Sterling McMurrin. (1965). “On Naturalism and Supernaturalism” from The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, pg. 2-3
The naturalistic disposition of Mormonism is found in the denial of the traditional conception of the supernatural. It is typical of Mormon writers to insist that even God is natural rather than supernatural, in that there is not a divine order of reality that contrasts essentially with the mundane physical universe of ordinary experience known to us through sensory data, which is the object of scientific investigation and is described by natural law. The naturalistic facet of Mormon thought is indicated by the Mormon denial of miracles in the traditional sense of an intrusion of the supernatural that suspends the natural processes. The typical Mormon conception of a miracle is that the miraculous event, though entirely natural, is simply not understood because of deficiencies in human knowledge. From the perspective of God there are no miracles.
The denial of the supernatural is not simply a terminological issue in Mormonism, for reality is described qualitatively as a single continuum. The continuity is attested especially by the rejection of the traditional Christian concept of eternity, which is essentially Greek in origin, where eternity means timelessness, the denial of temporality. Mormonism conceives of God as being in both time and space. The natural continuum is evidenced as well in the Mormon view that there is no immaterial substance and that spiritual entities are not less material than physical objects.
This naturalistic quality of Mormon philosophy is without question related to several facets of the attitude, practice, and thought of the Mormon people: the high evaluation placed on the human body, the essentially positive attitude toward sex, the affirmative estimate of human character and human accomplishment, the obvious this-worldliness of the religion with its denial of the distinction between the sacred and the secular, and a traditional enthusiasm for natural science. It is perhaps not entirely inaccurate to describe Mormonism as a kind of naturalistic, humanistic theism.
Sterling McMurrin. (1965). “On the Task of Mormon Theology” from The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, pg. 110-113
The Mormon concept of man exhibits the affirmative qualities relating to the capacity of human reason and the possibilities of free moral endeavor that characterized Enlightenment thought in the early part of the nineteenth century, that were basic to the liberal Protestantism in the latter part of that century and into the present, and that today lie at the foundations of typical secular humanism that has issued from American intellectual life. But Mormonism's conception of human possibility far exceeds those of humanism and the standard forms of religious liberalism. Its conception of man is an integral element in the doctrine of cosmic progress that lies at the foundation of both its metaphysics and religion and that informs the general character of all Mormon thought. It is held that, in the forward, upward movement of the world in which God himself is involved, the human soul has infinite possibilities, because in an infinite time through the progressive achievement of knowledge and the mastery of moral will it may even know a measure of perfection that marks the attainment of divinity. Such a doctrine, of course, is an invitation to an easy speculation that some Mormon theologians have been unable to resist. And from it has issued a plethora of ideas that at times are quite irresponsible as serious doctrine. Such ideas are, nevertheless, a frank and ample testimony of the possibile reaches of liberal religion when supported by a conception of God that is grounded in the same optimism that nourished the liberal estimate of man.
The primary task of theology is the reconciliation of the revelation to the culture, to make what is taken on faith as the word of God meaningful in light of accepted science and philosophy. Mormon theology has in the past pursued this task with some consistency and at times with intellectual strength, and certainly with a stubborn independence and indifference to criticism from traditional thought. Today, much of that strength is gone as Mormonism suffers the impact of religious and social conservatism, as the Mormon mind, in the general pattern of contemporary religion, yields to the seductions of irrationalism, and as the energies of the Church are increasingly drained by practical interests.
The most important recent development in occidental religion is the rise of Christian neoorthodoxy that on a sophisticated level has reestablished the dogma of original sin and the negative conception of man. Although Mormonism has known little of the social and personal failure that has contributed to the success of neoorthodoxy, for the past two decades, in common with American and European religion generally, become increasingly conservative in its theology. The most interesting facet of this conservatism is a noticeable tendency, especially in Mormon Church academic circles, to deny the traditional liberalism of Mormon theology by favoring a negative description of human nature and the human predicament. This tendency is more than a criticism of the excessive optimism that has been characteristic of liberalism. It appears to be grounded especially in a strong appetite for traditional orthodoxy that is whetted by a reading of The Epistle to the Romans and a taste for occasional passages like the Mosiah “enemy to God” statement which appear in the Mormon scriptures. And it is aided and abetted by the predilection of the orthodox for whatever demeans humanity for the glory of God. But that Mormonism reflects Christian orthodoxy in its treatment of the Bible, and its acceptance of many of the dogmas central to Christianity, does not invalidate its essentially liberal character which is defined by its concepts of man and God. A departure from this fundamental liberalism is a departure from the authentic spirit of the Mormon religion.
If it is to satisfy the demand of reasonableness, every theology must today contend with the positivistic critique of metaphysics that denies the meaningfulness of metempicial statements, the naturalistic critique of theism which demands that the natural world of human experience be explained in terms of itself, and the criticism of a modern enlightened conscience which refuses to accept the tyranny of antiquated religious forms that are insensitive to the requirement of a genuinely moral and spiritual life. In addition, Christian theology must satisfy the historical criticism that demands the extrication of authentic history from myth and legend, and it must face the scientific judgment that modern culture must inevitably make against philosophies and religions that are committed to now discredited concepts associated with their distinct origins. Mormon theology must do all these and more. It must justify its finitistic theism in a world increasingly divided between absolutists and naturalists, and defend its positive assessment of man and history in a world disenchanted by human failure. It must reconcile its supernaturalism with its own naturalistic and humanistic propensities and defend its belief in revelation in a world grown skeptical and sophisticated in the ways of knowing. It must contend with its own body of myth and legend and with its own provincialism and intense literalism and legalism.
Mormon theology is young and unsophisticated and is not overencumbered with creeds and official pronouncements. Its structure has been virtually untouched by serious and competent effort to achieve internal consistency or exact definition. Yesterday it was vigorous, prophetic, and creative; today it is timid and academic and prefers scholastic rationalization to the adventure of ideas. It is in great need of a definition of the relation of reason to revelation that will preserve the intellectual integrity of the Mormon people and encourage them in an honest and courageous pursuit of truth. It needs a conception of religion in history which will conform to the profound Mormon insight into the dynamic character of all things and thereby release the Mormon religion from the tyranny of the past. And it needs and deserves a new appreciation of the strength of those very heresies in the concepts of God and man that must inevitably make of it an offense to the traditional faith but which are the chief sources of its strength and should already have released it from bondage to orthodoxy.
But wherever the Mormon theologian turns and to whatever tasks, for a long time to come he must work within the difficult but interesting context of a body of thought and attitude that is a unique and uneasy union of nineteenth-century liberalism with fourth-century Christian fundamentalism.