The following is a companion piece to a video essay I wrote and narrated (above). This piece is supplementary, but also independent to the video.
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One thing I did not fully appreciate growing up in Bible Belt Oklahoma was the ferocity in which my predominantly Protestant classmates opposed Mormon theology. (Although maybe I’m just a spoiled millennial. After all, I totally missed the days of extermination orders.) Back then, only really knowing what I learned in Sunday School about what we believed and what other Christians believed, I was not fully aware of the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity except to say that traditional Christians distorted plain and precious truths from the Bible in the Great Apostasy. (And I was not self-aware enough to realize that perhaps that sort of narrative would upset every other Christian on the planet.)
I felt uncomfortable with a lot about Mormonism (intuitively, the historical claims seemed implausible), but I also felt obliged to defend my tribe from my hostile classmates. Still, eventually, I abandoned trying to force myself to believe in any of it.
Bracketing and shelving questions of truth and falsity have enhanced my ability to investigate the differences between Mormon and traditional Christian theology without anxiety. Now that I’m not invested in trying to be Mormon or Christian, I’ve become better able to understand why traditional Christians often assert that Mormons believe in “another Jesus” — the cosmological underpinnings of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ quite simply point to a very different kind of universe and God, even if Latter-day Saints share vocabulary and stories with traditional Christendom. Turns out the restored Gospel can be quite different than the regular Gospel.
I feel like caveating everything. Because of the sliding scale tension to be peculiar (and highlight theological difference) vs. to be accepted as Christian (and minimize those differences), different ideas circulate between speculation, doctrine, and everything in between. So I can’t guarantee that everyone will agree with what I say in this essay, and it’s going to get blasphemous pretty soon, but I hope that I can start with something uncontroversial.
So, if I had to summarize a core differentiation between Mormonism and traditional Christianity, it would be this: in traditional Christianity, God is profoundly alien to us (and this should be source for our awe, reverence, and devotion), while in Mormonism, God is profoundly familiar (and this should be the source for our awe, reverence, and devotion).
To relate to scriptures, traditional Christianity would take Paul’s comment to the Ephesians about being adopted into sonship and highlight that adoption implies blood non-relationality. And this is a good thing, because in this system, humanity has issues. For Mormons, Heavenly Father is a (more or less) literal parent who shares our features and perhaps even once shared our journey, and this is a good thing, because in this system, humanity has immense potential.
This foundational differentiation billows out nearly everywhere else in interpretations of scriptural canon, human behavior and purpose, and so on. In traditional Christianity, humanity’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden is a cosmic wounding of our nature. Adam and Eve have jumped off a cliff and gravity will inexorably drag them to a gruesome demise once they hit the ground — but for the divine intervention (or at best, divine working together or synergy) of God. This is a marble sculpture that has broken, and is in need of repair.
But in Mormonism, the fall is fortunate. It is necessary for humans to express agency, necessary for humans to develop. Though Mormons still believe in grace in a fashion, it seems more of a balm after banging up one’s knee in the playground than a resuscitation from a deadly fall. This is unfinished marble with great potential, in need of refinement.
The Mormon idea that we are gods in embryo presents an amazingly triumphant vision for humanity. But I was thinking about it, playing around with it, comparing it with traditional Christian concepts, and I got to some weird places.
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Certain ideas from the Mormon Transhumanist Association intrigue me because of how starkly they highlight how differently Mormonism is set up vs. traditional Christianity. Several years ago, I wrote a few blog posts discussing Lincoln Cannon’s New God Argument (which borrows from Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument.) The idea is to make logical conjectures about probabilities to establish that if certain criteria are met, then our universe is likely a simulation.
Neither Bostrom’s original argument nor Cannon’s New God argument assume which branch is right. That is, the simulation argument isn’t necessarily arguing that we are in a simulation — Bostrom simply lays out the branches of the trilemma and the conditions that each requires. If we are not in a simulation, it’s either because civilizations with the capability to run high-fidelity ancestor simulations are not interested in running ancestor simulations or that because most civilizations do not develop the capability. But, as the logic goes, if civilizations are likely to develop the capability and interested in doing such, then the number of universes expands and the likelihood of any universe being the original, unsimulated universe decreases. And, the conditions are plausible, so the conclusion is as well.
Cannon adds in additional logic regarding why we might have faith in beings capable simulating worlds, and why we might want to have faith in that particular leg of the trilemma. He wraps Bostrom’s language in more explicitly religion symbolism.
But the real reason I discuss these arguments is to highlight, as I mentioned before, how Mormon transhumanism ends up being. To speak of Cannon’s “New God” as a God effectively highlights what in Mormon theology is anathema to traditional Christians. For traditional Christians, God has a philosophical assortment of traits — such as being uncreated. To the uninitiated, these traits sounds like special pleading (cue the new atheist argument: “Well, what created God?”), but at some point, I realized that God’s classical attributes were something like a “plug figure” in accounting: these are traits that classical philosophers believed were necessary to account for our universe without unsavory philosophical implications.
