Is the physical higher than the spiritual? (yet again)

Bruce Charlton again argues that bodies are “better” than spirits (posted on Junior Ganymede with a link to the full article on his personal blog). (See previous installments on this topic here and here.)

• Contrasting Mormonism with traditional Christianity

He begins as usual by contrasting the Mormon position on the physical versus the spiritual, with what he takes to be the traditional Christian view. He thinks traditional Christians believe that it’s “better” to be a spirit than a body, indeed that bodies are bad while spirits are good. Accordingly Christians secretly wish, even if we won’t admit it, that we could be pure spirits floating freely, and not weighed down by physical bodies.

But the fact that one thing is higher than another, doesn’t imply logically that the lower thing is bad. We hold beings of pure spirit to be higher (more excellent) than composite beings of spirit and matter. Nevertheless we hold composite beings of spirit and matter to be marvels of God’s creation.

Similarly, composite beings of spirit and matter are higher than beings of matter only; but it doesn’t follow that beings of matter only are bad. We hold plants and animals to be marvels of creation and sources of beauty and wonder as well.

In fact we hold all of God’s creation to be very, very good, from the highest and most powerful creature of pure spirit, to the very ground we walk on, and the atoms of which it’s composed. We don’t wish rocks could become plants; nor plants animals; nor animals human beings. And for the same reason we don’t wish human beings to be angels (unembodied creatures of pure intellect). All creatures have their respective, and perfectly respectable, places in the hierarchy of creation.

• God envy?

Possibly, Bruce himself wishes to be the highest form of creature in existence, and will never be satisfied with anything less — and therefore assumes that traditional Christians take the same view. If pure spirits are considered higher, then ipso facto, traditional Christians must wish to be pure spirits. But taken to its logical conclusion, this would require all Christians to wish that they were God himself, the unique and all-powerful Lord of creation. Yet surely the wish to be God has no part in traditional orthodox Christianity. Nor does the wish to be an angel.

I can say with absolute sincerity that my religion has never led me to wish I were anything but fully human. Certainly I’d like to be freed from my body in its fallen state and burdened with concupiscence — but not so that I can be free-floating and disembodied. What fulfillment would that hold? For me, fulfillment is a body in its prime, healthy and strong, with all its needs met, not always trying to tempt me to sin but obeying my will.

• Are spirits physical?

Bruce asks, “Why bother mucking-around ‘confined’ in bodies [after the resurrection] when we might we free-ranging spirits…?”

Speaking of spirits as “free-ranging,” Bruce apparently conceives of them as material beings, albeit of a more “diffuse” type. He also speaks of their needing to be “insulated” from one another lest they become commingled; all of which betrays a material understanding of spirit. This echoes Joseph Smith’s understanding of the nature of spirit, when he wrote that “All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8.)

I suspect therefore that what Bruce is actually comparing is the Mormon notion of spirit with the Mormon notion of bodies. I might in fact agree with Bruce, that solid, earthly bodies are superior to spirits made of much weaker stuff. A spirit of this type I suppose might be weaker both mentally and physically than an embodied personage.

But this has no relation to the traditional Christian understanding of spirit as an immaterial intellect. To such a being, words like “diffuse” and “free-ranging” are flatly inapplicable. Since a spirit has no parts, there is nothing in him to diffuse. Since he is not located in space, there is no “where” in which he may range, nor would he feel confined to one place such that he might feel the wandering urge.

• Are thoughts physical?

Bruce contends that “the spirit mind is permeable” (“permeable” being another term implying materiality). Therefore, “when a spirit thinks, the thoughts may not be his or her own thoughts”. Bodies, then, are “methods or mechanisms by which minds are ‘insulated’ from other minds, and concentrated” (note again the implication of materiality in these terms).

Bruce seems to be conceiving of thoughts as material things which, if not contained within a body and thereby “insulated” from other spirits, will wander about and get mixed up, like radio signals, with the thoughts of other spirits, and no one will know whose is whose. Perhaps he is again projecting his own, human experience of thought onto immaterial beings.

Embodied humans can’t help but think in terms of phantasms — mental representations of physical things, whether pictures or sounds, or spoken or spelled-out words. We constantly imagine the things that we think about and put them into some sort of physical form in our minds.

Any phantasm that enters our mind we assume to have come from within, since we don’t know how else it could get there. Therefore Bruce, when he imagines spirits roaming free without boundaries, can’t help but imagine stray phantasms strewn about here and there, intermingling with the phantasms emitted by other unbounded spirits. In which case, how would a spirit know whether a phantasm entering his mind was his own or that of another?

But what if spirits (as held by traditional Christians) don’t think in phantasms? In that case no stray phantasms would exist that might be strewn about and broadcast, as a spirit wandered about among his fellows.

Another way to think of it, is that Bruce seems to conceive of a spirit’s thought as an item of common currency, in the way that material things are common currency among you and I. We can both look at the same sunset or eat the same food, or hear the same words, and often have the same reaction to it, or understand the same thing by it. It’s something external to both of us, which we both can access through our senses.

