68 Meditations on the God Who Weeps
14 April 2014 (updated 3 June 2015)
I recently read and enjoyed “The God Who Weeps”, co-authored by Fiona and Terryl Givens, wife and husband, and Mormon scholars. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Terryl on a few occasions, most notably when he was a keynote, speaking on “No Small and Cramped Eternities” and “Fear and Trembling at the Tower of Babel”, at two conferences co-sponsored by the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He’s a beautiful thinker, a gifted writer, and an inspiring speaker. Many of his ideas and the ways in which he presents them resonate deeply with me. Unsurprisingly, I found much to agree with in “The God Who Weeps”, and yet I also found some things to question – undoubtedly the Givens would have it no other way. Here are 68 meditations, mostly in the form of questions, that I noted while reading. They are formulated as if speaking with the Givens directly, and they are divided into groups corresponding to chapters in the book. Your feedback is welcome.
Chapter One: His Heart Is Set upon Us
1) Do you think your pre-mortal spirit experienced as much self-awareness and power of choice as you now experience? If not, how much less do you think you experienced? Would it be comparable to a human child, a less complex non-human animal? A plant? Bacteria? Virus? A non-living object?
2) Why is it a sin to aspire to be God? That’s not clear to me. Are you intending “God” as a reference to a specific person? Do you feel Mormon scripture and tradition support that? Do you think it’s positive or negative that teaching we should “be like God” rather than “be God” is less provocative and lends itself more to traditional subservient interpretations of human relations with God?
3) Do you think God (or perhaps more specifically, any exalted posthuman) literally has a heart that pumps blood?
4) Do you think humans are different in kind or degree from other animals? Do you think non-human animals operate with relatively lower-magnitude mental feedback loops that enable cognition beyond that necessary for mere self-preservation, or do you think they’re entirely devoid of even primitive capacities for self-transcendence? Do all humans, even those with mental impairment, have a capacity for self-transcendence? Did non-human animals have pre-mortal spirits? Are they creatures of time and humans creatures of eternity?
5) Is God natural? What do you think of the distinction between natural and supernatural? Natural and artificial?
6) What are your thoughts on the part of the narrative in the Book of Moses when God decides to send the flood?
7) When you described the temple in terms of relieving God from the worst of the hardships of this world, I thought of persons on camping trips who ask for elaborate measures to relieve them from the worst of the hardships of the experience that their companions are enduring. What do you think of this analogy?
8) Do you think we should be Christ? Do you think we should be like Christ? If one and not the other, why? Can and should we participate in the Atonement? Can and should be participate in the Atonement to the same extent as Jesus? Is Christ God, or is Christ like God? Is Jesus God, or is Jesus like God?
9) Does the resurrection detract from the weakness-power of the crucifixion? Would a Christ that sacrifices existence (not merely pleasure and life) be more powerful? Was suffering and death, short of spiritual death, the ultimate self-surrender in which nothing was held back? Is it weakness that wins power, or is it love that wins power? Was the crucifixion a demonstration of weakness or strength, of a more enduring sort than the strength of force?
10) Must we suffer and enjoy to corresponding degrees? Is the risk of a particular degree of suffering sufficient, or must it be realized before we can experience a corresponding degree of joy?
11) Are nature’s purposes adequately described by the old Darwinian account of “survival of the fittest”? Which is more fit, that which barely gets by or that which flourishes, that which lives longer or that which creates, recreates and procreates abundantly, attracting the awe and even reverence of all who may observe and affect its environment? Is nature blind necessity, or is it will to power of the most enduring kind: beauty that provokes beauty, love that provokes love, joy that provokes joy, the radical flourishing of compassionate creators. Is nature gambling on us, as we are on her, whether to compete or cooperate?
12) Do you think nothing should motivate us more than the idea that we can add to God’s happiness?
Chapter Two: Man Was in the Beginning with God
13) Do you think our aspiration for immortality and eternal life, for Godhood, is only or primarily achievable through discovery rather than or more so than creation? Must aspirations to God and heaven be memory rather than extrapolation and evolution? If so, must we have had Godly pasts in order to have had the capacity to experience God as God? If we can seek only what we’ve known, how can we seek internalized Godhood unless we’ve known it ourselves? Does this line of reasoning, reminiscent of Plato, provide grounds for anything more than aspiring to return to God? Does it provide grounds for aspiring to Godhood?
14) How would you respond to Richard Dawkins, if he were to characterize your explanation of aspiration as a “skyhook”, seeking to explain complexity by an appeal to yet greater complexity?
15) What practical difference might it make to characterize our yearnings as projections instead of memories? What would be the relative benefits and detriments?
