Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mormonism vs. Existentialism

Naturally, as human beings, we often have questions about our existence. Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Where am I going? At the risk of sounding too much like a religious brochure, I would like to share a “Mormon” view of existence. Interestingly, the term “Mormon” which much of the world knows us as, was given to us by our persecutors due to our belief in The Book of Mormon. We are actually members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, not to be confused with many of the fundamentalist groups that we hear so much about in the media today. As Latter Day Saints, I believe that we have a healthy grasp of truth in regard to ideas and beliefs about our existence.

As Latter Day Saints, we believe that not only did God create the earth in which we live, but that we, as beings, were created by God as well. God said, "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26, King James Version). Jacob declared that he had seen God "face to face" (Genesis 32:30, KJV), and Moses also spoke with God "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend" (Exodus 33:11, KJV). Sartre and his atheistic existentialistic views, believes that man is “forlorn”, a term that he borrows from Heidegger, meaning that God does not exist and that man needs to face the consequences of this. Sartre states that the very starting point of existentialism is illustrated by Dostoevsky who said “if God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” Sartre believes that without God, man cannot start making excuses for himself (Sartre, Existentialism). It is my personal belief that, on the contrary, without God, man is free to make excuses for his behavior and has no accountability for his actions. Without a God to provide us a plan with rules, this world could hypothetically be chaos at best, even anarchistic. Sartre says that since there is no God and since we therefore create our own values and laws, there really is no evil, “To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil” (Sartre, Being). What a scary world this would be if there were no distinction between good and evil, save that which we as man define for ourselves. One can look no further than children as they enter this world to see that it is evident that man not only needs, but craves order and rules. Even though man may kick against the implementation of such rules, his very nature requires them in order to direct his paths and fulfill himself. It is for this reason that Latter Day Saints believe that God has given us commandments and “The Plan of Salvation” to follow while on the earth.

Aside from a few similarities, Latter Day Saints seem to disagree with existentialism a great deal, most apparently on their views of the nature of man. Though the many existential philosophers seem to have endless ideas about existence, they seem to agree on the idea that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre, Belief). What this means is that “man is nothing else than what he makes of himself.” Existentialists believe that man has no essence, no true inherent eternal nature that defines him prior to his existence. Man has the responsibility for determining through his own thought and action what his essence will be. Man, through his own free will, defines himself. Existentialists believe that life has no meaning except that which man gives it. The existential belief is that every man has an obligation to define his own truth by himself, and that this truth is relative.

The Latter Day Saint philosophy of the nature of man differs greatly from this existentialist view. As Latter Day Saints, we believe that Man is an eternal being. His nature existed before he was born. We believe that man has incredible, divine potential “… as God is, man may become” (History of the Church, 6:302–17). Life has a meaning and the purpose of this life is to provide man with the opportunity to learn and grow to become more like God. But like the existentialists, Latter-day Saints also place great importance on the need for freedom. Man must be free to make his own choices and hopefully he will make decisions that will progress him toward becoming more like his Father in Heaven. Latter Day Saints believe that man is not alone in this world. He has help in the form of parents, teachers of the gospel, leaders in the Church, the scriptures, and most important of all, the Holy Ghost.

As human beings, we all feel sorrow and times of loneliness, fear and despair. Latter Day Saints believe that God knew this and thus included the Holy Ghost as part of his plan. Jesus Christ promised, “I will not leave you comfortless” (John 14:18, KJV). He taught that God would send the “comforter”, “which is the Holy Ghost?” (John 14:26, KJV). The Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead, along with God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost is one in purpose with the Father and the Son, though all three are separate beings. The special mission of the Holy Ghost is to testify of the Father and the Son, to reveal the truth, to comfort you, and to sanctify you (make you pure, free from sin). The Holy Ghost is a divine guide and teacher, a testifier, bearing witness of all truth. Jesus Christ said that the Holy Ghost “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). By the power of the Holy Ghost, we “may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5, Book of Mormon). Sartre doesn’t believe that man is going to “help himself by finding in the world some omen by which to orient himself.” He thinks that “man will interpret the omen to suit himself” (Sartre, Existentialism). The Latter Day Saint view is that the Holy Ghost brings feelings of warmth, reassurance, and peace and can fill our souls with joy. The Holy Ghost often speaks with a voice, a feeling that we feel within us. It is described as a still, small voice. He can enlighten our minds, telling us in our hearts, what is right. These ideas and feelings are not created by man as Sartre contends, but come from a source outside of ourselves.

