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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : The Atonement as a Matter of Intelligence » The Atonement as a Matter of Intelligence

The Atonement as a Matter of Intelligence

Rusty - August 16, 2005

I have always had a deep appreciation for the Atonement in my life but I can truly say that I’ve never understood it very well. In fact, I don’t know too many people that do. I had always tried to understand it in terms of justice, mercy, love, agency, knowledge and power. It wasn’t until my mission that I first read this talk by Cleon Skousen.

It changed me.

I see faith differently. I see mercy and justice differently. I see God’s power differently. Most importantly, I see myself differently. I see myself as someone who is truly less than the dust, yet with literally infinite potential. I see myself fully in debt to my Savior for His willingness to suffer for me. I am truly in awe of depth of knowledge available to us if we humbly seek.

Since that first reading I’ve grown in my own understanding and testimony and was delighted to read the talk again yesterday. I don’t know if I agree with everything said, but I believe he’s close. Have any of you read this before and what are your impressions? Is he in left field or right on the mark?


  1. Dude, I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.

    This “talk” is up there in Mormon folklore with the “free the birdies” and the like. It became passed around missionaries so much that Elder Ballard came out and publicly denounced it. This is what we called, in Brazil, “apostasia pura”.

    If this post is a joke, forgive my denseness for not being sure of the satire.
    If you’re serious, accept my deepest apologies for being so dismissive.

    Comment by Eric Russell — August 16, 2005 @ 12:52 pm

  2. I think that Skousen brings up a lot of good points and questions which deserve more attention than they have received in the past. That said, however, I don’t buy into Skousen’s theology for the simple reason that I don’t find his account of intelligence very convincing at all. He shows no hesitation is ripping statements out of their context in order to give them the meaning he wants.

    I don’t think that matter in near as intelligent as he requires. I don’t think that God must live in subjection to the elements around him. I don’t think that these intelligences, as found in matter, is has feelings, desires or knowledge of any kind.

    Dennis Potter’s “Defending Magic: Explaining the Necessity of Ordinances” depends on a theology very similar to Skousen’s and I don’t buy his account either. In fact, I dedicated an entire series to arguing against it.


    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — August 16, 2005 @ 1:20 pm

  3. Hm.

    Eric, no it wasn’t a joke, but I accept your apologies. I now feel substantially embarrassed to have even posted this. I guess I should have considered the folklore possibilities and the inevitable ribbing I would get if it were folklore. (is there anything worse than someone thinking you are joking about something of which you are not?) Ouch.

    Well, in my defense I will admit (as I did in the post) that I had never thought of life in terms of matter/intelligence and their interaction so it came as a revelation to me then. It made sense. It gave me a new way of seeing things. I was never so sure about many of the details, but I loved the idea of God’s power being the trust/honor of the intelligences. I loved the idea of them obeying Him, and that’s how miracles are performed. It is a beautiful idea.

    Also, I’m no scientist. I don’t ponder eternal principles in those terms, hence my hesitancy to ever come to any difinitive conclusion regarding evolution (among other things).

    I guess I should just stick with the “justice, mercy, love, agency, knowledge and power” perspective and wait for further light and knowledge regarding the other stuff.

    Thanks guys for calling me on the carpet. I shall stick closer to the stuff I know something about.

    Comment by Rusty — August 16, 2005 @ 1:48 pm

  4. First time I’ve ever read that particular talk. Some points are actually well made, others are out there on the fringes.

    I’ve always felt Skousen got more bad press than he deseved. He was always willing to speak about areas others avoided. I find him interesting and thought provoking, but I certainly don’t agree with a lot of what he says.

    Thanks for the post Rusty, reading that talk does make me think.

    Comment by don — August 16, 2005 @ 1:58 pm

  5. Rusty,

    Don’t feel bad. This “theory” also made it around my mission in Italy back in the ’80s. Many of the missionaries were just as excited about a different perspective. However, there are just too many ideas in the talk that contradict the basics of the gospel.

