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Episode 80: A Philosophical Look at God – Blake T. Ostler

Divinity is always growing, always self-surpassing. However great God is in any moment has been surpassed in the next moment. Human beings are the same way. And it is precisely the religious person, it is precisely the devoted person, the person whose heart is fully committed, who will seek with every faculty available to be with God, to understand, if you will, and to more fully grasp what it is that we’re called to be.”

                                                                            Blake T. Ostler

Have you ever noticed that sometimes we spend the least amount of time discussing the most crucial topics? If questioned, could you describe the nature of God and what it means to be God-like and embrace divinity?

One central tenet of the gospel is that righteous followers can become Gods. This bold affirmation while commonplace to Mormons often seems blasphemous to those of the broader Christian tradition. In fact, it is one of the major tension points between the LDS Church and other Christian sects. Such an important topic, therefore, is worthy of serious study.

So how can we come to know the nature of God? As a whole, members have linguistic baggage in the way that they use terms to describe God because the earliest Mormon converts came from Protestantism and Catholicism, and we continued to use the same terms. Within Mormonism, it is hard to justify some of these views, but it is something that most people have simply inherited. Terms such as “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” and “omnibenevolent” are often casually bandied about as if they seamlessly fit within the cosmological framework revealed by Joseph Smith of a material God when actually they do not. And what about time? Is God subject to time and what would the answer to that question affect the concept of free will?

Working through the nature of God in relation to revealed doctrine is one step in the process of getting to know God, but not the only one. When we use the word “God,” what are we referring to? God is used both as a reference to a person, as a reference to a community, as a reference to a title, and as a reference to an essential set of properties. We use the word “God” in all these different ways.

As the offspring of God, we have inherent within us the capacity for divinity, and we already express it to the extent we express love for one another, to the extent that we fulfill the purpose that we were born to fulfill, and to the extent that we show kindness. We came to earth to have experiences, and we couldn’t fail to have experiences. So, merely by having experiences, we’re fulfilling the purpose for which we came. This is a no- lose proposition. Everything we experience is for our good—everything. All of the commandments are given for a simple purpose: to teach us how to learn to love one another and to become more divine.

Join us as we go beyond the typical theological psychobabble and explore what it means to be God and God-like.

Our Guest: Blake Ostler graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor of arts in philosophy (summa cum laude) and a bachelor of science in Psychobiology (magna cum laude). He then graduated in 1985 as a William Leary Scholar from the University of Utah with a juris doctorate (cum laude).

Blake Ostler has published widely on Mormon philosophy in professional academic philosophy journals such as Religious Studies (Oxford, England), International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion (Netherlands), and Element: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, as well as Mormon scholarly publications Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon ThoughtSunstoneBYU Studies, and FARMS Review of Books. He is the author of the multi-volume series Exploring Mormon Thought published by Kofford Books. He has also taught philosophy at Brigham Young University as an adjunct instructor.

Fratello Ostler is fluent in Italian and French, conversant in Swedish and Spanish, and conducts scholarly research in German, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He loves spending his time with his wife and five children, and enjoys fly fishing, playing racquetball, four wheeling and watching BYU Football.

Extra Resources:

Episode 80 Transcript

Exploring Mormon Thought (Free Audio)

Exploring Mormon Thought: the Attributes of God

LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 80: A Philosophical Look at God with Blake Ostler

(Released April 25, 2018)

This is not a verbatim transcript.

Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity.

Nick Galieti: Blake Ostler graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s of art and philosophy and a bachelor’s of science in psychobiology. He then graduated in 1985 as a William Leary Scholar from the University of Utah with a juris doctorate. Blake Ostler has published widely on Mormon philosophy in professional academic philosophical journals such as Religious StudiesInternational Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, and Element: The Journal of the society from Mormon Philosophy and Theology, as well as Mormon scholarly publications such as Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, BYU Studies, and the FARMS Review of Books. He’s the author of the multivolume series Exploring Mormon Thought. He has also taught philosophy at Brigham Young University as an adjunct instructor. He also has podcasts that discuss his works done in conjunctions with his sons Corey, Jacob, and David.

Fratello Ostler is fluent in Italian, Spanish, and French, conversant in Swedish, and conducts scholarly research in German, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He loves spending time with his wife and five children and enjoys fly fishing, playing racquetball, four wheeling, and watching BYU Football.

Welcome, Blake Ostler to LDS Perspectives. Thank you for coming on.

