Exploring Mormon Thought: The Apostasy and Mormon Theology

What role do apostasy narratives play in Mormon theological discourse? Actually, let me ask that question more clearly, since I’m after something pre- rather than de-scriptive: What role should apostasy narratives play in Mormon theological discourse? A long and venerable tradition has given such narratives theological pride of place, but I want to ask whether that tradition has not generally seen Mormon thinkers wandering in theologically unproductive paths. Is there reason to be done, once and for all, with apostasy narratives in our theological work?

Let me begin a bit too bluntly: Chapter 2 of Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God seems, in certain respects, both unmotivated and uneven. Unmotivated? Chapter 1 is largely an analysis of the word “God” in Mormon discourse and a kind of false start of the theological work that begins in chapter 3. Chapter 2 doesn’t fit into this progression in any obvious way. Uneven? The chapter’s title (“The Apostasy and Concepts of Perfection”) leads one to expect only what is actually the first part of the chapter: a brief apostasy narrative followed by an outline of the final product of Christian theology. But what one finds is not only these first elements, but also a lengthy exposition of Hartshornean process theology, provided with no indication of what the reader is supposed to gain from it.

I can’t help but suspect, as I read and re-read this chapter, that something like the following story lies behind it. In a first version of the manuscript, Ostler followed his brief analysis of “God” (chapter 1) with a traditional apostasy narrative (chapter 2), thereby introducing what the Restoration (chapter 3) deposed with its dawn. But early readers expressed concern: “Do you really want to suggest that all of non-Mormon theology can be described as Thomist? What about process thought?” To appease such readers, Ostler added to his original second chapter an exposition of process theology, further using this exposition as a kind of preliminary critique of absolutism and a rough—too rough—anticipation of certain Mormon theologies. . . .

Now, I have no idea whether anything like this took place. Let’s call it a myth and allow it to teach us, as myths are meant to do. What’s to be learned from it? At least this: There’s something wrong with apostasy narratives as used in theology. How so? There’s always and inherently something reductive about them, something that leaves the reader wondering about all the overlooked messiness of history. I don’t want to be too critical here, but Ostler’s apostasy narrative is a good example of this: his Plato isn’t much like the actual Plato of history, as his Neoplatonism isn’t much like the actual Neopolatonism of history; some of the details concerning third- and fourth-century are accurate, but his portrayal of Augustine is a caricature; his brief reference to allegorical interpretation passes over a history of hermeneutics that deserves to be investigated in great detail; and his summary of Thomistic “absolutism” isn’t terribly fair to what Aquinas was really after, though it describes well certain theologies.

Now, if all this sounds harsh, let me be clear that I mean to criticize neither Ostler’s larger project nor his theological capabilities. My aim is rather to suggest that chapter 2 of The Attributes of God is a symptomatic distraction from what is otherwise a generally productive attempt to frame a certain Mormon theological conception of God in analytic terms. Put another way, my aim is to suggest that every attempt to build a Mormon theological project on the foundation of an apostasy narrative is doomed to produce the kinds of problems I’ve just identified. In other words still, the point is to learn from what I take to be Ostler’s faux pas that we might, as Mormon theologians, do well to abandon entirely the project of rooting what we’re doing in an apostasy narrative.

Of course, if the standard—but deeply problematic—Mormon account of the “great apostasy” is conceded, the theologian has to ward of the danger of reproducing the apostasy in her own work by affirming the standard account in order to differentiate her own work from “traditional” theological work. But why should the Mormon theologian concede the standard account of the apostasy when it’s (1) historically problematic and (2) entirely unscriptural? Indeed, to dispense with reason and rigor from the outset—even if largely as a token or symbolic gesture—is to cripple the theological enterprise. Theology, if it’s to accomplish anything other than border maintenance, has to be done in full rigor, and that according to the strictest canons of Western thought.

Is all this to suggest, then, that Mormon theologians should be done with apostasy narratives entirely? Well, there’s something to be said for a Mormon theology ready rigorously to engage with its predecessors and rivals rather than to establish either its own revelatory superiority or its exclusive grasp of truth. But I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Latter-day Saints should rid themselves of the idea of the apostasy. It seems to me that what is needed is a reconceptualization of the apostasy—a reconceptualization that (1) recognizes the complexity of history, (2) roots itself faithfully in scripture, and (3) drastically revises the relationship between theological work and the apostasy. Let me see if I can’t at least outline such a reconceptualization of the apostasy here.

