Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
The Traditional Mormon Doctrine of Man
[p.145]That man–meaning all humanity—is essentially good by nature is one of the primary proclamations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This positive assessment, which underlies and determines the contemporary Mormon doctrine of salvation, is implicit in the church’s teachings relative to our original uncreated status in the universe, our present moral and spiritual possibilities in this world, and the exaltation we may achieve in the hereafter. The optimistic tone of the Mormon doctrine of man becomes clear when contrasted with the pessimism inherent in the doctrines of the Fall, original sin, and total human depravity of traditional Christian theology.
Because I use the term “optimism” to describe the Mormon concept of man, it may be helpful to distinguish between two related meanings of the term before attempting to answer the central question: How is innate human nature to be defined or described within the context of Mormon theology? First, “optimism” may be employed in a general way to characterize Mormonism’s acceptance of this world as a God-given blessing and opportunity. This attitude finds confirmation in Mormon scripture. After discussing Adam’s role in initiating God’s plan in this world, Nephi, a Book of Mormon prophet, states, “But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:24, 25). From this passage it is evident that the Fall was neither an accident nor an [p.146]infringement of God’s plan. Nor did it result in the moral corruption of human nature. “Corruption” in Mormon discourse refers to the physical degeneration of the biological organism and certainly not to the Christian doctrine of inherited sin and guilt. This does not mean that man is not morally corruptible but that moral corruptibility is not a result of the Fall. In the immediate context from which the above passage is taken, Nephi rejoices in the fall of man and the blessings of mortality. Mortality constitutes the second estate, a God-given opportunity for further growth and fulfillment.
In stressing this point it is not to be understood that the Mormon attitude toward the world is superficial or blind to real evil in the world. Mormon optimism is not escapism but the faith that in spite of the dark side of life the world and humans belong together, that both are capable of perfection, and that within the framework of God’s plan the perfection of each depends upon an interplay in which the moral, intellectual, and spiritual efforts of humanity make a real difference to the final outcome. Mormonism affirms the world, even though it may not be “the best of all possible worlds,” and accepts the challenge and task of trying to improve it and to enlarge the human soul. The role of God in relation to man and the world is a presupposed necessary condition to the realization of these possibilities.
This affirmative attitude toward the world is part of what is meant by Mormon optimism. But the term as employed here stands for a doctrine of human nature that holds man to be essentially good by nature. The term “pessimism” stands for the opposing view that man is evil by nature. (“Neutralism” is the position that man is neither good nor bad by nature but neutral and that how he turns out is determined by the conditions under which he lives. While it may be possible to make a case for neutralism within the context of Mormon theology, it is not dealt with here as it fails to express important aspects of Mormon theology.)
Any definition or description of human nature within the framework of Mormon theology must be guided by a number of basic ideas, including: the notion of a nonabsolutistic God, which includes the idea that God has achieved divinity by progressing through time; the doctrine that man is of the same species as God and in his ultimate nature is uncreated, self-existent, and coeternal with God; the belief that reality, including our physical world, is [p.147]dynamic and capable of progressing; and the position that there is no sharp bifurcation of reality into the natural and the supernatural, with the result that the natural order described by time and space is continuous and includes both God and humans.
If truth is defined in terms of knowledge, then the truth about the nature of man must include what is known of his past (or premortal existence), his present (or mortal existence), and his future (or postmortal existence). Therefore, any description of the Mormon view of man based solely on what is known of him in mortality will be fragmented. For example, the moral nature of man cannot be described solely in terms of “the Fall.” In fact, “the Fall” must be understood in terms of the eternal existence of man. Man is a “becoming” as well as a “being.” His destiny as well as his origin, his potentiality as well as actuality, must figure in any description of his total nature within the context of Mormonism.
The knowledge we possess of man in the preexistence is limited and based principally upon what is found in Mormon scripture. Yet these scriptures tell us considerable and imply a great deal more. Among other things all human beings are said to have been in the beginning with God as uncreated, self-existing egos, or “intelligences.” The ground of their being, therefore, is in themselves, giving them permanent ontological status in the universe.