Latter Day Saints believe that before we began our life on earth, we lived with our Heavenly Father as one of His spirit children. We were created by God and he is our Father in Heaven (Matthew 6:9, KJV). We call God Heavenly Father because He is the Father of our spirits and we are created in His image (Genesis 1:27, KJV). God has a body that looks like yours, though His body is immortal, perfected, and has a glory beyond description. God knows us personally and loves us more than we can comprehend. To help us find happiness in this life and guide you to return to live with Him, our Heavenly Father provided a plan. This plan is based on the life and teachings of His Son, Jesus Christ who was sent to earth as an integral part of the plan and to serve as an example in which to follow. Since the beginning, Heavenly Father has called prophets to testify, record His word, and provide His plan for His children on the earth. The teachings of prophets are found in the sacred books that we know called scriptures such as The Bible and The Book of Mormon (Amos 3:7, KJV).

Our life on Earth is part of God’s plan. It is a time for us to gain a body, learn, grow, and find joy. According to God’s plan, we could not continue to progress continually without the opportunity to enter mortality and receive a physical body. Here on earth we would have experiences that would help us learn and grow, and we would be proven to see if [we would] do all things whatsoever the Lord would command (Abraham 3:25, KJV). The purpose of the plan is to help us become more like our Heavenly Father. As human beings and children of God, we have a divine purpose or mission in Heavenly Father’s plan. We came to earth to receive a body and to gain knowledge and experience to help us become more like our Heavenly Father. More specifically, He wants us to learn to control our bodies, to choose right over wrong, and to walk by faith in following Jesus Christ. Knowing that we could not progress continually if we remained in the pre-mortal world, Heavenly Father sent us to earth, much as a parent sends a child to school. Sartre contends that “man is haunted by cosmic meaninglessness, which he alone cannot solve. Man is then necessitated to invent a concept which can explain the unexplainable, including the origin of the world.” I believe that the atheistic view is in a sense lazy one. It seems a way to justify man’s behaviors and not deal with the idea that we have work to do in this life and a purpose. This idea of atheism absolves of us of any responsibilities and soothes our conscious to our own liking. “Who needs spend the energy to find truth if I can just explain it away with the idea that there is no such thing?!” This life is hard and it takes much effort to not only find truth, but to act on it and fulfill our purpose once we find it.

Furthermore, our Heavenly Father knew that at times we would make incorrect choices, so He provided a way for us to overcome our mistakes and weaknesses through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Through Christ’s sacrifice we can repent and be forgiven of our poor choices and learn from them. In order for us to learn to choose good from evil, God needed to allow evil to exist in the world and act upon us. For this reason, Satan, who was cast out of God’s presence due to his rebellion against the eternal plan of progress and righteousness, is allowed to tempt us here on this earth. Latter Day Saints believe that God takes no pleasure in our suffering, but that he knows that trials can bring his children closer to him and can make them stronger as they endure faithfully through these hard times (Revelations 3:19, KJV). Some may wonder why God allows all of the suffering in the world, why it is that even innocent people who are trying to do good are subjected to tragedy and trials. As part of God’s plan, we came to this earth and are subject to natural and physical laws. We are also subject to the consequences of sin and the results of our choices as well as other’s choices When we have faith in God and His plan, we can find assurance that there is a purpose for all that happens to us here on this earth. Coping with trials can strengthen us and help us to learn, grow, and serve others. Dealing with adversity is one of the main ways in which we are tested and taught in this life. If we can endure faithfully, our Heavenly Father will reward us beyond our ability to comprehend in the life to come. Jesus Christ suffered all things through his role in God’s plan. Joseph Smith, who we believe to be one of many prophets who have been called in our day, was told by our Heavenly Father during a period of intense suffering, “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7–8). Sartre saw life as an endless realm of suffering and a complete void of nothingness. His pessimistic ideas on life were similar to his beliefs on death, as death for him was a final nothingness.

Sartre believed that "Existence is prior to essence. Man is nothing at birth and throughout his life he is no more than the sum of his past commitments. To believe in anything outside his own will is to be guilty of 'bad Faith.' Existentialist despair and anguish is the acknowledgement that man is condemned to freedom. There is no God, so man must rely upon his own fallible will and moral insight. He cannot escape choosing" (Sartre, Belief). While I disagree with Sartre on a great deal of his thoughts, I value his thoughts and ideas, for they are the catalyst to thought and introspection in which I believe all humans should engage. I respect the thinkers that ask the new questions, even though I may disagree with their conclusion. One of my cousins said it best, "Sometimes the question itself, not the answer, is the key insight that introduces a new generalization, a new perspective."

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