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The Latter-day Saint View of Human Nature

We are of the same species as the gods.

The religion of the Latter-day Saints may be characterized as a confluence of normative Judaism and first-century Christianity. At its core is insight into human nature that Jesus both taught and exemplified.


Editorial Note. This first appeared as the final chapter in 2004’s “On Human Nature” (out of print) and is republished with permission. Ann Madsen said that this may have been the best thing Truman Madsen ever wrote. Headings have been added for online reading.


To the extent that this teaching—which can be called “eternalism”—has been blurred or dismissed, many imponderables and paradoxes have arisen in theological anthropology. For Latter-day Saints, these can be coherently resolved if one places priority on reliable sources. Latter-day Saints have access to writings presently outside the canonical literature—some ancient, some modern—which they take to be clarifying. The most recent is the official Proclamation on the Family from the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve. On this topic, see Strengthening our Families (2000), edited by David C. Dollahite from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Let us begin with the beginning. On the question of God’s existence, most monotheistic traditions agree. God is a self-existing being. This is to say nothing other than God accounts for the reality of God. He simply is. In the language of the scholastics, he has a-seity, self-existence. Unique in LDS thought—though it is found in the earliest verses of Genesis—is a parallel thesis; namely, something in the human self is coexistent and coeternal with God. In his explication of this and other Hebrew texts recorded in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, Joseph Smith taught: “The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.” And again, “The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end.”

Hellenizing strands of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have pointed to nous (reason) as the faculty that distinguishes humans (rational animals) from the animals. Few have held that the nous is, in biblical terms, uncreated and indestructable.

Prevailing alternative accounts of origins assume that humanity and all else was brought into being from nothing, or from the unutterable ‘ēn sōp of Jewish mysticism, or from the non-being of existential, or from “the accidental collocation of atoms” posited by some forms of scientific naturalism.

In contrast to these views, in LDS thought, intelligence has ontological and eternal status. There is nothing contingent or ephemeral about it.

This and related premises modify the grid on which questions concerning human selfhood or human nature are answered. I will outline how these distinctions relate to issues of human autonomy, creation, the soul, the fall, embodiment, human nature and its potential, and the scope of redemption.

Terryl Givens speaks on the purpose of human nature in the 2011 Truman G. Madsen lecture on Eternal Man.

Human autonomy

What, then, is human autonomy?

A God (or anything else) held to be directly and totally the cause of all that exists is indirectly the cause of all that occurs, including all human action or inaction. Genuine human choice and autonomy then appear inexplicable. But for Latter-day Saints, Doctrine and Covenants 93:30 states it is axiomatic that “all intelligence is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it to act for itself.” Freedom is implicit in primal and premortal human nature, and continues through physical embodiment and maturation in this world. It is our inescapable “response-ability.”

Things do not respond; they react. But persons have the power to respond both to the subtlest of intellectual ideas and impressions and to all-but-overwhelming internal and external forces. Though there are limits to human freedom as there are limits to the power of any causal force, a measure of autonomy is rooted in our existence and cannot be—not even by God—totally obliterated. Among Jewish writers of the twentieth-century this view of freedom can be found in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Martin Buber. Alfred North Whitehead and process philosophers like John Cobb Jr. take a similar position.

So fatalism, predestinationism, hard determinism, and the reduction of human behavior to chance are undercut.


Creation

What, then, is creation?

In the earliest texts, creation, whether of the cosmos or humankind, does not mean an ex nihilo, or fiat, act. The phrase, “without form and voice” (tohu vabohu in Genesis) is translated, “empty and desolate” by Joseph Smith in his Teachings. Something, not nothing, was empty and desolate. This is the beginning of the understanding that “the elements are eternal” as stated in Doctrine and Covenants 93:88. The creative role of the divine, then, is purposing, ordering, beautifying, glorifying. Such creation occurred in the heavenly worlds before the creation of this earth, or, in the biblical phrase, “before the foundation of the world.”

It was a descent essential to a higher ascent.

