“The Upward Path”: Progression in the Earthly and Heavenly Realms (Part 2)

An important thread running through Mormonism is the religious significance often attached to secular acts. Part one explored this phenomenon in light of similar traditions in Judaism; part two will add managerial perspectives and its connection to eternal progression. Worlds Without End is pleased to welcome back Allen Hansen, who co-authored this piece with Walker Wright. Allen is originally from Israel, but is currently studying journalism at Utah State. He blogs at Calba Savua’s Orchard and Adventures in N-Town.

When the editors of The Index, a periodical produced by the Mutual Improvement Association of Salt Lake City’s Twentieth Ward, asked ten prominent Church leaders in February 1895 what they considered to be the “grandest principle” of the Gospel, the responses were somewhat surprising. While a few leaders named things like eternal marriage or love as the “grandest principle,” the consensus (i.e. six–including B.H. Roberts, Orson F. Whitney, and Joseph F. Smith–out of ten) found eternal progression to be the grandest and most attractive feature of the Gospel (eight in all found it to at least be a candidate).[1] As Jacob Baker explains,

While much of the appeal and significance of eternal progression in Mormon thought at the beginning of the twentieth century centered on Mormon intellectuals’ fascination with the progressive science of their era, eternal progression in fact had a much broader, deeper, even existential appeal. These Mormon thinkers and writers viewed eternal progression in terms which, for them, instilled unique meaning and purpose into this life and the post-mortal eternities. A quest to infuse human existence with special significance and value underlay sweeping notions of unlocking the eternal laws of the universe and becoming gods… At the heart of early expositions on eternal progression is the concept that eternal, godlike activity is what provides meaning and purpose to any and every stage of human existence… For these Mormons, the only happy heaven is the one in which activity is eternalized, a heaven where the acquisition of new knowledge leads to higher and higher realms of meaningful existence.[2]

According to Wilford Woodruff’s transcript of the King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith taught that the ability to eternally progress is inherent in man: “Intelligence is eternal and it is self-existing. All mind is susceptible to improvement.”[3] The cosmological monism established by Joseph Smith and expanded by Brigham Young was a key element in Mormonism’s doctrine of eternal progression.[4] The Mormon “worship through corporeality” discussed in Part 1 is essential to understanding the progression from mortals to gods and beyond.

Even though he knew “the life to come cannot fully be comprehended,” Brigham Young thought “the general principles of a divine lifestyle—the individual improving throughout eternity—could help the Saints orient their everyday lives to an exalted pattern as well as buttress the faith of the “least Saint.”” He “considered himself living in eternity already—an effect of joining heaven and earth. It would be tempting in light of Young’s teachings to see such common undertakings as plowing a field, raising a child, or mending a fence as trite compared to forming planets, but Young saw no difference among these activities.” This outlook transformed “mundane events occurring in mortal bodies” into “eternal activities. In fact, eternal life presupposed one had mastered the common elements—the soil where they farmed for instance—of this temporal world.”[5]

“The first great principle that ought to occupy the attention of mankind,” taught Young,

that should be understood by the child and the adult, and which is the mainspring of all action (whether people understand it or not), is the principle of improvement. The principle of increase, of exaltation, of adding to that we already possess, is the grand moving principle and cause of the actions of the children of men. No matter what their pursuits are, in what nation they were born, with what people they have been associated, what religion they profess, or what politics they hold, this is the mainspring of the actions of the people, embracing all the powers necessary in performing the duties of life.[6]

Borrowing from religious anthropologist Douglas Davies, Baker notes that being “active” is “a key Mormon value”:

[Davies] theorizes an important connection between activity at the local level of Mormon life and the activity of the temple, both being locations where various types of “sacred work” take place, in contrast to simple sanctuaries of meditation and prayer alone. The sacred work of the temple in particular he labels “sanctified activism.” Thus, activity is institutionalized and ritualized at nearly every level of the Church…This view of sanctified activism collapsed the chasm between the godly and earthly realms of activity and allowed Mormons to religiously ground all their activity in this process of deification… Mormons found meaning and joy through the extravagant proposition that eternal activity could and would result in deification. Consequently, the purpose of all activity in mortality and postmortality is not happiness per se or even preparation for eternal rest within the family circle. Instead, its purpose is centered on training and instruction for becoming gods.[7]