These primordial selves, or “intelligences,” must be defined in terms of the same psychic activities or functions, such as thinking, willing, feeling, which define the individual, however embryonic these functions may have been; otherwise there seems to be no basis for the continuity of the individual through eternity, which in Mormonism means endless time. It was the presence of these functions, either actually or potentially, that made it possible for God to enlarge the experience of “intelligences” by bringing them into a “spiritual estate.” The original “intelligences,” or centers of consciousness, were then clothed with spiritual bodies which made possible a greater range of activity. Living as a community of spirits, opportunities for mental, moral, and emotional developments were increased. Spirits were free agents, capable of making moral commitments and capable of breaking them. As free agents they had the power to distinguish good from bad and were responsible for their choices.
[p.148]There came a time in this “spiritual estate” when opportunities for further development were exhausted. The Father revealed his plan for a mortal experience to his children. This was rejected by Lucifer and a vast number of other spirits, all of whom were cast out of God’s presence and deprived of the opportunities of mortality. Those who accepted God’s plan rejoiced in anticipation of their mortal existence as an opportunity for further development.
Now, what can be said of the moral nature of man in his pre-earth life? Let it be remembered that the possession of rational and volitional power implies that he had a moral nature. Was that nature essentially good or evil, and on what grounds is one to say that by nature pre-earth spirits were inclined toward good or evil? On the basis of conduct reported in Mormon scripture some spirits were good and some evil (Abr. 3:22-28; D&C 29:36). Is the reported fact of evil conduct grounds for a doctrine of “pessimism”? Is the reported fact of good conduct grounds for a doctrine of “optimism”?
It is difficult to imagine any Latter-day Saint holding that all spirits were evil by nature. This characterization, when used, is reserved for mortal man. Yet, if evil is thought of in terms of that which is contrary to the will of God, certainly all pre-earth individuals, as well as all mortals, were capable of evil. And, just as mortal man is actually involved in evil, vast numbers of the spirits in the preexistence were involved in evil. The fact that Lucifer and his followers, as spirits, were evil should invalidate the widely held notion that devilishness in humanity is necessarily a derivative of carnality and sensuousness. Neither carnality nor sensuousness nor sensuality, for that matter, can be ascribed to Satan for he possesses neither a physical body nor physical senses as man does, yet he is devilish. This means that the traditional moral dualism which sets the spirit as being good against the flesh as being evil is a misconception and is inadequate to explain either the good or bad in humans. What is important here is that the unembodied spirit itself, as a free agent, was capable of doing evil in the preexistence and therefore evil in humans is not necessarily a derivative of the Fall or of our carnal and sensuous nature.
It is obvious that the original “intelligences” always possessed the potential of becoming spirits, for such they became. It also follows (from the doctrine of the uncreated nature of “intelligences” coupled with the doctrine of individual continuity and identity [p.149]throughout all time) that, however dependent upon God, all future development was potentially present in the original “intelligence.” As a spiritual “child of God,” pre-earth man inherited further attributes and possibilities of becoming like his heavenly father. And mortality was anticipated as a necessary means for moving onward toward that ultimate goal.
From the Mormon point of view, all we know about pre-earth life suggests that a dynamic expansiveness characterized life in the preexistence just as it characterizes life in mortality. This dynamic expansiveness or drive toward integrated wholeness, which simply means in Mormon terms the inherent power within man to become like God, is the key to understanding the true nature of humanity in its preexistence and, for that matter, in its present and future existence as well. It follows, therefore, that since the highest potential in pre-earth man was to become godlike, this potential revealed pre-earth humanity’s true nature even though it was impossible for them to reach their full stature in the spiritual state. In answer, then, to the question raised above relative to the moral nature of preexistent man, it must be said that he was good by nature, because, as we have seen, it was his nature to become godlike. To say that he was bad by nature would be equivalent to saying that to have the power to become like God is bad.
If the question is how is one to account for the evil of Lucifer and his followers on the basis of a doctrine of innate goodness, the answer is that the fact of actual evil exhibited by the rebellious spirits does not prejudice the question relative to the capacities for good with which they were naturally endowed. It does not necessarily follow that because evil was present in pre-earth man that evil was the true expression of his nature. From the Mormon point of view, only good was expressive of man’s total nature in the spirit world. Evil then, as now, was evidence of fragmentation, abnormality, and stunted growth and was thus unnatural because it thwarted the natural fulfillment of the spirit children of God.
With some exceptions, it has been common practice among Christians to refer to man in this life as the “natural man.” In this usage the word “natural” is employed not only as the opposite in meaning to the word “spiritual” but also to indicate a basic metaphysical and moral opposition of the natural to the spiritual. Generally in Christian thought the word “natural” describes the material [p.150]world, including humans as biological organisms, and connotes evil. The word “spiritual” describes the supernatural realm to which the spirit belongs but from which it is temporarily exiled and as such “spiritual” connotes the good.