As for persons, the generative process was not an analogy to the shaking of a test tube, or to a shipbuilder and a ship. It is as a parent to a child. According to Joseph Smith, the creation narratives in the received Hebrew text treat each self as the “offspring of God.” As spirits, these became the “congregation of the mighty” referred to in Psalm 82:1, those who were participants in heavenly councils: “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” This translation is close to the Hebrew and translates the “might” as “heavenly beings.” The New English Bible’s translation reads: “God takes his stand in the court of heaven to deliver judgment among the gods themselves.” In full anticipation, they—we—sanctioned the plan that involved the mediation of the Messiah. This is the reinstatement of the traditional and rabbinical idea of human premortal existence which is residual or overlooked in most wings of Christendom.


Soul

What, then, is a soul?

In many Asian philosophies such as Buddhism, the self or skhanda is illusory. The illusion is the problem to which enlightenment is the solution. Utter annihilation of the illusion is, therefore, utter annihilation of the self. In the West, the soul in the Greek tradition is an immaterial entity. The prevailing assumption of two utterly unlike entries—one immaterial, one physical—poses the classical “mind-body” problem. So posed, it is an intractable problem.

But the Latter-day Saint understanding is that there is no such thing as immaterial substance. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 131:7, reads: “When our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” All is material, however refined and pure. In the Western world, we are accustomed to think of the “stuff” of the universe—the elements of chemists—as opaque, inert, and inorganic. Yet Joseph Smith taught in Doctrine and Covenants 88:12 that in these very elements, and in the more refined and pure substance of our spirits, “dwells all the glory.” It is clear that “glory” is inclusive of vivifying and vitalizing power. It is “the light that gives life to all things.”

So the living individual spirit is spirit-substance. It existed prior to physical embodiment, endures through embodiment, and will be reunited with the body after death. The spirit’s interaction with the body is two-way; each influences and is influenced by the other.


Fall

What, then, of the fall?

In major Jewish and Christian traditions, the fall has often been treated as catastrophic. Associated traditions, as those of Augustine and Calvin, maintain that an omnipotent God himself elected the fall and its entire train of dire consequences. Moreover, with absolute foreknowledge, he decreed that the stain of Adam be transmitted to all of his descendants. This is the dogma of original sin. It is equally perplexing that He preordained his Son to reverse and heal these corruptions He himself had initiated.

The fall brought a partial separation from the presence of God.

In LDS parlance, Adam and Eve made a momentous decision both to leave their celestial home and then to embrace mortality by partaking of the forbidden fruit which led to their expulsion. However, they did not fall from “dreaming innocence,” but from their prior condition as preeminent spirit-children of God. In the garden, one law was broken: “Partake not.” But Adam joined Eve to fulfill another law and commandment: “Multiply and replenish the earth.” Whatever culpability Scripture assigns to Adam and Eve, it is not transmitted. An LDS Article of Faith based on Doctrine and Covenants 93 and Moses 6:59 states, “Men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression.”

The locus classicus in LDS scripture for the overarching outcome of the fall seems on the face of it a cruel juxtaposition. “Adam fell that men might be [in mortal life]. And men are that they might have joy.” The context of this statement expounds the indispensability of human experience, including the mortal experience as the backdrop of joy. The earth was indeed cursed. But it was cursed “for their sakes.”

Physical embodiment and mortality can be a step forward in the eternal journey. The fall was in this and other ways purposive. It was a descent essential to a higher ascent. By their opening the way for other spirits to enter embodiment and mortality, Adam and Eve fulfilled both a parental role and a sacrificial role. For this they are to be honored.

This is not to minimize the harsh and even tragic consequences that have come in the wake of the fall. The fall brought a partial separation from the presence of God. It brought exposure to our inhumanity towards one another, and to natural disasters in an environment often hostile to human endurance and felicity. And it brought death.

But the fall did not destroy individual freedom, initiative, or accountability. It did not impose sinfulness—or absolute depravity—upon Adam or upon any or all of his children.

This affirmative estimate of the fall and the worth and even blessedness of mortal experience, however traumatic it may be, can be found in Western literature; for example, in John Milton’s idea of the “fortunate fall.” But it is muted in Catholic theology and eclipsed in most Protestant thought. Eastern Orthodoxy still teaches of a “wounding” rather than a total corrupting fall. And this idea survives in certain forms of Jewish Hasidism.


