Criticism: Mormon aesthetics and the corporeality of God

In his Times & Seasons post The Metaphysics of Mormon Art, Nate Oman writes:

“Like the medievals we believe in a divine order and a creator god. Yet our god has a different metaphysical relationship to the world. Rather than standing as its ontological ground, he ““ like us ““ is an actor in a pre-existing ontological frame. Hence the divine order of the world reflects God’s creative organization of ‘matter unorganized,’ matter which in some sense resists his organizing power. With the moderns, we have a powerful individualistic streak in our metaphysics. We believe in intelligences co-eternal with God. Indeed, one might think of the philosophical anthropology of Mormonism as a kind of modernism on steroids. What are we to make artistically and aesthetically of this collidiscope of metaphysical concepts. It seems to me that we problematize both the all-encompassing symbolic ordering of the medieval aesthetic, as well as the heroic individualism of the moderns.”

Mormon aesthetics is a pet topic of mine, and I’ve begun to do some reading in aesthetics. However, first let me say that I have almost no grounding in philsophy, and my knowledge of aesthetics is sparse. Therefore my use of terms will most likely be completely wrong, my phrasings careless.

Nate takes about the philosophical anthropology of Mormonism and especially the co-eternal-ness of intelligences with God. I’d like to come at this from a slightly different tack — the corporeality of God the father and the perfectability/possible exaltation of his children.

In Mormonism, God has a physical form — a body. He is also perfect. We (with due recognition that there are varying opinions on the specifics of this) too can become perfect. What’s more we become exalted with our bodies. Our physical forms are not discarded, but instead ‘glorified.’

This suggests to me that — in terms of beauty and form — Mormon aesthetics can’t be one of ideals, of perfect forms, but rather diverse perfect and perfectable forms.

In addition, Both God the father and the son, aesthetic qualities are not based on beauty, but glory. And that glory is a manifestation of his virtue, power, knowledge, etc.

For example, notice the description of Christ in D&C 110:1-10:

“2. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.

“3. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters…”

Or the words from Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision:

“16. …I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

“17. It no sooner appeared than I found myself adelivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. …” [ JS-H: 17-18]

These two passages lead me to believe that if anything Mormon aesthetics is more tied into the sublime than beauty, but that leads me to neo-Romanticism and Kant, and I’ll leave all that for later.

I’m not exactly sure what the practical repercussions of this idea are. Should Mormon artists bring back the halo to represent glory and virtue? [not that it has ever left — see the glow of light in some of the work of Greg Olsen and other art that has appeared in the Ensign].

I do think, however, that a few things follow from a Mormon aesthetics that takes this particular metaphysics into account:

1. Mormon artists and critics are in a position to critique the modern (Greek?) version of physical perfectability and the drive for bodily beauty.

2. The fact that we all look different and yet are perfectable/exaltable, can all receive (and radiate) glory, means that diversity in form and types of beauty should be a priority for, a part of, a keystone of the Mormon canon.

3. Our belief that Lucifer was ‘beautiful’ — was at one time a ‘son of morning’ (and one of us) and filled with glory — suggests that Mormon art should explore how virtue is lost and attained and how aesthetics can be a tool for joy, for distraction, for pleasure, for damnation, for expression of awe.

9 thoughts on “Criticism: Mormon aesthetics and the corporeality of God”

  1. This suggests to me that — in terms of beauty and form — Mormon aesthetics can’t be one of ideals, of perfect forms, but rather diverse perfect and perfectable forms. 

    While I tend to agree, I don’t think you can say that this follows from God’s embodiment.  

    Posted by clark

  2. Just to expand on that. Let me put it this way. I don’t think our theology intrinsically incompatible with Greek conceptions. Rather it is incompatible with the transformation  of Greek thought by the early Christian Fathers like Augustine. Augustine not only transformed Christian thought, he did it to the Greek thinkers he made use of. 

    Posted by clark

  3. I think I know what you mean, Clark (see caveats above).

    As I understand it, the transformation of Greek thought also lies at the base of aesthetics so in some ways it may be that talking about “Mormon aesthetics” just doesn’t work. Or only works to describe the areas where our works of art draw on the Western tradition (rather than on our theology).