In the following attempt to describe the natural or mortal man from the Mormon point of view, it will be seen that Mormonism insists that moral and spiritual laws, represented in the commandments of God, are not merely prescriptive but also descriptive of the conditions of personal and social development in this life and as such are as inexorable and as natural as the laws of the physical world. While we must abandon traditional meanings in our efforts to define the human condition within the context of Mormonism, there seems to be no reason why we cannot make use of the term “natural man.” In fact, we have already employed the word “natural” in reference to man in our discussion of his preexistent state. And the appropriateness or perhaps even the necessity of using these terms in any treatment of the Mormon view of the preexistence argues against the natural/supernatural dichotomy of orthodox Christian thought and suggests something of the character of the non-dualistic position of Mormonism. I shall therefore use the term “natural man” but attempt to give it a distinctive Mormon meaning.
Perhaps the most quoted passage of Mormon scripture and the most misused in this connection is the statement of King Benjamin, “For the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mos. 3:9). The first question to be settled is what Benjamin meant by the term “natural man.” It may also be asked whether Benjamin’s appraisal of man is to be taken as final without weighing it against what other religious leaders have had to say on the subject. Another question is whether we are limited to the meaning Benjamin chose to give to the expression “natural man.”
This passage is generally misunderstood because of the erroneous assumption that the phrase “the natural man” includes all mortals as enemies to God simply because of their humanity, but we will see that Benjamin taught that some men are enemies to God and that others are not. Therefore, the term “natural man” as used by him does not mean a universal class into which all fall as enemies to God because they are human, but the term applies to a limited class who are enemies to God because they have chosen to disobey the Divine Will. In other words, Benjamin’s meaning of “natural man” [p.151]can be understood only in terms of what he meant by “an enemy to God.”
A careful reading of this statement, coupled with Mosiah 2:36-38 which follows, supports the position just stated and clarifies Benjamin’s meaning: “And now, I say unto you, my brethren, that after ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, … I say unto you, that the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness …” It is significant that King Benjamin says, “After ye have known and have been taught these things …” The meaning seems clear. The term “natural man” as employed by Benjamin is equivalent to “incorrigible sinner.” It is also clear that all men are not included in this category. Furthermore, it is clear that those who are outside the class to which the “natural man” belongs include not only those who have not heard the gospel but also all those who have not become enemies to God by the process he described. Sin, here, has to do with acts, not with an inherent condition of depravity due to the Fall. To interpret these passages otherwise is to ascribe to Mormonism a doctrine of original sin.
This meaning finds support in Alma’s statement, “all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity” (Al. 41:11). The important point here is that the phrase “all men that are in a state of nature” seems to imply that some men are not in a state of nature, which state is the condition of those who “have gone contrary to the nature of God” and not an original condition of all born into mortality.
Statements of Benjamin suggesting that man is nothing and worthless (see Mos. 4:4) are assumed to be incompatible with the Mormon position. It might be argued that man is worthless without the help of God because he is helplessly and eternally lost. The Mormon answer is that it is because of the intrinsic worth of humanity that God is so ready and anxious to save us. The infant in the crib might also be said to be worthless in that it has done nothing for its parents or that it is absolutely helpless and would be nothing without their attention. But the child is of infinite value and as a person not only evokes the highest human responses from its parents but also [p.152]fulfills their deepest needs. (It is strange that some men and women degrade themselves before the Creator, feeling, paradoxically, that they honor God by emphasizing the baseness of the creature he has made in his own image.)
The word “natural,” as it is frequently used in ethical discourse, is highly ambiguous and has come to mean almost nothing because it has come to mean almost everything. The word “natural” often stands for whatever transpires or happens to be. It is said, for example, that it is natural for man to kill but that it is also natural for man to discipline himself so that he refrains from killing. Since these forms of behavior are equally natural in that they frequently occur in human experience, the word “natural” in this sense has little meaning, and distinctions between good and bad are obliterated. In this sense it was natural for the Nazis to torture their victims or for the reprobate to seduce his neighbor’s wife. We mention this not only to clarify the meaning of “natural” but also to warn against identifying the Mormon position because of its naturalistic characteristics with hedonistic philosophies.
