Note: This article is a follow-up to a series published earlier this summer on the differences between science fiction and fantasy. Our argument in that series is that science fiction consists of speculative fiction set in a naturalistic universe, whereas fantasy is a subset of speculative fiction set in a non-naturalistic universe. The rest is just window dressing. If a story with knights and dragons inhabits a naturalistic universe, it can be science fiction; if a story contains spaceships and aliens, but inhabits a non-naturalistic universe, it can be fantasy.

Naturalism is a worldview that treats the operations of the universe as though they are reducible to (1) inert matter, energy, or space-time (2) governed by universal rules. For our purposes, it does not matter what those rules are or if they resemble the rules of our own universe, as long as they are universal, unchangeable, passive, impartial, and morally neutral. This means that the rules never change with time or space, don’t depend on who you are, and are neither good nor bad. If morality exists at all in a naturalistic universe, it exists in the minds and preferences of the sentient beings who live there.

In contrast, a non-naturalistic universe can be one where the fundamental rules are different in different times or places (and not because of some higher or deeper rule that does not change). Further, there can be animistic elements in a non-naturalistic universe; things at the bedrock of the universe can will and act. This means that the universe and its rules can be partial; they can care who you are. And furthermore, a non-naturalistic universe can be morally inflected. Good and evil can be baked into the fabric of the universe, and be more than matters of convention or agreement. We see all of these possibilities play out in various fantasy universes, to great literary effect.

We also argued that science fiction can signal that the in-story universe is naturalistic in the way it responds to extraordinary phenomena. If your characters, for example, always assume that their experiences — no matter how bizarre the circumstances — have a naturalistic explanation, then you are establishing a naturalistic universe. Extraordinarily powerful beings are always depicted as having evolved or learned their abilities over time, through rational analysis and systematic observation. In one Star Trek episode, Captain Picard explains to a representative of a technologically-primitive race that what looks like magic is really technology, and that mankind was once where they were, and that they will someday learn to produce the same extraordinary effects through their own means.

Naturalism and non-naturalism do not always mix well in fiction

This is not to say that a fictional universe cannot have both naturalistic elements and non-naturalistic elements; many great stories have been written that preserve, for example, the universality of gravity and other basic laws of physics, and yet give us a morally inflected or animistic universe, or one in which other basic rules do change across time and space. What we are saying, however, is that these universes — though they have naturalistic elements — are still fundamentally non-naturalistic universes. Like food coloring in water, the non-naturalistic elements color the entire thing.

The converse is also true: once we have established a universe as naturalistic at its core, seemingly non-naturalistic elements are fundamentally different for it. Let’s explore an example: Most of us would find it would be strange — utterly bizarre, in fact — to encounter Aslan on the bridge of the Enterprise. This is because Star Trek has established that its universe is naturalistic through and through. It would feel like an intrusion on the Star Trek universe to have the moral sovereign of Narnia show up to chastise Riker, give a nod to Picard’s noble leadership, and then have an assuring and gentle conversation with Data?

But Star Trek makes this possible, right? Couldn’t some Q take the form of a lion, populate a world with centaurs and talking animals, and govern it with the same benevolent leadership as Aslan? Would this world not be identical in every important respect to Narnia? Would this advanced technological being be indistinguishable from the Great Lion of Narnia, such that it is no longer an intrusion for Aslan to show up on the Enterprise and engage in moral discourse with the crew?

Most people would intuitively reject Qslan as a cheap imitation of Aslan. Qslan may act and talk like Aslan, but would occupy an “uncanny valley” that would make many of us uncomfortable. So just what is the difference? Unlike Aslan, Qslan has no inherent moral authority over the universe he inhabits; if he is treated as a moral authority, it is by convention among those who follow him. Further, Qslan could just as well be a tyrant, and he’d be no less powerful; in contrast, Aslan’s sovereignty over the physical universe is part and parcel with his intrinsic goodness. It is not by happenstance that he is benevolent.

In other words, Narnia’s universe is morally inflected in a way that the Star Trek universe is not. Star Trek has good guys and bad guys, but the universe they live in is fundamentally impartial and morally neutral. In contrast, good and evil are baked into the fabric of the Narnia universe, and not merely a matter of convention or preference. Aslan does not merely happen to be good — Aslan is goodness itself. And the Narnia universe responds to that sovereign goodness. Further, the rules of Narnia’s universe are not naturalistic (while the rules of Star Trek’s universe are). Aslan could rewrite those rules. As the moral sovereign of his universe, Aslan is an animistic embodiment of the “powers that be.”