Blake Ostler: Delighted to be here.
Nick Galieti: I want to introduce the subject that we’re going to be talking about today, and it’s kind of based on your book series Exploring Mormon Thought. What we’re going to talk about is what I would categorize as probably the most important subject or the subject of greatest eternal significance, is probably also the most controversial subject in the history of mankind, and that is the nature and character of God. Is this the most important subject with regard to our eternal standing?
Blake Ostler: Yes and no. No, in that it has to be the case that one’s eternal standing is not dependent on either one’s ability to understand God or to elucidate either the character and or the nature of God. Let me give you an example. We used to have, she died recently, a woman in our ward who was German. She was the only member in her entire town in Germany, and she was just relentlessly harassed because of it. The woman was a saint, and she could not have elucidated the theory of the nature of God, could not have coherently expressed the character of God, and would never have deigned to understand God and how one comes to know about him in any way. What’s important is the content of one’s character, the love that one manifests in life, and the countenance of Christ that one reflects in one’s image. Those are the important things.

What life is about is giving us the opportunity to grow in our ability to love and in our ability to feel love when we receive it. It’s something that none of us are perfected and that we all have a lot to learn about—for us, for whom the example of Jesus Christ is most important. I consider him to be the fullest expression of love, and I’m always amazed when I think about the man who walked around the Palestinian countryside 2,000 years ago who still so greatly influences all of humanity.

Those are the important things: the ability to understand philosophy and the ability to express a theory are not essential to either salvation or exaltation. Nevertheless, these are wonderful things because I believe that they add dimensions to one’s religious commitment. And it is precisely the religious person, it is precisely the devoted person, the person whose heart is fully committed, who will seek with every faculty available to be with God, to understand, if you will, and to more fully grasp what it is that we’re called to be.

Nick Galieti: Okay. Well, we’ll flesh out that thesis a little bit more as we go on. But to be clear to the listener, your book is a book of philosophy.
Blake Ostler: Yes. It was written to be an upper-division level philosophy course originally.
Nick Galieti: As a work of philosophy, the process of logic and philosophy is that you have to start at some point and progress from there. In this particular case, your book starts out with a lot of background on some of these theories that have been presented throughout time. I want to briefly, if we can, maybe put out some of those theories that maybe have even been considered as an LDS person, perhaps unknowingly.
Blake Ostler: Sure.
Nick Galieti: What are some of those more common ones that we could know about, but also can easily dismiss?
Blake Ostler: My first volume begins with a simple question: when we use the word “God,” what are we referring to? This is a very large area in philosophy, by the way. A lot of people are asking, “What if God doesn’t exist? How can you refer to something that’s not there?” Which is a very basic question in philosophy. But I flesh out different ways that the word “God” is used.

And God is used both as a reference to a person, as a reference to a community, as a reference to a title, and as a reference to an essential set of properties. We use the word “God” in all these different ways. I think that LDS thinkers have ranged from all the way from what I’m going to call an absolutist view, which was held, at least to some degree, by the Pratt brothers and by Charles Penrose, who was a member of the first presidency around the turn-of-the-century. And, famously, by Bruce McConkie and to a lesser degree also by his father-in-law, Joseph Fielding Smith, who of course was the prophet of the church. This is a view that when we say God is omnipotent, they really mean it. God can do virtually anything. And when God is omniscient, they really mean in the classical sense, he knows the future, and maybe, in some ways, is even outside of time, as in the classical view. How a Mormon asserts that is problematic, of course.

Then you have thinkers that I think have been more educated in the way that they have approached the issues. I think that B.H. Roberts—though self-taught, he was remarkably well-educated on these kinds of issues, at least for the kind of general discussion in his day—who developed a more or less finitist view of God.

Now, I’m going to distinguish a finitist view from what I’m going to call a limited view. The finitist view is most famously demonstrated by Brigham Young. Brigham Young came up with the view, and he probably thought he was reflecting what Joseph Smith taught—that there is an endless series of gods, that our God learned to be a god by following the laws that had been laid down by those gods. There was a time, an eternity, during which the being that we take to be God was not a god, was not divine, in other words. That at some point in time He actually reached the status of being divine. You know, at some point, there’s a whole lot of matter that the gods just didn’t quite get around to, and it’s kind of modelled on the notion of a son who grows up and becomes self-sufficient and then leaves the farm and goes off and develops his own farm quite independently of his father and the prior family and goes off and takes wives with him to populate the universe. It’s hayseed theology at its most extreme. But, not many people have followed Brigham Young fully in what he taught, and for good reason, I may add.