As the doctrine of eternal progression found itself in the hands of 20th-century Mormon intellectuals, its description became more reductive. The collapse of sacred distance between heaven and earth became more literal and was rationalized with scientific concepts by Mormon academics and leaders such as agricultural chemist John Widtsoe and geologist James Talmage (both apostles). For Widtsoe in particular (as well as B.H. Roberts), the “joy” spoken of in 2 Nephi 2:20 (“Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy”) is connected to progress:

One who is active, increasing, progressing, who accepts and obeys the gospel law, ever moves into higher zones of existence, and carries others along in his onward course. He receives the gift of eternal life, with its unending conquest, progress, development, and growth. He feels the quivering, thrilling response called joy.[8]

Despite the Platonic ideal, people do not spend the majority of their time in the act of deep contemplation. Instead, they are performing the seemingly menial tasks of daily life. This largely consists of one’s form of employment. Finding meaning in the lone and dreary world of day-to-day work has been a point of increasing interest among management experts and organizational theorists. Their findings yield fruitful insights into this area of Mormonism. One major aspect from psychological research that has been applied to management is positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow: a state that involves being immersed in the task at hand, losing oneself in the moment; being fully engaged and absorbed in one’s work.[9] According to Csikszentmihalyi, “[F]low makes us feel better in the moment, enabling us to experience the remarkable potential of the body and mind fully functioning in harmony. But what makes flow an even more significant tool is its ability to improve the quality of life in the long run…A good flow activity is one that offers a very high ceiling of opportunities for improvement…If one wants to stay in flow, he or she must progress and learn more skills, rising to new levels of complexity.”[10] Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between enjoyment and pleasure and thus sees the experience of flow as the building of psychological capital. Many of the complex challenges people face at work are poorly designed, leading to anxiety and boredom rather than engagement. Furthermore, focusing on big achievements can be detrimental, largely because they are so rare. After analyzing nearly 12,000 daily “event” diaries from over 200 knowledge workers, Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer discovered that the single most important thing that positively boosts workers’ “inner work life” (i.e. the convergence of emotions, perceptions, and motivations individuals experience as they react to and make sense of their workday) is progress in meaningful work.[11] While managers can provide catalysts (i.e. actions that directly support work) and nourishers (i.e. events that demonstrate respect and encouragement)  to positively boost worker engagement, the most potent factor is in fact progress. Recognizing even incremental progress (“small wins”) can increase engagement and happiness at work. Measurable progress is not only important to productivity, but human well-being. When it comes to motivating employees (once money is no longer an issue), business author Daniel Pink has identified three key components: (1) autonomy, (2) mastery, (3) purpose.[12] The second —“mastery”—is similar to the concept of flow. Mastery is a mindset that requires the capacity to see abilities as infinitely improvable. Mastery is an asymptote and can never be fully realized: an ingredient that makes it both frustrating and alluring. When one reviews Widtsoe and Roberts’ interpretation of “joy,” it appears to be a theological version of the findings above. Activity and the chance to engage, master, and progress in it must be eternal for eternity to be meaningful. Furthermore, Brigham Young’s understanding of the Atonement factors this in. Jesus’

role of redeemer was elevated [by Young] to one who redeems matter from eternal dissolution in addition to a redeemer from sin. In fact, the very power that keeps exalted matter from dissolving is called the law of Christ: “We call it the law of Christ: it is the law of eternal life. When we speak of the law of Christ, we speak of it as the power to keep matter in its organization” ([Journal of Discourses] 6:333). Thus, echoing his earthly career, Jesus was a cosmic carpenter whose death dovetailed matter and spirit together never to be separated.[13]

For Young, the Atonement made it possible for “sanctified activism” to continue in the eternities. Christ conquered death and hell, allowing for eternal progression rather than dissolution (“the second death” in Young’s mind).[14] In some sense, the at-one-ment brought heaven and earth together, preventing the creation from returning to chaos, and thus infusing continual existence with meaning. The literal building of Zion (an organization and/or community) was a work of theosis; a god-making community. As one Latter-day Saint scholar has observed, despite the importance of such things as ethics, theology and even “intelligent dietary codes,” these are insufficient to cause a complete change in man and the world. “A transformation of human life by divine truth and power is necessary.”[15]

Just as Mormons believe that one progresses after death, so did many Jews. Activity was as much the pattern of existence in the next life as in this. The same 13th-century circles of Jewish esotericists in Spain that produced the Zohar left a description of the various sections and compartments of heaven:

Each and every day God, blessed be He, renews [the righteous] in four watches:
In the first watch the righteous become like small children, experiencing joy as small children.
In the second watch the righteous become like young men, experiencing joy as young men.
In the third watch the righteous become like middle-aged men, experiencing joy as middle-aged men.
In the fourth watch the righteous become like old men, experiencing joy as old men.[16]

Here, in a striking image somewhat reminiscent of the film Groundhog Day, progression is the particular gift of the righteous. Each day they progress through all stages of life, and experience all of the unique joys connected with each stage.  This is significant because if, for example, “the images of the New Jerusalem… always contain more than was ever present in the old one,” then any “renewal of the world is simply more than its restoration.”[17] The same principle is implicit in this daily journey from childhood to old age, every renewal, every cycle becoming greater than the one preceding it.