Embodiment

But why embodiment?

In other traditions, the body is often viewed as an “outlandish slough” (Socrates), a prison house (Gnostics), or a dumb beast (C. S. Lewis). For many Platonic and Gnostic sects, matter itself is intrinsically evil, and salvation is escape from its inevitable defilement. The claim follows that Christ himself was not genuinely embodied, since his incarnation was an ephemeral appearance. The latter view, the “docetic theory,” has been officially rejected. But a perpetual mystery remains: Why would God—or in some versions, his intermediaries—create evil matter in the first place? And why would an unembodied God create embodied humanity in order to achieve a disembodied immortality?

In LDS theology, the physical body is not the muffling and imprisoning of the spirit. The body is the spirit’s enhancement. It is an instrument of redemption; and the instrument itself is to be redeemed. Indeed, in its most inclusive sense, “soul” is honorifically defined in Doctrine and Covenants 88:15–17 as spirit and body combined, “inseparably connected,” or fused.

So, as the Teachings informs us, “The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.” Only when resurrected is one more fully capacitated to receive a “fullness of joy.” Thus, “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” This is not a dominating, exploiting, enslaving power. “Power over” means more advanced, more Christ-like. Absence of the body from the spirit while awaiting resurrection will be looked upon not as deliverance but as bondage.

Neither man alone nor Christ alone can transform the human will.

This may be the inversion—some would say the misreading—of the classical reading of Plato that insists every sublimely true and good and beautiful thing is absolutely separate from the material world and even from particularity. Instead, apparently, even ideational realms of the most profound subtlety and nuance are beyond full apprehension and comprehension when we are not embodied. Further, what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch on earth only foreshadows the expansion of sensate awareness in the world to come—hence the criticality of Christ’s resurrection, and through Him, our own.


Mortality

What, then, is the mortal situation?

Aside from the forgetting that comes with the “drawing of the veil” at mortal birth, two factors conspire to diminish the light and truth that are latent within us; first, our own refusal to seek to respond, acting in violation of the presentiments of the spirit; second, the influence of the “tradition of the fathers,” which—especially during vulnerable childhood—we imbibe. Around the age of eight, say LDS sources, we become accountable. Then baptism is performed. (There is no pedobaptism in the New Testament nor in LDS practice. Baptism is for the remission of sins, and children have no sins.)

One challenge to this affirmative and optimistic outlook on human nature arises in the writings of Paul, especially in the watershed verses in Romans 7–8 wherein Paul cries out, “O wretched man that I am.” He then proceeds to dichotomize spirit and flesh as being in constant warfare with each other. But passages in his other epistles clarify this. His dominant theme is not a radical dualism between flesh and spirit or between utterly corrupt man and the divine. Instead, he portrays the stark contrast of the person who has lapsed into sin and willful ignorance with the person who has fully received the Redeemer.

In Joseph Smith’s translation of Romans, Paul’s lament “I am carnal” is put in the past tense: “. . . when I was under the law, I was yet carnal, sold under sin. But now I am spiritual: for that which I am commanded to do, I do and that which I am commanded not to allow, I allow not.” Paul recognizes the need for proper dependence on Christ: “to perform that which is good I find not, only in Christ” (the phrase in italics is added by Joseph Smith). Neither man alone nor Christ alone can transform the human will.

When Paul is read through the lens of Augustine, he seems to be the precursor of Augustine’s embrace of a Neo-Platonic dualism of soul and body; and of two other ideas foreign to early Judaism and Christianity; namely, absolute predestination, and an absolute anti-Pelagian insistence on the all-sufficiency of grace. These three dogmas are absent from biblical sources. And they are absent from LDS theology.

However one interprets Romans, Paul teaches in I Corinthians 3–4 that the body is a temple: “The temple of God is holy.” It can be dedicated or profaned. When it is profaned, Paul speaks of it as “vile.” The context shows he is speaking of it when it is, as it were, poisoned. But the telos, or goal, or mortality is to purge all such vileness “that we may be fashioned like unto the body of Christ Himself.” This can be found in Philippians 3:20: “Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” (also see I Cor. 15).