And then, of course, you have the more moderate view of the Pratt brothers, who were kind of on the other side of that. They opposed Brigham Young. There was actually an ongoing feud between them, as most people know. And so, we have a plethora of views in Mormonism.

On one end [of the spectrum of belief], you have the learned, limited view of God, taught by B.H. Roberts, that when we use terms such as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and so forth, that we have to qualify those given the materialism inherent in Mormonism. By “materialism,” I mean the commitment that, ultimately, all things reduce to matter, or a material substrate if you will. And that God is limited to the extent that he can’t create out of nothing. And so, it follows from the rejection of creation ex nihilo, which shows this myth clearly rejected—that God is limited in respects that the classical God is not.

What’s interesting is most Mormons, I think, have been very unaware that there are actually different views of God being taught. I believe it’s in my third chapter [of volume 1 of Exploring Mormon Thought] where I talk about different views of God in Mormonism, and I have kind of a chart I give between the difference between the absolutist view held by the Pratts and McConkie where God is unlimited and outside of time and the view of Roberts and John Widtsoe.

Widtsoe was kind of the furthest that one can go in terms of the finitism. He modelled God kind of after a scientist (amazing that a scientist like Widtsoe would see God as the most fully developed scientist). It happens all the time still today, so we have this range of views. For Widtsoe, God was precisely more fully like what Brigham Young taught except for he was much more nuanced than Brigham Young, and he didn’t teach that God went to a part of the universe with his wives to populate what hadn’t quite gotten to. The easy way to say this in a few words is: “In the tradition, God is the unmoved mover, and in process thought, God is the most moved mover.” In the tradition, we have these various ideas, and in Mormonism we have kind of a reflection of those ideas.

Nick Galieti: Yeah. The rest of the time, I hope, is a conversation where we take the listener through a journey on how to come to know God. In order to do this, there’s probably a series of questions that we’ll explore and how we’ll approach this topic even further. To what extent is God knowable? Is this something that is a waste of time?
Blake Ostler: In Deuteronomy, there’s this passage where it talks about a person who goes looking across the sea to find the truth, then looks on top of the mountains, and then goes under the sea. All along, what they were looking for was right in their own heart. It was already there with them. The Law is written on our hearts. God is as much a part of who and what we are as our own being. And so, to go look for God is to miss God.

I’m going to put this kind of into a different light. The knowledge of God is something that comes with us. And the Mormon theory of knowledge is essentially embodied in section 93, where Intelligence is God’s defining essence, and we are called intelligence in the same way. We know God, His light and being are already proceeding from His presence to be embodied within us. But it’s through the traditions of men and the hardness of our own hearts that we shut God out, and, therefore, there’s darkness, and we don’t know God. The short answer is, “We don’t know God because we’ve shut him out.” The real question is, “Can we know ourselves?” There’s this old Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.” And the reason that is was so important is that in coming to know ourselves, we come to know what is already inherent within our knowledge. In terms used by the philosopher [Immanuel] Kant, in this world, we come into this world with categories in place through which we kind of filter reality if you will.

For Kant, these are the logically necessary conditions of experience, but I’m going to expand it beyond that a bit to make sense of it in terms of an experience I think everybody has. You’re in a store and all of the sudden this song comes on that you really like. And you go, “Hey, there’s music playing.” Before that I was completely blocking it out. Or it’s like a husband, are you married?

Nick Galieti: Yeah.
Blake Ostler: Okay, it’s like this. Women complain about this all the time. There you are reading a newspaper and your wife comes up and starts to talk to you. And then she says, “Have you heard anything I have said?” And you say, “Yes.” And she says, “Okay. What did I say?” And you realize you haven’t heard a word she said.
Nick Galieti: Well, you may have heard it, but you didn’t …
Blake Ostler: Well, you blocked it out because you were focusing on something else. You were so focused that you were blocking out a good deal of your experience that was actually more important than what you were focusing on, which is the way it is with God, by the way. We have these filters in place as human beings. They’re given in the very nature of what we are.

For Kant, there is a distinction between the thing-as-it-is-in-itself, and the thing as we experience it, okay? I’ll never get the thing inside my head to actually experience it as it actually is. I only see it and experience it as it is “for me.” That is, as I have taken and filtered it through my categories and my past experience. We have a chair in here, and I call it a chair because that’s what my parents called it, but if it didn’t have four legs and it only had three, would it still be a chair? Well, probably. But you understand what I am saying. The chair isn’t in my head to actually grasp it. Kant called what we experience the phenomena and what is the thing in itself as the noumenon, but we never actually reached the noumenon. The fact is that God is a noumenon. Moreover, I mean, we’d have to admit that any believer is going to say the distance between us and God is probably greater than the distance between us and the ability of an ant to understand, Which has virtually no ability to understand. I mean, it’s really just beyond us.