First, what does it mean to recognize the complexity of history? I don’t mean that it’s necessary just to construct a much more detailed historical account of the apostasy—as if we’ve just been a bit too amateurish in our efforts thus far. I mean, rather, that our very conception of the apostasy, as well as of the relationship between theological work and the apostasy, has to be one in which history can’t be reduced to a linear narrative. The apostasy has to be understood as something that didn’t begin with an identifiable accretion to early Christianity, hence as something that didn’t progress from pristine goodness to ever-increasing badness in a linear fashion. In a word, the apostasy can’t be understood to be narrativizable at all.

If that’s clear, what does it mean faithfully to root a reconceptualization of the apostasy in scripture? For starters, the apostasy will have to be thought through the prism of texts like Matthew 13 (in which Jesus talks not of tares succeeding wheat and then of wheat succeeding tares, but of wheat and tares growing alongside each other) and 1 Nephi 13-14 (in which Nephi places the heaviest emphasis not on false conceptions of God but on the role of the covenant and what it means for the interpretation of scripture). I’ll have to leave the investigation of these (and other similar) texts for another occasion (or you can take a look at some preliminary work on each them here and here, respectively), but careful reading reveals that such scriptural texts complicate traditional conceptions of the apostasy drastically.

What, finally, do I have in mind when I speak of revising the relationship between theological work and the apostasy? Something like the following: To do theology is not to part ways with the apostasy, but to get to work on the task of redeeming it. Genuine faithfulness takes the shape neither of facile dismissal nor of facile concession. It has to overcome every allergy to the unfamiliar, but it also has to remain convinced that something unique and crucial has dawned with the Restoration. The faithful Mormon theologian ranges through the whole world, her mind stretched wide as eternity and her intentions saturated with charity. She’s convinced that traces of truth are everywhere, but that they can only be dug out through careful, detailed work—and that every effort she makes must be done in full fidelity to what has emerged in the events of the Restoration: everything she gains from the debris of the apostasy helps her to make better sense of those events, of the scriptures that issued from them, of the work that’s unfolding in their wake.

At this point, it might be objected that, despite my pretensions otherwise, I have indeed been criticizing Ostler’s larger project. That isn’t clear to me yet. At this point, I don’t mean to criticize the larger project. It remains to be seen, over the course of this project, exactly what Ostler’s after. I am a bit nervous about his talk of eventually drawing a sharp line between Mormon and non-Mormon discourse, but I can’t yet see where the (ever-longer) road Ostler takes in that originally projected project will lead.

58 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: The Apostasy and Mormon Theology

  1. This part:

    “[T]he standard account of the apostasy” [is] “entirely unscriptural”

    and this part:

    “[T]he apostasy can’t be understood to be narrativizable at all”

    don’t make sense to me. Could you explain what you mean?

  2. I think most of the book’s main points hinge on process theology so I can understand why Blake brings it up. (I’ve not read the first volume in a long time so I want to be careful about discussing the structure of the books pedagogy – but I’m more comfortable in terms of argument)

    I’m not sure what the standard account of apostasy is. I think a lot of thinkers have emphasized the merging of the accounts of Jerusalem of God with the accounts of Athens of God. I think this is a huge problem from a Mormon perspective. So I don’t think the question of absolutism is an inappropriate one. Whether it’s the main issue of apostasy is an other matter. It doesn’t appear to be the main problem that I can see. The main problem is much more a loss of ordinances and a loss of priesthood rather than problematic theology. However I think in terms of a critique of how Christian theology developed the attempt to see the questions of Greek absolutism and the questions of Hebrew divine interventionism as embodied in the same being is hugely problematic. So regardless of whether Blake oversimplifies the history I think the fundamental point is correct. Especially since Blake is attempting to offer a Mormon view that avoids this.

    As best I think one could say the theology arises out of the apostasy rather than being the apostasy. But that seems a difference without a huge difference.

  3. This is an important quote from Charles Harrell’s This is My Doctrine:

    > The earliest recorded LDS teachings give little indication of a universal apostasy, especially in the way it is currently understood. At first, Mormonism shared the popular evangelical sentiment that the apostasy simply consisted of a departure from gospel teachings and practices, and not the withdrawal of priesthood authority. The Book of Mormon, for example, makes no prediction of an apostasy which involves either the priesthood or the Church being taken from the earth; nor does it mention that important ordinances pertaining to exaltation (e.g., temple ordinances) would be discontinued and need to be restored. Rather, the earliest Mormon teachings of an apostasy, like those from other contemporary restorationists, spoke only of moral corruption, a clouding or perversion of the basic teachings of Christ causing “an exceedingly great many . . . to stumble” (1 Ne. 13:29), and a denial of the power of the Holy Ghost—which includes the working of miracles (2 Ne. 28:4–15; Morm. 8:26–31).