    It is somewhat like the Adam God Theory. When you first read it, you think it can make sense but as you ponder some more, you realize it would require a extreme rethinking of our current gospel understanding.

    A word of caution about the Skousens. They have some strange ideas and in some LDS circles have almost become a religion unto themselves.

    Comment by Kevin — August 16, 2005 @ 2:02 pm

  6. I am under the impression that Skousen did some damage to his reputation by being a bit extreme in the John Birch arena. I wonder if some of his ideas are dismissed without proper consideration because of this. I haven’t seen this particular talk before, but I’ve seen simliar ones in the past by him. I have one on my hard drive that is considerably longer.

    I don’t claim to know if he is right or wrong, but he does put together the concepts of priesthood, the Atonement, and obedience in a way that makes sense. It is certainly something to think about.

    Eric, what is this free the birdies thing? Is there some mission folklore that I missed out on?

    Comment by a random John — August 16, 2005 @ 2:03 pm

  7. Rusty,

    Don’t feel bad. This “theory” also made it around my mission in Italy back in the ’80s. Many of the missionaries were just as excited about a different perspective. However, there are just too many ideas in the talk that contradict the basics of the gospel.

    It is somewhat like the Adam God Theory. When you first read it, you think it can make sense but as you ponder some more, you realize it would require a extreme rethinking of our current gospel understanding.

    A word of caution about the Skousens. They have some strange ideas and in some LDS circles have almost become a religion unto themselves.

    Comment by Kevin — August 16, 2005 @ 2:06 pm

  8. Rusty,

    I also first heard this talk as an audiotape while a FT missionary. Why/How do these things end up with a life of their own, perpetuated in subcultures?

    The first part of Scousen’s talk where he discusses intelligences and so forth is some pretty wild speculation, based largely on misunderstanding the usage of the term “intelligence” and “intelligences” in the Scriptures and also its usage in historical English.

    The second part of his talk, where he discusses Mercy overpowering Justice is resonably good, depending on your view of the Atonement.

    There are different ways of thinking of the Atonement, one is Mercy overpowering Justice in the sense that Jesus went way beyond what Justice could ever demand, and thus he may exercise Mercy and shed Grace as Intercessor as he sees fit. Another way is the Quid Pro Quo, or Eternal Balance Sheet, where Jesus suffered X amount for the X sins you committed, and therefore you are absolved of X if you accept him and repent of X. Another way of viewing the Atonement is through OT style redemption as presented in the Law of Moses, which is more along the lines of posession/ownership than most Western thinkers are willing to entertain, as they dont have a cultural concept of family similar to that of Eastern society. There are proof texts in the Scriptures favoring any one of these POVs.

    Comment by Kurt — August 16, 2005 @ 2:13 pm

  9. This talk was also current during my mission. I think these things thrive among missionaries because of the general lack of intellectual stimulation available to folks who are only allowed to read about six different books and aren’t permitted to use any other information media at all.

    I remember finding this talk somewhat interesting. At the time I ran into it, I was thinking through my own out-of-the-mainstream sort of thing, in which the gospel was about achieving a nirvana-like oneness of purpose and consciousness with God and Christ. (This idea can also be supported with some proof texts in the scriptures–which I now consider to be evidence that we ought to be quite careful with proof texts.) To a certain extent, this talk fit with that, but in other ways it didn’t.

    A couple of months later I had what I now consider to be my conversion experience, in which I figured out that what really mattered to me about the atonement was that, as long as I kept trying, I could trust Christ and not have to worry about myself all the time. (By the way, please don’t anybody proof-text at me about working out my salvation with fear and trembling. I know about that scripture, and I still think what I just said…)

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — August 16, 2005 @ 4:30 pm

  10. Rusty,
    I also first heard this talk on an audiotape on the mission and also thought it provocative, but something to be careful with. I think it is totally fine to, with brevity, ponder ideas that are not necessarily doctrine. D&C 88:78 and 97:14 both say we should be instructed more perfectly in theory, as well as in all the other things.
    I gained a whole new perspective on the atonement when I read Tad R. Callister’s “Infinite Atonement.” I highly recommmend it, even though I’m sure it too has its discrepencies:)