So if trueAslan were to appear on the Enterprise, either the Star Trek universe would become morally inflected in a way that is foreign to its naturalistic premises and history, or Narnia would become merely one alien world among many, and Aslan would lose his status as the focal point of moral authority and accountability. He would become simply an uber-benevolent and powerful alien, who merely resembled in many respects the Aslan of Narnia. In this way, the naturalism of Star Trek would infect Aslan’s very nature in ways that make him no longer Aslan. He would be a different being going by the same name.

Conventional Christianity vs. Latter-day Saint beliefs

In conventional Christian thought, God is fundamentally different in kind from His creation; he pre-existed all things, and had no beginning. His moral authority and sovereignty over the universe is grounded in the fact that He, and only He, is the sole originator of all things. Christianity is also a fundamentally non-naturalistic worldview. God is both moral and actual sovereign of the universe; the elements themselves — with all the laws that govern them — sprang into existence at His divine command. Further, it is morally inflected in fundamental ways, as creation itself (us included) is inherently indebted and answerable to Him as Creator.

In contrast to conventional Christianity, Latter-day Saint thought rejects creatio ex nihilo (the creation of the universe out of nothing). In Latter-day Saint thought, God formed and patterned pre-existing (but formless) matter when He created the world. Joseph Smith taught that something in the core of every human soul — their intelligence — coexisted with God. “The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself,” he taught.[1] He continued, “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have privilege to advance like himself.”[2]

Further, Mormons do not see God an abstract entity, but is a physical, embodied person with flesh and bones. Joseph Smith revealed, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 129:22). Elder Parley P. Pratt wrote:

What is God? He is material, organized intelligence, possessing both body and parts. He is in the form of man, and is in fact of the same species; and is a [model], or standard of perfection to which man is destined to attain; he being the great father, and head of the whole family. He can go, come, converse, reason, eat, drink, love, hate, rejoice, possess and enjoy.[3]

In other words, contrary to creedal Christianity, Mormons believe in a God of body, parts, and passions. And as such, Latter-day Saints revere the flesh perhaps more than any other Christian denomination. As part of a larger poem, Pratt penned these lines:

We claim the earth, and air, and sky,
And all the starry worlds on high,
Gold, silver, ore, and precious stones,
And bodies made of flesh and bones.

Our God, like us, can hear and see,
Feel, taste, and smell eternally;
Immortal brain through which to think,
Organs to speak, and eat, and drink.[4]

President Lorenzo Snow wrote the famous couplet, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”[5] (Compare this to Picard’s statements in the video clip linked above.) Some Latter-day Saint scholars have theorized that God Himself is subject to rules and an order that He did not create; that His status as divine sovereign is contingent on His adherence to principles that are either built into the universe or set in place by moral sovereigns to whom even He is subject (in perhaps an infinite regress of gods).

This is all heresy to conventional Christians. They interpret this to mean that God is merely a cosmic alien from another planet populating our planet with beings to worship him — and not the omnipotent creator of all things in heaven and earth. To them, this implies God learned and grew into His divine power and moral authority through rational analysis or systematic observation. The distinctions above can help us see why this view feels so foreign to them: the God they worship looks a lot like Aslan, while the God worshipped by Latter-day Saints looks (to them) a lot like Qslan. They look similar, but are wholly different; one is a cheap masquerade of the other.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that some treat the beliefs of Latter-day Saints as “of a kind” with scientology — a worldview more fit for science fiction than the Christian universe given to us by Paul and the apostles. We disagree strongly (more on that shortly), but the sentiment is wholly understandable, particularly when Latter-day Saints are caricatured by critics as aspiring to be gods with their own worlds to populate. It’s easy to see how, for many, the Jesus witnessed by Joseph Smith is different not merely in detail but in kind from the Jesus witnessed by Peter, James, and John. In other words, understanding the differences between science fiction and fantasy can help us understand critics of the Church.

The non-naturalism of Latter-day Saint thought

While others look upon Latter-day Saint beliefs and see Qslan, Latter-day Saints see themselves as worshipping Aslan, and are equally uncomfortable with Qslan. Put in other terms, while holding the non-conventional beliefs explored above, Latter-day Saints don’t see themselves as worshipping some alien-god pretending to be a moral sovereign. Unpacking the reasons why would take many posts like this. But here I will only share three, and they all stem from the fact that Latter-day Saints do not actually hold a naturalistic view of the universe, despite the sign-posting that could be mistaken for such.

(1) Latter-day Saints believe in a morally inflected universe. One of the characteristics of a science fiction universe is that it is indifferent to the sentient beings that inhabit it. Under naturalism, morality is not “baked into the universe,” but is a matter of convention and preference. Because some see the God worshipped by Latter-day Saints as inhabiting such a universe, they assume that Latter-day Saints see morality as a matter of consensus among super-powerful beings.