    Obviously, I think it does follow from God’s embodiment. Our God has a body. His god-ness doesn’t derive from the physical form of that body — and yet he still has corporeal form. That means to me that the standard for beauty (or whatever you want to call it — perhaps beauty isn’t the right word) in art must account for the person that is God. Ergo my emphasis on virtue/glory/intelligence.

    Of course, this is only one piece of the thing, and perhaps I’d re-think things once I turned my attention to more of the pieces.

    Posted by William Morris

  4. I’m not quite sure what you are saying. Why does God having a body entail that the standard for beauty is God? Aren’t you falling into the trap that Augustine transformed Greek thought into? i.e. equating Beauty and God?  

    Posted by clark

  5. If I understand you (William) correctly, you’re not explicitly arguing that the standard for beauty is God alone. You’re arguing that the standard must be broad enough to encompass God, and because he has a physical body, which does not necessarily conform to some Platonic ideal of beauty, beauty must necessarily encompass more than just the physical. Perhaps you’d even go so far as to say that there is no physical form which fails to be beautiful, when coupled with enough light and knowledge.

    It’s hard to know for sure, but my experience leads me to hope that the latter is in fact the case. In my idle moments I sometimes run through the list of all the girls I know and wonder if there’s any one of them who wouldn’t be beautiful in my eyes if she had the same spirit as, say, Katherine. I might miss the way her voice sounds, and she does have cute ears, but objectively speaking she’s typical enough physically that I think her beauty must come from who she IS inside. Most of us have probably felt similarly about someone or someones. If you care to relate this back to the original post, you could call that the essence of the divine, peeking through.

    Max Wilson

    Posted by Maximilian Wilson

  6. “The fact that we all look different and yet are perfectable/exaltable, can all receive (and radiate) glory, means that diversity in form and types of beauty should be a priority for, a part of, a keystone of the Mormon canon.”

    I think you are probably right, Senor, but I will note that you are making an assumption that we won’t all look the same when we are finally perfected. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  7. Adam:

    That’s exactly the assumption I’m making. I see no reason to assume otherwise.


    I think that’s a very good way to put it. I like your phrase “the essence of the divine, peeking through.”


    I don’t know enough about Augustine or the Greeks to respond. I see the problem with equating beauty with God. Perhaps I need to do more work on this idea of glory. It may be that it doesn’t translate at all into aesthetics.

    But I don’t really know — I will say that this is an attempt to slowly de-romanticize my thinking. I don’t think that it’s a process than can fully be accomplished. And I suppose that more reading would be in order so that I better understand the various schools of aesthetic thought. 

    Posted by William Morris

  8. Adam,

    Wow. This perfection = equality thing goes deep for you, doesn’t it? I think your assumption is the one that isn’t valid, but I would look forward to seeing you and your wife looking exactly the same in the eternities. Yes this is silly, but honestly, I never imagined that you would go this far, or be this disturbing.

    Haven’t ressurected, perfect beings appeared to various prophets and appeared as distinct individuals? 

    Posted by a random John

  9. I wasn’t expecting this outburst of hostility for pointing out that, as far as I know, there was no warrant in the scriptures for thinking that we’d all look different when we reached our final perfected state (which is not the same as arguing that there is a warrant in the scriptures for thinking that we will all look the same, either. A Random John mistakenly thinks I have).

    Nope, what I’m pointing out is that the reasoning here is circular. Our idea that we’ll look different in the Resurrection shows that there’s not one ideal human form. But where do we get our idea that we’ll all look different in the Resurrection? From nowhere. Or from our feeling that’s there’s not one ideal human form. For the record, my gut is that there’s not one ideal human form either, but that’s just my gut.

    As to the appearance of various resurrected beings, I don’t know if we have conclusive evidence. Joseph Smith apparently described Paul’s appearance, but its not clear that he was describing his resurrected appearance or his mortal appearance. Didn’t Joseph Smith say something about the Father and the Son appearing identical in the First Vision? I can’t remember.


    Posted by Adam Greenwood

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