When we approach God, we’re approaching a being whose experience is so beyond where we are that it’s not merely beyond what we imagine; it’s beyond what we can imagine. Can we know God? The truth is subjectivity. When we experience God, if we experience God at all, it’s because God is given in our reality. We find Him in our hearts. We don’t find him by looking across the sea. If we go searching for God, we’re missing what we already know.

There’s actually a quote from Joseph Smith that I wanted to share that’s kind of along those lines. It says, “Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach Him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God and know how to come to Him, He begins to unfold the heavens unto us and to tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to Him, He’s ready to come to us.”
Nick Galieti: Yeah, which is kind of an aphorism for when the student is ready the teacher will appear, right?
Blake Ostler: In a way, but it is also kind of implying what you’re talking about as far as it being more within us than we may have considered.

Nick Galieti: What is the first question that one should ask in their quest to know God?

Blake Ostler: The fact is that God is given in our consciousness. In fact, psychological studies show we are wired and built in a way that belief comes to us as the kind of species that we are. Cognitively we are wired to believe and it takes a good deal of talking ourselves out of what we believe in order to become an agnostic or an atheist.
Nick Galieti: Would that be the light of Christ we often refer to or is that something different?
Blake Ostler: Right, it’s the light of Christ. It’s the intelligence of God. It is the given-ness of his power and intelligence that precede forth from his presence to dwell within us as sections 88 and 93 teach. It’s already given in our very being.
Nick Galieti: The idea then would be that we need to at least plant that seed that God could possibly exist.
Blake Ostler: The answer to the question, “how do we come to know God?” is simply: to be authentic; to be open; to be vulnerable; and to be willing to know what is already given. To know God is not to know about God, not to know about His nature or His attributes. In fact, that could pull one further away from knowing God. To know God is to be with God. I would say to experience God, but that would be a misstatement. That again would be an objectivity, right?
Nick Galieti: It’s what you’re observing or your senses are telling you?
Blake Ostler: Right, right. Yeah, it’s what I can sense. When we’re coming to God in this way there is this requirement of openness and vulnerability. We come to God not by having control of everything, but by letting go of control.
Nick Galieti: Interesting.
Blake Ostler: We don’t come to know God by studying all about it. We come to know God by letting him reveal himself to us already in the given-ness of our being in the world.
Nick Galieti: Now there seems to be a little bit of an irony to that because your book was written very much like a study.
Blake Ostler: If one were to think that my book had anything to do with Sunday School, they would be sadly mistaken.
Nick Galieti: Sure, sure. Your process, your approach in the book was as you mentioned before to analyze the word God and its uses. It’s not a proper name. I mean, it’s not like “Frank.”
Blake Ostler: It could be, like the proper name “Yaweh.”
Nick Galieti: I guess it could be, but in all indications, that’s not ever what it was meant to be.
Blake Ostler: I guess the basic problem for humans is that we usually end up describing God in what is the greatest idealization of who and what we are, right? I made fun of scientists who want to make God the ultimate scientist. There’s a good deal of truth to the fact that we create God in our own image.
Nick Galieti: To get back to this idea of maybe how we historically as a people or even as individuals have talked about God, again we use the words omniscient, omnipotence, sometimes even omnibenevolence, but we haven’t really taken the time to think about what those imply. And as you said before, sometimes we use those terms with qualifiers. If we are to describe God beyond love and a little bit more of let’s go with the word “subject” experiences, but even ones that we can observe as the character of someone who is a God, then what might some of those be? I know philosophers kind of explore these things in the paradoxes—like the an God create a rock He cannot lift idea. So, how do we then as Latter-day Saints, how should …
Blake Ostler: The answer is, “Yes, He can.”
Nick Galieti: He can? Okay. If God is omnipotent, does that mean He has the power to change the past? These are questions that some people have explored as ways of trying to come to know God.

Blake: Let me give a concrete story, and I’m going to talk about experiences I had with Neal Maxwell, both because he expressly gave me permission to do so and because I want to talk about a person for whom I have the highest respect and whom I regard as being extremely intelligent—and who was in a position of authority in the LDS Church.

I wrote a paper for a philosophy class taught by Truman Madsen. It was about God’s timelessness. Thankfully, I got an “A”. If you remember Truman Madsen, he was an amazing guy. I loved and love Truman.