But are the thoughts of spirits common currency in this sense, such that either of two spirits who happen to be in close proximity (assuming the applicability of that term) can share the same thought, in the way that two embodied humans can share the experience of hearing the same spoken word? Or can a spirit very well distinguish his own thoughts from  those of other spirits? Are the thoughts of each spirit, in fact, private to himself?

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that each individual angel is a species unto himself. In which case, maybe the thoughts of one angel are not immediately translatable into the thoughts of another, even assuming that each angel’s thoughts were not private to himself.

• Phantasms an advantage?

Bruce’s point in all this, is that embodied beings are better because they have “greater agency” than disembodied beings, partly because their thoughts don’t get confused with those of others.

But I might argue that a spirit has greater agency, since he is not limited to acquiring his knowledge through his senses, nor by a discursive reasoning process. A spirit sees all sides of a problem or issue at once, and grasps its implications immediately, without having to work through it step-by-step.

It’s possible that a resurrected human being could do the same. Since Jesus after his resurrection could walk through walls and appear and disappear, maybe the limitations we experience due to our materiality don’t exist in the resurrected state. Nevertheless, even if we do shed some of our earthly, bodily limitations in heaven, why believe that we will surpass beings of pure spirit in our ability to think quickly and clearly? In what way could a body, especially an earthly body — itself lacking intelligence and always demanding a part of our attention — be a help rather than a hindrance to quick, clear thinking?

• ‘Better given certain premises’ versus ‘better per se’

Bruce also makes the following argument for “why bodies are better”:

“To answer this seems to require a sense of divine limitation which is anathema to most Christians – even though the Bible is full of it… full, that is, of an apparently accepted implicit assumption that God can only achieve certain purposes by certain linear and sequential actions – that God is limited in how he can achieve things, and that God achieving things requires time as well as the consent of Men.”

This argument seems unintentionally ironic: Once one accepts that God is limited, it becomes easier to understand why bodies are better. Doesn’t this assume that a body is a limitation?

Another way of stating the argument is that assuming all things, including God himself, are not separate from, but must act within a material universe, then it’s better to be a material being. But isn’t this just a truism?

Working under the assumption that you have to make things happen in a step-by-step manner — i.e. in a material manner — then a material body is an advantage. But that’s just saying that in a material environment, concrete bodies are better than wispy bodies or no bodies. If you assume that all things having to do with salvation must be carried out within such an environment, then a material body is better, or even necessary.

Indeed. That would explain why God gave us bodies on this earth, and why Jesus became incarnate. It was his will that his plan of salvation should be enacted within his own material creation.

But it doesn’t follow from this premise that bodies are higher and better than spirits per se. Nor does it follow that it’s better for God himself to be an embodied personage — unless you assume at the start that he needs a body to work out his salvation within a material environment, like us.

In short, Bruce fails to distinguish between “better for us given God’s purposes and the environment in which he has placed us,” and “better per se.” As St. Thomas writes,

“All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. Therefore God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end.”

ST I, Q. 91, A. 3.

There have been groups of Christians — condemned by the Church as heretics — who made Bruce’s mistake in reverse: They assumed that because our bodies were stricken with concupiscence owing to the Fall, that bodies, and all matter, were bad per se. Happiness, they thought, consisted in liberation from the physical. But this is the same error as Bruce’s: They said that because bodies are bad within this particular environment, they’re bad always and everywhere; whereas Bruce says that because bodies are advantageous, indeed essential, within this particular environment, they’re advantageous always and everywhere.

But the traditional Christian view of spirits being higher than bodies assumes not the contingent perspective of creation, but the absolute perspective of eternity.

Sin and (non)procreation

This is in response to a post and comment on the Junior Ganymede blog, regarding the way to “right” the world, which, according to the post, is for good people to raise families and teach their children to do the same. Along the way, the post makes the point that any religion that isn’t having kids is a failure, and “Any institution that isn’t reproducing itself with children is sick.”

Bruce Charlton, in a comment, states that this is a good litmus test for a healthy institution. Basically, if it’s reproducing it passes the litmus test, and if it’s not it doesn’t. Passing the litmus test doesn’t mean that the institution is healthy, since it may be unhealthy in other ways. But failing that litmus test means it is definitely unhealthy.

I don’t disagree that an institution that is not reproducing itself is unhealthy, in the sense that it’s less likely to survive and grow than one which is constantly replenishing itself; though on the other hand, the Christian Church started out very tiny, and look at it today. It may shrink for a generation or two but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will die. Still, for a living thing to shrink rather than grow, even if only temporarily, may fairly be called an illness.

However I’m not so sure that procreation per se is the issue. I think the issue is rather moral laxity in general. And moral laxity in the Christian Church ultimately means the loss of the sense of sin and the fear of God, the failure to realize that sin displeases God, and that sin, and God’s displeasure with sin, is that from which Jesus came to save us.

We have instead adopted the idea that God is never displeased with us, for any reason, and although he would like it if we would be good, he likes us regardless, so no biggie.