16) Is identifying with pre-mortal agents we can only vaguely imagine more or less meaningful than identifying with historic persons about whom we read in history books? When appealing to memory as explanation for aspiration, is there a reason to prefer an appeal to personal memory over an appeal to shared or collective or even environmental memory?
17) How much pre-mortal individuality, what degree of self-awareness or empowered volition, would feel sufficient to you to qualify as pre-mortal existence? Would it require the same degree that we now experience? If not, how much less, short of none, would still feel meaningful to you from your present position?
18) Do you think kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, cooperation, and compassion could have evolutionary origins? Does compassion contribute to procreative flourishing? If not, was there no first God, but rather either an infinite regression or a meta-God that does not change?
19) Must we have had a self-aware pre-mortal existence in order to be esthetically tuned to our environment? Is being made of the stuff of our environment a sufficient explanation?
20) Is the song we hear an echo from behind us or the faint call from what lies ahead? Could we now be hearing that song more plainly than ever before, although it’s long called to us, even before our mortal existence? Why should we suppose that we ever heard it more plainly than now? Perhaps it gets louder and clearer as we become like God, as we increasingly have the capacity to feel and understand it as God does?
21) Could your soul, your spirit or mind, be the whole pattern of information through time and space leading to and away from the present with which you now identify? Could you be information experiencing itself from the inside, now in more empowered complexity than ever before in your indefinite past, and anticipating experience yet more sublime in an indefinitely extending future?
22) In context of interpreting the vail of forgetfulness as more than individuation from our creator, as more than an embryo individuating from its mother, as forgetting our own individual past, why should I identify with “my” supposed individual past more than “your” supposed individual past? What’s there to identify with beyond imagination reflecting the present?
23) When we appeal to the vail of forgetfulness as an effective way to focus attention on our present, are we looking for a problem to our solution? Is this a case when everything looks like a nail to the person with a hammer?
24) Is it only our souls, our spirits or minds, that are free? Might the environment also be free in a primitive way, as a sort of weak panpsychism?
25) Are we exonerated from the sins of our children because no one considers us the creators of their souls, or are we exonerated because some creations are of such complexity and nature as to transcend the control of their creators? Are some creations intentionally relinquished? Are our souls such creations? Is our world such a creation? Do increasing complexity and relinquishment explain the problem of evil better than hypothesizing the absence of creators in a particular domain? When I use existing matter and energy to code software that runs an evolutionary algorithm whose results I cannot fully predict except to say it presents both risks and opportunities, should I be exonerated? When my mate and I combine existing elements through biological processes to create a child whose choices I cannot fully predict except to say it presents both risks and opportunities, should I be exonerated?
26) Is artificial intelligence possible? Do you think it could feel guilt? In our software, might we already be starting the organization of our spirit children?
27) Are we born free, if the vail of forgetfulness is not complete? Does our past scope our future possibility space, at least for relatively near term futures?
28) Does the sense of freedom require an uncreated core, or could a sense of freedom arise from an indefinitely ancient coreless pattern of information consisting of increasingly complex feedback loops with its environment?
29) Must the pre-mortal existence on which moral freedom depends be a self-aware pre-mortal existence with consciousness as robust as that if human adults?
30) Do you think your choice that led to your presence in this world was made with the same magnitude of deliberation as that you exercise regularly as an adult human? Would you be satisfied if the choice was far more primitive than that? Would you be satisfied if the choice were something that even non-living objects could make? Would you be satisfied if your choice were far more abstract, for example if you were represented by and in the choices of your ancestors?
31) Do you think the Garden of Eden and the War in Heaven could be two versions of the same story, conjuring in us a sense of our common emergence from simplicity to complexity, and its attendant risks and opportunities. Was the pre-mortal existence necessarily pre-Earthly?
32) Would you be satisfied if the indefinitely existing aspect of our existence were no more than a primitively panpsychic light, full of potential to be organized and reorganized into increasingly complex patterns of information?
33) If God, angels and men are all of one species, are non-human animals and plants of the same species, in that broader sense? Must God be human or posthuman in a narrow sense?
34) Why should our relative frailty dispel aspiration of co-equality with God? What does the D&C mean when it says God will make us equal in power?
35) Are concepts such as those connoted by “Lord” and “King” essential to or perpetually necessary and accurate descriptions of our relationship with God, or should we aspire to relations that transcend such concepts, putting behind slavery and feudalism, and even ultimately putting behind childhood, and taking on mature friendship?
