Jeffrey Thayne

In recent posts, I have responded to the claim that God’s embodiment limits or constrains God’s power over the material world in some important way. I believe that the idea that God must be incorporeal to have perfect command over the material world is an assumption inherited to us from Greek philosophy; an assumption, I believe, that is unwarranted by scriptural revelation. Also, the belief that God’s power is somehow based in His knowledge of naturalistic science is grounded in naturalistic assumptions that, I believe, have problematic implications.

In response, one of our insightful readers commented that an embodied God must surely be a perspectival God—that is, he must have a perspective, rather than seeing the world from an acontextual view from nowhere. This, he said, would certainly have implications regarding God’s knowledge about the world, and His foreknowledge of the future. In the end, the implied result, I believe, is some kind of limit on God’s present knowledge… at least, a limited perspective in the world. In other words, “If God has a body, He can’t be aware of everything at once.” I have asked myself, is a limited perspective in the world a necessary consequence of embodiment? I honestly do not know the answer to this question. I reflected on what kind of lived experience supports this assumption.

Despite my inexperience in this subject, I would like to present a possible point of view as penned by a favorite scholar, Hugh Nibley. He reminded us that in this life we seem limited to one particular perspective—that is, we can only see in one direction at a time, and we can only entertain one thought at a time. He quoted research (I do not know how recent or accurate) that indicates that in those moments we believe we are thinking of two things simultaneously, we are actually rapidly switching back and forth between two thoughts. An example familiar to psychologists would be the figure-ground illustration in which you see either two faces or a vase… never both simultaneously. Some theorists believe that it is impossible to see both simultaneously; one fades when you focus on the other. Psychologists may dispute the details of how these things work; some may claim that we rely too much on an atomistic paradigm in human perception, and embrace instead a gestaltist paradigm. Despite the theoretical frameworks used to account for human perception, there is little doubt that we most frequently experience the world as if we are limited to focusing on one object at a time, one perspective at a time, one thought at a time, etc.

Divine thoughts. The question then arises, is this way of experiencing the world a necessary consequence of our embodiment? Nibley didn’t believe so. He explains:

What would it be like if I could view and focus on two or more things at once, if I could see at one and the same moment not only what is right before me but equally well what is on my left side, my right side, what is above me and below me? I have the moral certainty that something is there, and as my eyes flicker about, I think I can substantiate that impression. But as to taking a calm and deliberate look at more than one thing at a time, that is a gift denied us at present. I cannot imagine what such a view of the world would be like; but it would be more real and correct than the one we have now. I bring up this obvious point because it is by virtue of this one-dimensional view of things that we magisterially pass judgment on God. The smart atheist and pious schoolman alike can tell us all about God—what he can do and what he cannot, what he must be like and what he cannot be like—on the basis of their one-dimensional experience of reality. … [We assume] that God is subject to the same mental limitations that we are; that if he is thinking of Peter, he can hardly be thinking of Paul at the same time, let alone marking the fall of the sparrow. But once we can see the possibilities that lie in being able to see more than one thing at a time (and in theory the experts tell us there is no reason why we should not), the universe takes on new dimensions and God takes over again. Let us remember that quite peculiar to the genius of Mormonism is the doctrine of a God who could preoccupy himself with countless numbers of things: ‘The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine’ (Moses 1:37).1

Presently, when we focus on one thing, we do so to the exclusion of other things. We assume, then, that a personal and loving God would have to devote or focus time on us to the exclusion of others in that same moment. However, what if this limitation is merely the product of our mortality? What if God can take personal notice of many things simultaneously, in a way that we presently cannot? It is a possibility that I do not believe is denied to Him merely because of His physical embodiment.

Mortal thoughts. It’s easy to see why it would be important for Heavenly Father to be able to think of multiple things at once; hearing and answering prayers is one example. But even if he can concentrate on infinite things at once, it’s clear that we mortals cannot. Nibley then asks an important question: “Why this crippling limitation on our thoughts if we are God’s children?”1 He continues,

This puts us in the position of the fairy-tale hero who is introduced into a cave of incredible treasures and permitted to choose from the heap whatever gem he wants—but only one. What a delightful situation! I can think of anything I want to—absolutely anything!—with this provision: that when I choose to focus my attention on one object, all other objects drop into the background. I am only permitted to think of one thing at a time; that is the one rule of the game.

… It is precisely this limitation that is the essence of our mortal existence. If every choice I make expresses a preference, if the world I build up is the world I really love and want, then with every choice I am judging myself, proclaiming all the day long to God, angels, and my fellowmen where my real values lie, where my treasure is, the things to which I give supreme importance. Hence, in this life every moment provides a perfect and foolproof test of your real character, making this life a time of testing and probation.1

Whether Nibley’s perspective is true or not, it provides an exciting insight on the nature and purpose of our mortal experience, and a kind of urgency to prioritize our thoughts and actions. While eternal beings may be able to think simultaneous thoughts, our mortal limitation to one thought at a time gives us the opportunity to decide and demonstrate which thoughts matter most to us (an opportunity which, perhaps, we did not have as a spirit-only being). By being forced to think of only one thing at a time, we show what kinds of thoughts we think are most important, and what kind of being we want to become.

I suppose it is possible that this point of view is the result of wanting to believe the doctrine of divine embodiment but ignore the consequences of that embodiment; however, while I find the assumptions about the limits of embodiment logically compelling, I can find no scriptural warrant for them. For that reason, it is important to entertain alternative possibilities that may even have meaningful implications in our lives—for example, the possibility that God has a much greater capacity for perception than we do, and is not limited in His perspective in the same way that we are.

1. Hugh Nibley, “Zeal Without Knowledge,” Approaching Zion (Deseret Book, 2003)