I’ve sometimes had the weird experience of learning new truths about the gospel from an outsider.

Joseph Smith taught that spirit is a finer form of matter. Which made no sense to me.

But a Christian scholar trying to make sense of Mormonism for his Christian audience has explained the belief in a way that I can finally comprehend.

The most significant difference is that Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was never purely immaterial. Smith developed his materialistic interpretation of the spiritual realm mainly after the Book of Mormon, but it is anticipated in that book’s most extraordinary scene. In an appearance to the unnamed brother of Jared, Jesus is so sensitive to the overwhelming impression of his corporeal form that he reveals only his little finger. Jared’s brother says, “I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood” (Ether 3:8). Later Jesus shows Jared’s brother his whole body, which, it turns out, is a pre-mortal spirit body, comprised of a finer material substance than anything known on earth.

Christianity has always affirmed the goodness of matter and the integrity of the human body, but Mormonism offers that Christian dogma gone mad. For Smith, Christ’s pre-existent form was as physically real as we are today. Christianity teaches that the incarnation happened in a particular place and time, but for Smith, taking Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”) very literally, the Son has always been Jesus. The body of Jesus Christ is the eternal image of all bodies, spiritual and physical alike. The incarnation is a specification (or material intensification) of his body, not the first and only time that God and matter unite.

The eternal embodiment of the divine is metaphysically audacious, and it explains why Mormonism is so inventive. Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato. Mormons are so materialistic that they insist that the same unchanging laws govern both the natural and the supernatural. They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.

By treating the spiritual as a dimension of the material, Smith overcomes every trace of dualism between this world and the next. Matter is perfectible because it is one of the perfections of the divine.

That is beautiful. That is powerful. I still may not wholly accept that spirit is just a finer form of matter, but I can now understand what someone could mean by it. I can at least grasp and even admire the possibility.

The whole essay is well worth your while. It’s a model of real tolerance, which requires real differences and real attempts at understanding.

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