Working from a more abstract view of eternal progression, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a noted modern Jewish scholar, wrote of the spiritual value inherent in difficult, even troubling questions:

When I offer Judaism to people, I do not sell them peace of mind. I say, ‘draw nearer to the world of Judaism, draw nearer to God. What do you get from this? If you are an honest man then each day three minor questions will die and three major ones will be born!’ After all, one cannot promise peace, but only bigger questions. That the righteous have no peace, neither in this world nor in the world to come is borne out by the verse in Psalms 84:8: ‘They go from strength to strength.’ The righteous completes one world, finishes learning in this world, and is raised into another. What does he get out of all this? He sits and toils throughout all eternity, but each time he is concerned with the questions of a bigger world. This is what he earns from his labors, not rest, but new, tougher kinds of questions. Instead of dealing with petty questions such as does this man’s wife have a prettier nose than that man’s wife, the righteous can deal with greater, nobler questions. By doing so he will still be addressing issues of what is important what is beautiful, and where the right path lays.  Not being at rest- this apparently is how things should be.[18]

“Toiling throughout all eternity” and “the questions of a bigger world” ultimately provide a higher purpose. This is why Pink’s third component of motivation—“purpose”—provides context for the first two: participation in an organization that strives for a higher purpose is intrinsically motivating and can become a source of meaning.[19] This is what HR expert Dave Ulrich and psychologist Wendy Ulrich (both LDS) found in their book The Why of Work:

[H]umans are meaning-making machines who find inherent value in making sense out of life…The meaning we create can make life feel rich and full regardless of our external circumstances or give us the courage to change our external circumstances. When we find meaning in our work, we find meaning in life…Meaningful work solves real problems, contributes real benefits, and thus adds real value to customers and investors. Employees who find meaning in their work are more satisfied, more engaged, and in turn more productive. They work harder, smarter, more passionately and creatively. They learn and adapt. They are more connected to customer needs. And they stick around.[20]

No, not that Gollum...

No, not that Gollum…

Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague (the Maharal, 1520-1609) is best known for the later folktale crediting him with the creation of a golem (an artificial man), but his actual writings were among the more significant sources for the doctrine of worship through corporeality, as well as influencing the various Jewish-Christian syncretists contemporary with early Hasidism. In his view, man’s quest for holiness is not merely an ethical one. Everything in the world depends on it, which places man in a role so significant that it is second only to God’s. If this is so, then every deed, thought, and word has cosmic ramifications, everything having the potential to either draw all things into one and achieve the ultimate rectification of the universe, or to hinder it. Man’s very existence is thus the potential to imbue the world with meaning and direction, and it must be actuated by holy living:

The upward path by which man must travel in his quest for perfection is a fateful adventure. What is at stake is not only man’s own life. It is the pattern of all existence, the permeating purpose of the universe… Man’s appearance on the arena of existence and the destiny he was to enact therein constituted, according to Rabbi Judah, the goal of all creation… There is a clear purpose for every creature also, in the sense of a goal to which it must direct its life, taught Rabbi Judah… Every creature has its purpose, its function to fulfill in God’s plan, and it glorifies God by being true to its purpose, by being what God wanted it to be. The multitude of creatures who inhabit the world cannot however attain their vindication without man. For the entire enterprise exists for his sake and he is the crucial link who brings the entire chain of being into a unity.”[21]

Finding meaning is ultimately part of creating what the Ulrichs’ call an “abundant organization,” one “in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and actions to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large.” These organizations have “enough and to spare of the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership.”[22]

