The King Follett Discourse, delivered by Joseph Smith in the latter part of his life, has always been a favorite doctrinal exposition of mine. But recently the Mormon Church has backed away from some the doctrine elucidated in Smith’s funeral address. I think this is to accommodate the Christian Right, many of whom feel Mormons are not Christian because of their belief that man may become like God, a doctrine commonly referred to in Mormon circles as “eternal progression” or more recently as the “plan of salvation.”
“Eternal progression” is defined by Jacob T. Baker as “the belief that all human beings can advance and improve from one qualitative level of existence to the next forever — until the attainment of godhood and beyond — and that God also advances in like manner under the same system.” If there is a God and life after death, this is the only system that makes sense to me. A static future of eternal bliss (or pain) appears frustratingly inert to me.
The Mormon concept of eternal progression which was first developed by Smith was further expounded on by Brigham Young, and then refined by two early 20th-century Mormon thinkers: B.H. Roberts and my favorite apostle, John A. Widtsoe (see photograph below). According to the latter: “What then is eternal progress? It is an eternity of active life, increasing in all good things, toward the likeness of the Lord. It is the highest conceivable form of growth.”
An interesting spin on eternal progression is provided by the Mormon transhumanists. In their Affirmation they state: “We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable . . . exaltation.” Thus, the group’s uber-technology stance is tied directly into the Mormon doctrine of eternal progress, and the idea that scientists and technologists will be critical in the development and evolution of the celestial kingdom (Mormon’s highest level of heaven). And become gods and creators themselves.
While I personally relate to an eternity of knowledge seeking, I don’t relate to two of Widtsoe’s “clearifications.” First, his conviction that the only real progress occurs in the celestial kingdom. Second, that it is not so much what you do, but the fact you stay busy (think beehive here).
According to Widtsoe, “Those in the higher glory, the one that we all hope to achieve, are in full activity . . . not so in the lower glories.” This doesn’t resonate with me. If we are all to live forever, doesn’t there need to be eternal progression for nearly everybody? Or is the vast majority of mankind doomed to static non-activity?
But even more difficult for me is the idea that work is, in-and-of-itself, important. Widtsoe writes: “It matters little what tasks men perform in life, if only they do them well and with all their strength. In the eternal plan they are given progressive value.” This concept borders on being nonsensical and potentially amoral. It could absolve people from taking responsibility for their acts.
Obviously, we all have different opportunities, but most of us still have dominion over some parts of our lives. It is what we do during our discretionary time that is important. Unfortunately, Widtsoe seems to be making a case for blind obedience and mindless earthly activity.
I believe that it is not enough to be busy. It is critical to choose important tasks, those which are in line with the Savior’s teachings. Mormons feel that “faith without works is dead.” But the nature of the work is also important. For example, I would suggest that church members spend less time on organizational issues and more time on humanitarian causes.
Besides these two issues with Widtsoe, the Mormon “plan of salvation” seems overly complicated. Our descriptions of the pre-existence, the role of the devil, and the 3 degrees of glory (or heaven) seem either extremely allegorical or very simplified. For example, for me personally, it is difficult to believe in a devil. It makes more sense to view evil as the absense of good (like cold is the absense of heat) rather than view the devil as a distinct entity. The “war in heaven” seems more like an allegory. And the “3 degrees of glory” seem like a serious oversimplification. But I can relate to eternal progression.
The concept of an eternity of progress and potential competitiveness is not appealing to everyone. Years ago I had a conversation with a Baptist friend. To her the concept of “eternal progression” and everything associated with if was not very appealing. But she was unable to come up with a vision of heaven that was more satisfactory to me.
The concept of mental progression also frustrated the existentialist writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Although the writer does not doubt the existence of God as an eternal force, he obviously struggles with understanding the master plan or “plan of salvation.” The iterative and chaotic nature of life defined his philosophy. While some knowledge in and of itself may bring sorrow, hopefully the righteous use of it can be rewarding.
On the walls of medieval European cathedrals, it was always easier and more fun for artisans to show the punishments of hell than the blessings of heaven. I don’t think it is any easier today to describe eternal blessings in an artistic and coherent form. But if there is a life after death, I hope that it involves some sort of learning, artistry, service, creation, etc. If not, I will surely be in hell (Mormon’s don’t technically believe in hell).
PS. I’m highly indebted to the work of Jacob T. Baker and his recent article in Dialogue.