The Mormon position is that the whole man, body and spirit, constitutes man in mortality. The nature of anything, including mortal man, is determined by its essential character or constitution. Therefore, the spiritual factor cannot be ignored in any adequate description of man’s essential nature. We will therefore use the term “natural man” to mean man as he is constituted of body and spirit in mortality.
An important aspect of determining whether the good or the bad expresses the moral nature of man is the relation of function to responsibility. A plant, for example, has certain functioning powers in relation to its environment. If it fails to use its functioning powers it exhibits an abnormal and therefore unnatural condition. A plant, of course, is not conscious nor free to function or not to function in accordance with is environment. Man, however, is free and can determine how he will respond to his environment, and the presence of spiritual and rational powers within him demands that he function spiritually and rationally if he is to live a normal and moral life. Not overlooking emotional and biological needs, only spiritual and rational functioning together can insure the achievement of man’s ultimate destiny. For to achieve his ultimate destiny is to act in accordance with his total nature.
[p.153]The natural man then is the righteous man. And to live naturally means to live in accordance with moral and spiritual laws, the observance of which actualizes divine potential. The sinful life is the unnatural life because sinfulness thwarts the growth and fulfillment of man. We believe, therefore, that he who conforms his life to the will of God is involved in a natural process and is giving the highest and truest expression of his nature. Thus Brigham Young commented, “Paul says in his Epistle to the Corinthians, `But the natural man receiveth not the things of God,’ but I say it is the unnatural `man that receiveth not the things of God.’… The natural man is of God. We are the natural sons and daughters of our natural parents, and spiritually we are the natural children of The Father of light and natural heirs to his kingdom … Man, the noblest work of God, was in his creation designed for endless duration, for which the love of all good was incorporated in his nature. It was never designed that he should naturally do and love evil” (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1855-86], 9:305).
If the question arises as to why the natural man so often falls short of the full capacity of his spiritual and rational powers, it must be said that freedom is the only condition under which personal fulfillment is won. It is only by the voluntary operation of the will in choosing the right over the wrong, the good over the evil, that man moves toward his ultimate goal. If man has the potential to become godlike, it must be through the free, normal functioning of all his powers. With such freedom man may sink to lower levels of action, thus perverting his nature. Divine attributes and capacities demand the divine life, and these highest attributes of human nature determine man’s fullest, truest nature. As a free agent, man is responsible for his choices and becomes whatever he chooses to be. That some, perhaps a majority, will never achieve full stature in this life is not a valid argument for “pessimism” nor does it invalidate the claim that it is within the natural man’s capacity to move in the direction of the ultimate ideal, God.
It may seem that the foregoing indicates that man’s potential is contingent. But contingency—or dependence—does not mean impotence or depravity. The fact that man recognizes the need for God’s help and may assume an attitude of receptivity toward him should not lead to self-depreciation and false humility. A genuine, reverent attitude toward God and insight into his relationship to [p.154]humanity does not find expression in scoffing man’s capacity but in the kind of moral and spiritual behavior, growing out of both a sense of personal worth and a sense of self-subordination, which bespeaks the dignity of man as a child of God.
The Mormon doctrine of the Atonement holds that humanity is totally dependent on God for future fulfillment. But Mormonism also holds that although the Atonement is a necessary condition for salvation, it is not a sufficient condition for the fulfillment we refer to as exaltation. At least part of the meaning of the worth and dignity of humanity must reside in the fact that man, as a moral agent, is responsible for his own growth and development. Certainly little worth or dignity could be ascribed to a person, however exalted his status, if that position was not in some way the product of his own efforts. In Mormon doctrine Satan seems to have erred on this point, for he thought that he could save humanity in the absence of human freedom and effort.
The Mormon doctrine of the Atonement and humanity’s dependence on God are not grounds for pessimism but, as indicated, constitute a strong argument for optimism. Pessimism as an ethical theory is frequently based upon the evil behavior detected in humans. But the debatable question is the identification of the observed fact of evil with a doctrine of human nature.
For Mormonism, human freedom includes the power to will the good. We must give expression to all our functioning powers, including our rational and spiritual powers, if we are to live naturally. To live solely on the physical or biological level may be natural for animals, but it is unnatural for humans. The natural man is not dominated by sensuous pleasures. The natural man’s life is both rational and spiritual. If Jesus Christ is to be taken as the inspiration and norm, then the fruits of his spirit—love, joy, peace, and long-suffering—are the normal products of the fully functioning soul and written into nature as a part of the constitution of reality. The possession of capacities for spiritual living is the proof of man’s nascent divinity.