He came to me and he said, “You know, you’ve expressed this so well. I wonder if you’d be willing to go talk with Neal about this?” I said, “Neal?” He said, “Yeah, Neal Maxwell.” I said, “What?” He said, “I’ve had this ongoing discussion with Neal Maxwell about why God can’t be outside of time, but you’ve given really good arguments for it. I wonder if you’d be willing to go talk with him about that?”

Nick Galieti:   So you said, “Sure”?

Blake: Yeah. I was an undergrad; I mean, I was a junior at BYU. I was kind of like, “Are you kidding?”

Nick Galieti:   Yeah!

Blake: “Yeah, I’d be happy to go instruct an apostle of the Lord . . .” So, he set up the meeting, and I went with my friend Wally Johnson to talk with Elder Maxwell, and the subject we were talking about was timelessness. Neal Maxwell had written things about, based upon the statement that was in The Times and Seasons, about everything being one eternal round with God, if you’re familiar with the passage.

It was the most amazing thing. We went to the Church Office Building in Salt Lake; we go there and he takes us back into his office. He kicks his shoes off, literally puts his feet up on the desk, lies back, and says, “Truman says you’re here to instruct me and set me straight.”

To my discredit, it didn’t even dawn on me how arrogant this was. I said, “Yeah. I mean, you’ve written these things about God being timeless, and you quote Boethius—a sixth century Christian philosopher; one of the best—and it’s fine for Boethius because he’s a Catholic, and God doesn’t have any material reality about Him, but we believe in a God who has a body. All God’s got to do is stretch out His hands and for anybody that’s a real body. I can ask, “How long does it take to travel between the outstretched distance of His fingers?” So, if God has a body, there’s no way He’s outside of time.”

I gave several other arguments that I also give in my book about why God can’t be timeless. I said, “If God creates and He has a relation to a created reality that’s ongoing, He can’t be outside of time. If God can’t change the past, He can’t be outside of time. If God has any real relation with a temporal being, He can’t be outside of time. If God plans anything, He can’t be outside of time because the plan means that you think about something that hasn’t occurred yet, to bring it about. If God remembers, He can’t be outside of time, and the Bible says He remembers. You may not believe God remembers or you may want to look for some analogical meaning of that, but that’s what it says.

He was an amazing guy because he didn’t seem to have any ego about these kinds of things. He said, “You know, I didn’t really realize the fact that Boethius was in a different theological tradition would have very different consequences for his views of God, but I can see now that he does. I wonder if you would be willing to allow me to write you a letter that you can quote from where we can kind of allow me to correct this impression.”

Nick Galieti:   Wow!

Blake: And he did. I have the letter. He wrote it to me, and I quoted it in a footnote in an article that I wrote for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought called “The Mormon Concept of God,” where I talk about timelessness and God.

We think about God in different ways, but often we don’t understand that the idea we’re using comes from a tradition that isn’t really in any way compatible with LDS beliefs.

Blake Ostler: If we really believe that the ultimate reality is love and that God has invited us into a relationship, and we think about the nature of love, it becomes clear immediately that love can’t be coerced. It must be something that’s freely chosen. It’s a gift that’s freely given. It can’t be that God is all controlling. If God controlled my relationship with Him so that He’d chose whether I loved Him or not, love wouldn’t even be a possibility. We need to begin with this basic reality.

I rewrite theology beginning from the assumption that our relationship with God begins in a free choice.

Nick Galieti: Free will.
Blake Ostler: Yes, free will. Free will becomes essential. We’ll go back to the first volume. There’s a problem that immediately arises for me if we have free will. If God knows the future, then there’s only one future that is compatible with what God knows—that’s what He knows is going to be. But if I am free, I have to be able to act in different ways to bring about what I choose. Well, that immediately conflicts with God’s foreknowledge because if I can do that, then I have power to change what God knew in the past. And that would give me power to do something that’s impossible to do, which is to change the past.

I argue at some length that God’s foreknowledge is not compatible with free will, and I look very carefully at the classical and current discussion in philosophy about that issue. It turns out that literally reams of paper have been printed on this issue [in philosophical journals]—a very high level intelligent discussion.

I come to the conclusion that every argument that’s been given to reconcile foreknowledge and free will won’t work, and that they truly are incompatible. What does that mean?

I redefined God’s omniscience into what I call contingent omniscience. God knows all probabilities in the moment of how probable they are. For instance, if I have stage three cancer, God knows the probability I’m not going to live another year. It’s already given in the way things are. But probabilities are changing all the time, so God’s knowledge of probability is changing. But also, the choices that we make until we make the choices are not known. However, God knows all possibilities.