Procreation is not a thing that needs to be encouraged by religion or otherwise. People will engage in the procreative act, and the procreative act will result in children. The reason people are having no kids is due to thwarting the natural results of that act. This is what is new in our age which bears directly on reproduction; this is the elephant in the room: We’re procreating less because we have invented new ways of thwarting the natural results of sex, and legitimized others, allowing us to experience its pleasure without its main consequence.

Catholic morality is set up in such a way that if it’s followed seriously and faithfully, procreation will happen virtually automatically.

Catholics at one time (pre-1960s) were known for having large families. The reason for this, mainly, was the prohibition against birth control — which at one time was common to all Christian religions, but after about 1930 became a peculiarly Catholic thing. The prohibition against extra-marital sex was still common to all faiths, so the main thing distinguishing Catholics from most other Christians was their refusal to limit family size through the use of birth control within marriage.

What is the difference between Catholics of that time, and those of our own? Not the Church’s teaching. The moral strictures which resulted in Catholics having unusually large families in the past, are still on the books. The main difference is the moral laxity which has infected the Church’s hierarchy and priesthood. No longer is sexual morality preached from the pulpit (or in religious ed. classes), nor the need to abstain from Communion while in the state of mortal sin. As many have noted, since Vatican II the Communion lines are long, while the Confession lines are short. The focus is on mercy to the exclusion of justice.

If the Church recovered its seriousness in this regard, would large families again be the result? Certainly. Granted, the Church might suddenly lose half its membership. But those who remained would be those who took their faith seriously, and these would either procreate or remain celibate — and most people don’t feel called to celibacy. If you forbid the thwarting of the natural results of sexual intercourse, you will have procreation aplenty, because there is always sexual intercourse aplenty. If the only morally licit way of indulging your sexual appetites is within marriage and in a manner which presents no barrier to procreation, then people who care about morality but don’t want to live celibately, will most certainly procreate.

For the Protestant churches, the answer isn’t so cut-and-dried. For Protestant churches to get serious about their own morality would not necessarily result in more procreation, since for them sex and procreation are morally divisible: It’s perfectly allowable to have sex while thwarting its natural result. So while they will continue having plenty of sexual intercourse, this won’t result in plenty of children.

Some Mormons argue that their religion is uniquely positioned to survive and thrive in our age, because of their emphasis on eternal marriage and family. But they too have no moral objection to thwarting the natural results of sexual intercourse; at least, it’s not categorically forbidden, and is left to the discretion of individuals. Overagainst this obstacle to procreation they place their emphasis on eternal marriage and the family, and other doctrines which provide positive encouragement to procreate. It’s for these reasons, they believe, that they manage to procreate at a higher rate than other Christians generally. Still, their rates of reproduction are lower today than they used to be, just like everyone else’s, and by the same cause.

I submit that it’s the Catholic Church’s moral teachings that would result in the largest increases in procreation, if only they were again seriously and earnestly preached, since they rely not on encouragement or the hope of future blessing as incentives to procreate, but simply on human nature as God made it.

Is the physical higher than the spiritual?

Bruce Charlton argues once again that the solid is better than the spiritual, this time on his own blog under the title “Why is incarnation (being embodied) a higher state than life as a pure spirit?“.


He starts out saying that the idea behind “one of the most profound, yet simple, insights of Mormon theology” is that “God is incarnate”, and that “this mortal life is primarily about ‘getting a body’ – the work of Jesus Christ was (in part) to enable all men to be resurrected, and live eternally incarnate (and cleansed of corruption). This, Bruce says, “was a breakthrough in theology”.

It may be a breakthrough, but it’s entirely consistent with traditional Christian doctrine. Any Catholic can say without fear of violating orthodoxy that God became incarnate, that this mortal life is about us getting bodies, and that Jesus’ work was to enable all men to live eternally in resurrected bodies freed from corruption.

Admittedly when Bruce says “God is incarnate”, what he probably means is that God the Father has a physical body, and not that Jesus – God the Son – became incarnate (though he believes that too). But my point is, Bruce’s statement of Christ’s work and the purpose of our life on earth seems to have no relation to whether or not the Father has a body.


Why, then, is it a problem to believe that God is not embodied? And why is it a “breakthrough” to believe that he is? By “breakthrough” I assume Bruce means that it solves some previously intractable problem. But what problem does it solve?

According to Bruce the problem is that “the religious tradition has tended strongly towards seeing pure spiritual life as a higher form of life than embodiment.” Christians have “often lapsed into talking about the body as corruption and the spirit as higher and purer and more divine. Consequently, mortal incarnate life was often perceived as intrinsically second rate or actually pointless, compared with spiritual life in Heaven.”

That last sentence is correct, and in fact I will say it right now: Mortal incarnate life as lived by fallen humanity is “second rate” compared with spiritual life in heaven. But not because it’s worse to live in a body. Does Bruce think that traditional Christians believe it’s best to be freed from our bodies, in order to become pure spirits in heaven — and never to be resurrected? Does he think that on the day of resurrection Christians will recoil in horror, begging to be spared the “second rate” life of living in a body once again?

Obviously this has never been the teaching of the traditional Christian Church. It has always been taught dogmatically that Christians who die in the state of grace will be resurrected and will live forever with Christ, in heaven, in their resurrected bodies, and that this is paradise.