    Comment by Bret — August 16, 2005 @ 7:08 pm

  11. Oh. Sorry Rusty. I probably should have just asked first. At any rate, it’s actually not that bad a paper, and if you didn’t know its cultural history, I think most of us would be taken in by it. I even know one missionary who said he knew it was false, but said it was still valuable to him because it made him appreciate the atonement more. Which I think is a good thing. So I suppose there really is good to be had in it.

    ARJ, a couple of sites assess the birdies story, here and here.

    Comment by Eric Russell — August 16, 2005 @ 8:10 pm

  12. Eric,

    Could you give us its cultural history? You’ve said it is bad, and you’ve said that Elder Ballard said it is bad, but what you haven’t said is why it is bad. Any details would be appreciated. I’m not defending it, but I would like to better understand what it is that it gets wrong.

    Comment by a random John — August 16, 2005 @ 10:08 pm

  13. Don’t feel bad, Rusty.

    Commenters who seem to think they’re experts about what “intelligences” are or how the atonement works don’t have any more authority to make these pronouncements than Skousen does. You didn’t claim that the talk was gospel truth, just that it touched you and made you think about things differently, and the people criticizing you should get down off their high horses.

    Comment by ed — August 16, 2005 @ 10:32 pm

  14. Thanks guys, I don’t feel quite as stupid now. And ARJ has actually asked a couple good questions that I’d be interested in the answer.

    Comment by Rusty Clifton — August 16, 2005 @ 10:48 pm

  15. Gosh, I must apologize again. What I meant by “cultural history” is really just my cultural history, and I have falsely generalized my anecdotal experience. It appears that my experience is unique, but I would say that of all the folk doctrines and urban legends that roam around Mormon culture, this paper has been the #1 most referred to and most made fun of. Perhaps that’s just because I’ve been in singles wards where everyone has recently gotten off their mission. I guess I simply came in with a mindset that, since that had been my common experience, it had been others also.

    It was also wrong of me to assume that just because I’ve been living in a culture where the paper is constantly referred to as false, does not in itself mean that it is actually false. I have a number of problems with its theology, which I don’t have time at the moment to get in to, but it does deserve to be addressed on its own terms.

    Boy, this is a reality-check for me. I’ve suddenly started thinking about all the other folk doctrines and urban legends that we traditionally dismiss – maybe there’s more to them than we realize.

    Comment by Eric Russell — August 17, 2005 @ 12:15 am

  16. Thanks for clarifying Eric because you had me confused. When you referred to it as folklore I wondered ifyou meant it was not really written and presented by Skousen or that the quotes from President Kimball were made up or something. (I noticed there were no citations in the copy linked to). It sounds like it is mostly that you run with a crowd that believes it is false doctrine though.

    I think it is an interesting talk. I had never heard of it before. My main question with the idea has to do with what Skousen defines as intelligences. He calls each particle intelligences but then implies that we (mankind) are also single intelligences. Sort of like we are super big versions of the little things that are in every particle. Is that really what he is saying?

    If so, does anyone know what his opinion was on how we became big-honkin’ single intelligences when lots of others are speck sized (figuratively)? How progress is made and intelligence is added etc?

    I can conceptually buy the idea of tiny intelligencs as fundamental building blocks of higher “intelligences” I guess, but that does not seem to be what he is preaching…

    Comment by Geoff J — August 17, 2005 @ 2:07 am

  17. It’s not folklore to claim that Skousen has a kind of church-within-a-church of hard-core followers and believers. That’s verifiable. To a certain extent, in my experience, this group used to overlap the Avram Gileadi crowd before 1993. Of course, that certainly doesn’t mean that Skousen is wrong–I think that the Tuscanos and Janice Allred, who were part of the same purge as Gileadi, had some useful theological ideas. (Correct? A more difficult question.) But more centrally, I don’t think we should decide our theological ideas by ad hominems: calling Skousen a John Bircher makes me not trust his politics, but it doesn’t really tell me anything about his theology.