People immediately will question, well, how could God have sovereignty? That is, how could God have any control over the world in a way that His plans would be realized? So, I redefined omniscience and give a chess player analogy. Okay?

Nick Galieti: A master chess player, at that.
Blake Ostler: This is first given by William James, a Harvard professor, a pragmatic philosopher. It’s like a master chess player. If a master chess player is playing a novice, he’s going to win. He may not know exactly which moves the novice will make, but he knows whatever moves the novice makes, he has moves that will counter it. And eventually, he’s going to arrive at a checkmate. God is much more capable than the greatest chess player who’s ever existed, even the computer, who’s ever played the game. We don’t know exactly what free choices people will make, but God knows and has a plan for whatever choices are made, what He can do to compensate for those choices and to use them in His plan to bring about a more beautiful tapestry, if you will. It also assumes a kind of power. We can talk about omnipotence now if you want.
Nick Galieti: Yes.
Blake Ostler: Okay. Well, we have this notion that God can bring about anything logically possible. It’s logically possible that I do a free act, but it’s not logically possible that God does my free act or it wouldn’t be mine. So immediately, the notion that God can do anything that’s logically possible to do has to be modified so that God doesn’t bring about my free acts. Human freedom places some limits on God’s ability to do things. Further, it must be immediately apparent that God can’t bring about a reality that is different from what it actually was. Otherwise, we violate the most basic law of logic—the law of non-contradiction, right?

God can’t change the past. He can’t bring about a reality that’s inconsistent with what has occurred in the past. In any event, through the discussion, I come up with a notion of God’s Almighty Power, if you will, and it differs from the view that God can do anything that’s logically possible. I give four conditions, essentially, on what God can do. It has to be compatible with God’s attributes. For instance, if God can bring about anything that’s logically possible. It’s possible for me to sin, but most people hold it’s not possible for God to sin. I think it is possible for God to sin. But certainly, God can’t do things that are incompatible with His basic attributes. God can’t do anything that is brought about freely by another agent. God can’t change the past, and He’s not required to create out of nothing. If the universe has eternally existed and God can only bring about what is consistent with what’s been in the past, and if that is a fact, then God need not be able to create the universe in order to have Almighty Power.

Once we’ve carefully defined what omniscience could mean, given the reality of loving relationships and the fact that God doesn’t create out of nothing, we come up with, I think, a more adequate view of the kind of power that God has. It’s where the rubber really hits the ground. And this is something that I discussed in my second volume: when we’re praying to God to bring things about for us—petitionary prayer. The question then becomes, “Well, can I pray for my friend to make a free choice that I want him to make? Does it make sense for me to pray for the environment in the natural world? Does God have power over natural laws?”

Nick Galieti: When we talk about free will, the question that a lot of people come up with after that, with this whole freedom to act, is the problem of evil, which, of course, David Paulsen addresses in some of his writings.
Blake Ostler: Well, David Paulsen and I have a jointly-authored article that is in Revelation, Reason and Faith, a Festschrift for Truman Madsen. David and I worked together at some length on the problem of evil.

There is what I call a Plan of Salvation view of the problem of evil. This is a fully developed view where the commitment is that what God seeks ultimately is to bring us to a relationship that He enjoys, a relationship of complete love. This relationship is of such supreme and superlative value that it justifies any finite evils that may be necessary to encounter in order to have the possibility of achieving it.

God has set up the world as a school, if you will, to teach us how to come to that kind of relationship over and over and over. I believe that the world is set up so that we get the same issues presented to us over and over and over again until we finally learn to overcome them and learn to love, and then we get to move on. It is like the central message of the movie Goundhog Day.