While these managerial approaches regarding worker engagement and corporate progress may seem like a secularization of deeper spiritual questions (especially when one contrasts them with the accompanying Jewish sources), the dichotomy may be a false one. When Peter Drucker—the father of management himself—was asked why he was turning his attention from corporate management to churches, he politely corrected them: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the other way around. I became interested in management because of my interest in religion and institutions.”[23] Drucker defined a saint as one who could marry the visionary and the practical, or, “somebody who sees reality.”[24] Drucker’s views of management, corporations, and the like were heavily influenced by his reading of Soren Kierkegaard. “Key to Kierkegaard’s philosophy (and to Drucker’s understanding of it) is the emphasis that Kierkegaard placed on living in the material realm. Although very much a religious philosopher, Kierkegaard’s work delves into the nature of earthly existence.”[25] While Drucker often focused on how society benefits from management and businesses (he saw himself as a “social ecologist”), he was also aware that society has the potential to make “individual life meaningless.” If the individual is a mere “leaf on the tree of the race, a cell in the body of society, then your death is not really death; you had better call it a process of collective regeneration. But then, of course, your life is not real life either; it is just a functional process within the life of the whole, devoid of any meaning except in terms of the whole. Thus as Kierkegaard foresaw a hundred years ago, an optimism that proclaims human existence as existence in society leads straight to despair.” Kierkegaard’s faith makes human existence “bearable by making it meaningful.” It “enables man to die; but it also enables him to live.”[26] While society can provide context and connection for the individual and his/her sense of meaning, the individual must be allowed to maintain his/her dignity and avoid being socially absorbed into oblivion. Similar notions can be found in the writings of the Czech Jewish scholar Jiri Langer: “If a man does not want the light of his soul to be absorbed into the infinite light of God after his death and sink into it without trace, it is up to him to obtain as much merit as possible during his earthly life, for all merit is a source of Light, as the Scriptures say–Light which never goes out. And if a man adds merit to the little spark of his soul, then his soul becomes so powerful a Light that not even the Infinite will swallow it up and it will never be absorbed.”[27] Drucker’s search for existential purpose within organizations can also be traced to his German intellectual and cultural background. Some researchers have seen him as “a secularized German theologian” bucking against “‘the fall’ of modernity” and embracing “prior German philosophers and sociologists who unconsciously embedded theological conceptions in their explanations of the ills of modernity.”[28] In essence, work within the organization became a kind of worship; a way to tap into a Higher Purpose. As Drucker summarized,

Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker

Management always lives, works, and practices in and for an institution, which is a human community held together by the bond that, next to the tie of family, is the most powerful human bond: the work bond. And precisely because the object of management is a human community held together by the work bond for a common purpose, management always deals with the Nature of Man, and (as all of us with any practical experience learned) with Good and Evil as well. I have learned more theology as a practicing management consultant than I did when I taught religion.[29]

For Drucker, the modern organization was created to make a difference in its society and economy. The corporation must be connected with its outside results; what Drucker called the “meaningful Outside.”[30] Making a personal connection with the results of one’s work can help create the meaning workers crave.[31] At the Sunstone symposium in 1987, the thinker and educator Lowell L. Bennion stated that one of the reasons he did not seek perfection as a goal in itself was “that wonderful Mormon doctrine of eternal progression”:

Progression means the act of stepping forward, eternally. I think that is the vision of Mormons, that we may grow eternally under the tutelage of our Father in heaven and Christ and enlarge our lives forevermore. This is certainly true in this life and I hope in the next. Finally, people who strive to be perfect put themselves at the center of things; they are too conscious of themselves. I had a fine student who spent half his time keeping track of himself. He had three big loose-leaf notebooks and jotted down every thought he had and every feeling. He reduced his life to his own parameters… I think the only time you experience life as a whole and all of its potentiality is when you give yourself to a cause that’s greater than yourself, that’s outside yourself.[32]

The Church is an organization. Human life is experienced within organizations, communities, and societies. By delving into the meaningful aspects of this life, we can begin to catch of glimpse of the next. By doing so, we can help bridge the gap between the secular and the religious, the Church and the Gospel, the temporal and the spiritual, knowing and doing, believing and belonging. By practicing “worship through corporeality” in all its forms (including in the workplace), we can perhaps become part of something bigger than ourselves, instill the hum-drum of daily life with greater meaning, and re-enchant “disenchanted Mormonism” (to borrow Rosalynde Welch’s wonderful term) while grounding “enchanted” Mormonism in reality.[33]



1. See Jacob T. Baker, “‘The Grandest Principle of the Gospel’: Christian Nihilism, Sanctified Activism, and Eternal Progression,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 41:3 (Spring 2010): 55-80.

2. Ibid.: 56-57.

3. Journal of Wilford Woodruff, April 7, 1844, as quoted in Hyrum L. Andrus, God, Man, and the Universe,  (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,  1968), 172, fn. 6.

