So God has been around as long as we have? I think I see what you mean. Might it be analogized like so: God knows he is ahead of us but it’s not something he’s gloating about or lording over us (if you’ll pardon the pun); He’s more like a racer who’s finished the marathon going back to cheer encouragement to, us, the other runners?
I like that idea, but I can’t quite understand how this no-end/no-beginning thing works, which is maybe the point. If God is cheering us on from the finish line, then isn’t he at some kind of end? Or is He not quite there yet and so He is available to cheer us on for the time being? I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but God is an incomprehensible being to start with, so why bother trying to comprehend Him?
Your notion concerning God’s nature (that of being “incomprehensible”) is still very influenced by your sectarian upbringing. God is not incomprehensible; God intends to be comprehended by His children. Though the word mysteries is sometimes applied to His Heavenly ways, what is meant is that we simply do not yet know the details of those ways; it is not that we cannot understand them. It’s also important to distinguish between what is unknowable and what is mysterious: the former applies to nothing; the latter is a consequence of the limitations of mortality. More on this later.
Your analogy of God being like a runner who has completed a race and is now cheering on other racers is a good way to understand our place relative to God in terms of eternal progression. But you’re right that the analogy then implies that there is a beginning and an end to the race. How can we make sense of this with the fact that we as eternal beings have no such thing as an end or a beginning? Allow me to explain:
I think a good place to start is with a relatively famous quote from Joseph Smith:
“I [will] take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man—the immortal part, because it has no beginning. Suppose you cut it in two; then it has a beginning and an end; but join it again, and it continues one eternal round. So with the spirit of man. As the Lord liveth, if it had a beginning, it will have an end…. God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself.”
I like this analogy very much, for it lays down a law concerning all things: if something has a beginning, it will have an end; if it has no beginning, it will have no end. Joseph Smith also identifies the “mind of man” as the immortal component of our being. This means that any other piece of our makeup, like our physical body gained at birth, is not eternal, and we likewise find that it had a beginning and so it will have an end, at death.
But then comes the glorious resurrection from the dead and we conquer death with Christ and receive perfected bodies that are not subject to death. God has already been through that and has obtained a perfected body long, long ago. We are His children and are going through that process that He went through already, and so He cheers us on because He has already run the good race. In other words, we can reconcile our eternal nature with your analogy of a race because within eternity there are many things that are not eternal, our mortal probation being one of them.
You’re next question maybe, “Well, if we receive perfected bodies in the resurrection, isn’t that another beginning, meaning that those bodies will have an end?” Now herein is a true mystery of God (not an incomprehensibility), for though we will all be resurrected to a perfected body that will not be subject to death, if it had a beginning it must have an end. What will that end be if not death? That much has not yet been revealed by God.
Let’s go back to Joseph Smith’s analogy of his ring (I believe it was his wedding ring, in fact). As he said, if it is cut then it has a start and a stop; if not, it goes on forever. How can we reconcile this fact with the fact that God expects us to progress? Isn’t going in circles not exactly progression if we are going over the same points over and over? The scriptures too state that progress and eternity can be two synchronous conditions of existence:
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. […]
“If there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after…
“And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they…” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29 and Abraham 3:18-19).
But the question remains: how do we reconcile Joseph Smith’s wedding ring as the symbol of eternity with the concept of ever increasing intelligence? These ideas seem contrary to one another because the ring implies a return to the beginning—that there is no beginning or end is a mere technicality because they are one in the same. With this contradiction in place, it seems as though that when God crosses the finish line, will He actually be crossing the starting line again!
Joseph Smith wisely taught that “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” We are about to do just that and discover the missing third truth that completes this puzzle: how can progression be measured in ‘one eternal round’?
The place to begin is with our comprehension of geometry. The geometry most of us are taught for a few months in our teenage years is known as Euclidean geometry, which is composed of parallel lines, circles, and the like. Euclidean geometry is very useful and nearly indispensable when it comes to the practical applications of modern engineering. But there is one very important thing it is not: natural. It is perfectly applicable to man-made contrivance (bearing in mind that mother nature often destroys such things) but no where to be found in nature—plants, animals, planets, galaxies, etc.—anywhere!
Let me give you a simple illustration. Imagine that you set out to draw a straight line in the ground from New York City to Tokyo (as if there was ground all the way around the world). If you were to walk along that line it would appear very straight to you, but if you were to project your course upon a map the line would actually be quite curved. You may have noticed this phenomenon when tracing your airliner’s path whilst flying a very great distance. I was once on a flight to China from Los Angeles and was surprised to find that we skirted along the coast of Alaska.