    > The Book of Mormon refers to the “formation” after the time of the apostles of a “great and abominable church” (1 Ne. 13:6–9, 26–28), which early Saints understood as referring primarily to the Catholic Church. But since the Book of Mormon further defined it non-denominationally as any group opposed to “the church of the Lamb of God” (1 Ne. 14:10), Saints also came to see it as referring to any religion or government opposing God’s work. Notably, the Book of Mormon doesn’t ever suggest that the church of the Lamb would be taken from the earth, only that in the latter days, “its numbers . . . [would be] few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters” (1 Ne 14:12).
    Prior to 1834, there is no mention of priesthood being taken from the earth—or restored for that matter (see Chapter 4). Instead, the Lord tells the Saints in December 1832, “The priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers . . . therefore your life and the priesthood have remained” (D&C 86:8–10; emphasis mine). It isn’t until several years after the restoration of the Church that apostasy narratives began to include a loss of authority along with essential saving ordinances, thus paving the way for the current LDS understanding of the Great Apostasy.

    > Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, the apostasy continued to be defined primarily as a period of gospel perversion, spiritual darkness and loss of priesthood authority. Catholicism continued to be seen by many as being the principal culprit in corrupting the church.

    > Current LDS historians note a cultural bias underlying early Mormon characterizations of Christianity as a corrupt morass of false teachings; moreover, there is still considerable inertia which keeps these legacy teachings alive. In his historical survey of LDS literature on the apostasy, BYU history professor Eric Dursteler observes that early LDS treatises on the apostasy were “clearly” influenced by “the highly polemical, popular, confessional, historical literature of the nineteenth century and the anticlerical literature of the eighteenth-century enlightenment.” He further notes that, although the characterization of the Middle Ages as a dark and decadent era and the Renaissance as an era of spiritual awakening has been repudiated by virtually all modern historians of the past century, “Latter-day Saint treatments of the apostasy . . . have retained much of their binary vision of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

    > With modern scholarship having an increasing influence on Mormon perceptions of history, Dursteler observes that there seems to be a growing tendency among LDS writers to “move away” from depicting the apostasy as bringing on a long period of darkness followed by the dawning of the Reformation. “Instead,” he notes, “the apostasy is depicted simply as an age in which priesthood authority did not exist.” Thus, the concept of the apostasy has shifted from a loss of spiritual gifts and truths to primarily a loss of priesthood authority.

    > LDS characterizations of other religions as the “church of the devil” have significantly diminished. In 1990, for example, the mock representation of Protestant ministers as hirelings of Satan was removed from the LDS temple ceremony.

    BYU professor Spencer Fluhman:

    > “I don’t think the early Latter-day Saints discerned a doctrinal restoration in the ways that you and I do until Nauvoo. Until Joseph Smith’s teaching gravitated to those topics like the nature of God. And he began saying things in distinctive enough ways that the Latter-day Saints began to discern a real addition to their understanding of God and humanity and eternity and so on. Many of the revelations in the 1830s put forward new ideas, but the Saints didn’t discern a doctrinal restoration really until the late 30s and into the Nauvoo period… In some ways the cosmos was rearranged for them in Nauvoo.” (Mormon Identity)

    Back to Harrell. He writes of the parable of the wheat and tares:

    > Doctrine and Covenants 86:3, recorded in December 1832, recasts this parable as a reference to the apostasy, explaining that “the tares choke the wheat and drive the church into the wilderness.” The revelation continues, “But behold, in the last days, even now . . . the Lord is beginning to bring forth the word, and the blade is springing up and is yet tender” (D&C 86:4). This altered rendering changes the sense of the parable from the biblical account—preserved also in JST Matthew (revised in the spring of 1832)—where the wheat wasn’t choked, but continued to grow and was gathered safely into the barn. There is never any mention, even in the New Testament interpretation of the parable (Matt. 13:37–43), that ‘the children of the kingdom’ would be overcome or that a second growing season (i.e., restoration) would be necessary. The parable as it stands consistently fits the New Testament perspective that the kingdom would survive any perils until the Savior’s return…

    > Interestingly, Joseph Smith reverted to this more natural reading of the parable in December 1835, stating that the Savior was essentially telling his disciples, ‘The Church is in its infancy, and if you take this rash step [i.e., remove the tares], you will destroy the wheat or the Church with the tares: therefore it is better to let them grow together until the harvest, or the end of the world.’ [Joseph Smith, ‘To the Elders of the Church of the Latter Day Saints,’ 227.]