4. I like how Baker puts it: “Though the seeds of eternal progression in Mormon thought were planted by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young nurtured them into a full-fledged forest of doctrinal exposition. Young seems to be, in fact, the first to use the phrase “eternal progression” to describe and embody several interrelated concepts promulgated by Joseph Smith concerning the nature and purpose of God and humankind.” (Ibid.: 58.)

5. J.C. Kirkham, “‘Worlds Without End’: The Cosmological Theodicy of Brigham Young” (Master’s thesis, Utah State University, 2012), 39-40.

6. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, 91: http://jod.mrm.org/2/90

7. Baker, 2010: 66-69.

8. Widtsoe, Understandable Religion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1944), 37-38. Quoted in Baker, 2010: 70.

9. Leo Babauta, “Nine Steps to Achieving Flow in Your Work,” Greater Good (May 4, 2012): http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_steps_to_achieving_flow_in_your_work

10. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 63.

11. See Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011); Amabile, Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review 89:5 (May 2011): http://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins/ar/1

12. See Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).

13. Kirkham, 2012, 45.

14. For further detail of Young’s theology of the “second death,” see Boyd Kirkland, “Of Gods, Mortals, and Devils,” Sunstone 10:12 (Nov. 1986): 6-12; Kirkham, 2012, Ch. 3: “Cosmos.”

15. Andrus, God, Man, and the Universe, 48 (italics ours).

16. Ben Zion Bokser, From the World of the Cabbalah  (New York: 1954), 90-91.

17. Masechet Gan Eden, as printed in Judah David Eisenstein, Ozar Midrashim: A Library of Two Hundred Minor Midrasim, vol. 1, (New York: 1915), 84. Curiously enough, Masechet Gan Eden and the related Seder Gan Eden feature a cluster of themes shared surprisingly by early Mormon speculative theology (such as a multitiered heavens).

18. Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 14.

19. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Parashat Va-Yeshev, from a lesson given to yeshiva students at Makor Chayim. http://www.makor-c.org/content.asp?pageid=233

20. See Teresa Amabile, Steve Kramer, “To Give Your Employees Meaning, Start With a Mission,” HBR Blog (Dec. 19, 2012): http://blogs.hbr.org/hbsfaculty/2012/12/to-give-your-employees-meaning.html

21. David Ulrich, Wendy Ulrich, The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 3. See also Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer, “Do Happier People Work Harder?” The New York Times (Sept. 3, 2011): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/do-happier-people-work-harder.html?_r=0

22. Ulrich & Ulrich, 2010, 4.

23. Quoted in Peter Steinfels, “A Man’s Spiritual Journey From Kierkegaard to General Motors,” The New York Times (Nov. 19, 2005): http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/19/national/19beliefs.html?pagewanted=all

24. Ibid.

25. Karen E. Linkletter, Joseph A. Maciariello, “Genealogy of a Social Ecologist,” Journal of Management History 15:4 (2009): 338.

26. Peter Drucker, “Soren Kierkegaard: Or, How Is Human Existence Possible?” Lecture at Bennington College, May 20, 1943: http://www.druckersociety.at/index.php/peterdruckerhome/texts/the-unfashionable-kierkegaard?start=1

27. An idea that has some affinity with the Mormon “gnostic” concept of increasing light and truth as described in D&C 93. Jiri Langer, Nine Gates to the Chasidic Mysteries (New York: Behrman House Inc., 1976), 180.

28. Madeline Toubiana, Gad Yair, “The Salvation of Meaning in Peter Drucker’s Oeuvre,” Journal of Management History 18:2 (2012): 179.

29. Quoted in Linkletter, Maciariello, 2009, 339.

30. Peter Drucker, “The American CEO,” The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 30, 2004): http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113207479262897747.html

31. See Ulrich & Ulrich, 2010, Ch. 7: “What Challenges Interest Me? (Personalized Contributions)”; Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer, “What Makes Work Worth Doing?” HBR Blog (Aug. 31, 2012): http://blogs.hbr.org/hbsfaculty/2012/08/what-makes-work-worth-doing.html

32. Lowell L. Bennion, “What It Means to Be a Christian,” Sunstone 11 (July 1987), 7.

33. Rosalynde Welch, “Disenchanted Mormonism,” Presentation at FAIR Conference 2013: http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2013-fair-conference/2013-disenchanted-mormonism


“The Upward Path”: Progression in the Earthly and Heavenly Realms (Part 2) — 1 Comment

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