Do all things denote there is a God?
by Christian Y. Cardall
Suggesting a resonance with the Intelligent Design approach to biology, Matt Evans mentions Alma’s teleological argument to Korihor in Alma 30: the observed order, or “regular form,” of “all things” shows there is a God. There are questions, however, as to whether Alma’s argument is consistent with Joseph Smith’s mature views on the nature of God, and also with the ancient Hebrew worldview from which Nephite culture sprang.
Is God (a) somehow outside the universe and responsible for its laws and its order, or (b) a finite and embodied being within the universe, the nature of whose existence depends on laws and order bigger than him and beyond his control?
I think most Mormons would say Joseph believed (b) during the Nauvoo era. But an early (I think the 1832) account of the First Vision, in which he marveled at the heavens in language somewhat like Alma’s—and also language in D&C 88—may suggest he believed something more like (a) in his earlier years. It would not be surprising if Joseph had been exposed to teleological arguments in, for example, the youth debating club he participated in, mentioned by Richard Bushman in his books on Joseph.
To the extent Alma’s statement represents (a) (this may be debatable—I leave it for commenters to explain why), how to account for its difference from and possible incompatibility, or at least tension, with (b)? One possibility is that Alma did not know as much as Joseph Smith about the nature of God and eternity. This seems plausible; we know from Alma’s teachings to Corianton that Alma did not know as much about the afterlife as Joseph came to know. But a second possibility is that Joseph is the true author of Alma’s argument, and that it therefore reflects Joseph’s early beliefs rather than those of ancient prophet. (Similarly, in this scenario Alma’s hazy picture of the afterlife could be a reflection of Joseph’s haziness on the matter prior to the reception of D&C 76.)
A reason to prefer the theory that Joseph is the source of the Alma’s teleological argument can be derived from a recent post by Jim F. by way of background on the Old Testament. (The responsibility for this use of Jim’s post is mine; he may well not endorse the argument I make here.) Jim describes the very different way ancient Hebrews wrote history: the existence of God and his action in the world was a universal assumption brought to both the writing and the reading of literature, to the extent that to write a meaningful history was to describe God’s involvement in the events of the world. An argument like Alma’s seems completely out of place in such a narrative tradition, in which God’s existence is not something to be argued for, but instead is an unconscicous necessity before a text can even be meaningful. Alma’s argument is much more comfortably situated as a typical believing response, characteristic of Joseph Smith’s era, to issues raised by the Enlightenment.
As a parting comment, I note that Joseph’s mature Mormonism, embracing (b), seems in important ways to be philosophically much closer to atheism than traditional Christianity, which embraces (a). This may be a reason why Mormons imbued with (b) who leave Mormonism tend to become atheist or agnostic rather than active in a denomination of traditional Christianity.