Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Orson Pratt: God as Attributes

Orson Pratt was one of the most brilliant scholars of the early LDS church, and his intellectualism often led to conflict with the leadership of Brigham Young.  Young was authoritarian, whereas Pratt was rational.  In many ways, they were both speculative in their theology, but to Young's authoritarian style, Pratt's approach was entirely too confrontational.  In 1853, it would seem that Young found a solution to this intellectual conflict: he sent Pratt on a mission to Washington DC, to testify to the Gentiles.  As part of this mission, and with the approval of the leadership, Pratt authored an apologetic tract on Mormon theology and practice entitled, "The Seer".

Pratt was a true LDS believer.  As he had learned from Joseph Smith, God was both the one being that created and governs the universe, as well as an exalted man.  God was both unchangeable, according to scripture, the same from everlasting to everlasting, yet the being we call "Heavenly Father" was once a man, and had progressed to become God.  The pre-mortal existence of man was in a realm speaking of the "Sons of God" who were in someway gods, yet there could only be one god.  Joseph Smith taught that god has an immortal, inseparably connected exalted body, and can only be in one place at a given point in time, yet the scriptures speak of god being everywhere.

Indeed, Mormon theology about a God who was once man, and the idea that man can become god is fraught with fundamental conflicts with the mainstream definition of God.  How can god be unchangeable, but the being we call god, either as God the Father transformed from mortal man to Heavenly Father, or as Jesus was once man yet progressed, line upon line in his mortal life, to become god.  If we as humans are fallible, how then can we become unchanging gods?

Orson Pratt's laid out a remarkable approach for answering this apparent paradox.  In the February 1853 edition of The Seer, Orson Pratt laid out his understanding of the pre-existence as a child of god, and his destiny as a god, thus resulting in a multiplicity -- indeed "millions" of gods.  How could this be reconciled?  Here are his words from The Seer, Volume 1, Issue 2:
All these Gods are equal in power, in glory, in dominion, and in the possession of all things ; each possesses a fulness of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of light, of intelligence ; each governs himself in all things by his own attributes, and is filled with love, goodness, mercy, and justice towards all. The fulness of all these attributes is what constitutes God. "God is Light." "God is Love." "God is Truth." The Gods are one in the qualities and attributes. Truth is not a plurality of truths, because it dwells in a plurality of persons, but it is one truth, indivisible, though it dwells in millions of persons. Each person is called God, not because of his substance, neither because of the shape and size of the substance, but because of the qualities which dwell in the substance. Persons are only tabernacles or temples, and TRUTH is the God, that dwells in them. If the fulness of truth, dwells in numberless millions of persons, then the same one indivisible God dwells in them all. As truth can dwell in all worlds at the same instant; therefore, God who is truth can be in all worlds at the same instant. A temple of iinmortal flesh, and bones, and spirit, can only be in one place at a time, but truth, which is God, can dwell in a countless number of such temples in the same moment. When we worship the Father, we do not merely worship His person, but we worship the truth which dwells in His person. When we worship the Son, we do not merely worship His body, but we worship truth which resides in Him. So, likewise, when we worship the Holy Ghost, it is not the substance which we alone worship, but truth which dwells in that substance. Take away truth from either of these beings, and their persons or substance would not be the object of worship. It is truth, light, and love that we worship and adore ; these are the same in all worlds ; and as these constitute God, He is the same in all worlds ; and hence, the inhabitants of all worlds are required to worship and adore the same God. Because God dwells in many temples, He frequently speaks to us, as though there were many Gods : this is true when reference is made to the number of His dwelling places ; baut it is not true, and cannot be true,, in any other sense. Therefore, in all our future statements and reasonings, when we speak of a plurality of Gods, let it be distinctly understood, that we have reference alone to a plurality of temples wherein the same truth or God dwells. And also when we speak of only one God, and state that He is eternal, without beginning or end, and that He is in all worlds at the same instant, let it be distinctly remembered, that we have no refer- ence to any particular person or substance, but to truth dwelling in a vast variety of substances. Wherever you find a fulness of wisdom, knowledge, truth, goodness, love, and such like qualities, there you find God in all His glory, power, and majesty, therefore, if you worship these adorable perfections you worship God. 
 Shortly after this was published, Brigham Young openly disagreed, saying that we don't worship attributes, but rather, a being.  This disagreement continued from late 1853 until around 1860, after which Orson Pratt was forced into submission by the Quorum of the Twelve to accept the Prophet's word without question.  He then gave a formal apology in a conference address.

Certainly many of Orson Pratt's pronouncements were speculations.  Curiously, the issue that caused the most dissension between him and Brigham Young was the Adam-God concept: Orson simply couldn't agree that Adam was an alien from another planet and who was appointed to be God of this earth.  As well, he couldn't agree, scripturally, that god continues to progress.  Here we have both Brigham Young and Orson Pratt speculating on the nature of god, and one was brought into submission because he wasn't the prophet.  Later, of course, Brigham Young's speculations around Adam-God and the progression of god have proved distinctly non-scriptural and problematic to later prophets.  In the end, who was right?

To me, it's important to observe that Orson Pratt's observations were a valid attempt to rationalize scriptural understanding of god with the god as defined by Joseph Smith.  Orson Pratt was a true believer, yet in his attempt to rationalize mormon theology, he came upon an idea, supported in scripture, that the eternal nature of god is a universal constant: truth, light, power, etc., are godly attributes, and a person possessing such attributes can and should be called "god".

Where Pratt caused confusion is to suggest that the attributes, disembodied, are objects of worship.  They are not.  It is not the attributes that make up god, but rather the attributes embodied in a person -- the "I AM" that make up god.  The body (the individual) and spirit (the attributes, metaphorically) become inseparably connected, and thus achieve the fullness of joy (power, truth, light, etc.).

As I see the Way

I see these attributes in the context of the Way.  The Way, as an abstract concept or attribute, is not god, never was, never will be.  The Way is what makes one God.  In Chinese daoist literature, the "Sage", or literally, "holy person", is characterized as being one who is in perfect harmony with the Way.  To me, Orson Pratt was on a trajectory to understand the Way in a sense that makes it real -- Any being who possesses the attributes (of the Way) and is in perfect harmony with the Way would be and is indistinguishable from god.

Sure, I understand this as being an exalted state, eventually to be achieved in LDS doctrine and theology.   But somehow, Jesus saw it differently: he saw that we could be one with him and with God in a very real, present sense.  To him, Psalm 82 spoke of mankind being gods in this life, not as a state to achieve, but rather, as state of existence in the here and now -- one who defends the poor and the fatherless, who does justice to the afflicted and the needy.  If there were any "Way" that Jesus best demonstrated, it was how we are to care for one another in unconditional love.  This was the Way of Jesus Christ: to love one another.

And this attribute, "Love", is worthy of worship.


  1. And the best way to worship Love is to embody it, to go through the process of becoming Love yourself..

  2. And the best way to worship Love is to embody it, to go through the process of becoming Love yourself..