency and He is also directly responsible for *all* evils, including the very worst things that have ever happened.


I don't know whether you still believe that the Mormon conceptualization of God " does undermine what is probably the most common reason people give for believing in God." - but surely that statement is historically and cross-culturally inaccurate - and is also inaccurate in terms of children and simple people. As far as I know, most 'gods' in most places and through most of history have been regarded as embodied, concrete, located beings.

And when you said "The human body predates God and could not have been designed by him." - I don't think that follows at all.

It depends on whether the ultimate metaphysical assumption is an infinitely-regressing cycle (as seems to be stated in the King Follet sermon) - or a starting point of the 'It just is' type.

(If everything has a starting point, then there comes a point when we need to stop and say 'It just is' - but if that is now allowed, then there will be an infinite regression of causes.)

So an incarnate God the Father could either have come from a previous incarnate God the Father (and so on); or else He is just the first and only (incarnate) God the Father, who just is and always was (this is the way I personally think about it).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - I was only suggesting the Tolkien situation as an analogy which might be helpful - and - as with all analogies - there are similarities and also differences. That's what analogies are!

There are always possible questions to ask about any theory - but the questions you raise are not troubling ones for me, and I feel no compulsion to seek an answer.

On the other hand, I am more concerned that there seems to be a definite one-way-street quality about the decision to become incarnate. Something about being incarnated is irreversible - so that while some people are (in a sense) 'perfectly happy' to be pre-mortal and to remain spirits on a permanent basis - once the decision has been made to seek spiritual progression by becoming an incarnate mortal - this cannot be undone, cannot be made as if it never was.

So, living as just a spirit after incarnation is apparently an unsatisfactory and incomplete state of being; and resurrection becomes necessary for happiness (resurrection being what Christ meant by 'life' eternal - in contrast with post-mortem mere-spirit existence which he termed 'death').

What is meant by 'the same' body seems to be constrained by the crudity of human metaphysics - and none of the suggested philosophical answers seem satisfactory.

Adam g. said...

Bruce C.,
though you reject (if I recall) any robust notion of 'eternity' in the sense of timelessness, it does m ake sense of the irreversibility of embodiment. If all the points of my timelines are me, then once I am embodied at any point, embodiment is part of who I am forever.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Using timeless eternity to 'explain' something doesn't really make it 'clear' - because timeless eternity is not clear to the human mind (it is a mathematical sort of notion; not a thing which can be experienced). My feeling is that timeless eternity has a *numbing*, rather than explaining, effect on human enquiry. I think that accounts for its historical popularity among intellectuals - the concept of eternity can have the psychological effect of putting an end to endless questioning (and that can be very valuable - perhaps essential!).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, what I meant was not that it was unclear how an embodied God could be omnipotent and omniscient, but that it is unclear what it could even mean for an omni-God to be embodied -- since "having" a body seems to mean having special access to that body which you do not have to other bodies.

(On second thought, though, it's not really that confusing. I own all the rooms in my house, but one of them is "my room" because that's the one I habitually use. An omni-God's relationship to "his body" could be similar.)


I agree with you that the omni-God idea is a seriously problematic one, and that Mormonism is probably right to dispense with it.

Seijio Arakawa said...

The idea of incarnation being irreversible seems fairly obvious to me, from your premise that incarnate being is (somehow) higher than bodiless being.

I can imagine a scenario where a cat grows to have the intelligence of a human being -- that seems reasonable; a scenario where a human being diminishes to the state of a cat, though, would be

Less extremely, consider the transition from infancy to adulthood. Again, it happens naturally as part of growing up; on the other hand, regression to the intelligence and capabilities of an infant is rightly classed as a state of dementia. Childhood in the Gospel sense, rather, must be regained as some state which combines both the capability and awareness of adulthood with the advantages and innocence of childhood; which is not easy.

So, in that sense spiritual progression becomes a series of gambles: in order to attain some new state, one has to depart the old, in a way that makes the old state impossible to return to. The only way is to forge ahead and attain a combination of both the states, which may not be immediately obvious or intuitive how to do.

The difficulty of having one's cake and eating it as well!

All of the above examples deal with intelligence, though; whereas in terms of incarnation, we must consider that a bodiless being could be much more intelligent than a human, but still limited in some other sense. So, in that vein there is an interesting question to clarify (what makes incarnation a higher state?), but the why of its irreversibility seems fairly obvious.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara -

"consider the transition from infancy to adulthood. Again, it happens naturally as part of growing up; on the other hand, regression to the intelligence and capabilities of an infant is rightly classed as a state of dementia."

That is a very striking and useful analogy for why a post-mortal spirit life differs radically from a pre-mortal spirit life!