Natural

What, then, is natural?

Do not both biblical and extra-biblical scriptures inveigh against “natural man” or person? Do we not read that the human family is “carnal, sensual and devilish”? Yes. But it is noticeable that this latter phrase does not apply anywhere in LDS texts to Adam or Eve. It first appears amidst the decline and fall of Cain. Moses 5:13 records how men and women from that time often opted for behavior leading to degeneracy.

Other passages use “natural” not in a disparaging but in an honorific way. Paul condemns those “without natural affection,” implying that natural affection is is divinely approved. As Brigham Young says in Journal of Discourses 2:278: “I call evil inverted good, or good made an evil use of.” And apostle Parley P. Pratt decries in “Intelligence and Affection” (1952): “the abuse, the perversion, the unlawful indulgence of that which is otherwise good. . . . Sodom, and Gomorrah, were not destroyed for their natural affections, but for the want of them.”

But we need more.

Brigham Young repeatedly teaches that the spirit is more directly in touch with God’s Spirit than the body, and that it has power to direct the body. But in Journal of Discourses 10:189, he disavows the notion of absolute depravity and, by implication, also the rabbinical idea of the yetser hara’, or evil inclination:

They say that man is naturally prone to evil. In some respects this is true, where by the force of example and wrong tradition [evil] has become ingrained. But if man had always been permitted to follow the instincts of his nature, had he always followed the great and holy principles of his organism, they would have led him into the path of life everlasting, which the whole human family is constantly trying to find.

So in the spirit and letter of scripture, there is something inherently good both in the spirit and body of human nature.


Human potential

What, then, is human potential?

Again we raise the question: What does it mean that man and woman are made in the selem and dᵊmûṯ, the image and likeness of God? For Latter-day Saints, the terms apply in an inclusive way. This same Hebrew phrase was used in antiquity to describe a statue of a person. A statue is made in the image and likeness of the person it memorializes. An LDS passage uses the same phrase for Adam and his son, Seth. Seth, it says, was “in the image and likeness of his father.” The two could only be distinguished by age. Of such a mode of resemblance, Doctrine and Covenants 77:2 states that the spirit is in the likeness of the body, and when united, the spirit and the body are in the likeness of God.

This is precisely the role of Christ.

So, in the phrase of Abraham J. Heschel, distinguished professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, we are not only in the image of God, we are the image of God. One can ascribe to the children of God more than rationality and creativity. In an embryonic state, other divine attributes and powers inhere in human nature. We are theomorphic. Latter-day Saints would add that even in extremities of human degredation, there is a way to regain what has been distorted.

Joseph Smith wrote:

In the image of gods created they them—male and female; innocent, harmless and spotless, bearing the same character and the same image as the gods. And when man fell, he did not lose his image but his character still retain[ed] the image of his maker. Christ who is the image of man is also the express image of his Father’s person. So says Paul [in Hebrews 1:3].

To the degree that we lapse into sin and debilitating error, this image is darkened and diminished. Even at our best, there is much to overcome: forgetfulness, habitual neglect, and militant refusal to recognize and respond to the stirrings of our potential and relationships with God and Christ. The whole of human history suggests that we need disciplines, aids, correctives, restraints. The Talmud attests in Kiddushim 30b: “Man has a poison in him and the Torah is the antidote.”

But we need more. We need power to overcome the blows of sin and death in and of the body; to regenerate what has become degenerate when the image is diminished in us. This is precisely the role of Christ. As the prophet is recorded in the Words of Joseph Smith: “Through the atonement of Christ and the resurrection and obedience in the Gospel, we shall again be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus Christ, then we shall have attained to the [full] image, glory, and character of God.” This teaching of progressive transformation applies in this life as well as in the next. “The imitation of Christ” is not only in behavior and attitude, but in constitution. As Professor Ernst Benz says in his essay on “Imago Dei,” this was the view of the ancient church. It is emphatic in the New Testament and in many early Church Fathers, but for Augustine and for many churches, it became the heresy par excellence.

Vast though it is, it is a distinction of degree.

