Mormonism has a cosmic component far more visible and detailed than other Christian denominations. Not only is the Mormon God the Father embodied, but he lives somewhere in the Kolob system (see Abraham 3). Canonized Mormon scripture even provides an illustration of God’s dwelling place in the Book of Abraham’s Facsimile No. 2, as Figure 1, right in the center of the hypocephalus. The explanation provided with the image states that Figure 1 is “Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God.” No handwaving accompanied by vague Christian statements like “He lives in heaven … wherever that is” or puzzling claims like “God is everywhere and nowhere.” To Mormons, God lives right here in the Alpha Quadrant, on Kolob (or more likely on an M-class planet in the Kolob system). The sheer audacity of the claim is impressive. With his theological ideas, Joseph Smith boldly goes where no one went before.
More cosmic reflection is found in the first chapter of Moses (another canonized Mormon scripture). God states “worlds without number have I created” (Moses 1:33) and He then explains, in fittingly elevated language:
The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.Moses 1:37-39.
And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
These verses are really quite moving, with a spatial and temporal sweep that suggests many, many stars and planets, and perhaps billions of years, certainly well beyond the range of human history and our rather pedestrian solar system. At least that’s how one reads that passage in the 21st century. In the 19th century, the term “the Universe” referred to a much smaller entity. A lot has changed in 200 years of cosmology. Still, one must admire the scope and vision presented in the first chapter of Moses.
I could add other passages from LDS scripture and a variety of speculative statements by LDS leaders. I’m going to leave it to readers to note their favorite famous or infamous statements in the comments. (Check out the Wikipedia entry Mormon Cosmology if you need some ideas.) In the balance of the post, I’m going to give a few quotations from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (W. W. Norton & Co., 2017), a short but informative booklet that brings the reader up to speed on current facts and theories in real-world cosmology. The question lurking in the background, of course, is how and whether Mormon cosmology fits or doesn’t with real-world cosmology. At least Mormonism deserves some credit for actually proposing a cosmology. Even if the details don’t fit, at least the vision is there.
Star Stuff, Dark Matter, and All That
First, remember that until the first decades of the 20th century, it was thought that “the Universe” was just the millions of stars hanging together in our Milky Way galaxy. When those cloudy smudges visible through large telescopes turned out to be distant and independent galaxies, the size of the Universe quickly jumped by seven or eight orders of magnitude. The true size of the Universe is simply mind-boggling.
For the first billion years, the universe continued to expand and cool as matter gravitated into the massive concentrations we call galaxies. Nearly a hundred billion of them formed, each containing hundreds of billions of stars that undergo thermonuclear fusion in their cores. Those stars with more than about ten times the mass of the Sun achieve sufficient pressure and temperature in their cores to manufacture dozens of elements heavier than hydrogen, including those that compose planets and whatever life may thrive upon them.Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, p. 28.
A hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars … that makes ten thousand billion billion stars, with a good portion of those likely harboring planets of all shapes, sizes, and environments. It’s almost a certainty that someone else is out there somewhere.
Chapter 5, “Dark Matter,” tells us that “dark matter is our frenemy. We have no clue what it is. It’s kind of annoying. But we desperately need it in our calculations to arrive at an accurate description of the universe” (p. 87). It helps explain, for example, why galactic clusters stay clustered rather than flying apart, by providing the additional mass and gravity to keep the clusters together. And it provides a good chunk of the mass needed to keep the Universe from simply expanding forever and ever (but see chapter 6, “Dark Energy,” for the bad news about eternal expansion).
It turns out CSN&Y were on to something when they sang, “We are star dust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon.”
Only three of the naturally occurring elements were manufactured in the big bang. The rest were forged in the high temperature hearts and explosive remains of dying stars, enabling subsequent generations of star systems to incorporate this enrichment, forming planets and, in our case, people.Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, p. 115-16.
Finally, chapter 10, “Between the Planets,” highlights not just the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but the more recently recognized Kuiper belt (millions chunks of rock and ice beyond Neptune’s orbit) and Oort cloud (more millions of chunks, well beyond even the Kuiper belt). When comets come screaming through the inner solar system, then whip around the Sun and slingshot back out, this is where they came from. Once in a very long while one of them will catastrophically collide with planet Earth. That would happen a lot more often if Jupiter didn’t act like a big shield to eventually deflect or devour most of those incoming comets before a terrestrial collision event arises. Thank you, Jove.
