Saturday 9 December 2017

Is incarnation into mortal life a 'random' process? (Mormon theology compared with mainstream)

We are incarnated into this mortal life - and each person finds himself or herself in a different situation: different times in history; different places on the planet; different sex, class, race; different parents...

There seems to be only two basic possibilities:

1. That the allocation of souls to bodies is a random process. We are equally likely to end up anywhere.

2.  God 'places' us into some specific situation.

The first 'random' possibility implies that our situation and sex is a matter of indifference to God and to our-selves - one situation is as good as another. This choice is pretty much entailed by the mainstream Christian belief that each soul is created some time between conception and birth - each soul starts out identical, so there is no point or purpose in placing a specific soul in one place rather than other.

The second 'placing' idea implies that we have different needs in mortal life - and this implies that souls are different at the point of incarnation, which also implies that we have a pre-incarnation existence. This doctrine of pre-existence has been non-mainstream for Christians since about the time of Augustine of Hippo - but is held by Mormons among others.

This is a good example of the way that metaphysical assumptions affect theology. Mainstream Christians are pretty-much compelled to assume that our situation in life is random, and meaningless - in now way is our actual life-situation 'tailored' to our spiritual needs.

Whereas Mormons, and others who believe in pre-existence, are compelled to assume that God must have placed us into our specific life-situation with at least some regard for what situation will benefit us; and potentially this placing would be highly-exact (although human free will or agency will surely make it impossible for the placing to be fully-exact - since any niche would be changed by the choices of the people around it).

Aside: the question of sexual identity - man or woman - is another point of disagreement between mainstream and Mormon. The mainstream view sees the human soul as newly-created from-nothing - and sexual identity therefore as secondary, and in principle it might be male, female of something-else, or nothing. This links with God being neither man nor women, but containing both.

But for Mormons it is doctrine that every person is either man or woman - nothing else is possible in a deep and ultimate sense (whatever the effects of disease or environment), and this identity goes all the way down and back to eternity. Furthermore God is a dyad of Man and Woman: Heavenly Father and Mother; Jesus was a man; angels are either men or women etc...

It can be seen that Mainstream and Mormon Christianity, while both being genuinely Christian, are based upon distinct metaphysical assumptions.

And these basic assumptions lead to big differences in  how we personally regard our specific situation in life: for Mormons our situation is meaningful because designed for our needs; whereas for mainstream Christians our situation (and indeed our sex) is random.


Chiu ChunLing said...

I think you're essentially right about the division between traditional Christian doctrine and belief in a pre-mortal existence. But you should be aware that it would also be possible for some mechanism (whether God or something else) to make significant differences on a human soul or spirit created at or near conception.

That conventional Christian theology does not admit this possibility does not mean it does not occur quite naturally to less doctrinaire thought. Indeed, most of the explicitly racist and sexist dogmas of both prior generations and modernity require some such basis on which the soul of an individual is stamped by the genetic character (and prenatal conditions) of the embryo. And the doctrine of Original Sin, much as it is supposed to be a universal condition, supplies a template for this idea. After all, Adam and Eve both existed for some period of time before becoming subject to the Fall. So an unfallen state is clearly possible, according to the scriptural basis for the doctrine. Christ also serves as an exception of sorts in many theological traditions, though there is a question of whether Christ was not subject to the Fall at all or was simply immune to the effect because of having a divine nature.

On the whole, I see a preponderance of the idea that there are different flavors of the Fall (though not always explicitly developed in that theological idiom) which are characteristic of different circumstances of parentage and birth, but not absolute. This is important because it makes "man born into a woman's body" or "white guilt" or "toxic masculinity" into propositions that are not mere nonsense. It should be mentioned that the Mormon doctrine of "choice spirits" has been abused similarly, though the implications are different (after all, in the Mormon doctrine it is God, not accident, that does the choosing).

Doctrinaire traditional Christians often make stunningly obtuse arguments against the various dangerous theories of identity politics which modernity embraces. It is not that no arguments against these should be advanced at all, but the conventional Christian ones simply don't address the underlying metaphysical assumptions from which the danger springs.

The atheistic scientism of biological origin goes even further, denying that there is anything to the "soul" other than the emergent properties of complex neural organs allowing learned behavior to improve survival outcomes. This is the basis for PETA and such groups which erase the conventional distinction between human and animal lives, regarding a mouse that has lived long enough outside the womb to navigate a maze (or it's natural environment) as more "cognitively developed" and thus more morally valuable than a prenatal human infant. Of course almost no one outside of advanced studies in ethics develops the logic of these premises very clearly (and those within academia come to conclusions wholly shocking to the popular conscience). But they do exist and need to be addressed, if not deeply explored beyond pointing out what those who consciously accept them have deduced.

I think you are not addressing those who embrace modernity. But it still needs to be explained to those who are attempting to resist it. They may be choosing among only two acceptably Christian metaphysical doctrines (which conform to Paul's statement, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."). But it is important to understand that, absent the restrictions of Biblical constraints on what Christians may believe, there are other possible premises and these are what modernity uses.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Some interesting points here which I haven't considered.

Although I don't really see any relationship between race awareness and evaluations of the past (which seems grossly misrepresented nowadays) - or the sheer incoherent nonsense of the present.

When I mentionewd race, I meant to refer to what race a person is - rather than referring to the characteristics of a race (which are mostly due to natural selection, presumably).

In a *strict* sense, I don't believe there has ever been anything closely approximating to what modern people (since c. 1966) term 'racism'.

As for Original Sin - I presume it made various kinds of sense at various points in history, but I personally have never truly been able to comprehend it, even in its own terms. It seems like something inserted-into Christianity in order to explain what Jesus was saving-us-from and why he was necessary; but I believe there are better, truer understandings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL said: "in relation to the positivism and scientism of modern secularism, it is worth mentioning the unchristian consequences of its anti-spiritual metaphysics. Not as one of the choices we must choose among, but as one of the choices we are in danger of accepting to some degree if we do not carefully, consciously, and explicitly reject it.

"I think that the Mormon doctrine of innumerable worlds, including some which might not be subject to the Fall, sheds some light on the concept of Original Sin, particularly in the light of the concept of a pre-mortal existence. It speaks to our being consigned to a Fallen world rather than an unfallen one as a result of individual spiritual attributes (or even actions) apparent before our mortal existence. Of course, in the Mormon conception this would not necessarily be a punishment for pre-mortal sins or unworthiness, the Mormon view of the Fall itself is partially heroic rather than entirely negative. I think that a harsher view is possible and probably more accurate, God did not put us on an unfallen world because we are not the right sort for one, so here we all are instead. But I do think that even this need not be an entirely negative view.

"For instance, it may be likened to the difference between male and female rather than any more clear moral superiority. Men may have a harder time being "good", but that harder goodness is essential and worthy, being different from the feminine goodness of women, which seems more natural to them. Well, and perhaps this analogy fails, if it was even an analogy at all. But I think I should make an even worse woman than man, and I also think I should be less improved by life in an unfallen world than by life in this one."

Lost Pilgrim said...

@ Bruce, when I go to karate class there is a fair amount of pain involved but I chose to be there anyway. Perhaps a fallen world is like that, a chance to improve ourselves or hone a quality that we couldn't address in another way.