Bruce argues that because there has arisen repeatedly thoughout history the heresy that spirit is good and matter is evil, therefore the Mormon doctrine that God the Father is embodied solves this problem once and for all. But there’s another way of solving this problem once and for all:  which is the traditional teaching that matter, like everything else God made, is good, and that the problem with living on earth in a human body is not the body per se but the consequences on the human body resulting from the Fall; and that it’s therefore necessary to discipline the body by fasting and penance in order not to be ruled by the body but to rule it, and thereby to avoid sin and attain to the resurrection of our bodies, after which we will be free from the consequences of the Fall and able to enjoy our bodies to the full without fear of their leading us into sin.


I suppose Bruce’s argument boils down to this: When Christians believe that God is pure spirit, this causes them to consider spirit the highest and best thing, and to denigrate the body. Whereas if they believe God is embodied, then they will respect and revere matter and their own bodies.

But didn’t Christians already believe that God was embodied, before Mormonism came along? Did we not believe that Christ was embodied, and that he was God?

On the other hand, don’t we and the Mormons also believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit? Yet according to Mormon teaching the Holy Spirit “is a personage of spirit, without a body of flesh and bones.” There is no more contradiction between the Father being unembodied and matter being good, than there is between the Holy Spirit being unembodied and matter being good; is there?

The heresy that matter is evil arises not because of the Father being unembodied, but because of man’s fallen nature. The heretic sees that his body leads him into sin through the various lusts of the flesh. He finds it virtually impossible to prevent this. He reads in the scriptures that “[T]he one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Jn. 6:63); “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (Gal. 6:8); “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). He concludes that the spirit is good and the body is evil. If this heresy could be defeated by abandoning the belief in God’s spiritual nature, perhaps it could be defeated even more effectively by excising these verses from the scriptures. But we don’t abandon truth to defeat heresy.

Heresy is always a perversion of truth, a skewing or exaggeration of one truth at the expense of others. People can pervert any doctrine they want. The doctrine of God’s being embodied is itself susceptible of being skewed or exaggerated at the expense of other truths (and I would argue that it has; but that’s another topic), thus giving rise to heresy.

But the heresy of bodies being evil is not a skewing of the belief in God’s spiritual nature. This part they get exactly right: That God is pure spirit and free of bodily concupiscence. The part they skew is the doctrine of the Fall. Rather than thinking of their bodies as good things under a curse as a result of sin, but capable of redemption, they think of them as bad things through and through. They think this way despite the Church’s insistence that the body is good, and despite the proof of the body’s eventual glorification and redemption that is provided by Christ’s Resurrection.


Bruce asks, “So, why is incarnation a higher state than pure spirit? Why is it a spiritual progression to ‘get a body’?”

He answers by explaining that we’re not “ghosts in machines”, but rather, composites of body and soul. We don’t inhabit our bodies like a man wearing a suit; “rather, the two become one”. But again this is no improvement on traditional orthodoxy, since it is traditional orthodoxy.

Next he explains that by becoming incarnate, “the immaterial spirit comes to inhabit the material world. The soul thereby attains the fullest possible integration with the whole of reality.”

This argument makes sense on the assumption of the Mormon belief that we have all existed from eternity as disembodied “intelligences”. Since it’s the nature of human beings to have a body, naturally we are happier in bodies. Probably it would feel like a great advantage, after an eternity of being disembodied, finally to have a chance to be embodied, not only on this earth but forevermore.

But according to traditional Christian belief, body and soul are created at one and the same time, as a complete whole. There is no time when we exist as disembodied spirits, excepting the interval between death and resurrection. For orthodox Christians there is no eternal, disembodied preexistence from which obtaining a body constitutes a great relief and the solution to a long-endured privation.


Bruce writes that “Incarnation is more a matter of concentration than of constraint”.

Again this seems to address the problem of preexisting, disembodied spirits, or intelligences. Joseph Smith writes in the scriptural book of the Doctrine & Covenants, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” D&C 131:7-8. With this in mind the idea of “concentration” makes sense. Smith seems to have in mind spirits who are not entirely immaterial, but who are made up of a finer matter than that with which we are familiar. In this context it might make sense to speak of the concentration of this “fine”, “pure” matter into something more solid, as being an advantage, enabling us to interact with the denser matter of our world.

But if we’re speaking not of fine matter but of pure spirit, what is there to concentrate into matter? Pure spirit is not dissipated matter in need of concentration; it’s no matter at all.


Bruce writes that “enhanced creative power is a product of that greater concentration and of fuller self-awareness, which is characteristic of the incarnate soul”.

Here Bruce makes bald assertions: that the “concentration” involved in becoming embodied gives one fuller self-awareness, resulting in “enhanced creative power”. But what basis is there for saying that a pure spirit is less self-aware than an embodied man? It seems to me the opposite: An embodied man lives within time, and therefore experiences reality one moment at a time. He also lives in space and experiences reality one “space” at a time, the space in which his physical body happens to be located. His eyes see the physical things that are in his field of vision. Can an embodied man see every part of his body at once? Can he see inside his body with his physical eyes? How conscious is he of the workings of his inner organs?