So, the idea of a created being being worthy of being called God simply because he simulated other beings would understandably seem grossly inappropriate to traditional Christians.
And yet…in Mormonism, while thinking of the organization of our universe in terms of technological simulation seems a bit crude (and one of the biggest criticisms I see from certain Mormons about transhumanists is that Mormon transhumanism seems to evaporate the need for the divine or supernatural), it is functionally the Mormon worldview.
Traditional Christianity has creatio ex nihilo to emphasize the unbridgeable divide between the uncreated and created. Mormonism appears to collapse the distinction both by making God not necessarily eternal (that is, possibly he was once not God), and by making every one of us eternal (via the theology that God organized from eternally pre-existing intelligences). While we can imagine the workings of that to be much more sophisticated than a computer simulation, at the core, organizing 1s and 0s into simulated lives doesn’t seem too radically different.
So, as a gamer who plays simulation games such as SimCity 2000, I wondered about what this setup said about God, and came up with some surprising thoughts that often spoke *both* about Mormonism and traditional Christianity. I will present these in order of least blasphemous to most (at least, from my perspective).
- God’s radical familiarity in a Mormon context can be speculated as his creating based on what he knows. Human programmers often create simulations of humanity because we enjoy playing with what we know.
- The divide between programmer and program, while not as absolute as the divide between traditional Christianity’s uncreated God and his contingent, created universe, actually provides some analogy for the radical differentiation between God and humanity. No matter how good of a simulation we program, at some level, we will continue to think of 1s and 0s as being fundamentally different than our own organic children.
- The meaning of perfection — omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipotence — is a stickling point for many people to understand traditional Christianity. (Why would an all-powerful God create a universe in this way?) Mormonism sidesteps this by limiting how much God created (no creatio ex nihilo), in a way that relates well to game simulations. In SimCity 2000, the gamer is constrained by the rules of the game. But even a programmer who wanted to write a game from scratch would be constrained by things like hardware, processing power, etc., Per (2) above, the radical differentiation between programmer and program is that the programmer may have access to all elements of the code and may understand how the code should perform perfectly. This might look sufficiently like omnipotence or omniscience if the code itself could reflect on the relative differences.
- Traditional Christian theodicies have often explained the existence of evil with things like free will. (However, this still isn’t always satisfying, given creatio ex nihilo.) But in either a Mormon or traditional Christian understanding, the gaming analogy makes it possible to understand why even a God with absolute control over simulation programming might challenge himself to create beings who have the ability to defy him. In the gaming analogy: smart AI makes more fun games.
- In such a simulation, the programmer or gamer (our god in embryo) may still have intended purposes for his simulated beings. He may still have goals, against which the failure of simulated beings to achieve those goals may frustrate him. (The impassable God of traditional Christianity, doesn’t really mesh with this.)
- The selective implementation of miracles might be analogized to “cheat codes” or other fourth-wall breaking elements of a game. In SimCity 2000, you are ostensibly a mayor…and yet, you can use cheat codes or even access a menu to turn on or off random disasters. As the use of cheat codes harms game fun (per point 4), using them sparingly may be justified.
- Per 2 above, the radical differences between programmer or gamer and program may justify the scriptures that “God’s ways are not man’s ways” in a way that forces us to rethink what benevolence may look like. Theodicy arises in part because of the human sense that an all-powerful being should relieve the suffering of his creations…but in a programmer or gamer vs program analogy, the vast divide between programmer and program may mean that the programmer doesn’t acknowledge his code as capable of suffering in the same way as an organic being.
- Incarnation to the simulated world may teach a disconnected God per (7) more about how simulated life experiences itself. Ah, please don’t throw tomatoes at me; years ago, Fred Clark proposed the idea of Jesus weeping but the Old Testament God not as support for the idea that the incarnation did more than bring humanity to God — it brought God to the human experience. (This was super radical for Fred’s audience, steeped as they were in traditional Christian concepts. But Terryl and Fiona Givens have championed this through The God Who Weeps.)
I’m not saying I converted to theism as a result of this exercise. Yet, there are certain questions about God, the existence of evil, and so on that I now think differently about because of video games. So who’s to say you can’t learn anything from those???
Geez, so perhaps I’m just an NPC that God has affection but is nevertheless willing to sacrifice (i.e., allow to go through pain and suffering) for the overall goal of God beating the game. Mind blown.
*for which God has affection
Enjoyed some of your analysis. Gaming does create some fun perspectives, doesn’t it?
Among other things, you start looking at things as nudges and wondering what could be accomplished with them.
The silver lining here is that the goal of the game is directly to improve the NPCs lives. In SimCity, this is relatively low stakes — you can grow your community without worrying about other cities.
But if we think about games like, say, Populous, or Civilization, there is definitely more of an adversarial relationship. Your success means others’ failures.
Consider, what if we are players in a MMORG/FRPG. Or in a theme park? If we are only 100k years old, a hundred year life is a mere .1% experience. What achievement points are we likely to want to attempt to accomplish and what play experience might we sign up for?
