Does God Have Exhaustive Definitive Foreknowledge? Another Case Study in a Pragmatic Approach to an LDS Theology of Possibilties

This post might only make sense after reading this post or this post.

To help concretize the essential need of an open folk belief (OFB) LDS community, I will illustrate a case example regarding a theological issue for which there are substantial gaps from authoritative Latter-day Saint sources. For this fictional example, imagine two individuals, Susan and Gary, having a conversation about their differing beliefs regarding the foreknowledge of God. There are differing LDS views concerning whether God has exhaustive specific foreknowledge, although it is commonly assumed that one position – the affirmative one – is the official position of the Church. Therefore, this position is a classical case in which an folk belief is commonly confused to be a CFB (closed folk belief).

For our scenario, let us assume that Susan holds an affirmative view and Gary holds a negative one. A conversation ensues between the two in which they become aware of their differing positions. Susan, holding the more popular view, is surprised at Gary’s belief, and it is difficult for her not to wonder whether he is a heretic – didn’t Bruce R. McConkie say something about that? However, being the open-minded person that she is, Susan postpones judgment and inquires further about Gary’s theology: “What does it mean for you to believe that God does not have exhaustive specific foreknowledge?” Gary replies that this view is important for him to hold because he has trouble reconciling his agency with such an exhaustive view of foreknowledge. Like William James, Gary has trouble with God knowing everything that will happen in the future – such a view would entail that there are no real possibilities, no genuine contributions that he can make to the world.

Susan herself has thought about this issue, and she responds, “Well, couldn’t there be a way that God could know everything and yet your actions still are genuinely free?” Gary answers, “I suppose I am open to that being the case – that there is some way in which the two can be reconciled. I mean, if I go to Heaven and God tells me, ‘Guess what? I really did know everything you were going to do,’ then I’ll probably be fine with that. But where I’m not sure right now what is true, I am more comfortable believing that even God, though He has tremendous foresight, does not know with certainty what I will do tomorrow.”

Susan is trying to understand Gary’s beliefs, but she is still having trouble, even on pragmatic grounds. So, wisely, she fields him another pragmatic-oriented question. “Well, that sort of makes sense to me . . . But tell me this – how can you have complete trust in a God that doesn’t have absolute knowledge of the future?” Gary explains, “This is the best way that I can explain it. Imagine yourself playing a chess game with Bobby Fischer. How certain would he be that he would defeat you?” Susan replies, “Pretty certain. I’d say 99.9 percent.” Gary continues, “But could he predict with such a high accuracy your first move? Or your second? And so on?” Susan answers, “I think I know where you’re getting at. Of course not.” Gary resumes, “So there’s a sense in which we could say that your moves are genuinely free, even though your defeat is almost certainly assured and your individual moves cannot be predicted.” Susan nods. “So my view of God,” Gary continues, “is that He knows, with certainty, that He is in charge. I can’t explain it – there’s just something about His being God that makes that knowledge self-evident for Him. But that doesn’t mean that He has to have 100 percent exhaustive specific foreknowledge, analogous to Bobby Fischer’s not having it and yet being quite secure in his victory over someone like you in a chess match.”

As a result of this conversation, Susan comes to a better understanding of Gary’s position because she understands it in terms of pragmatic grounds. She realizes that, in her opinion, Gary is not a heretic – at least not simply on the grounds of this one belief – and his belief appears to be genuine. She is quite comfortable with the fact that she and Gary are worshipping the same God in spite of their differing theological viewpoints. Both folk theologies, from Susan’s perspective, are “true in so far forth” that they lead to important pragmatic ends. Had she immediately written off Gary’s folk theology from the beginning, rather than engaging him in pragmatic-oriented dialogue, she might have not come to this awareness.

There are several possibilities for further dialogue and exploration at this point. The attention could now turn to Susan’s folk theology and why it is important for her to believe that God has exhaustive specific foreknowledge – hopefully in the same spirit of open-mindedness and pragmatic meaning. Susan and Gary could each reevaluate their own positions on the matter. It could be, for example, that Susan finds herself being undecided on the issue. In so doing, she might realize that her own folk theology was simply an abstraction that got in the way of her actual relationship with God. In other words, there would be new possibilities opening up for Susan – in very important ways! Such a result would be an example of how an OFB community can serve as a check against naïve commitments to folk theologies with limited pragmatic import (especially dogmatic ones, though this wasn’t the case with Susan).

It is very important, from an OFB standpoint, to not strong arm individuals in believing a certain folk theology. Doing so could have disastrous pragmatic consequences! This guideline is especially important for parents and lay ministers who serve in leadership, teaching, or missionary positions. An OFB community does not suggest that a person has to consider all folk theologies as being equal with one’s own. If such equality were offered, it would be difficult to see how folk theologies would be very meaningful – it certainly would be difficult to act as if they were true, in the spirit of James. Indeed, from an OFB perspective, one could even believe that a certain folk theology would probably be better for a certain individual to hold, in terms of having wider and deeper pragmatic import for oneself and others. Nonetheless, it would also be important to recognize that such a folk theology might not presently be an option for that person, given his or her present circumstances, beliefs, and experience.

