Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

"The Grandest Principle of the Gospel": Christian Nihilism, Sanctified Activism, and Eternal Progression

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

"The Grandest Principle of the Gospel": Christian Nihilism, Sanctified Activism, and Eternal Progression

Article excerpt

In February 1895, the editors of a small journal known as The Index (an obscure periodical produced by the Mutual Improvement Association of Salt Lake City's TwentiethWard) submitted the following inquiry to ten prominent Church leaders: "What, in your opinion, constitutes the grandest principle, or most attractive feature of the Gospel?" The Church leaders' answering letters were published in The Index and shortly thereafter as a symposium in the pages of The Contributor, one of the many Church magazines in publication at that time. One respondent said that eternal marriage was the grandest principle. Two more replied that love was the most crucial component of the gospel. Another answered, in essence, that all the principles of the gospel were so grand that he could not choose just one. Interestingly, there was a consensus among the remaining six Church leaders (among whom were such well-known leaders as Joseph F. Smith, B. H. Roberts, George Reynolds, and Orson F. Whitney) that the grandest and most attractive feature of the gospel was the doctrine of eternal progression.1

Why eternal progression? There was no mention in the survey of such critical doctrines as the atonement, continuing revelation, or salvation for the dead. Yet many Mormon writers and thinkers, from founding prophet Joseph Smith through early twentieth-century intellectuals discussed in this essay-B. H. Roberts and John A. Widtsoe-undeniably had a fascination with the doctrine of eternal progression, which I will loosely define for purposes of this discussion as the belief that all human beings can advance and improve from one qualitative level of existence to the next forever-until the attainment of godhood and beyond-and that God also advances in like manner under this same system. These thinkers clearly believed that, of all Joseph Smith's teachings, eternal progression was his most innovative idea, rich in possibility and potential. They have not been alone in this assessment of Joseph Smith's unique theology. Former Mormon and skeptic Fawn Brodie believed that Joseph Smith borrowed this concept through reading philosopher Thomas Dick,2 but nevertheless conceded that Joseph's own notion of "the boundless opportunity for progression throughout eternity" was "the most challenging concept that Joseph Smith ever produced, and in a sense the most original."3 More recently, Evangelical scholar Carl Mosser, when asked by BYU professor of philosophy David L. Paulsen to identify Joseph Smith's possible contributions to the Christian theological world, replied, "Too often, in my view, Christian theologians are content to reflect on how we are redeemed (the mechanics) and on what we are redeemed from. Smith's teachings about the eschatological potential of men and women challenges Christian theology to think more deliberately about what we are redeemed for."4

While much of the appeal and significance of eternal progression in Mormon thought at the beginning of the twentieth century centered on Mormon intellectuals' fascination with the progressive science of their era, eternal progression in fact had a much broader, deeper, even existential appeal. These Mormon thinkers and writers viewed eternal progression in terms which, for them, instilled unique meaning and purpose into this life and the post-mortal eternities. A quest to infuse human existence with special significance and value underlay sweeping notions of unlocking the eternal laws of the universe and becoming gods. Key to their conception of eternal progression was a philosophy that described eternal progression in direct contrast to what LDS writers perceived as the meaningless, unsatisfying, and even nihilistic nature of the conventional Christian heaven.

At the heart of early expositions on eternal progression is the concept that eternal, godlike activity is what provides meaning and purpose to any and every stage of human existence. This understanding of an eternally progressive heaven was juxtaposed against what early twentieth-century LDS writers believed was the traditional model of the Christian heaven, in which the human soul is forever statically immobile and eternally at rest. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.