Discover more from Wayfare
Joseph Smith's Hylomorphic Theology
When Joseph Smith initiated the flow of spiritual information now identified as “The Restoration,” he infused a radical degree of corporeality into his doctrines. Take, for instance, the following teachings: 1) God is a being of body, parts, and passions; 2) the bodily resurrection is a physical fact, directly witnessed to myriad believers by Jesus himself after his own corporeal defeat of death; 3) human beings themselves are aspirants through faith to bodily exaltation and divinization of their own material substance.
In tension with the rich physicality of Joseph Smith’s teaching, the Restoration operates in a modernity that has fractured physical and spiritual into philosophical dualism. This dualist fracture routinely forces the choice between the explanations of physical science or the luxuries of spirit that lavish Smith’s revelations. I see this forced choice as not only leading many of the best and the brightest directly away from the vibrancy of the Restoration’s light, but also as a wholly false framing.
To look forward, it is sometimes helpful to first look backward. I see Joseph Smith in many ways as intellectually resonant with Aristotle, the prodigy-student of Plato. Given Smith’s work to doctrinally rebaptize Christianity into a universe of physical matter, major aspects of Joseph’s doctrines are harmonious with Aristotelian thought, especially the insistence that in and through material being we encounter a transcendent reality that animates us with meaning. This paradigm is known as “hylomorphism,” a compound of the Greek words for matter (“hyle”) and form (“morphe”). Simply put, a hylomorphic spirituality is one that takes special consideration for the form of matter, as opposed to divorcing spirit and matter.
To explore what a hylomorphic expression of Restoration theology could look like, let’s take as a for-instance Joseph Smith’s proposition that the glory of God is intelligence. My own and others’ neuroscientific findings point to an association between intelligence and the functional synchrony of neuronal networks in the human cortex. More plainly, the human brain is a hierarchy of systems which are formed by interconnected cells called neurons. The degree of synchrony within those hierarchically-organized systems reflects the intelligent quality of that brain. In this way, it may be said that the intelligence of a brain is reflected by the property of its matter being more refined.
This observed association between refined physical function and heightened intelligence is closely paralleled by Smith’s additional teaching that “spirit is matter, but it is more fine.” This is typically interpreted to mean that “spirit” is an ultra-small substance—something like an extra-powdery particle that we could visibly see if only we had bionic-like visual resolution and subatomic vision. This, in my view, is a misguided understanding of what Smith was teaching about the metaphysics of spirit and spiritualized matter.
Let’s consider an analogy that may open a new perspective. Think carefully about the nature and qualities of music. Ultimately, music is highly-structured vibration of air. Can music be beautiful? Of course! Can music be spiritual? Yes, music can be profoundly spiritual. But for music to be both beautiful and spiritual, does it necessitate some invisible ether or magical fluid streaming out of the musician’s instrument and into our ears? The answer here is an obvious no. The beauty and spirituality of music are not tantamount to magical fluids or invisible ethers coasting along the vibrations of air molecules toward us. No. The beauty and spirituality of music are represented to us in the highly and delicately structured nature of the vibratory patterns that physically infuse the air around us. This fact may seem trivially simple, yet its depth and meaning are worth contemplation. Music, in all its richness, spirituality, and potency to motivate goodness itself, is matter that has been made more fine or pure.
Similar analogies could be drawn across numerous examples: visual arts are matter refined by spiritual infusions of meaning and emotion; a garden is organic matter that is refined by the vitality of vegetative souls and their relationality with a gardener. Indeed, the general theology of creation in a Restoration context is one in which unorganized matter repeatedly yields to successive stages of spiritualization (ref. Abraham 4:18). This may be imagined as progress across sequences of increasingly refined forms. Inasmuch as iterative spiritualization of matter reveals greater likeness of the Creator, this process constitutes a hylomorphic divinization, i.e., gradual transfiguration of humanity’s matter-form unity through ascending expressions of divine nature.
Lastly, let us consider two key Restoration teachings about human destiny: 1) humans are created that they might have joy, and 2) spirit and element inseparably connected receive a fullness of joy. These doctrines too may be understood through the lens of hylomorphic theology. Namely, as our minds assent to truth through learning, our brains physically rewire and display new cellular patterns through a process termed neuroplasticity. Similarly, as our behavior embraces higher principles and habits, our bodies physically change to embody new structure and form (as is plainly observed in a pedestrian way by anybody who has committed to enduring changes in diet or exercise). Is it such a stretch to imagine that as our relationships, our families, and socialities likewise assent to truth and light, we may similarly precipitate reconfigurations typified by higher functioning and increased spiritual joy? In general, as we apply personal agency to accept higher laws (which are described doctrinally as degrees of spiritual light), material existence physically reconfigures to reflect the spiritual value which is intrinsic to those laws.
As a neuroscientist studying religion, I am highly optimistic that current scientific efforts to interrogate spirituality will mature into authentically new insights about humanity’s divine potential. I anticipate productive synthesis and synergy between spirituality sciences and theological expressions which strive toward generous multidisciplinary harmony. Whereas modernity fractured physicality and spirituality, Joseph Smith’s teachings offer us opportunities to reunify them and retain both the explanatory power of contemporary sciences and the transformative dignity of spiritual openness.
Michael Ferguson is an Instructor in Neurology at Harvard Medical School and a Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.