If a physical body is higher than a spiritual mind, this implies that his thoughts have a physical rather than a spiritual basis. Are his thoughts, then, physically contained within his brain? Aside from the philosophical difficulties this presents, how many of his thoughts can he think at one time? Has he perfect awareness of his subconscious at every moment? Has he full and complete understanding of his feelings and emotions?

It seems that a being of pure spirit, not limited in space or time, would have a more complete awareness of his entire self, than a being made up of trillions of cells and dependent on those cells for his self-awareness. All of those cells are him, according to Bruce, since he is, and doesn’t merely inhabit, his body. So full self-awareness must include awareness of every one of those cells. But the cells themselves in a physical being are what provide that self-awareness. Can they be both the means and the object of awareness, simultaneously? Can a sensor sense itself?

Thus there are inherent limits to the self-awareness of a physical being, which don’t apply to a pure spirit.

If on the other hand it is argued that a physical being can be entirely self-aware by means other than his physical organs and the cells which make up his body, what means can those be but spiritual ones? Yet if a physical being attains complete self-awareness through spiritual means, then in what way is the physical said to be higher?


Bruce argues that by not being incarnated, the pure spirit is excluded from the material realm, and therefore is not in touch with the whole of reality.

This argument rests on the assumption that “the whole of reality” was not created by a pure spirit in the first place; thus in arguing for a Mormon metaphysics, it assumes a Mormon metaphysics.

There is nothing logically contradictory about a pure spirit creating material reality and holding it in existence, as orthodox Christians have held for millennia. And if this is what God does, then clearly he’s not out of touch with material reality.

Bruce himself writes that “What happens with incarnation is that the immaterial spirit comes to inhabit the material world.” But if immaterial spirits can have no contact with the material world, then how can they “come to inhabit” it? Isn’t incarnation (under this description) the fusion, so to speak, of the immaterial with the material, such that the former now interacts with and controls the latter? But if spirit can interact with matter in these circumstances, why can’t it do so under other circumstances?

There is a commonly held notion that the immaterial can’t have awareness of and interaction with the material, on the ground that matter can only be affected by other matter, or at least physical forces. Thus as Bruce asserts, pure spirit is excluded from the material realm. But this is based on scientific findings, science being the observation and testing of physical phenomena using physical organs and instruments. Science obviously can say nothing about spirit, therefore the exclusion of spirit from scientific explanations of material phenomena proves nothing. If spirit were involved in the process of holding material reality in existence, science could know nothing about it. Science also can know nothing as to whether a being of pure spirit can observe material reality or interact with it.

We’re tempted to conclude that because “material” and “immaterial” are opposites, never the twain may meet. But the very concept of immaterial beings “coming to inhabit the material world” belies this conclusion. It’s hard to understand how one can hold both views without contradicting oneself. Can they interact or can’t they?


Bruce says that when a spiritual being is incarnated, he now has the physical realm open to him, from which he previously was excluded. But what if he is incarnated as an amoeba? How much of the physical realm does that give him contact with?

On the other hand, what if he is incarnated as a being the size of the entire universe? Wouldn’t that render life on earth microscopic to him, or indeed, subatomic? How much physical interaction could he then have with the physical realm as we think of it? Since a body must always be of a specific size and scale, isn’t a physical being always excluded from interacting with the great swaths of physical reality that are beyond his scale?

A spirit, not being limited by size, can in theory observe, interact with and grasp everything in the universe, from atoms to the universe as a whole; whereas a physical being, to the extent that he is physical, can only interact with things on more or less the same scale as himself. This isn’t to say that his spirit might not be able to interact with physical things outside of the scale which he inhabits. This is what human beings do when pondering and making discoveries about subatomic particles and aspects of the universe which are beyond our direct observation: When we ponder and theorize about them, we are interacting with them not physically, but mentally; which is another way of saying spiritually. Doesn’t this make the spiritual less limited than the physical? and therefore higher?


For these reasons it appears to me that the Father’s having a physical body solves problems that are themselves created by Bruce’s assumed Mormon-based metaphysics. If only the physical can create, and it can only create the physical, and then only by rearranging matter, then all creation must be physical, in which case the non-physical is nothing; and even if we grant that it’s not nothing, it is still cut off from the physical simply by virtue of being non-physical.

Whereas if we assume that God is a spirit who created the material and maintains it constantly in existence, then the spiritual and the material are both good and can interact with each other. But the spiritual is higher since it rules over the physical. In the case of human beings, through the effects of the Fall, the physical rebels, and it’s a struggle for the spiritual to maintain the proper mastery. But we’ve been provided a remedy for this ailment through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By faith in him we believe, not that we will be freed from our bodies, but that they will be resurrected and once again properly subject to the spirit and therefore freed from the effects of concupiscence (of which Christians can have occasional foretastes even in this life).

I agree that being embodied is a higher state than being unembodied or disembodied for a human being, since it’s our nature to be embodied; but that it’s a higher state absolutely, I don’t think Bruce has shown.

Is the solid better than the spiritual?