It turns out that Earth is not the center of the Universe or even of our galaxy. Earth is sort of an average planet orbiting an average star well out in a spiral arm of the the Milky Way. As Tyson relates:
But high-mass stars fortuitously explode, scattering their chemically enriched guts throughout the galaxy. After nine billion years of such enrichment, in an undistinguished part of the universe (the outskirts of the Virgo Supercluster) in an undistinguished galaxy (the Milky Way) in an undistinguished region (the Orion Arm), an undistinguished star (the Sun) was born.Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, p. 29.
Undistinguished, perhaps. But it’s home. If you ever get flung across the galaxy to the Delta Quadrant, you and your shipmates will no doubt work very hard to get back to Earth.
What Does It All Mean?
The things I find striking in that cosmology summary are that we are made of elements that could only be formed in the cores of first-generation starts, then spewed across the galaxy in supernova events; that there are a hundred billion galaxies out there!; and that sooner or later one of those comets that comes careening into the inner solar system is going to hit planet Earth again. It means we are much more tied to this gigantic Universe and much more dependent for our very existence on certain features of it than we normally recognize.
What features of real-world cosmology do you find odd or impressive? What features of Mormon cosmology or statements about it in scripture or by LDS leaders do you like or dislike? Do you feel any need to integrate Mormon cosmology into real-world cosmology, or are they, for you, two independent lines of thought?
I’m going to avoid the obviously controversial origin of LDS cosmic beliefs and just stick with a question I’ve always had (even as a previous believer): does it make any sense at all that in this huge galaxy, the earth was the only planet inhabited by people evil enough to crucify the Savior? We were taught that no other world (among the millions) would do that. Just us. What?
And even more disturbing is the underlying antisemitism. Not only are we the most evil, but the Jews are the most evil of all “no other nation would crucify their God.” 2 Nephi 10.4.
Tyson’s “Astrophysics For People in a Hurry” is kind of a science-for-dummies book. It would be difficult to reconstruct a serious cosmology from it because it relies on a Relativity-driven framework. Einstein in bunk. Tesla, Maxwell, Steinmetz, Bose—their science is built an electromagnetic framework, where Relativity has no seat. Best to start with real scientists and real cosmology: Einstein and Tyson are for entertainment.
“Worlds Without End,” by John S. Lewis
“The Destinies of the Stars,” and “Worlds in the Making,” by Svante Arrhenius
These texts integrate cosmology and science so that atonement and creation are quietly implied.
Growing up I had a bishop with a quality amateur telescope and he taught all kinds of crazy semi-Mormon Doctrine mingled with cosmology. I used to think it was inspiring but now I think Mormon cosmology doesn’t sync well with science.
A few stumbling blocks for Mormon cosmology: evolution and age of the planet, speed of light speed limit, incomprehensible distances, the Big Rip / Big Crunch. Half of my ward doesn’t want to wear masks for Covid, let alone the messiness that comes with difficult science.
Nibley has some cool quotes about cosmology.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Travis, I think I’ll stick with Einstein and Tyson.
Toad, I think “crazy semi-Mormon Doctrine mingled with cosmology” is something we’ve all bumped into a time or two.
How does light travel? It doesn’t. Light is a perturbation of a field. Thinking of light as something that goes somewhere is like thinking that the water molecules in the ocean move from one shore to another just because waves do. The excited field behaves in terms of harmonic, resonance, etc., not in terms of speed or distance. Simple stuff.
The science of Maxwell, Steinmetz, Bose, and Tesla confounds Relativity and actually serves the material world, humanity, and cosmology.
None of Einstein’s work is useful to predict or describe: one needs to invent “dark matter,” (which nobody can explain), in order to plug the holes of Relativity. Super scientific, man.
Even taking the JS interpretation of the facsimile and the Book of Abraham as being authentically writings of a real Abraham, grandfather if Israel, I have often wondered why anyone feels compelled to take Kolob any more literally than the old view of heaven as a location above the dome surrounding the earth & sky in which the stars are fixed, or any more literally than the Greeks’ Mt. Olympus. Is there some reason Mormons should feel compelled to such literalism and so obtuse as to mythology or metaphor?
According to the tv show “Ancient Aliens”, Moroni was an alien from the Pleiades star cluster (or as they say in the show, Moronee told Joseph to use the oorum and thoomim to translate the Book of Mormon.)
I promise I am not making this up.
“ To Mormons, God lives right here in the Alpha Quadrant…”
Alpha quadrant? Puh-lease. Clearly no closer than the delta quadrant.
I don’t think religion mixes well with physics or cosmology. Does mix much better with literature and philosophy and ethics, making your allusion to Star Trek quite apt.