Mormonism rejects the doctrine that the physical body, as such, is evil. From the Mormon position the Fall did not change the moral nature of man essentially but was an act calculated to actualize potentialities eternally present in him. That the possession of a physical body may make possible additional ways of sinning in no [p.155]way alters the basic moral structure of man. It is simply one of the conditions on which the ultimate fulfillment of man rests. The perpetuation of the union of the body and the spirit is so important for the fulfillment and perfection of man in Mormon thought that the one automatic and inevitable result of the Atonement is the resurrection, assuring the reunion of the body with the spirit after their separation by death.
While Mormonism is aware of the vast amount of moral evil in the world and is conscious of its own responsibility to help diminish and overcome evil, it does not hold that moral improvement is achieved by radically changing human nature. To improve morally cannot mean to change what we call human nature into something else or to cease being involved in those impulses and drives, frequently described as evil, without which we would not only cease to be human but cease to exist altogether. Moral improvement in Mormonism is to be achieved by bringing all the facets of human nature into proper balance with each other and the whole person into proper relationship with his total environment, which includes God. To improve morally means to bring drives and habits under the dominion of the rational and spiritual powers of human nature so that the significance of good and evil, right and wrong, in relation to the expanding personality is understood.
Nature is not an enemy to God. The various drives—hunger, thirst, sex, combativeness, acquisitiveness, and others—which supply biological needs are all essential to life and as such are good. All of these drives are capable of a high degree of functional malleability in human living. Hunger may turn to gluttony, thirst to drunkenness, acquisitiveness to theft, and sex to lust. Nevertheless, each of these drives is also capable of modifications in the other direction. For example, sex at the physiological level may be nothing more than a biological function. But at a higher level, as an act of genuine love, it is capable of reaching lofty psychological and spiritual dimensions of expression.
What is so frequently overlooked in ascribing evil to the physical nature of humans is the fact that nature both internal and external to man is ever ready to collaborate with him in his task of self-fulfillment. Nature’s hand is not set against God but responds to the will of God as it relates to humanity’s progress and growth. The natural life, as it has been described to include the physical and [p.156]spiritual in proper balance, is the abundant life of which Jesus Christ spoke, because it brings self-fulfillment. And progressive self-fulfillment is the only source of lasting joy. The Book of Mormon teaches that “men are that they might have joy,” and in the achievement of joy the physical body is an essential element.
In any discussion of the future life from the Mormon point of view, a clarification of the Mormon concept of time is necessary. Contrary to the notion commonly held in theological circles that time is a product of God’s creation sandwiched between the timeless eternities of past and future, Mormonism holds that eternity is endless time including the past, present, and future. Consistent with this is the belief that movement, progression, and retrogression are also real. God is in time and is time-conscious, having himself progressed through time. Thus Mormons look forward to a life after death where growth and progress are possible. Heaven is not a place of inactivity but one of enlarged opportunities for the soul’s further fulfillment.
Mormon optimism relative to the future life is seen in the rejection of any notion of predestination and in the doctrine of universal resurrection and salvation. The Mormon view is that with few exceptions men and women born into this life will not only be saved but will share a future of varying degrees of glory, the three main divisions of which are known as celestial, terrestrial, and telestial, where almost all men and women will have the chance to move forward eternally in their drive for fulfillment.
Mormonism does not hold that sinners will not suffer the effects of their sins. Both rewards and punishments are natural consequences, and the repentant, forgiven sinner in the hereafter may find himself greatly retarded. Yet however handicapped by the effects of previous sin, there is always the opportunity to move forward. With endless time before him there would seem to be no limit to the end a person can achieve.
Mormon scripture as it portrays the future of man testifies to the achievement of this high status, at least by those who inherit the celestial kingdom: “These are they into whose hands the Father has given all things—they are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory; … Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God” (D&C 76:55-58). Thus [p.157]humans, according to Mormon scripture, are by nature good and may eventually achieve godhood.
The foregoing survey of humanity’s past, present, and future within the context of Mormon thought leads, I believe, to the conclusion that optimism characterizes the traditional Mormon concept of man and that this is the only description consistent with fundamental Mormon doctrines.