Monday, September 08, 2008

Because I'm too tired to come up with anything new.

Today I'm offering up a leftover thought for your consideration. Of course, the particular mental Tupperware I'm dumping into this post contains a wacky idea that has blown the mind of everyone I've shared it with over the years, so hopefully it will be at least mildly interesting to you.* Or at least not coma-inducing.

First some background for those of you who are not Mormons and/or wannabe cosmologists (NOTE: if you're not in the mood for my self-indulgent rambling, just skip the next three paragraphs):

We Mormons, like many other Christians, believe that Christ's atoning sacrifice is infinite and eternal. This means that we believe that the Atonement enables us to be redeemed of all the imperfection in ourselves and in our earthly circumstances and the consequences of those imperfections. I have assumed, like most Mormons, that this meant that my failure to make a good decision when presented with Opportunity A would (if I satisfied the terms of my contract with Christ) still allow for me to receive Opportunity B, though possibly not until the next life. As I imagined it, Opportunity B would most likely not be the same as Opportunity A, but it would be so delightful that presumably I wouldn't mind at all that I'd missed the first boat.

We Mormons also believe that all truth is part of “one great whole” -- that the division between so-called secular and religious knowledge is an artificial one. This is why Mormons tend to enjoy sci-fi – because our religious doctrine reaches into the cosmos, embracing the ideas of other inhabited worlds, the eternity of matter and human intelligence, and a god who is subject to certain foundational cosmological laws that provide the structure upon which his glory hangs. It's not the central thing we talk about, but it is part of our beliefs, and a pretty darned fun part at that.

So about fourteen years ago Stephen Hawking came to lecture in Salt Lake. Actually, he came twice because we were just so excited to see him he couldn't resist coming back to cash in once again on our adulation. I was an uber-geek teenager who had read A Brief History of Time (meaning I'd looked at all the words in sequence and then scratched my head) so I was excited enough to stand in line half the day in the sun for tickets to see him "speak" in the Symphony Hall, and a few years later in the university stadium. It was admittedly quite groupie-esque, but also brain-expanding. If you're not up on Dr. Hawking, he's a cosmologist obsessed with finding an elegant unifying principle to explain every aspect of the universe. His work touches on brain-cramping physical principles that warp reality as we think we know it: alternate universes, black holes, the illusion of linear time, the possibility of reversing entropy, kooky subatomic particles that won't behave themselves. I don't pretend to fully understand most of it, but I love what I do understand and after attending his lectures I found myself trying to connect some of his ideas with principles of my religion (in a lazy sort of way). The most intriguing possibility I came up with was this:

What if Christ's infinite and eternal Atonement is so infinite and eternal that he doesn't just “forgive and forget” your flawed performance and give you positive outcomes in spite of your earlier failings? What if God's forgiveness means that when you comply with his terms for using the Atonement, ultimately all universes will be eliminated except the one in which you actually did perform perfectly at every crossroad and received all the best possible outcomes? In other words, what if successful use of the Atonement literally erases the fact of our failings from reality, and not just their negative outcomes? What if God “forgets” our sins not just because he's a nice guy, but because a property of the Atonement enables him to make them so they never happened in the first place?

I'm probably wrong in this particular speculation, but Joseph Smith taught that truth is way more delightfully mindbending than even we wacky Mormons are ready to accept. That once we have mastered the simpler, foundational truths (love, sacrifice, faith, etc.) we are expected to use them as stepping stones to the equally essential “mysteries.” Not that I've mastered the foundational truths yet, but sometimes one does get the itch to wander to the edge and try dipping a toe in the Mystery for a bit....

What do you think? Am I barking up the wrong B-vector?

If I can get an angelic confirmation of my kooky idea, I'll be sure to let y'all know, so stay tuned. Though I promise not to start a new religion.**

* If you feel your mind about to blow as you read this exceedingly profound post, please type a comment quickly before your head explodes, just to boost my ego. A simple “Pop!” will be more than sufficient to convey both your wonderment and your impending demise. I promise to come to the funeral, as long as it's not open-casket.

** But if I ever did start my own religion it would have a really cool sci-fi name like the United Sistern of the Sacred Stargate. Or the Immaculate Intergalactic Immortals. Or the Apostolic Apocalyptic Astro-saints.


i i eee said...

I've always wanted to be an Astro-saint.

My dad's an amateur astronomer... we dig the cosmos in my family.