However, we do see good and evil as baked into the fabric of the universe, and not merely a matter of preference or convention (by either us or the God we worship). In the Latter-day Saint view — as far as I understand it — God is not God by virtue of His power, but by virtue of His moral perfection. There is no way to step into God’s power and authority except by stepping into the kind of moral character He embodies. The universe is neither impartial nor morally neutral.

(2) Latter-day Saints believe God is our moral sovereign. For us, God being flesh and bones makes him no less a moral sovereign than the fact that Aslan had paws and teeth. Further, we take literally the idea that the Great Lion (speaking metaphorically) is the son of the Emperor across the sea, and this does not in one whit diminish Aslan’s moral sovereignty over our world. Similarly, for Latter-day Saints, God’s moral sovereignty is not one whit diminished if it turns out that there is a moral sovereign before Him. We are generally comfortable with the idea of an infinite regress of intelligences orbiting the moral gravity of higher divine beings. It’s “turtles all the way down,” as some might say.

In short, God can be the “Word made flesh,” the focal point of light and moral truth — and can yet share a spark of that divine fire with His children as they step into ways of truth. The bold doctrine of the restored Gospel is not that God is not a moral sovereign (as some assume), but that moral sovereignty does not require God’s fundamental “otherness,” the ontological distinction between God and man, or that God be the “unmoved mover” of heaven and earth. Traditional philosophy has so often “sought explanation of all things (the Many) in terms of the necessary, the unembodied, the unchanging and atemporal (the One).”[6] It may very well be that Latter-day Saint thought rejects this approach entirely.

(3) Latter-day Saints believe in a fundamentally animistic universe. For us, intelligence, life, creation are not mere emergent properties of a fundamentally lifeless substrate. In fact, the very claims of our doctrine that are at issue hold that mankind is co-eternal with God, that our intelligences are neither created nor emergent but part of the bedrock substrate of the universe. And many Latter-day Saints believe that we are not wholly alone; many argue that the universe is not merely reactive to the activities of God, but responsive to them.

It’s partly for this reason that many Latter-day Saints don’t see naturalistic laws as inherently fixed/immutable. We still see God as the author of the rules of the natural world, and expect Him to be able to change those rules as needed. I would argue that God’s sovereignty over the material world is not because of superior knowledge of scientific laws, but is actually connected with his moral sovereignty. If there are constraints that precede or govern God, they are likely of a moral nature; God cannot be God without being good, because it is goodness that the universe responds to. Like Aslan, God’s goodness is not incidental; it is His very identity as God.

Latter-day Saints see their view of God — a divine personage, with flesh and bones — as a restoration of pre-modern, pre-hellenic assumptions about God. They believe that this view is more akin to how an ancient Hebrew might have thought about God, prior to the incorporation of Greek thought by Christian scholars hundreds of years after Christ. Many biblical scholars note that Hebrew creation accounts speak about how God organized formless matter, rather than creating it out of nothing.

In short, no, Latter-day Saints do not see themselves as worshipping some benevolent, powerful alien. Understanding the differences between science fiction and fantasy not only help us understand critics of the Church, it can help us understand also why they are wrong — that is, why we reject the idea that our version of Jesus is merely Qslan to conventional Christianity’s Aslan. It is true that we have some foundational differences in our understanding of the created universe — but we do not believe those differences take us where many critics claim it does (a naturalistic world in which God is a benevolent alien). We make bold assertions about the embodiment of God and our eternal kinship with Him, but we do not at all see this as a departure from the moral sovereign we find in the pages of the Old and New Testament.

References   [ + ]

1. Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Discourse,” Ensign, May 1971.
2. Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Discourse,” Ensign, May 1971.
3. Park, Benjamin E., and Jordan T. Watkins. “The riches of Mormon materialism: Parley P. Pratt’s “Materiality” and early Mormon theology.” Mormon Historical Studies 11 (2010): 159-172.
4. Park, Benjamin E., and Jordan T. Watkins. “The riches of Mormon materialism: Parley P. Pratt’s “Materiality” and early Mormon theology.” Mormon Historical Studies 11 (2010): 159-172.
5. Gerald N. Lund, “Is President Lorenzo Snow’s oft-repeated statement—’As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be’—accepted as official doctrine by the Church?” Ensign, February 1982.
6. Williams, Richard N., and Edwin E. Gantt. “Pursuing psychology as science of the ethical: Contributions of the work of Emmanuel Levinas.” Psychology for the other: Levinas, ethics and the practice of psychology (2002): 1-31.