Nick Galieti: This idea, though, this absolutist tradition that we referred to earlier, there seems to be very little justification for that.
Blake Ostler: I think that it’s incoherent from the get go. Within Mormonism in particular, I cannot see justification for that absolutist view. It just happens to be something that most people have inherited. There’s all of this linguistic baggage in the way that we use our terms because the earliest Mormon converts came from Protestantism and Catholicism and continued to use the same terms. I mean, we use the term “chair” because our parents used it that way. And they used the term “omniscience” that way because their parents used it that way.
Nick Galieti: Part of that subjective experience. We talked about a lot of different things. There are days’ worth of discussion that could still be had about this for sure. But we do talk about this idea that we are a people that do have to approach, or we teach, that we can become like God. We do have to kind of have a target of where we’re going.
Blake Ostler: Not become like God. It’s become gods.
Nick Galieti: Become gods. Is the process of becoming God at least, in part, coming through the mental processes, the philosophical processes, of coming to know characteristics of God, kind of like what you’ve talked about, that you take your argument of, “If I say God is absolutely powerful, what does that mean next?” How does that dovetail with other things, or doesn’t dovetail with other things that we know to be true and revealed?
Blake Ostler: Because I’m an obnoxious philosopher, I’m going to back up again.
Nick Galieti: Back up all you need to.
Blake Ostler: We talk about becoming gods, but the commandment is: “to be perfect, as I or my Father in heaven is.” “Is” and “be” in the present tense, not in the future tense. “Be ye therefore perfect even as I, or your Father in heaven, is perfect.” And that is because the nature of God is never fully complete. Divinity is always growing, always self-surpassing. However great God is in any moment has been surpassed in the next moment.

Human beings are the same way. We are already divine. We have the divine nature inherent within us. We are offspring of God. And I don’t want to say it literally. I want to say it metaphorically in a way that would take me three days to explain, but I’m just going to leave it there. What I want to say is that we have inherent within us this capacity for divinity. And we already express it to extent we express love for one another, to the extent that we fulfill the purpose that we were born to fulfill, to the extent that we show kindness. It’s not as if, though, there is this perfection that is someday we’re going to realize it. I’m already the best me that’s ever been, okay? Just so you know, nobody does me better than I do.

What I want to say about becoming like God is that there’s this challenge already built in. We are already the children of God, and now we are being challenged to be something that we already are. So, there is this being already, but not yet. Because none of us are fully who we are. I mean, the fact is we think of divinity as fully mature humanity. Our humanity is still in the process of maturing, as is divinity, by the way, because it’s an ongoing eternal progression. And this too is constant with process thought, where God is always self-surpassing. Whatever God has realized in one moment, His experience extends into new novel reality the next moment, and it’s more complete.

Nick Galieti: Partially by our experiences intertwining with His.
Blake Ostler: Exactly, and by the fact that we glorify each other. But I want to make this easy. I want to take perfectionism and turn it into something wonderful, rather than a huge burden. In this way, we’re already perfect in every sense that we’re required to be perfect.
Nick Galieti: But you’re going to have to explain that.
Blake Ostler: Yeah. And I’m about to do that.
Nick Galieti: Okay.
Blake Ostler: We’re down here to have experiences, but we couldn’t fail to have experiences. So, merely by having experiences, we’re fulfilling the purpose for which we came. This is a no-lose proposition. Everything we experience is for our good—everything. This wasn’t set up as a you-lose proposition. Moreover, it’s very simple. People think there’s this long laundry list of commandments they need to keep. I’m going to simplify this. First of all, the word commandment comes from the [Latin]word co-manere— it comes from the word “mano” that anyone who speaks a Latin language will recognize as meaning “hand.” Thus, co-mano means to give a hand, to lend a hand.

The commandments are not burdens. It’s not like a military command, “I command you to do this!” It’s like, “Let me give you a hand to assist you to do this.” What is it that God is giving us a hand with? All of the commandments are given for a simple purpose: to teach us how to learn to love one another. If you truly love a person, you don’t steal from them; you don’t kill them; you don’t covet what they have. You get the idea. That’s kind of a minimal standard of love, right? I don’t kill you.

That’s really minimal, but there’s also this maximal standard of love that Jesus taught on the Sermon on the Mount. This is the challenge. It’s like the love a parent has for a child. If my child comes to me and asks me for directions, I don’t just point my finger. I walk the full distance with my child to show him. When my child is shivering, I don’t just give him a coat. I take the coat off my very back and hand it to my child. When my child is angry and hits me or is so angry that they do something inappropriate, I don’t hit them back. I turn my other cheek and say, “You haven’t hit this one yet.” You get the idea. This is the kind of way that loving people respond to each other, and it’s like if I love my wife, it’s not merely that I don’t commit adultery. I love her so completely it doesn’t even occur to me. My heart is set on her, not anybody else. It’s not hard. It’s the easiest thing in the world when I truly love her. Moreover, when I truly love my children, it’s not hard for me to do these things. I delight in doing them.

When I truly love a person, these things that seem hard become very easy, because they are the way my love expresses itself. And there is only one commandment. All the others are just appendages that teach us this one: love each other the way I love you. That’s the commandment. That’s the only commandment. And this is easy if we just be who we truly are—it flows from us naturally.