Because so much surrounds humanity that is degraded and degrading, early Christians were committed to social as well as individual concerns and even for a time “had all things in common.” Likewise, the attempt from the beginning of the LDS movement has been to gather—to create and unite entire communities. This is the focus of Zion-peoplehood, a folk culture. So sociologist Thomas O’Dea calls the LDS community a “near nation” phenomenon. The quest for holiness is not by withdrawal from any aspect of the self, or family, or society, but rather by consecrated participation. One must attempt to hallow life in the midst of the profane, and in relationships with all others.

So in the LDS perspective and practice, one will find little of monasticism, or withdrawal from the world. Mild ascetic discipline, such as fasting, is advocated only in the quest for purifying and sensitizing the self for divine influences. The point is not to “mortify”—if that means negate or destroy—but to refine the flesh. Self-loathing that leads to self-imposed torment is avoided. In our time many have lapsed into nihilism and the celebration of despair. That lapse cannot be reconciled with Jesus’ affirmation of life and the abundant life.

Humanity, the family, society, and the earth itself are eventually to be transformed into a holy state. This is the kingdom of God.


Redemption

What, then, is redemption?

Given these premises, one can speak more concretely of how to achieve the good and holy life.

Is it through the pursuit of enlightenment—light and truth and intelligence—so that study—whatever the discipline or field, and in whatever reach of culture—becomes a form of worship? Is it through ethical behavior and the cultivation of the virtues of both mind and heart? Is it through purgation and purification of the soul by the intrusion of the Spirit? Is it through transformation of the total self through sacramental infusion? Is it through service and sacrifice on behalf of others? For Latter-day Saints—and, they believe, for Jesus—it is all of these.


Conclusion

In summary, Søren Kierkegaard’s widely influential phrase, “the infinite qualitative distinction between God and man,” is misleading and debasing. The distinction is neither infinite nor qualitative. Vast though it is, it is a distinction of degree. To deny our divine origins—and likewise our divine potential—is blasphemous humility. Even when we see ourselves as “less than the dust of the earth,” we are of the same species as the gods. The ultimate intent and meaning of Christ’s life and death is theosis: the universal transformation of the whole of human nature and whole of the human family.

Contra Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spake Zarathustra, we were not made a little lower than the worms. Nor were we made “a little lower than the angels” as in the King James translation of Psalm 8:5. We were made and intended to become a little lower than the ‘ĕlôhîym, or gods, as proclaimed in the Hebrew text of Psalm 8:4–6. The final line of Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution is echoed in the Christogenesis of Teilhard de Chardin. Bergson wrote, “The universe is a machine for the making of gods.” As Joseph Smith concluded in his Teachings, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”


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Further reading

Latter-day Saints and human nature resources

  • Review: On Human Nature (BYU Studies)
  • Sources for Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith Papers)
  • Becoming Like God (Gospel Topics Essays)
  • Doctrine and Covenants Theology, Eastern Orthodoxy Terminology: Seeking Clarity About Theosis/Deification (BYU RSC)
  • Terryl Givens on Theosis (Oxford)
  • “Ye Are Gods”: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind (Maxwell Institute)

2 replies on “The Latter-day Saint View of Human Nature”

I was Truman Madsen’s friend after being his research assistant in the early 70’s when he was writing a biography of B. H. Roberts. He mused once about why he had never been called into general church leadership . . . I thought then, and in re-reading this now, that if there were ever a person in this dispensation who channeled Joseph Smith’s prophetic, expansive eternalism in plain and precious words for our times, it is Truman Madsen–a loving soul bursting with the spirit of prophesy for our day. No wonderful ecclesiastical leader ever inspired me as deeply as T.M. when the Spirit exploded through him. He loved especially Joseph Smith, B.H. Roberts and John Widtsoe–who each pointed to Christ as our LEADER–teaching us ‘forgetful gods’ each in our stations how to be saviors and helpers and builders of Zion societies that make living forever interesting. Thanks for publishing this reminder. And readers here should also read Benz’s linked article for a real treat. He saw as a religious scholar, what Bloom sensed as a literary critic: Young farmer Joseph Smith . . . what the ?? . . . where the ?? . . . how the?? . . . Hmmm

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