Bruce Charlton writes that “The solid is better than the spiritual”. I don’t think he means it absolutely, but is explaining that within the Mormon metaphysical system as he understands it, the solider the better. God has a body, and the devil and his minions don’t — presumably as a punishment. “Spiritual progress,” he writes, “entails getting a body; incarnation is better than pre-mortal spirit life; body is better than no body – evolution is from spirit-being to solidity.” Things just naturally move that way, he says. To go from less material to more material is to go from worse to better.

(I would point out that this is apparently Bruce’s speculation on the implications of Mormon metaphysics, as he sees it, based on his understanding of Mormon doctrine. As far as I know, there is no “official” Mormon metaphysics, therefore critiquing Bruce’s understanding of Mormon metaphysics is not intended as a critique of the Mormon religion per se.)

I grant that the solid seems better than the spiritual, for material beings who can only experience reality through their senses. To such beings, a being which can’t be sensed seems “less” than one that can: It weighs less, has less extension in terms of height, width and depth, can’t make noises by which to be heard. Indeed from the perspective of the physical, he’s nothing.

What is “solid”?

But what is the physical, ultimately? Is it as solid as it appears? We are told that “[i]f we could magnify the simplest hydrogen atom so that its nucleus (a proton) were the size of a basketball, then its lone electron would be found about 2 miles away. All of the space in between the electron and the basketball-size nucleus is empty!” [Source.]

The following is from a commenter who doesn’t like what some people infer from the fact of an atom being mostly empty space:

“The worst thing about this horrible application of popular science is the word ‘mostly’. Atoms are mostly empty space we are told- so what is the solid particle, the billiard ball, that exists within the atom? Is the neutron or electron or proton not defined by sub-sub-atomic forces and particles that render them mostly empty as well? Unless there is a basic impenetrable solid element of finite size we should instead say that atoms and everything else that atoms are completely empty, but that is so obviously wrong no one would be willing to sound like an idiot to say it.” [Source.]

In other words, if even sub-subatomic particles are themselves mostly empty, then there is nothing “solid” about atoms, or the matter which they compose (an idea which this person evidently finds disturbing).

To a being who is himself composed of matter, material things seem very solid and substantial by virtue of their matter. But how would a material thing appear to one who is pure spirit? Not limited by size, presumably he could see things down to the sub-subatomic level, and see that they were almost entirely — or indeed entirely — empty space. Then again, “see” is not really applicable to a being of pure spirit. He would simply understand that the being was mostly empty space. He would not be impressed by the “solidity” of the material thing as perceived by other material beings. I would say that he could pass right through it and therefore it would not appear solid to him — except that being pure spirit, he would not move from place to place, “place” and “movement” being spatio-temporal terms inapplicable to himself. He could understand how the material being is perceived by other material beings, but he would also know that the perceived solidity was something of an illusion, the perception being dependent on their being composed of matter themselves, and sensing other material beings through their material senses.

In other words, Bruce’s contention that “solid is better than spiritual” seems to depend on his assumption that materiality is the default perspective; basically, that God himself is material and therefore his perspective trumps any other. Further, that there is no purely spiritual perspective, there being no purely spiritual beings to enjoy such a perspective. Which is basically the assumption of materialism.

What is matter?

I have posted before about my speculation on what matter really is. I understand that on some level, matter and energy are the same thing. Further, matter and energy themselves are not “solid” things. Energy is not made up of particles.

I find energy defined as “the ability to do work”. But the ability of what? I have the ability to do work, and therefore possess energy. But it’s not really my energy, since the amount of energy in existence is constant, neither increasing nor lessening but only changing into different forms. It existed before I did, and will persist after I’m gone. Therefore energy is not someone’s or some thing’s “ability to do work”, but is “ability to do work” generally. The universe is full of matter and energy, that is, matter and “ability to do work”. Ability” being defined as “power or capacity”, the universe is full of power, and matter in turn is made of power. The universe, in fact, is made of power, ultimately — not of solid particles, but of empty space filled with power — albeit power which is arranged and which acts in ordered and predictable ways.

God as Christians have traditionally conceived him, is immaterial, yet all-powerful.

For an immaterial being to be the source and explanation of material things seems counter-intuitive. But isn’t that because we conceive of “immaterial” as “nothing”, due to our being utterly dependent on matter to be able to perceive and imagine things?

The alternative is that the power that fills the universe has a material cause and explanation. But this is clearly circular. If material things themselves are composed of power, how can they be the cause and explanation of that power? Therefore the cause and explanation of matter must itself be immaterial.

Thus I contend, contra Bruce, that the spiritual is “better” than the solid.[1]

[1] “Better” in the sense of “higher, more powerful, and less limited”. 

There was a discussion in the comments to Bruce’s post, in which I disputed Bruce’s contention that holding the spiritual to be higher entails a longing on the part of “traditional [non-Mormon] Christians” to be immaterial or disembodied, or a belief that we would be better off if we were. 

