June 2, 2008

Omnipresence? of God

Brigham Young
August 14, 1856

It remains to be seen exactly when Joseph Smith first taught that God the Father has a body of flesh and bone; it remains to be shown that Joseph understood this fact as a result of the First Vision. In the Lectures on Faith[1] which were given as instruction to the School of Prophets at Kirtland, Ohio during the winter of 1834-1835, the Father is described as "a personage of glory and of power" (Lectures 5:2). This description lacks a specific reference to flesh and bones, but by 1836 a Presbyterian minister named Truman Coe, who had lived in Kirtland, Ohio, reported that the Mormons "believe that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts; and that when the Creator formed Adam in his own image, he made him about the size and shape of God himself."[2]

On 5 January 1841, Joseph Smith publicly declared "That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones."[3] The canonized statement on this doctrine (D&C 130:22) was included in "items of instruction given by Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Ramus, Illinois, April 2, 1843":

The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.
This belief in an embodied God is largely unique to Latter-day Saints, and seems to fly in the face of an "omnipresent" God.[4] How can an embodied God be everywhere present? Thomas Aquinas reasoned:
God is in all things by his power, inasmuch as all things are subject to his power; he is by his presence in all things, inasmuch as all things are bare and open to his eyes; he is in all things by his essence, inasmuch as he is present to all as the cause of their being.[5]
But what about the notion of Hell? Can an omnipresent God be absent from there? Brigham makes an interesting statement on the omnipresence of God that, at face value, may seem to conflict with the LDS notion of an embodied God. Apparently a conversation with Orson Pratt[6] had him thinking:

I never studied philosophy to any great extent, but on one occasion I had a kind of a confab with Professor Orson Pratt, who endeavored to prove that there was empty space, I supposed there was no such thing. He thought he had proved it; but I thought he had not proved a word of it, and told him the idea was folly. 

After hearing a good many arguments from him, and other men, his colleagues in learning, I wished them to tell me where empty space was situated, that I might tell the wicked, who wish to hide themselves from the face of him that sitteth upon the throne, where to go, for they will then be where God is not, if they can find empty space. To argue such a question as that, would be, to confute my own arguments in favor of other truths I have advocated, and oppose my own system of faith.  

We believe that God is round about all things, above all things, in all things, and through all things. To tell about empty space is to tell of a space where God is not, and where the wicked might safely hide from His presence. There is no such thing as empty space (JD 1:275).
My approach deals with Brigham's comment that God is "round about all things, above all things, in all things, and through all things." Left alone, it seems Brigham is arguing for a disembodied God. But keeping in mind the LDS doctrine of an embodied God, Brigham's comments can be interpreted differently. A few months earlier (June 22, 1856), using a similar quip about the wicked, Brigham had described somewhat of an "omnipresent" God, though also leaving God embodied:

How far would you have to go in order to go to God, if your spirits were unclothed? Would you have to go out of this bowery to find God, if you were in the spirit? If God is not here, we had better reserve this place to gather the wicked into, for they will desire to be where God is not.

The Lord Almighty is here by His Spirit, by His influence, by His presence. I am not in the north end of this bowery, my body is in the south end of it, but my influence and my voice extend to all parts of it; in like manner is the Lord here. It reads that the spirit goes to God who gave it (JD 3:368).
Rather than a nebulous, mysterious, omnipresence of God in and through all things in some physical way, like air filling a balloon, Brigham advocated an omnipresence in the form of influence and awareness, in this case comparing the universe to the Bowery and God to himself.
This would have resonated well with B.H. Roberts, an avid reader who kept notes in the margins of his books. He underlined a statement in Herbert Spencer’s First Principles (1862): The non-existence of space cannotby any mental effort be imagined, writing in the margin: “There is no Kingdom where there is no space-there is no space where there is no Kingdom Jos. Smith.” In thinking of Hying to Kolob, one may consider whether there really "is no end to space."[8]



