Saturday, January 12, 2013

Accepting Finitude

As a part of the curriculum in my Philosophy of Religion course, I have encountered several definitions for the term "religion". And while they all have a good deal of merit, the most interesting one I have encountered thus far is that "religion is man's response to his finitude". All of humanity has an inherent feeling of inferiority when compared with what could be, whether it takes the form of political dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, or even existential angst, and we want nothing more than to transcend our limitations and become more than we are.

Various religions have different responses to this anxiety over man's finite existence. Hinduism promises that by extinguishing the individual soul or ego, we can escape the endless cycle of rebirth and become one with Brahman. In addition, many sects of Christianity believe that through the "beatific vision", one can escape the world entirely by continual direct communication with God. In fact, this is a common thread throughout nearly all religions - one can escape the finite by going to some other realm where it no longer exists. Mormonism, as it turns out, is a striking exception.

Mormonism gives up all notions of transcending the finite world, as we believe that there is no such thing as a realm where there are no limitations or boundaries. Joseph Smith once said, "the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there [in the Celestial Kingdom]" (D&C 130:2) meaning that in the eternities there will be no blending of essences or merging of being, but only our day-to-day lives continued on for eternity. Furthermore, the doctrine says we will always have this body, and even God himself is and continues to be a man like ourselves.

If Mormonism is to deny one of our most basic impulses, why believe in it at all? Wouldn't it be much more convenient to be a pantheist, believing that you'll merge into the infinite and impersonal well of being once you die? It actually would, but to do so would miss the point of spirituality entirely. This is why: true religion teaches us not to flee from the present, finite world, but to embrace it. You see, if we were to seek after the seemingly infinite "other", it would inevitably end in a wild goose chase. In similitude to a dog chasing its own tail, goals would be replaced by newer goals, and our trip to the infinite would never end. Far easier, and far happier to be content with what you have right now. For this is precisely what Mormonism teaches: the materially limited world is what there is, and by becoming aware of this reality, we can come to accept its glory.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can't fulfill our longing for the infinite in a roundabout way. As seen here, the transcendent and the immanent are not mutually exclusive; the closer we get to God, and the more we accept the here-and-now, and the more the infinite infuses the finite to the point where they become indistinguishable.To do this is to extend not in breadth but in depth, and to see exaltation in the most mundane of circumstances. This is heaven - where the boundless and the bounded come together in perfect symmetry, ensuring that the aforementioned sociality would be, as Joseph Smith said, "coupled with eternal glory".


  1. Hey Christian! Cousin again. :) Just a comment or two:

    1) I really like what you're saying about mormonism encouraging us to embrace our reality, rather than flee from it. We see the most converted members as those who are deeply involved in both church and community, committed to helping, giving and lifting rather than meditating off on a mountain somewhere. And I'm with you, I think that's really valuable and really valid (though also, I think, a tenant of many branches of Christianity).

    2) I would be wary though to say that this is all we anticipate for heaven, or all that we're committed to. Just because the sociality we share now will be the same is the sociality we will share after this life (we don't fall into some massive life-force stew, etc) doesn't mean, I believe, that many aspects of that sociality won't be transcendent, infinite, and spectacular beyond our imaginings. I think one of the reasons the converted work so hard now is in hopes of a perfect and exultant eventual life, not so that we can exist in the same status quo that we've engaged in our whole mortal probation. And you know what? As far as I know, 'our trip to the infinite world' may never end! I think we're always going to be pushing towards perfection (or at least for all the foreseeable future), and thus creating newer and greater goals for ourself to facilitate this improvement. While the Gospel teaches us to engage in others and our community, I think 'contentment' with our circumstance (beyond the contentment that comes from faith and living in the Spirit) is not a major tenant of this teaching. Heavenly Father has a lot to give us, and I think we should look forward to that.

    A little vague and roundabout (and I wish I had sources), and maybe a little obvious too, but...there it is. Keep it up Christian. :)

  2. In response to point 2), I actually agree with you. You see, I have no idea as to what the eternities will be like, and so my blog contains many different attempts for me to understand it through a model. They are all inspired by intellectual influences of the time, and, most importantly, they are not all created equal. This post is my attempt to understand the Celestial Kingdom through Kierkegaard's "placing the particular above the universal" and Nietzsche's yes-saying attitude, and so may not be my most inspired work. If you'd like to see my favorite model, (influenced by the Buddhist concept of Indra's web)see "the Present Exaltation", published in June of 2012. Thank you for your feedback!

  3. I also added a paragraph at the end that may make my thoughts a little more palatable.