    I think we are supposed to decide theology by whether ideas (and their systematic implications) feel true to us or not. Where I’m at today, this Skousen talk feels false to me–but as I mentioned above, it felt truer to me at one point in the past. So there you are.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — August 17, 2005 @ 7:24 am

  18. Alright Eric, now I’m interested in hearing the arguements against the Little Birdies. Details… lets see more details…

    Comment by Speaking Up — August 17, 2005 @ 2:53 pm

  19. Geoff,

    From what I understand, an intelligence is something which is an elementary particle of sort which can be combined with with “element”, another elementary particle, to create matter, both spiritual and physical matter. Thus our spirit bodies are made up of spirit matter, which means that we are made up of vast amounts of intelligences joined with elements. There is, however, 1 intelligence which is “you” and is more intelligent than and therefore governs all other intelligences which you are composed of. He calls these primary intelligences “I am’s”.

    Thus when we speaks of intelligence it usually, although not always, refers to the elementary particle. When he is referring to us, he calls it an “I am” “a spirit” or, rarely, an intelligence.

    This is part of my disagreement with him, for he interprets pretty much all statements in the Book of Abraham as applying to the particle. This is required for his to say that the intelligences were organized, in his reading of Abraham, into spirits. However, this is a forced reading of Abraham. The passage clearly refers to the organization of many spirits, not many intelligences into individual spirits.

    This is a slippery slope for Skousen, because one soon comes to realize that in the scriptures the term “intelligence” almost always refers to the attribute or to as a synonym for spirit. Thus Skousen finds himself with little to no scriptural support for the bed rock of his theory.

    I think his view of intelligent matter is over anthropomorphizing in the extreme. He tries to say that the elements obeying in the creation involved some form of conscious decision akin to, or even equivalent to free will. And since matter always obeys when God wants it to, does this mean that dirt is more righteous or even more intelligenct than we are?

    I also object to his usage of the term “infinite” as refers to the atonement. I don’t find room for much any absolutes in Mormon doctrine accept in terms of time and space. How was it an infinite atonement? I simply have no clue what infinite suffering could possibly refer to when taken literally. Instead, I accept it a meaning suffering that transcends anything we can comprehend, but this isn’t really infinite now is it?

    I don’t accept that justice and mercy can be defined in terms of how dirt feels about something. Why does dirt “feel” the way it does about justice and mercy? I think that justice and mercy are far more determined by the nature of our spiritual social community than by the beliefs and inclinations of the most basic elements.

    I sould also add that he shows an immense lack of critical reading in his scripture study. While I would be willing to call him the king of proof texts, it doesn’t seem that he fully appreciates the human authorship, divergent perspectives, and all-too human limitations involved.

    My biggest problem however, lies in his appeal to anti-reductionistic magic. Priesthood isn’t any kind of social relationship, but is instead the allegiance of intelligences it would seem. Intelligence isn’t reducible to less intelligent parts of matter. Instead matter is “reducible” to more intelligent parts. Instead of God being limited to some degree in His manipulation and control of self-existent elements, intelligences and laws, God is fully subject to these things.

    That said, however, his view concerning God requiring the honor of intelligences does open up some options if one is willing to consider us to be the intelligences rather than mere matter. If one applies his ideas in the context of a social contract limited to intelligent spirits instead of focusing on the creation and elements he might have something worth persuing.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — August 17, 2005 @ 3:19 pm

  20. So, if Brother Millet has been called on the carpet for his “grace” theories and Brother Gileadi was excommunicated for his Isaiah stuff and a number of other left-leaning intellectuals, feminists, and assorted fringe people have been disciplined for similar esoteric theories, how come Skousen has gotten a pass? Why are his books stocked in every independent Mormon bookstore near every temple but you can’t find a decent, in-depth challenging doctrinal book that is much more in line with the basic gospel truths?