Thanks for the mind-bending.

sharonsfriendjen said...

pop! I would love to know half the stuff you know. You are the smartest person I have ever met. I love reading your post, I truly feel my IQ goes up each time. (this isn't sarcasm, I know its hard to tell with me, so I am adding this disclaimer).

Annette G said...

So, it's like we get to live the life we were "meant" to live and not have to worry about the other junk - Junk that wasn't supposed to happen to us anyway. Did I get this right? I am on board with that.

Carvel said...

Verrry interesting!

wynne said...

You know, I've never read a bit of Stephen Hawking, but I once read "The Time Traveler's Wife" which is about a guy who spontaneously time-travels, and the idea behind his time-traveling is that time is not linear...

Have you ever read the book? The author must've read Hawking, anyway.

But the book really isn't the point. What happened after I read the book and got thinking about time--and perhaps the fact that it isn't linear--is that I had a thought related to yours. Not so much about the Atonement, but more about agency.

(Is it okay if I monopolize your comment field, yet AGAIN? I hope so.)

Here's my problem: there are lots of people in this world that never really seemed to have a fighting chance. They were born into a bad situation, they grew up in a worse one, they may have known nothing but pain and abuse, and so managed to pass little else on but pain and abuse, though they did try... I believe that Father in Heaven is more fair than this seems; that He has mercy and love for every person ever born; that, somewhere, sometime, there is going to be a cure for all the horrid pain in the world. But the thought of it being there--it hurts me to think what some people have lived through and can't get beyond.

Okay, so back to the idea of time being non-linear.

Suppose that time is NOT linear. Suppose there are, for every possible choice, an alternate universe. And the one I'm living in--my reality, the one I'm going to be judged by--may not be the same as yours? (Say I'm going to be judged by my performance in Universe Q and you will be in Universe H. I've no idea if that makes sense...must keep going.)

And here, in my Universe Q, Heavenly Father has set up things to bring out the absolute best in me: just the right challenges, just the right amount of people choosing to do crummy things. For example, in my Universe Q, Hitler is a horrible guy, and I don't...uh...have very good relationships with many of my family members. But suppose in Universe F, Hitler makes different choices and is a force for good? Suppose in Universe G, a few of the people who caused me the most pain made excellent choices, and I am the one who is the abuser, the villain, the crazy-cat-lady? What if Heavenly Father was able to set up the world so that we would be given credit for our best possible selves, and yet, be able to use any possible bad decisions we may have made as catalysts and teaching experiences for others?

Yeah, a bit cracked, I guess, but still...if it's true, it sure gives a new dimension of meaning to "thou shalt not judge."

Sorry for taking over your comments. Again.

dave brown said...

Great post -- I was another of the young geeks attending Hawking's Symphony Hall lecture.

I like your theory, whether it's true or not. Have you ever seen Donnie Darko?

lenalou said...

I don't know that I want all my and everyone else's failings erased, but that's more for poetic reasons than theological and/or scientific ones. But I like the concept, and I like that you thought of it.

Marie said...

WEIRD! I unknowingly posted this a day before CERN fired up! And as I puttered around the house, listening to the News Hour talk about the first test run, someone mentions Stephen Hawking. Spooooky. (Mr. Scientist Expert Guy was saying that, thanks to the Hawking Radiation principle, we need not fear that any tiny black holes created by the atom smashing will suck in Switzerland. Thanks, Prof. Hawking!)

iieee -- Yay for your dad and his cosmo-babies -- I used to be able to call myself an amateur astronomer, but that was before I let my telescope sit in my closet for one whole year without seeing the light of night. In my defense, the thing is just too heavy for me to move without breaking a serious sweat. After I have a strapping husband and before the mewling infants arrive, I will once again be an amateur astronomer....

Jen -- Man, how much am I paying you for the ego boosting, again? 'Cause you're good, and I think you're long overdue for a raise. Or maybe I could just treat you to lunch sometime soon? :)

Annette -- I don't know what I mean. I just like to poke at the universe and see if it shrieks or giggles.

Dad -- Thanks!