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13 Responses

  1. My problem with this whole idea is the use of the word “foreknowledge.” Foreknowledge implies time, when I believe it’s fairly standard doctrine that God is somehow outside of time, seeing all time as one. This theological problem is only a problem when we view God as knowing our actions “before” or “after” we do them. But using any of these words with a being outside of time is incorrect: for God, there isn’t before and after. As human beings, we are largely defined by time (ie our actions and very thought process depend on chronology), so it’s difficult or impossible for us to understand anything outside time.

    I believe Hugh Nibley wrote about this human time limitation (only being able to think things in sequence). It might have been “Zeal without Knowledge,” but I can’t be sure.

  2. I wonder if we couldn’t have a similar conversation about whether God is somehow outside of time. I don’t know that we can say there is an official doctrinal position on this matter. To say that it is a “fairly standard doctrine” is to say that it isn’t an unqualified standard doctrine.

    It seems to me that there are more and less justifiable folk beliefs. Some topics, like God’s atemporality or exhaustive definitive foreknowledge, are mentioned in the scriptures. Other topics (like our tattoos and piercings discussion) aren’t to be found in the scriptures.

    I think Dennis is right to suggest that it is imperative to advance even the most defensible folk theories tentatively. If better supported folk theories were seen as necessarily more true than less supported ones, it only reinvents the problem of being dogmatic and advancing closed folk beliefs that aren’t entirely justified.

    Dennis, in your opinion, should people be responsible to provide a reasoning for their own folk beliefs? In what cases might we have the right or duty to challenge others over their folk beliefs?

  3. Personally, I have found no reason to believe that God exists in a timeless state in scripture or elsewhere. The thought of God living in a timeless state can often be disturbing to people, partly because it is pretty incomprehensible and partly because living in one endless and overwhelming moment can sometimes sound more like a form of damnation than exaltation to us. There is nothing wrong with believing that God lives in different moments as he lives in relation to us.

    This is important to realize because for some Latter-Day Saints, believing that God DOES NOT have exhaustive foreknowledge can make a meaningful difference in their relationships with Him. When I was younger, I was led to believe that God knew his final judgment of my life from my birth and even before. That made me uneasy many times. Exhaustive foreknowledge easily becomes tinged with a sense of predestination and frustration with our agency to change the course of our lives. From my experience, our perceptions of God and his desires for us, despite strong beliefs in human agency, are shaped by what we believe about his knowledge of us and our destinies.

    One possibility I perceive in how God might foresee events, etc. in our lives is that in his wisdom, he understands the paths we are headed on because he knows us and our hearts, not because he literally sees the future in definite, concrete form. My Dad sees the spirit of prophecy as a similar experience. The spirit can lead us to rejoice in future events we see unfolding in others’ lives (serving in the church and blessing others lives, knowing the Lord, etc.) not because we see the future but because we know them and can see the path that individuals desire to take in the present.

    Another concern I have in response to the assertion that God lives outside of time and has exhaustive foreknowledge is why are scriptural prophecies sometimes not fulfilled if they are inspired by God’s knowledge (ie Jonah and Nineveh, others in D&C)? And why does the Lord stretch out his hand in the midst of prophecies of destructive and judgment? Would he truly continue to hope we would repent if he had a definite knowledge we would not? The master of the vineyard is always surprised by the fruits that he finds.

    I am open to my beliefs being wrong, but I believe others can overturn destructive assumptions by realizing that we really don’t know anything about God’s existence in time and whether he has exhaustive foreknowledge.

  4. Liz,

    I’m glad you made this remark, because it gives me the opportunity to spell out another important piece of this puzzle.

    I’m not sure that it is fairly standard doctrine that God is somehow outside of time (I would call this a “folk belief”). In any case, I would argue that there are conceptual problems with seeing God as “outside time.”

    First of all, I think that seeing God as outside time ultimately stems from Hellenism, not the scriptures. God was conceptualized to be this cosmic force outside of time and space — and hence, irrelevant to human life.

    Which brings me to my second point — if God is outside time, then how is he involved in our world? Did he not visit Joseph Smith at a certain time? Does he not hear your prayers in the morning and at night, all at given times? The intimacy between an out-of-time being and an in-time being is a bit tricky — I would say impossible — to make any sense of whatsoever. Moreover, I don’t see any need to think of God as being outside of time because that is not my experience of God. I experience God as being intimately involved in my in-time affairs. All of this timeless business is a project of the Greeks and is quite foreign in a scriptural / Mormon world, if you ask me.

    I do agree, though, that God’s time is different than mortal time. Abraham had something to say about this, considering the whole 1 day for God for 1000 years for mortals.
    This view implies that God is IN a time, just a different quality of time.

