Monday, May 30, 2011

The Philosophical Implications of the LDS Doctrine of Works

Previously I had written about the purpose of our Christian works. In that post I discussed how one of the critical ideas that set Latter-day Saints apart from many other Protestant theologies is how we view our personal works being a part of our process of salvation. One of the things that Mormons find interesting or noticeably different when talking to Protestant Christians is how much emphasis they place on "being saved". Quite often LDS members are bemused by how frequently they are asked if "they have accepted Jesus" or "have been saved". For many LDS members they view these questions as nonsensical or at least don't understand why the question has to be asked so much. More often you will hear Latter-day Saints say that they are "working towards salvation" or that they are "in the process" of being saved. In wards (congregations) that I have been in it is not uncommon to hear the phrase "it's a process", about once a month in reference to salvation.

Too many times when the subject of salvation comes up in conversation between Mormons and Protestants (especially Evangelical Protestants) the Protestants come away thinking that Mormons do not believe in Jesus, or think that Mormons do not accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The truth is Mormons readily accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it's just that we have a different perspective on what it means "to be saved" or rather, "the process of salvation" (there's that word again, "process"). What it comes down to is a fundamental difference of philosophy. Just as Mormons do not typically talk about "being saved" (as a single act), Protestants do not frequently talk about "the process of salvation", and this, I think, is a insight that would be of great interest to those who are philosophically minded.

Essentially what it comes down to is that LDS theology is fundamentally related to process theology. This is to say that while we view God as the creator of the world, we also hold that we have creative power, or the power to reshape . The common way we express this is to say that we are "co-creators" with God (but I must emphasize that that phrase is only used in a limited sense and in specific circumstances. This does not extend to the creation referenced in Genesis, but only to current, specific creative acts.). This approach to theology fundamentally puts us at odds with the majority of Protestant (and most Catholic) theology which is fundamentally based on substance philosophy (i.e. an emphasis on being, or states of being, rather than a process).

To understand this difference we need to understand the difference between process philosophy and substance philosophy. Perhaps the best way to explain substance philosophy is to start with Aristotle's Categories (both the book and the topic).
"[Statements about a subject (or a thing)] which are in no way composite signify substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time,position, state, action, or affection. To sketch my meaning roughly, examples of substance are 'man' or 'the horse', of quantity, such terms as 'two cubits long' or 'three cubits long', of quality, such attributes as 'white', 'grammatical'. 'Double', 'half', 'greater', fa;; under the category of relation; 'in the market place', 'in the Lyceum', under that of place; 'yesterday', 'last year', under that of time. 'Lying', 'sitting', are terms indicating position; 'shod', 'armed', state; 'to lance', 'to cauterize', action; 'to be lanced', 'to be cauterized', affection." (1b25-2a4)
The point is that all things, even actions, exist in a state of being. Thus any and all qualities that a thing has is simply a succession and collection of states. But the ultimate reality, the ontology, is that things exist in specific states or have specific qualities, even when in motion (because motion itself is a state of being).

One of the consequences of this way of thinking is that change in a substance (as in, from cold to hot, or from white to black) is of a lesser reality than the actual states. The flux, or change, in states does not constitute a form of reality. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it can even be found in certain interpretations of quantum mechanics. In the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics the common description is that the wavefunction of a particle describes all possible states. The uncertainty involved quantum mechanics is not considered to be an aspect of reality, but rather is ignorance of reality.

On the other hand process philosophy takes the view that the fundamental change in states, rather than being an inferior aspect of reality, is an integral part of reality. That is, the creative process is an aspect of reality that creates reality, just as much as the substance of things makes up reality. With this way of thinking, reality is not made up by a set of states, or collection of substances, but by interactions of processes that act on things, to produce states.

There are of course philosophies that go to the other extreme and say that all things are flux, and that there is no substance at all (as is common in Eastern philosophies). But the LDS concept of process theology, while avoiding substance philosophy, also avoids a complete rejection of substance, and makes no assertions that all things are in flux, but in fact says that the elements are eternal. Thus LDS theology contains a rather unique view of process and being that is not found anywhere else.

The way this process philosophy manifests itself in LDS culture is in the idea that (individual) salvation does not come in a single act, but is a process that we must go through. Hence the difference, and often misunderstandings, that Mormons have with other Christians. For most Christians (especially for Protestants) to be saved means entering into the state of salvation. The actual change to the state of salvation is a mystery performed by God. On the other hand, for Latter-day Saints, to talk about "being saved" does not make sense because salvation is fundamentally a process, and is not achieved in a single act of believing or confession.

Thus we can see that this fundamental difference in philosophy can create a misunderstanding between Mormons and other Christians, because Mormons treat salvation as a process that must be worked through, but other Christians (especially Protestants) treat salvation as entering into a state of being saved. This difference is more than just a difference on an abstract level, but affects the way we interact with our own religion. For Mormons, because salvation is a process, our (Christian) works are not simply a result of being "saved", as some Protestants put it, but our works are the means by which we become worthy of entering into the presence of God (i.e. being saved).

The end result is a strong emphasis on doing good works, and living a moral life. Thus this process theology, which many Christian theologians consider a heresy, results in and encourages Mormons to do good works, and is what makes us known for our moral lifestyles. This is the real effect of this way of thinking.

Now as a final point. While process philosophy is gaining some ground, especially in the United States, I should point out that while many of the things that are fundamental to LDS theology are similar to the writings of process philosophers such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, James and Pierce, these ideas were expressed and taught more than 50 years before some of the process philosophers were even born, and definitely before any of them began writing. The common perception in philosophy is that philosophical frame works drive theology, but in the LDS case, the theology drives the philosophy. Again I think that this is an interesting point that those who are philosophically inclined should take note of.

1 comment:

Spencer said...

glad you made it! is that kevin on the bridge?