Chapter Three: We Are That We Might Have Joy
36) Is mortality an ascent in every way, insofar as we are distinguishable from our creator? To the extent we were distinguishable from our creator prior to mortality, did we possess any faculty to a greater degree than we do now?
37) When does an idea become an entity? In a mind as empowered and sublime as that we imagine of God, might thought itself constitute creation? Could such a mind, merely on contemplation, organize and relinquish independent minds from the spirit and matter of its environment?
38) Could and should we consult with primitive artificial intelligence before clothing it in sensors that would permit experience of the world? What degree of intelligence is possible without sensors? How could consent be identified satisfactorily?
39) Might group selection effects explain the optimization of the honey bee sting-death?
40) Is there such a thing as absolute perfection? How could we identify it? Is rather contextual optimization the only kind of realized perfection?
41) In what sense was paradise lost when Adam and Eve left the Garden? What should we take from the Book of Mormon suggestion, when describing the importance of opposition, that there was neither joy nor sorrow, not even sense or insensibility, prior to the opposition that resulted from the “Fall”? Was the innocence of pre-mortal existence simple even beyond naïveté to the point of relative meaninglessness?
42) Could Adam and Eve be both our communal and our individual past, first evolving as a species and then maturing as individuals, from innocence into moral wisdom? Has the War in Heaven raged in each of us as we began to conceptualize good and evil? Have we each eaten from the tree of knowledge?
43) Is it just the body that is of the Earth? Aren’t our minds just as much of the Earth? Aren’t our bodies, like our minds, also to some extent not of the Earth? Does the matter and energy, the information, of which our minds and bodies consist originate in the stars? Might the formation of stars be part of our communal and personal histories of individuating from God?
44) Why should we want to idealize and pursue innocence? Perhaps it’s the life-love of the child, rather than its innocence, that we should idealize and pursue? We might frame that as innocence in some ways, but do you think all manifestations of innocence, fully considered, are desirable? What do you think of Nietzsche’s idealization of the child as a creator of values?
45) Did the world and our bodies introduce the risk of evil, or did they empower us, thereby increasing both risk of evil and opportunity for good?
46) Whose grace and mercy gives us each a place at the table? Is the grace and mercy of Jesus alone sufficient? Does it require anything less than the grace and mercy of every person, together taking on Christ in eternal Atonement, giving each other what only each can give? Can Jesus give me the mercy of the person I wronged, or am I dependent on that person for that?
Chapter Four: None of Them Is Lost
47) Is God’s work limited to human immortality and eternal life? Might God be interested in glorifying nothing less than all of creation?
48) Do you think the Old Testament clearly portrays God’s emotion as that of a suffering parent rather than an injured tyrant? Are the violent interventions, such as sending the flood, actually mercies that impede the risk of greater suffering subsequent to greater sin? What about the violent interventions for apparently trivial behavior by today’s standards? How much divinity is actually manifest in the Old Testament, and other scriptures? Would you be comfortable looking at the Old Testament depiction of God as, in part, an example of an inferior and progressing human understanding of God?
49) I wish every Mormon in the world would read and understand your passage describing heaven as a condition and not a club, and recognize that our scriptures repeatedly teach this. It pains me when critics of our religion point out that, in practice, most of us seem to talk and behave as if it’s a club. I can only agree and suggest that we’re not really living up to our religion when we do that. As I understand the scriptures, they seem to suggest that we all have to become Christ to create a celestial heaven together. No one but Mormons will want to be in our heaven until we figure that out, so for now we’re exactly right: our heaven is a club, at least until we learn better.
50) Why is the suffering and death of Jesus the only action by which the wounds of sin and hurt that rend the world can be repaired? Why don’t the actions of each person who forgives, serves, relieves and loves also contribute to the repairing? Aren’t we all invited by Jesus to be Christ with him? Aren’t we all called to follow his example in every way, including participation in the Atonement, suffering with him that we might be glorified together?
51) In what sense did Jesus’ death secure immortality for man? What are the mechanics? How does the one lead to the other? Would it be sufficient for you if the idea of Jesus’ resurrection, coupled with the prophecy that everyone will be resurrected, ultimately provoked humanity in general to embrace and work toward realizing the possibility of a resurrection? Could it be that humanity will participate with Jesus in doing the work of resurrecting the dead, like we participate with Jesus in doing the work of taking the Gospel to everyone, also according to the prophecy?
52) Why could only Jesus usher in a universal resurrection? Could it be that the Body of Christ, Jesus and all who participate with him in the work of salvation, ushers in a universal resurrection? In such a case, would not they all together be one in Christ, messiahs and saviors?