This is because we do not live in an Euclidean universe. The world is not flat, though on our scale it sometimes appears so. If you follow me so far I’m sure you’re wondering, “Yes, yes, I get it: nature does not produce perfect lines and circles because we don’t live on a flat world. But what does it have to do with an eternal round?” Well, let me ask you this, if we are currently living in the midst of eternity (we are), and reality is non-Euclidean, then what does that make eternity? Non-Euclidean.
Joseph Smith’s wedding ring, then, is in reality an imperfect illustration of the perfect truth he was trying to convey: an eternal round simply has no beginning or end. This can be readily illustrated, however, by non-Euclidean geometry that encompasses the motion of ring while enabling forward progression:
Take any seemingly circular course in nature and you will find that it is actually not quite circular: a planetary orbit, the circumference of the earth, a bird’s egg, etc. What these near-circular (near-Euclidean) shapes have in common is that they are all perfectly comprehended by the three-dimensional shape of a rectangular hyperbola vortex, sometimes called a Pythagorean funnel or horn. It, or a section of it, can be found in every form in nature from music to light. I really want to describe to you more about this phenomenal shape—I would coin it nature’s map—but it would get us far from the core topic at hand, the eternal round. If I am lucky, then perhaps you have already studied this shape and this form of geometry in the past.
Suffice it to say that it mimics the ever-changing forms of nature, including eternity, and one of these instructive forms is that of a spiral, like a conch shell. When viewed from above, the Pythagorean funnel can be seen to be mathematically composed of a line that circles about with ever increasing curvature (unlike an Euclidean circle of constant curvature). It is a visual display of the principle that no matter how many times you divide the number one in half, you will never come to zero. One direction of the line comes from infinity—Alpha, mathematically infinity—and the other continues to infinity in the other direction, or Omega. No segment of the line is the same as any other segment due to the constant change of curvature (see facsimile 1).
In other words, ‘there are two [segments], one being more [curved] than the other; there shall be another more [curved] than they.’ As with intelligences, or the minds of men, there are no two segments that are the same, just those at different places along the spiral. From Alpha to Omega, the line makes an infinite number of ’rounds,’ but each continues to increase in curvature moreso than the last.
This then is the key that unlocks Joseph Smith’s symbol of eternity to our minds. It is not unknowable just previously unknown, and so it is a mystery to those who yet do not know. By mapping the patterns of nature, or reality, we can find the pattern to eternity. It has no beginning and no end and revolves in infinite ’rounds.’ This means that God has crossed the finished line of your analogy, and awaits expectantly our arrival there. By the time we get there, though, He will have progressed along the spiral of eternity and still be our God in eternity. As Joseph Smith said:
“Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way. Paul says that which is earthly is in the likeness of that which is heavenly, Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? […]
“What is it? To inherit the same power, the same glory and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of a God, and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before. What did Jesus do? ‘Why, I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds come rolling into existence. My Father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself.’ So that Jesus treads in the tracks of his Father, and inherits what God did before….”
I hope this very basic introduction to the geometry of nature can help you understand a mystery of Heaven, since ‘that which is earthly is in the likeness of that which is heavenly.’ Intelligence, that immortal part of our being, is as old as God Himself because none of us ever had a beginning. God therefore esteems that the spark of divinity that is within His heart, and yours and mine, is of equal worth to that of any other person that ever was or ever will be. The difference is that God is more advanced in His intelligence than we are, and He has shown us, His children, where the starting line for the race is. Again as Joseph Smith said:
“The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits.”
And that is where the ordinances and the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ come into play. If we are to advance in intelligence with God, we cannot do it on our own in this life. Without the atonement of Jesus Christ we would be forced to retrogress in the rounds of eternity. It is not merely a quest of learning about God and His mysteries, but showing forth our obedience to the principles God has outlined that inherently enable progress.
What sometimes dismays the mind hungry for the mysteries is the necessity to act like God, who acts in a completely selfless manner, to advance one’s own ‘knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence.’ This is because to do so is in opposition to what the natural man would desire, what “the spirit is willing” to do though “the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). This is why knowledge of even the deepest mystery means nothing “if ye have not charity” and if you cannot abide this command: “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Moroni 7:46 and Mark 9:35).