Just because the experience, as to us, is completely immersive, doesn’t mean that it is as “real” as it might seem from the outside.
Ever since I realized that people play games such as “Life with Master” (about being an Igor in a mad scientist’s laboratory) or games where they simulate doing without modern medicine or sleeping on floors, or dying from dysentery (Oregon Trail, anyone?), I’ve started to have a completely different perspective.
It also brings some sense to scriptures that indicate that failure to forgive is a greater sin, since it is something that can stick with us when we are out of the simulation.
Anyway, you’ve stumbled into a favorite area of mine.
I know, I should have tied this into one comment, taking the time to say it all the first time, but I was pleased to see your post.
you have no idea — i have like…an entire series of game-related theological musings. I think part of it for me is that video games feel more tangible than religion. I’ve never had any spiritual experiences, but I certainly have had a lot of time spent in game worlds.
I’m just hoping that I don’t alienate the heck out of the entire Wheat & Tares audience XD
Also, I definitely missed your latest comment, sorry. All really interesting comparisons!
The moment you start positing really long lifespans all sorts of things happen to the models.
BTW, did you ever look at Bishop Berkeley’s all creation exist in the mind of God rather than in a physical reality? (Gross oversimplification ).
You are in good company.
Berkeley’s idealism was a really interesting play on panentheism. When I have done research on Eastern Orthodoxy’s panentheistic views, I saw some people debating how to truly differentiate from Berkelian idealism:
The idea of God continually sustaining the universe: “God is not merely Creator of the universe, as His dynamic presence is necessary to sustain the existence of every created thing, small and great, visible and invisible.”
Okay, I have a serious problem with this post and I just have to express it: why are you using SimCity 2000 instead of Cities: Skylines? This seems like the greatest heresy within the essay. 🙂
I really enjoyed this post and have sometimes wondered the same thing. Did you ever play Sim Earth? That was the game that got me thinking more broadly about God than I had before. I’ve come to the conclusion that, were we in a simulation, there would be no way to empirically be sure, and it would look indistinguishable from our concepts of God.
I also think you’d enjoy David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”. He discusses the concept of God as related by ancient Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism – all of which have a concept of God that is remarkably similar (and completely at odds with the Mormon concept of God, which is more akin to Arianism than Christianity). Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher, and he is *very* familiar with philosophy, so engages with its strengths and best arguments.
Cities: Skylines is ABSOLUTELY my go to to play these days, but I wanted to arrange a suite of sax covers for SimCity 2000 so that’s what I did. XD
SimEarth would definitely have been more theoretically suiting, but for a similar reason as above, I spent a lot more time with SimCity 2000!
I think you (or maybe someone else) recommended The Experience of God, but I haven’t had a chance to read anything other than the Goodreads reviews about it. Based on that, it would definitely seem that what he is describing is definitely what I mean by the “traditional Christian God” who has features that make him something like a “plug figure” – not in a derogatory sense, but in a sense of what would be required to be philosophically rigorous. So it’s good that my glosses are recognizable XD.
I’d still say that the weakness of that model is that, for many, it’s not pastorally satisfying. Like, yeah, to emphasis that God is being itself or that which is necessary (especially as a precursor be or cause of everything contingent) might make philosophical sense, but it is not the warm and cuddly image of “Abba”, heavenly father. Traditionally theist theodicies are often unpersuasive because of this divide
Andrew, I can see why the cuddly father figure isn’t quite as pastorally satisfying, but then that brings the downsides of strictly thinking of God as a specific gender, race, etc., or as an object in space-time, etc. To me, that is pastorally unsatisfying. Still, I get that the theist God such as that of the main faith traditions can seem distant or impersonal to many. In my view, this is the power of Christianity and the concept of the incarnation. God isn’t an impersonal, distant God; instead, he broke into creation as a human, personally showed us The Way, defeated the powers of this world, and bridged the divide between humans and God.
I think Hart says it well:
“More to the point here, with the adoption of this language of God as Trinity, an entire metaphysical tradition had been implicitly abandoned. No longer could God in the “proper” sense be conceived of as an inaccessible Supreme Being dwelling at the top of the scale of essences, who acts upon creation only from afar, by a series of ever more remote deputations, and who is himself contained within the economy of the high and the low. If all of God’s actions in the Son and Spirit are nothing less than immediate actions of God himself, in the fullness of his divine identity, then creation and redemption alike are immediate works of God.”
Increasingly, I agree. To me, Mormonism tried to solve some “issues” of an amorphous God, but it introduced more problems. A literally embodied God enshrines sexism, heteronormativity, and racism into theology, so it is not a comfort.
That being said, I went down a rabbit hole this afternoon of videos comparing classical theism to theistic personalism, and it stuck me as explaining so much, especially here. Mormonism is on the latter side, but actually exaggerates that side so far that it raises additional issues.
I’m probably going to need to read more on how classical theists relate to the incarnation… Because it seems like it must be radically different than how theistic personalists would. It also highlights how very different the traditions are.