    Comment by Unknown — August 17, 2005 @ 4:01 pm

  21. Because of his unquestionable allegiance to the brethren. He doesn’t dig up dirt. He does say any of them are wrong. I fact, he quotes them like crazy, especially when he goes out of a speculative limb.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — August 17, 2005 @ 4:04 pm

  22. But I would think that such far-out doctrinal speculation would be much more dangerous to the testimonies of church members than some of the things that others have been held accountable for.

    Comment by Unknown — August 17, 2005 @ 4:38 pm

  23. “Brother Gileadi was excommunicated for his Isaiah stuff”

    I question this…I don’t think we know why he was excommunicated.

    Comment by ed — August 17, 2005 @ 4:52 pm

  24. Ed,

    You are correct. We assume he was disciplined for the Isaiah stuff. Sorry

    Comment by Unknown — August 17, 2005 @ 4:55 pm

  25. “But I would think that such far-out doctrinal speculation would be much more dangerous to the testimonies of church members than some of the things that others have been held accountable for.”

    Well it depends. He wasn’t speculating on anything contrary to what conservative Mormons believe or teach. He simply went beyond it, way beyond it. His idea only conflicted with other obsure ideas from some leaders, scientific evidence and sound reasoning. Nobody has ever gotten in trouble for this.

    Those other people, however, speculated on or taught things which did contradict what most church members believed in. Thus the fact that their ideas were based upon observable evidence and sound reasoning made their ideas all the more dangerous.

    I agree with you, but we shouldn’t be too surprised that the institution has some interest in self-preservation.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — August 17, 2005 @ 5:13 pm

  26. What I don’t understand is how on one hand we have Eric saying that a member of the 12 has publically condemned this stuff and on the other we have Brother Skousen whose books continue to be popular and whose continues to publicize these very ideas. If this is “apostasia pura” como Eric falou, then would church leaders have come down on him like BRM came down on Eugene England?

    Of course I would guess that we might never know what goes on behind the scenes. That said, there seem to be contradictory ideas being given to the membership.

    Comment by a random John — August 18, 2005 @ 12:01 am

  27. It does seem that ol’ Cleon is a bit fast and loose — even reckless — with some of his proof-texting and conclusions. That said, I’m not willing to dismiss it all yet until I put more thought into it. Section 88 is filled with theological nuggets that we don’t know much about yet. As a result most of us just ignore it. At least Skousen is trying to form a model around some of that stuff.

    As for the idea of independent intelligence particles, I sort of like some of his idea. I like the idea that “I” am which comes as a result of somehow being more than the sum of my parts (intelligence particles). I think it makes some sense. It also makes sense that like a snowball of intelligence “I” can become a completely new and more holy me by gathering more intelligence into the community of intelligence that is me.

    Of course I am conflating the concept of intelligence particles (whatever that really means) and intelligence, as in knowledge, wisdom, truth light, etc. Obviously I don’t get it. But I like the implications so based on my current understanding of the subject.

    If this basic model is workable it allows a model of eternity that I could start to understand. It also makes the idea of the “destruction of the soul” make a lot more sense. That might really mean the de-construction of the soul, or separating of (some or all) the particles that once made the whole of a person. That would be outer darkness indeed for that former soul; a recycling of sorts.

    (Sorry – I’m thinking out loud here. Maybe I’ll post on this tonight)

    Comment by Geoff J — August 18, 2005 @ 1:30 am

  28. ARJ, I think it has to do with the potential danger of the idea. There’s a lot of speculative theology out there, like the location of the ten tribes and whatnot. Inasmuch as these things do not present a danger to the general membership, most publishers of speculative theology aren’t going to come under church chastisement.

    I think the England incident had more to do with BRM’s ego than anything else.