If any of you are curious about what Travis is talking about, google “the electric universe.” It’s essentially young earth creationism that tries to explain the universe by ignoring all discoveries in physics after the 19th century. Never mind that both relativity and the standard model have been validated through test after test. The whole “theory” is almost as laughable as those guys who pitch that fossil evidence actually supports a deluvian.
Einstein. Tesla, Maxwell, Steinmetz, Bose—they’re all a bunch of hacks.
And the earth is flat.
None of the scientists I mentioned have anything to do with the “electric universe” evangelicals you speak of. No association whatsoever. Your accusation is both mistaken and aimed to attack.
You spoke nothing of the science, but instead, proudly showcased your aptitude for google search, and your ineptitude for reading books.
“These texts integrate cosmology and science so that atonement and creation are quietly implied.”
Here Travis gives himself away. For him, the purpose of science isn’t to discover and explore, rather it should be to confirm pre-existing religious beliefs. He watches a few YouTube videos on the discredited pseudo-scientific Electric Universe Theory upheld only by denialist crackpots and hey, he is an expert on physics who knows more than Einstein. Of course, he just wants to pose as some “non-partial” observer with “questions” and refuses to take ownership of the theory he is so clearly influenced by (a common tactic employed by pseudo-science peddlers and conspiracists to make it harder for critics to pin them down). You’re embarrassing yourself, pal. No one is buying anything you’re writing.
Dude, your entire comment is a false accusation. Nothing I said had anything to do with the “electric universe.” To clarify: Maxwell, Bose, Steinmetz, and Tesla have nothing to do with “electric universe,” and I do not subscribe to “electric universe” or plasma theory.
Because you mentioned YouTube, I would refer you to Ken Wheeler’s channel on magnetism and the dielectric.
My argument is that if you supplant Einstein with Maxwell, Bose, Steinmetz, or Tesla, there’s room for cosmology.
I should preface that nothing in this comment has anything to do with the “electric universe” or plasma theory, nor should anything in this comment be construed in any way that suggests so.
For those that still read books, these texts offer cosmology from the perspective of well-accomplished scientists.
“Worlds Without End,” by John S. Lewis
“The Destinies of the Stars,” and “Worlds in the Making,” by Svante Arrhenius
Neither Lewis nor Arrhenius have anything to do with “electric universe.”
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Travis, I don’t think you’re going to convert anyone, but thanks for visiting. I’m sure you have taught some memorable High Priest lessons in your day. Everyone else, this is the “Cosmic Mormonism” post, not the pile on Travis post.
Rockwell said, “I don’t think religion mixes well with physics or cosmology.” That’s the whole Science and Religion debate, with Stephen J. Gould championing NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magesteria), the idea that religion and science occupy separate sphere of thinking and inquiry. Others think there must be an encounter, a reconciling, an understanding. I used to do a lot of Science and Religion posts, but not so much lately.
Wondering, the Mormon insistence on reading everything oh-so-literally is just how they think they are supposed to read and understand the scriptures. LDS leaders and the LDS curriculum have certainly reinforced this approach. Another example of curriculum fail.
Travis, the proponents of the electric universe model extrapolate the findings of 19th century scientists overly broadly and then ignore the proven findings of 20th century science that is inconvenient for their religious world view. Whether or not the views of the authors you cite are directly associated with the electic universe or not, the deeply flawed analytical methodology still arrives at the similar faulty conclusions. It’s kind of like watching Trump being unable to comprehend that Russia is our adversary, because Putin gave him a soccer ball.
Travis, you say I write a false accusation and then proceed in the rest of your comment to confirm everything I wrote about you. You say you’re not promoting the Electric Universe theory and then proceed to refer me to Ken Wheeler, one of the biggest proponent of the theory, whose clear motivation behind espousing the theory is religious. Wheeler appears to have no standing whatsoever in the larger Physics community, so why should I trust him?
Regarding the Christus image featured in this post, I’ve always been more fascinated with the mural than the statue. You could remove the statue; I’d still want to go to Temple Square and sit quietly in front of the mural. It captures the majesty of the Mormon cosmos. For me, the Mormon cosmos has become a creative playground for my writing, as reflected in some of my Wheat & Tares posts treating the Premortal Life.
Truman G. Madsen, in his lecture series on Joseph Smith, said this: “Through the Prophet Joseph Smith was revealed a religion for the Space Age, for the cosmos, for the whole universe.” (Lecture 3: “Joseph Smith and Spiritual Gifts”)
What turns me off about Mormon cosmology as a religious tool is that it casts humans as the main characters in the story. That premise engenders a lack of humility. I really believe we need to contemplate the possibility humans are at best a supporting character in the cosmos, for humility’s sake if nothing else.