The problem comes when we engage in self-deception and when we hide from ourselves the truth that we already know; when we try to be something that we’re not; when we try to appear to be someone who we’re not. We must deceive ourselves to hide from ourselves the knowledge of God. We must deceive ourselves to hide from ourselves the love that we naturally give. Every single one of us has essentially this kind of what I call a heart-hardening experience. We conclude at some point, “I’m never going to let anybody hurt me like that again, and so I’m going to be a rock.” It’s like the Simon and Garfunkel song. Rocks don’t feel, but they don’t love either. It’s what we do, we harden our hearts.

Now, if you look in the Book of Mormon, this is the most common expression, and every single problem of the Book of Mormon, the root problem is a hard heart. The solution to the problem is a soft heart or an open heart. In the Book of Mormon, every single problem, the root problem, is actually a hard heart. This is the human problem, and what we’re challenged to overcome. At some point, you got the message (I got it; everybody got it): “You’re no darn good. You’ll never measure up. You’ll never be enough. You’re not as good at that as anybody else. You’re just not worth it. You suck.” Okay. I could go on and on.

We’ve all gotten this message and that hurts to the very core. And so, in order to hide this pain, we choose to stop feeling. We chose to stop being open. Not only will I not let you hurt me like that again, I’m going to preemptively control you so that you can’t hurt me, okay? And then, we can justify all kinds of unloving behavior so that we can avoid being hurt again.

At the root of the human condition there is this choice at a very fundamental level of who we are. We just close down, shut off, build walls, close up, close shop, don’t let anybody in. The problem is, when we do that, we build walls that keep us in, that hide the bushel of light that we have. We put our light under a bushel. We hide it. We don’t share it. We shut ourselves in, and we shut everybody else out. They can’t reach us. It’s as if though we don’t even exist for them because they can’t really get to us. We’re just isolated, alienated.

The challenge for human beings is to overcome this alienation. It’s what atonement is all about. Atonement is this relational reality of opening to let everybody else in, and to let our light shine, and to let ourselves out. To let go, if you will.

Nick Galieti: And that’s the ultimate free will, isn’t it?
Blake Ostler: It is the ultimate free will.
Nick Galieti: Because otherwise, we’re letting other people reduce our choices.
Blake Ostler: The only person who is truly free is the person that does not care what other people think. The only person who is truly free is the one that simply lets go and is who they are.
Nick Galieti: Again, we could probably go on for days, but we’re not going to.
Blake Ostler: Your listeners will be greatly relieved.
Nick Galieti: That’s a very big file to download, right?
Blake Ostler: Exactly.
Nick Galieti: At this point, what I want to give you, is my gratitude for writing your books, because, if anything, you helped me to come to know that I’ve not given nearly enough time to this subject as I should. It’s possibly because I have been in different ways distracted or self-denied that that’s a subject worth my time.
Blake Ostler: And for most people, it’s so academic and so beyond, that it’s just nonsensical. But for me, it’s the gift. I mean, people come to Earth with gifts to give, and I knew this was one of the gifts I had to give, so I gave it.
Nick Galieti: Well, and we’ve been given the gift of not only free will, but the ability to reason, which I think was part of what we were intended to do, and one of the methods we were to come to know God. And to me, that’s the real challenge that we have moving forward, as not only a people but as individuals going through this plan. Going through this plan of salvation is finding ways to illuminate our own minds with the end goal of understanding where that’s to lead us and to being that unity of purpose. And again, we probably spend a whole bunch of time just talking about free will because that’s a big portion of this gift that we’ve been given.
Blake Ostler: It’s a huge array of philosophy and action theory, and I could go on for days, and days, and days, trust me.
Nick Galieti: Well, and it’s funny, you brought up the free will thing before, and we talked about it with respect to the problem of evil, and I was thinking about it today. Often times when people see evil happen in their lives, their response is, “Well, why would God allow that to happen?” And if God is omnibenevolent, as we sometimes define Him, therefore why would this happen? And in its own way, we are prescribing to God in the appraisal of the function of those things, which is part of the problem.

Well, we want to encourage people to go pick up a copy of these books. There’s also a podcast that you do with your son Exploring Mormon Thought. Someone can go and download those and spend some more time with the subject, but I think you’ve given us a lot to process at this point.

I want to thank you for coming in. Thank you for your time and talking about this. And again, thank you for writing your books.

Blake Ostler: Oh, thank you so much for your kindness, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

Disclaimer:     LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.


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