    I should add that Ballard did not call the article “apostasia” like we eventually did, in fact, he didn’t even say it was false per se, he just warned the missionaries that it did not represent the doctrine of the church. Apologies if I misrepresented that, which I think I probably did.

    Comment by Eric Russell — August 18, 2005 @ 1:45 am

  29. Why couldn’t the “I am” be an electron? It’s ‘job’ is to orbit the nucleus, but it does so randomly, unmeasurable.

    Comment by Daylan Darby — August 18, 2005 @ 10:47 pm

  30. Where do I find a copy of this talk by cleon on the atonement?

    Comment by Curtis Harper — January 8, 2006 @ 2:25 am

  31. Curtis,

    Click here for the talk.

    Click here for a similar talk.

    Comment by Rusty — January 8, 2006 @ 8:47 pm

  32. Geoff J wrote, “I should add that Ballard did not call the article “apostasia” like we eventually did, in fact, he didn’t even say it was false per se, he just warned the missionaries that it did not represent the doctrine of the church.”

    That’s a far cry from apostasy! In fact, the *ONLY* things that are church doctrine are the standard works and official statements by the First Presidency. Even most of the stuff that gets taught at General Conference is not official Church doctrine. That’s not to say that it’s not inspired, or that we’re not under an obligation to consider it the word of God. But official Church doctrine gets presented to the Church as such and there is an official motion to accept it as such.

    So everyone is welcome to speculate to their heart’s content and publish it, as long as they mark it clearly as speculation, like Alma did while talking to Corianton about the first resurrection. And if the First Presidency tells you you’re wrong, then you’ve got a little more information than you did before.

    Comment by Mike — July 3, 2006 @ 2:14 pm

  33. I was a friend of Cleon’s and sat in his living room many times on my mission and heard him tell his atonement theory. I just thought I would add in some details to help answer some of the questions about its origins. Cleon always told me that this atonement idea was not his. In fact he attributes it all to Elder Woodsoe of the 12. Cleon served his mission under Elder Woodsoe and it was through his that he got this atonement idea. After his mission Elder Woodsoe requested that Cleon write his atonement idea and publish it under his name because he felt that if he (Elder Woodsoe) published it that it would cause problems within the quorum of the 12 over doctrinal belief. So Cleon wrote and published it under his own name, with the support of Elder Woodsoe, who Cleon claimed to have discovered it through Brigham Young when he was writing the discourses of Brigham Young.
    That is the story of how Cleon came up with his idea of atonement. This is not a second hand story, but rather from a first hand experience. I believe that he alludes to this story in his books “Days of the Living Christ where he reprints his atonement ideas.”

    Comment by adam — February 27, 2007 @ 7:05 am

  34. God is the source of all truth. If you want to know if something is true, study it out in your own mind, come to a conclusion and ask God in the name of Christ and he will manifest it to you by the power of the Holy Ghost. It is that simple. And then satan will come along and try and rip that truth right out of your heart. You do not need a blog or the opinion of others. Ask God and be at peace.

    Comment by travis bruce — June 28, 2007 @ 6:21 pm

  35. “Those other people, however, speculated on or taught things which did contradict what most church members believed in. Thus the fact that their ideas were based upon observable evidence and sound reasoning made their ideas all the more dangerous.”

    I don’t know about any ‘observable evidence’ or ‘sound reasoning’ in the matters they were ex-ed for–as I recall Margaret Tuscano advocated praying to Heavenly Mother instead of the Father, among other things. It was pure speculation on their part, which they went so far as to preach as doctrine at church venues, and say the leaders of the church were wrong to say otherwise. They refused to recant when given the opportunity, & put their criticism and complaints in the public forum. That is called apostasy by any standard. It is not that their ideas were reasonable, observable or dangerous, it was because they were patently false by LDS doctrinal standards. They are welcome to believe them and preach them if they want, but not to proclaim them as something they are not, or that they think they should be. So the church put them where they could do just that–on the outside.

    Comment by Brenden — August 17, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

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