On the Faustian Bargain and Eternal Progression

Don’t do it!

As explained by the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the concept of “eternal progression” is central to the Mormon conception of deification. Here’s the succinct explanation given by the recent Gospel Topics essay.

Latter-day Saints see all people as children of God in a full and complete sense; they consider every person divine in origin, nature, and potential. Each has an eternal core and is “a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.” Each possesses seeds of divinity and must choose whether to live in harmony or tension with that divinity. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all people may “progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny.” Just as a child can develop the attributes of his or her parents over time, the divine nature that humans inherit can be developed to become like their Heavenly Father’s.

As it turns out, Goethe too had a strong sense of the importance of never ceasing in striving for godhood or becoming lazy in the search for truth. Many people often use the term “Faustian bargain,” but few probably actually know what the pact was that Faust made with Mephistopheles. It occurs in the second Studierzimmer scene. Faust explains that he wants Mephistopheles to lead him to greater knowledge by experiencing existence, not just studying about it. But here’s the catch:

Werd ich beruhigt je mich auf ein Faulbett legen,
So sei es gleich um mich getan!
Kannst du mich schmeichelnd je belügen,
Daß ich mir selbst gefallen mag,
Kannst du mich mit Genuß betrügen-
Das sei für mich der letzte Tag!
Die Wette biet ich!

Werd ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
Verweile doch! du bist so schön!
Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
Dann will ich gern zugrunde gehn!
Dann mag die Totenglocke schallen,
Dann bist du deines Dienstes frei,
Die Uhr mag stehn, der Zeiger fallen,
Es sei die Zeit für mich vorbei!

When on an idler’s bed I stretch myself in quiet.
There let, at once, my record end!
Canst thou with lying flattery rule me,
Until, self-pleased, myself I see,—
Canst thou with rich enjoyment fool me,
Let that day be the last for me!
The bet I offer.

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!
Then let the death-bell chime the token.
Then art thou from thy service free!
The clock may stop, the hand be broken,
Then Time be finished unto me!

(Once again I take the translation from Taylor.)

Consider the significance of this pact. If Mephistopheles can get Faust to become so content with life that he no longer wishes to strive for something greater, something above him, then Faust will happily concede his damnation.

This is not just a very Romantic ideal, but also a very Mormon one. Wilford Woodruff said it this way. “If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us. We are in a probation, which is a school of experience” (Journal of Discourses 6:120). Similarly, here’s how Brigham Young put it. “There is no such thing as principle, power, wisdom, knowledge, life, position, or anything that can be imagined, that remains stationary–––they must increase or decrease” (Journal of Discourses 1:350).

It seems that Goethe and these brethren have the same idea. Damnation is to cease to progress. To damn oneself is to say “[I] have received, and [I] need no more” (2 Nephi 28:27). The danger of the Faustian bargain for any person who falls into its seductive trap is that such a willingness to surrender one’s eternal progression for immutability means “the end of his kingdom,” and that he therefore “cannot have an increase” (D&C 131:4). Perhaps this is one way to therefore understand Jesus’ parable of the unwise servant (Matthew 25:14–30), wherein the Savior condemned the steward who foolishly thought that by hiding his allotted money he would not risk loosing it, and would therefore be able to save face with his master. Likewise, those who are afraid to push further in the often risky business of eternal progression and instead stay put are doomed to fall behind the other servants who raked in the dough (=knowledge and divinity) with the hearty return on their investments. 

So don’t do it! Don’t fall prey to Mephistopheles’ enticements to permanence! Stay on the path and keep progressing!