I concede that I am inferior to God, and to the angels in terms of intellectual ability, as a result of being limited to perceiving and understanding the world through my senses. But I have no desire to be other than God made me. I’m not a Lucifer, refusing to accept an inferior status. My longing is to live in a resurrected body no longer subject to illness and fatigue, and freed from concupiscence, to adore God singleheartedly with my whole being. To use my capacities to the full, without hindrance, would be fulfillment enough. I have no wish to be more nor less than human, but only human to the full.

Comparing Mormon and Catholic divorce rates, ver. 2

[After performing several edits to the original version of this post based on more recent statistics and survey results, and noting the edits in brackets, it started to get confusing. So I am simply duplicating the prior post and changing the data as needed, without noting the changes. Those who are interested in the earlier numbers can refer to the original post.]

I decided to see what I could find out, specifically, about comparative Mormon and Catholic divorce rates. I found various sources with varying conclusions. The sources also calculate the “divorce rate” in different ways. I’m not concerning myself with which way is best (nor yet even understanding all of them) since all I’m interested in are the comparisons.

Here is what I have found:

I had heard repeatedly that Utah, which of course is predominantly Mormon, had the lowest divorce rate of any state. However this table from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that Utah’s divorce rate for 2012 was 3.3 (per 1,000 people), which is equal to or higher than 17 other states and the District of Columbia. [1]

This article from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism on the Brigham Young University website, says the following: “Recent U.S. data from the National Survey of Families and Households indicate that about 26 percent of both Latter-day Saints and non-LDS have experienced a divorce (Heaton et al., Table 2).”

This article from the FAIRMormon Blog discusses a survey of Mormons published in 1985 (using, if I understand correctly, data from 1981), which, when compared with the results of previous surveys of non-Mormons, showed that Mormons had a lower divorce rate than Catholics or Protestants, at 14.3% for men and 18.8% for women; compared with 19.8% and 23.1% for Catholics.  [2]

The FAIRMormon article also includes the results of “the 1999 Barna Survey”, which shows Mormons having a divorce rate of 24%, compared with 21% for Catholics.

This blog post includes a graphic of a “2008 Religious Landscape Survey” (“Sources: Pew Research Forum, Barna Research Group”).  The graphic indicates that it was published in The Denver Post. This survey also shows Mormons with a divorce rate of 24%, compared with 21% for Catholics.

The webpage of the Religious Landscape Survey itself doesn’t give divorce rates, but says that 12% of Catholics had a marital status of “divorced or separated”, compared with 7% of Mormons. [3]

This doesn’t include a comparison with Mormons, but I’m including it since it’s pertinent to the general theme: “The Georgetown center reported in late September that a variety of national surveys show ‘Catholics stand out with only 28% of the ever-married having divorced at some point.’ While 28% remains a troubling statistic, the research suggests that this figure compares favorably with the 40% divorce rate for those with no religious affiliation, 39% for Protestants and 35% for those of other religious faiths.” “Divorce Statistics Indicate Catholic Couples Are Less Likely to Break Up“, National Catholic Register (, November 14, 2013. See also, this.

In all, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between overall Catholic and Mormon divorce rates.

In several places (including the FAIRMormon article linked to above) I saw a cited divorce rate of 6% for Mormons who are married in the Temple. Some claim that this figure is misleading since it is based on Church records, which would only show Church divorces, ignoring the possibility that people married in the Temple might simply get a civil divorce, which would not be accounted for in Church records. However I found one article which asserted that the figure did take account of civil divorces. I’m not citing any sources for this either way, because I haven’t found any reference to specific data that it is supposed to be based on. (If anyone has information showing who is right, please share it in the comments.)

Of course the Catholic Church has no equivalent of Temple marriage, by which to directly compare the divorce rates of exceptionally devout Catholics with their Mormon counterparts. There is, however, this survey of 505 Catholic women aged 21-66 who had been instructed in the use of Natural Family Planning (NFP). The survey found that 99.8% had never been divorced; reduced to 97% when counting (for purposes of comparison with data concerning non-NFP-using Catholics) only those aged 21-44. Ninety-nine percent of participants aged 21-44 were married at the time of the survey; the remaining 1% were widowed. [4]

This can’t be compared directly with Mormons married in the Temple. For one thing, Catholics who use NFP are probably a more “elite” group, or in other words a smaller subset, than Temple-married Mormons. Still I think it shows something of what results when Catholics take their faith as seriously as Temple-married Mormons.

One issue regarding all of these statistics, is how to identify who counts as a “Catholic” and who as a “Mormon”. In this regard the Religious Landscape Survey says the following: “In this survey, we rely on respondents’ self-reported religious identity as the measure of religious affiliation. Catholics, for instance, are defined as all respondents who said they are Catholic, regardless of their specific beliefs and whether or not they attend Mass regularly.”  I suspect most random sample surveys do the same.

So the question becomes, whether Catholics or Mormons are more likely to continue identifying themselves as Catholic or Mormon once they have stopped “practicing”. If there is a much larger proportion of people continuing to call themselves Catholic while disregarding Church teaching and hardly ever going to Mass — as I suspect there is — that might skew the Catholic numbers more than the corresponding number of inactive yet self-identifying Mormons skew the Mormon numbers. The 2014 Religious Landscape Study seems to bear this out. It finds that 84% of those who self-identify as Mormons consider their religion “very important”, whereas only 58% of self-identified Catholics say the same.