Wynne -- Hawking didn't come up with most of those ideas -- his claim to fame is trying to unify them and making them more accessible to the average Joe (me). Oh, and the spooky computer-generated voice doesn't hurt either. But no, I haven't read that book. And I really like your idea. And I have no trouble accepting that it could be true, because I *do* have trouble with the whole "your problems are perfectly tailored to your needs" concept that we hear, since those problems are so often presented in the person of other beings who are just as changeable as we are (will this Perfect Scourge have a change of heart and cease to scourge you tomorrow? if so, where does God get another, more cooperative, Perfect Scourge?) And while I don't know if either of our ideas are right, I do think that the concept of multiple realities fits rather nicely with things LDS doctrine hints at. Infinite kingdoms nestled within infinite kingdoms. A god for whom everything is present; who is unchanging, and yet who was once a mortal and therefore *did* change in some realm. The idea of proxy ordinances is one I love, but it does seem strange that God would set it up so that those ordinances were non-optional for our progression and then arrange things so that 99% of people were born in times/places where they had no access to them. I enjoy being part of the program, but the program does seem kinda...I dunno...inelegant? What if the act of accepting a proxy ordinance essentially stakes the claim of the dead person on a universe in which he *did* receive that essential ordinance for himself? We are his "savior" in getting him planted in that other reality with our offering him the proxy ordinance in this reality, but once he's there, he is in a place where he can be a savior because he needs none himself and has the seamless history of a god? Maybe that is the subtext under the "this is my work and my glory" scripture -- that God's work and delight is getting things arranged so that we never needed him to begin with? Hmmm...

Dave -- Why am I not surprised you were another Hawking groupie? I think at one point ten years ago our Superior Brains reached the logical conclusion that we were both the center of the universe. In subsequent years I have decided I was likely wrong about that, else I'd know the answers to my own questions. So that just leaves you. Good luck. No, I've not seen Donnie Darko. Is it related to this Mormon astro-babble?

Lena -- I know -- as one who loves the humanities, it's hard to imagine loving a reality in which the ideal beauty is to eliminate all trace of one's human foibles, lovable and otherwise. No doubt I'm wrong about this whole thing, however. And it would be nice if I'm wrong, because then God might let me bring War and Peace with me to the next life. There's no way I'm going to get around to reading it here.

wynne said...

"God's work and delight is getting things arranged so that we never needed him to begin with? Hmmm."

I think you may be on to something. What you stated is the goal of every sane parent I know.

And Donnie Darko just has some...uh, alternate reality stuff in it. I love watching it at Halloween especially...but it's R.

Trish said...

All I can say is "wow!" Profound. I wish my brain could wrap itself around this stuff. Instead, it just blows my mind. Interesting; just mind-blowing.

Maggie May said...

i found you through another blog and like your page! i wonder if you'd put Nie Nie's donation sticker on your blog? she's a beautiful sweetie Mormon girl who, along with husband Christian, was terribly burned in a plane crash in August. they have four kids under the age of 6 who are being cared for by family. their medical bills are in millions..and so there are donations etc going on, and a blog 'sticker' you can put on your page so people can click and read about her and donate if they like. you can find it on my page. her blog was Nie Nie Dialogues.

Marie said...

I hope that if readers of this blog want to donate they will; there are many good causes in the world, however, that I feel are far more urgent and if I'm going to advertise for good causes on my blog I want to use the space for the Red Cross or Kiva or the United Way -- for causes that help those people who truly will go without having their needs met if complete strangers don't come to their aid. But I am very sorry for Nie Nie and hope that she will recover!

Carvel said...

Good news, Marie!!!
It turns out that this post is still enjoyable upon a second reading! Now, don't get me wrong: Some (Most, actually) of your other posts are also still enjoyable when read a second or third time, although a decent interval of time between readings is advisable, but this one is particularly rewarding when re-read, partly because "thick thoughts" like these require carefuller, slower reading than do other, less-mindbending concepts. And, as usual, my first reading was too hasty.
Thanks for putting up such interesting ideas.

Carvel said...

Carole suggests that I point out to you that this post would make Dr. McNamara, your erstwhile astronomy professor, proud of you.

ram said...

So I'm guessing you've read Rational Theology right? I'm a friend of a friend. awesome blog. I like your gray matter.

Marie said...

Dad -- I'm glad it's gristly enough that you're still a-chewing. :) I doubt Dr. McNamara is still with us, but I did like his style. He still had enough wonder and excitement in his 70s to satisfy someone who'd squeezed (squoze? squizen?) astronomy into her schedule at 8:00 am. I even stayed awake most days!

ram -- Wow, thank you -- I live for such words! No, I've not read Rational Theology, but do intend to before I die. I'm not sure I believe that truth can ever seem completely rational while our minds are in their current limited forms, but that it is completely rational to a mind not limited by incomplete facts and imperfect analytical methods.