What turns me off about real-world cosmology is that it has a sucky ending. The universe expands and then dies a heat death. Great scientist communicators like Tyson, along with others like Brian Greene and Brian Cox, tell us to look on the bright side and be grateful we get to exist during this cosmologically interesting time. I like these guys. I am often inspired by them, and they have made science far more accessible to this English Major. But I still want to look each of them in the eyes and say, “Your ending sucks.”
Also, one more thing. I started reading about Electric Universe theory, which Travis says he is not motivated by or supports. I read EU theory’s view about light and what did I find? Well, it turns out that the idea that light is a “perturbation of a field” (which Travis said in his first comment to this post) is one of the first things that EU theory proponents talk about. Travis, why don’t you just admit it. You’re deeply influenced by EU theory.
Just because a bunch of “electric universe” fans use similar lingo—ie. perturbation of a field to describe light—doesn’t means that it amounts to the same theory. If you cannot differentiate between plasma theorists and electromagnetic theorists, you have no businesses discussing this stuff.
Ken Wheeler does not buy into the speculative imaginations of “electric universe” fans, and neither do I.
As far as I have read, there is no succinct theory about anything that comes from “electric universe.” Plasma theory and electromagnetic theory have similarities, but that does not make them the same. Your knee jerk response is symptomatic of folks that learn from google and not from reading actual books.
The heat death ending sucks if you limit yourself to what is directly observable. However, if you assume a form of the bubble universe theory, then the end state of this universe does not necessitate the end of all things, but that out universe is merely one out if infinite universes that may exist. In other words, we can expand our religious cosmology from “worlds without number” to “universes without number”, and be consistent with current secular cosmological models.
Dave B – one interesting teaching from the bishop of my teenage years was that most stars are binary systems. He said that men and women become literal suns (stars) as part of celestial progression and live for eternity as stars. I remember thinking that sounds really boring.
I’ve never heard that teaching from anyone else, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he read it in some obscure journal of Orson Pratt for example. He’s also the first guy who told me about the 2nd anointing, and this was before the internet, so he was definitely reading something directionally Mormon.
Just some things I’ve heard in Mormon venues over the years:
– “Jesus is the Savior of our galaxy. Each galaxy has it’s own Savior.” – Prominent BYU Religion Professor
– “Ancient aliens came down and taught Abraham how to build the pyramids. He would strike the stone blocks with a rod that caused them to levitate and they could be easily moved.” – Both in Gospel Doctrine Class and a couple of priesthood classes.
– “Any evidence of ancient life and geology, like fossils and oil deposits, are taken from other planets that were used to build the earth.” – Like, everywhere.
As a teen I read a short story, I believe written by Gene Roddenberry, about a rocketeer that frantically (and fanatically) traveled from planet to planet trying to get there at the time when Jesus was crucified and resurrected. He was always too late and drove himself mad.
I think our Mormon penchant for literalism in all things is closely tied to the heavily promoted concept that the leaders are always to be followed. To some, that translates to everything they say whether it is theological or cosmological or dietary, etc.
Literalism feeds our hunger for certainty and may be perceived as “truth”. It also provides the illusion that we alone are right because no other religion has “all the answers” (maybe because they don’t think it’s a relevant question or one the needs to be answered).
As I have taken a step back from this literalism and certainty, I find unexpected peace and satisfaction in embracing the mystery.
Once again, JohnW:
Maxwell, Bose, Steinmetz, Tesla all predate “electric universe” by almost a century. Theirs is electromagnetic theory, not plasma theory.
Not sure if your comment responses resemble a troll, but this whole topic may be above your reading level. Stick to YouTube and worship Einstein, bro.
DaveB, thank you for a cool topic. Geocentric astronomy/astrology in religious context would be an interesting discussion—especially against background of Joseph Smith translation/revelation texts. If you decide to go there, two texts light a fire:
“Astrology of the Old Testament,” Karl Anderson (1892)
“Astronomy, Papyrus, Covenant,” John Gee & Brian Hauglid (2005)
My interest in Mormon cosmology pretty much ended when I went to the temple for the first time. It was one of the older endowment films, where you could clearly see strings holding up the “planets” during the creation phase. I had much higher expectations going into it.
That, and this gem from Joseph Fielding Smith:
“We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.”
I came to the conclusion that much of what the Church teaches about space, the universe and the cosmos is made up. The scientific community seems to have a much better grasp on how the universe works than the Church does.