53) Do you think a God may choose to connect at an experiential level with her creation, feeling every joy and sorrow, to all heights and depths? Could it be that such is ultimately necessary to gain the fullness of experience required to understand and feel as God?
54) When Jesus tells us that the Son of Man has power to forgive, must we understand that as being any more complicated than simply choosing to forgive when we have experienced harm? When we do that, aren’t we choosing to suffer for, on behalf of, on account of, and in the stead of another? Why would it be that only Jesus could do this? How could that ever be sufficient in itself in a world in which every mind has its own demands on the others around it? Perhaps nothing less than our universal unity in the role of Christ, as exemplified and invited by Jesus, would suffice as the Eternal Atonement? Perhaps we become perfect as we join in Christ with Jesus, forgiving as we are forgiven, as the claims on each other are placed aside voluntarily?
55) Might the story of Jesus Christ be a symbolic simplification of the complex and persistent communal work to save each other from death and hell, not displacing Jesus, but rather extending Jesus as Christ, his good news and the Christian identity, throughout all of us to the extent we choose to participate?
56) What does it mean to accept Christ and the Gospel? Does it mean merely believing or even following Jesus? Could it mean actually being Christ with Jesus?
57) Has anyone of intelligence comparable or superior to that of an eight year old child actually lived in obliviousness to Christ, understood functionally? Is it possible for such persons to live without conceptualizing and experiencing at least some extent of grace, compassion, forgiveness, service, and empowerment?
56) Is Christ manifest in famine relief, community building, moral improvement, and psychological consolation? Might such be Christ, not merely hypothetically but by definition, the mechanism of our salvation, the work we must inevitably do to attain heaven, as exemplified and invited by Jesus?
57) Why wouldn’t the ancient and enduring proselyting work make sense if Christ is the united workers of our common salvation, as Jesus encourages us to be? Wouldn’t missionary work make even more sense in such a situation, in that it has always been combined with advocacy to live with the compassion necessary to contribute toward such salvation?
58) Doesn’t it seem less arbitrary to identify Christ in all those who give each other opportunity across all time and space, compared to identifying Christ only in Jesus at one historic time and space? Doesn’t Jesus even invite us to identify Christ beyond him, both in others and in ourselves, doing all the works we see him do and even greater works?
59) Does salvation come through the law or the ritual, such as baptism, or rather do law and ritual and baptism strengthen our faith in Christ, inspiring and provoking us to do the loving works that Jesus exemplified, which are in turn the necessary and sufficient causes of salvation, by definition?
60) Maybe hearing, believing, and acting on the message of Christ, and even completely immersing ourselves in the functional identity of Christ, is essential to salvation of any measure whether now or at any time and place in all of eternity, whether premortal, mortal, or postmortal? Maybe this is simply true by definition, rather than by hypothesis? Maybe Christ is what the word means: salvation? And maybe Jesus showed us, exemplified for us, how to be salvation, by loving each other and serving each other, forgiving each other, consoling and healing, even to the point of raising each other from the dead?
61) Will co-participation in the work of human redemption end with the temple ordinances we perform for our ancestors today? Could it proceed to include resurrection? Might the rituals function in part to push us toward and prepare us for such a responsibility?
Chapter Five: Participants in the Divine Nature
62) Why should we not strive to emulate both God’s compassionate character and God’s creative power?
63) Is it begging the question to say that relations are the core of our existence because they are the core of God’s existence? Why are they the core of God’s existence?
64) I appreciate your recognition that Nietzsche, that self-appointed antichrist, correctly pointed out the escapism or nihilism of common Christian perspectives, waiting for heaven later and far away rather than making heaven here and now. If Christ is only later and further, may we all be antichrist.
65) While I share your estimation that the growing preference for spirituality over religion reflects some egotism (as well as weaknesses in contemporary religion), aren’t both good, particularly when balanced with each other? Doesn’t religiosity without spirituality result in dogmatism?
66) Can holiness be found in both our compassionate relations and in our creative contemplations? Why should we find holiness only in compassion?
67) I like the comparison of moral and physical laws, and how understanding and working with them empowers us more rather than less, but are there limitations to the comparison? While we are not at all in control of physical laws in our world (except to the extent we embed virtual worlds within it), are we in control of moral laws to any extent? Are there moral laws that are absolutes with contextual laws only embedded in them, or are all moral laws contextual? For that matter, are all physical laws ultimately contextual? Are all laws ultimately relational rather than absolute?
68) Thank you for pointing out the complementary roles of science and religion, for alluding to pervasive evolution, and encouraging us to posit the possibility of Zion here and now as the beginning of the heaven to which we commonly aspire.