    In terms of all things being one for God, I agree. But this does not have to mean that God is outside of time, nor that there is not a significant sense of “before” or “after.” From a nonlinear view of time, the past, present, and future are all one in “the now” — however, there is continual change, and as there is change, the past, present, and future also, simultaneously, change. Hence, the future truly is before God (you or I are perhaps in or out of the kingdom in the future), but this future is based on the here and now and can change. Moreover, the past can change — there is not a past that is independent of a being. The past is something that continually changes in time, continually reconstructed in light of the whole of the past-present-future in “the now.” (God is not alone, in my opinion in terms of the past, present, and future being one in the now — mortals do the same thing, but with much less precision.)

    Which brings me to my final point. What is time? I cannot come up with any meaningful definition of time other than “change.” If God is somehow outside time, then He would also need to be unchangeable. Of course, at some level we can say God does not change (in terms of fundamental attributes of who he is), but to say God’s world is a static one is strange to me. From my view, God’s world is continually in process. When you or I embrace Him in the next life, such an embrace will not be something he has already experienced. It will be experienced at a given time, by both of you. Indeed, we could ask, how can God be embodied and yet not change from moment to moment. Wouldn’t God do the types of things that embodied beings do? Surely he walks, he talks, he sings, he bends over, he eats, he laughs, he runs, he jumps, he does cartwheels, he naps, he hugs, he winks, he grimaces, he smiles, he climbs trees, and so on. How can he be this timeless force and yet do all these things? How else could he be doing these things than in a way that is across time?

    Any other idea makes no sense to me and does not accord with my experience or the scriptures, so as for now I cannot take it seriously.

  5. I would like to add a thought of my own concerning this subject.

    After the success of Isaac Newton in predicting the force of Gravity, many philosophers began to wonder about the universe’s relationship with mathematical laws. Some became so bold as to say that all things, including human choice, could ultimately be predicted by natural laws. In essence they created a theory of scientific predestination, believing all things would simply follow suite once they came into being. One would only have to do the math to see the future.

    Today it is known, thanks the theory of quantum mechanics, that the universe is based in uncertainty and that all laws will fail to predict at some point. Personally, I feel that this was purposefully done by God. Why, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps this uncertainty is what frees our agency from this disturbing foreknowledge. Perhaps not. All I’m certain of is that if I were God, I would want to be surprised.

  6. Interesting point, David

  7. David,

    So God chooses to be surprised by establishing a universe of quantum mechanics?

    This seems to imply a kind of monism (that all is one, all is God including us). After all, from this view couldn’t God have just as well Chosen to create an unsurprising universe?

    Joseph Smith’s teachings seem to tell us that we live in a pluralistic universe, in which we are eternal and somehow distinct elements. In such a pluralistic universe, the universe might be composed of relationships. Physics then could be seen as one way these relationships are manifested. It makes sence then that physics, the science, is incomplete(it fails to explain everything). I beleive physics will always be incomplete even to God. In a truly pluralistic universe to know everything in a meta physical sence is impossible.

    For me beleiving in a God who does not have inexhaustible fore-knowledge, actually lets me trust God more. If my life is already determined then how can God truly guide my life or call me to salvation? The Irony of inexhaustible Fore-Knowledge is that it actually takes away from the power of God to save us. I beleive from my experience that salvation is the grand story, yes, but one that is fundamentally as yet unresolved and undetermined.

    I’ve known many Mormons who beleive otherwise, but I think they are a shrinking majority. Of them I’ve found plenty that worship the same God as me, and I’ve found others who didn’t.

  8. Clayton,

    I basically agree with the things you are saying in your response to David. However, I’m not sure if David is suggesting monism or ex nihilo creation.

    The question is WHAT was done purposefully by God. If David is simply saying that God purposefully set things in order or inspired men to “discover” or theorize about quantum mechanics, then I don’t have a problem with that from a pluralist, libertarian freedom perspective. I also don’t have a problem that God was involved with this scientific development coming to the fore in order to give more breathing room to agency by individuals who would be persuaded by this.

    Of course, this is all speculation, but I don’t have a problem with the possibility.

  9. Ya, I can see it that way.

  10. Bah, you both made me look up all your philosophical lingo on wikipedia. Unfortunately I’m still not sure how to respond properly.

    Was I suggesting monism or ex nihilo ideas? No, at least I don’t think so. When I refered to God creating the universe, I never said he did so out of nothing, nor do I beleive that. I’m still confused about monism so I won’t touch that for now. All I’ll say is that I beleive in pluarism when it comes to individuals relationsips with Christ and ones general purpose in life.

    I don’t beleive God wove uncertainty into the fabric of the universe to stave off boredom. All I was suggesting is that quantum mechanics may serve as a buffer against a mathematical or “bayesian” fate for mankind.

  11. David,

    Sorry about the lingo.

    All I will say is that I am in basic agreement with you. If that hasn’t been clear so far.

  12. okily dokily

  13. Sorry for the misunderstanding, rereading your poast it makes more sence now.

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