All models are wrong, but some are useful. – George E.P. Box.
Tom succinctly highlights the underlying issue.
Relativity is useful for modeling space and time at the macro level, but is wrong at the subatomic level.
The standard model is useful for modeling subatomic particle interactions, but is wrong at the macro level.
Maxwell, Tesla, Bose, etc. models are useful for understanding and applying physics based principles at the everyday, practical level, but they are wrong outside their carefully controlled contexts.
The Kolob model is useful for understanding the scope of God’s creations, our relationship with him and our divine potential, but is wrong for understanding the fundamental physical properties of the universe.
“If you cannot differentiate between plasma theorists and electromagnetic theorists…”
It’s kind of like the difference in 9/11 Truther circles between missile theorists who believe that the planes hitting the Twin Towers were missiles and hologram theorists who believe that the planes were not planes but holograms and that government-planted explosives is what entirely brought down the Twin Towers. These theories you propose are either outdated or rooted in pseudoscience that can’t gain traction in the mainstream, probably because there is a big conspiracy out there against them. And we must fight this conspiracy on YouTube and comment sections in blogs. Wake up, sheeple!
This alternative cosmology that you propose if it had widespread acceptance in the mainstream and across physics departments on a worldwide scale would be called cosmology. Much like how alternative medicine that is proved to actually work is just called medicine.
JLM, thanks for mentioning the idea of multiple universes. It’s interesting how scientific theory and hypothesizing create ever bigger gaps in which believers can hope god is present (god of the gaps). It’s like the deeper one goes into theoretical physics, or the deeper one goes into Mormon theology, the more they seem to be able to coexist. Of course, that’s only because at that point they are in a place which, as you say, cannot be directly observed. So we can just speculate in whatever manner pleases us, which I’m fine with as long as we, scientists and people of faith, admit that we are speculating.
I came across a great paper entitled “Crank Astronomy as a Teaching Tool” authored by W.T. Bridgman of Global Science & Technology, Inc., Stuart Robbins of the University of Colorado, and C. Alex Young of NASA. It can be accessed by a simple google search. In it, they show how teachers need to be aware of crank philosophies out there, specifically Young Earth Creationism and Electric Universe Theory, and how to effectively combat many of their claims. A great read.
How about a post on the subject of Mormon eschatology?
Chet, That’s a fantastic idea.
Jake Christensen – “Your ending sucks.”
Unless you’re in Futurama, then it all repeats itself. Just ten feet higher than the existence before it.
Thanks for the post, Dave B. Also, a thank you for MOST of the comments.
When my wife and I were raising our children, one year we brought for Christmas a nice edition of the adult National Geographic atlas. It had a nice section with drawings and photos of our solar system, galaxies, and the universe. There was also a brief write-up, that included a statement that has remained with me: the universe is not only stranger than we realize, it is even stranger than we can begin to imagine.
So it is with Mormonism‘s strange conceptions of a strange cosmos. While I have enjoyed reading Joseph Smith’s revelations about the cosmos in the POGP, over the years, and expanding our knowledge of the universe is important, they are not to me essential.
Fortunately, I have never had to deal with the subject of ancient aliens building pyramids in Priesthood class, but I have nevertheless heard lots of weird stuff, there (mostly political). In between all the wonderful things about the Restored Gospel, there is SOMETHING about the Church that makes it a magnet for nuts. I was a brand-new convert to the Church when my first Bishop tried to get me to read Hyrum Andrus’ books, and fortunately for me, I immediately realized that my time would be better spent on the scriptures and other books. I
Fortunately, the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be summed up in Christ’s admonition to live God and our fellow man, Paul’s exhortation to charity, and the sermons of King Benjamin and Alma the Younger.
The high point of Mormon cosmology is man’s place in it. Chet is right, a good post on eschatology would be great. Things like eternal progression, being able to take knowledge gained during life through the veil, Mother-in-Heaven, being creators in the heavens, and a progressing God are very interesting concepts. We have a very challenging concept of what occurs after death. We could, however, do a little work on a woman’s place. And the role of Goddesses.
Thanks for the comments, everyone. This has been a great discussion thread. Everyone take a bow.
I will take up the challenge and address LDS eschatology in a future post. Time to dig up my copy of Grant Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1999) and maybe the last three chapters of Charlie Harrell’s This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2011), titled “The Second Coming and Millennium,” “The Resurrection,” and “Final Judgment.” Because I don’t just shoot from the hip on these things, I actually do research for my posts.
Though I would argue the discussion should be more about soteriology, not eschatology.