The Lectures on Faith is a set of seven lectures included in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. (The title "Lectures on Faith" was not given until 1876 by Orson Pratt.) While Joseph Smith was most likely involved in their preparation and/or publication (see History of the Church 2:169-170 and 2:180) the actual authorship is in question. It has been argued, for example, the lectures were written mainly by Sidney Rigdon (see Noel B. Reynolds, "The Case for Sidney Rigdon as Author of the Lecture on Faith," Journal of Mormon History, vol. 31 Fall 2005). As the wikipedia entry explains, the Lectures "
were removed from the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1921 edition, apparently without a vote by the church body, with an explanation that the Lectures 'were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons'. (See Introduction , 1921 edition.)" An interesting discussion on Lectures was started by "Jacob J" on the New Cool Thang blog. For an excellent overview on the doctrine of an embodied God, see David L. Paulsen, "The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives," BYU Studies 35:4 (1995-96) 7-94. The picture is Sam Brown's "do you remember," from Exploding Dog, 4/15/2008.

Coe, Ohio Observer, 11 August 1836, 1-2 [Hudson, Ohio]; reprinted in Cincinnati Journal and Western Luminary, 25 August 1836, 4 [Cincinnati, Ohio]. See also Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Truman Coe's 1836 Description of Mormonism," Brigham Young University Studies 17:3 (1977): 347–350, 354.

See “God the Eternal Father,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 36–44
; Quoted by William Clayton, reporting an undated discourse given by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois; in L. John Nuttall, “Extracts from William Clayton’s Private Book,” p. 7, Journals of L. John Nuttall, 1857–1904, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; copy in Church Archives; also found in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, 60.

Philosophical concerns about an LDS view of embodied deity are longstanding. Over one hundred years ago B.H. Roberts debated the topic with a Reverend Vander Donckt, as published in Mormon Doctrine of Deity (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1903). More recently, Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish take issue with the concept in their book The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis. See Blake Ostler's review of their work in "Review of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis," FARMS Review of Books 8:2, Pp. 99–146.

Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, 8, 3. The philosophical threads reach further than I care to go right now, but I should note that perhaps "omnipresence" and "ubiquitousness" may be conflated here. While omnipresence is said to be the ability to be present in every place at any, and/or every, time, or an unbounded or universal presence, ubiquity is the ability to be everywhere at a certain point in time. Even these definitions, however, may be nitpicked.

Orson Pratt and Brigham Young had several points of disagreement regarding doctrine. One such point is examined in Eugene England, “Perfection and Progression: Two Complimentary Ways to Talk about God,” Brigham Young University Studies 29 (Summer 1989): 31-47 (pdf). See also Gary Bergera "The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflicts Within the Quorums, 1853-1868," Dialogue 13 (Summer 1980): 7-49.

This quote is expounded upon in "When our spirits leave our bodies". See also "Omnipotence? of God". Joseph Smith taught this same principle. For example, James Burgess recorded a sermon on 9 July, 1843 in which Joseph declared:

What part of God is omnipresent? It is the Spirit of God which proceeds from him; consequently, God is in the four winds of heaven, and when a man receives intelligence is it not by the Spirit of God? (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith, 230-31, spelling and puncuation corrected).
As a corollary, Heber C. Kimball once mentioned the possibility that messengers and others provide "extra eyes" so to speak for God:

Does not the Almighty know all these things? Some may think that the Almighty does not see their doings, but if He does not, the angels and ministering spirits do. They see you and your works, and I have no doubt but they occasionally communicate your conduct to the Father, or to the Son, or to Joseph, or to Peter, or to some one who holds the keys in connection with them (JD 3:227).
LDS Scripture also suggests seeing all things is possible by use of Urim and Thummim. See D&C 130:6-9. 

See Stan Thayne, "Marginal Dialogues: B. H. Roberts Memorial Library, Part 2," Juvenile Instructor, accessed June 2, 2008.
Thayne, a BYU graduate student, has been investigating various instances of marginalia. See also "If You Could Hie to Kolob," Hymns, no. 284.


Jacob J said...

Good stuff. I think omnipresence is the omni about which I have the least to say. Love the quote by BY, though:

He thought he had proved it; but I thought he had not proved a word of it, and told him the idea was folly.


LifeOnaPlate said...

Haha yeah, I had to lol a bit at Brigham.

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