[1]  Divorce rates by State: 1990, 1995, and 1999-2012; source: CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System.

[2]  For what it’s worth, the Mormon and non-Mormon data come from different sources, the Mormons having been contacted through Church records; the Mormon responses were then compared with non-Mormon data from prior studies done by different researchers.

[3]  Pew Forum’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which “is based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states. This is the second time the Pew Research Center has conducted a Religious Landscape Study. The first was conducted in 2007, also with a telephone survey of more than 35,000 Americans.”

[4] “Divorce Rate Comparisons Between Couples Using Natural Family Planning & Artificial Birth Control”, by Mercedes Arzú Wilson, Family of the Americas Foundation, Dunkirk, MD (2001).

Foundation and preservation

Commenter Andrew, in a comment to the post “The Benedict Option: the Brotherhood of the Way” on Junior Ganymede (the main thrust of which I agree with), writes, “It is only in these latter days that the CJCLDS’ [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] unique theology can be seen as providing an ultimate and metaphysical defense against our present corruption.”

Not wanting to appear to stir up contention as a guest on that fine blog, I am posting this reply to Andrew’s comments here:


The CJCLDS has done a good job of preserving the marital and reproductive values and practices that were prevalent during the 19th century, when it was founded. But to put things in perspective, one should consider where those 19th century values came from in the first place. They didn’t just fall from the sky; nor were they secular in origin, nor Roman, nor barbarian, but Christian. Granted that they’ve been eroded with the rise of secularism, which has infested even the Catholic Church. But my point is that the fertile soil in which the CJCLDS was planted in the first place, including the values that it now preserves, was prepared by century upon century of Catholicism.

Catholicism has proven its mettle. It has proven to be a foundation upon which an entire civilization can be built and endure. The CJCLDS, if it preserves anything, is only preserving what was built by others. Whether it may, itself, serve as the foundation for an entire Christian civilization, has yet to be proven, since thus far it has only ever been a small part of a larger Christian culture.

What does it mean to judge a tree by its fruits?

This is in response to Bruce Charlton’s post, “The problem of Mormonism (for mainstream Christians)” at Junior Ganymede, and is adapted from my comment thereto. The “problem” Bruce discusses is how non-Mormon Christians can account for Mormons as a group bearing “good fruit”, while adhering to what they consider to be false doctrine. Bruce’s opinion apparently is that Mormons bear good fruit because of their doctrine; whereas non-Mormon Christians believe the good fruits come in spite of their doctrine, or have no relation to it.

But my focus is on the scriptural passages underlying the discussion, mainly Mt. 7:15ff.

The post and some of the comments seem to be proceeding on the assumption that Jesus intends “fruits” as a criterion for judging the truth or falsity of a religion. If so, then obviously it can’t mean that there will be entirely good fruits and no bad fruits whatsoever; under that criterion, no religion on earth could qualify. It’s also doubtful whether it’s a relative standard, as in, that religion with more good fruits than any other must be the true[est] one.

However, Jesus doesn’t say that you should judge a prophet by the fruits of the doctrine he preaches. Rather, he says that “you will recognize them” – false prophets – “by their fruits”. He continues, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” Now, prophesying and casting out demons and doing mighty works are good fruits, are they not? At least the casting out of demons, surely. And yet Jesus may still say to such people, “I never knew you.” Why? Beause they worked lawlessness: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

So, being a “worker of lawlessness” seems to be what he means by bearing bad fruit. Other translations are “you evildoers”, “ye that work iniquity” and “you lawbreakers”. The word for “lawlessness” is anomia, defined by Strong’s as “illegality, i.e. violation of law or (genitive case) wickedness:—iniquity, × transgress(-ion of) the law, unrighteousness”.

Another place where a tree failing to bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, is in Mt. 3:

“But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Here again it doesn’t appear that doctrine is the issue, because it’s individual Pharisees and Sadducees who are being condemned, based on their failing to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. So it seems to me that what is being said is, “Don’t follow people whose lives don’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, or, “Don’t follow people who transgress the laws of righteousness”.

In Mt. 12:33-37, Jesus seems to be equating good and bad fruits with the words that people speak, as when he says “How can you speak good, when you are evil?” — a clear parallel with the statement, “a bad tree can’t bear good fruit”. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” And we will be judged by this “fruit”:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

And in many other places the New Testament scriptures speak of bearing the fruits of righteousness unto salvation. This is always in the context of individual exhortations to forsake sin and do good. For example, Romans 6:19ff:

“[J]ust as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

So it seems to me that Jesus is saying that a prophet should be judged by his personal righteousness: Is he living a sinful life? If so then he is a false prophet, for he is a worker of lawlessness.

As far as I can see, the New Testament doesn’t discuss testing the truth or falsity of doctrine in terms of whether it bears good or bad fruit. Probably because doctrine is simply true or false, and not all doctrine bears directly on behavior. Also because people are perfectly capable of receiving good doctrine and yet still bearing bad fruit or no fruit, as in the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:3-23).