    The challenge is reconciling Mormonism’s early idea of apostasy with the later, developed, now traditional account of apostasy. It seems to me that Mormon academics increasingly want to jettison the latter, nostalgic for the earlier. This seems especially the case with Mormon neo-orthodoxy.

  4. Aaron, I have a hard time seeing 2 Ne 28 as the apostasy. It’s a result of the apostasy but seems more an issue of our time rather than late antiquity. With regards to 1 Ne 13 I think it’s pretty easy to read that in terms of the traditional authority view of apostasy since what is significant is the ground of the Church. Is the ground God or the devil which in the apocalyptic style is really a question of authority. I think even 1 Ne 13:24 is a claim about authority. i.e. who controls the utterances.

  5. Joe says: “What, finally, do I have in mind when I speak of revising the relationship between theological work and the apostasy? Something like the following: To do theology is not to part ways with the apostasy, but to get to work on the task of redeeming it.”

    FWIW, I think this part is the take away message and I’m totally on board.

  6. Jonathan Green #1 – First, it needs to be clear that by “the standard account of the apostasy” I have in mind the account that (1) dates the beginning of the apostasy to the disappearance of the apostles and (2) traces the development of the apostasy in terms of the consequent departure of doctrine from true apostolic teachings to apostate Greek philosophical conceptions. I find no scriptural account of the apostasy that suggests anything like that. Second, note that my claim about the impossibility of narrativization concludes my paragraph about the complexity of history. Hence, I don’t mean theoretically unnarrativizable, but practically—though I think that practical impossibility should have an important effect on our theoretical work in theology.

    Clark #2 – You’re probably right that much of the book hinges on process theology, but what I found curious is that Blake doesn’t make clear what he’s doing there. Unless one is already familiar with major Mormon theologians (Pratt, Widtsoe, Roberts, etc.), the summary of process theology will sound anything but Mormon. As for the relevance of Blake’s fundamental point, regardless of the details, I’m not sure I agree. The three major “absolutist” figures—Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas—are all deeply interesting and theologically productive. The task is to read such thinkers redemptively, rather than to stake out how their supposedly Greek roots have ruined things and made a restoration necessary. Or so, at any rate, it seems to me.

    Aaron #3 – Nothing here to say but thanks!

    Adam #5 – This is what I’m after above all else. Thanks for isolating it.

  7. The reason I find Augustine and Aquinas problematic (I’ll leave Anselm out for reasons I’ll not go into a tangent for) is precisely because they equate the being of the questions raised in Greek philosophy with the questions raise about an interventionist God. I don’t mind the questions and I think they’re good to grapple with. But fundamentally they aren’t about God as I understand it. Making them be about the interventionist person we worship fundamentally distorts both the nature of that person as well as our relationship with him. (This is hardly a Mormon insight – it was a major theme in German philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century) To the degree that the God of the philosophers became the God of Christianity I think we need a restoration.

    Now to be fair I think there were other movements that moved against the inaccessible God of the philosophers in American Christianity in general. While the Evangelicals pay lip service to the God of the philosophers fundamentally the being they are interested in is quite different. Contrast this with what happened with liberal Protestantism and major swaths of Catholicism where God became so demythologized that God became much more the God of the deists rather than Jesus.

  8. Joe: Perhaps a bit of ground-clearing may be useful; and then I’ll get out of the way and let the discussion develop. First, your mythology about how this chapter developed aren’t really close or helpful. This chapter is an introduction to the different ways that the concept of perfection has been developed. It develops concepts that are essential to continue with the discussion in later chapters. So contrary to your assumption that I building my narrative on some apostasy narrative, I suggest that I do not. I do, however, believe that ideas have implications and consequences for how we view and relate to God.

    You left out a very important part of what is going on in this chapter: it is about concepts of perfection and how they play in the entailment of God’s relation to the world. The title of the chapter is, after all, not “The Apostasy,” but “The Apostasy and Concepts of Perfection.” You left out that latter qualifier which is essential. So I wanted to introduce the primary development of what had largely been taken as axiomatic by the vast majority of traditional thinkers and then see how and why such views developed. I contend that the development arose largely because these thinkers had a particular assumption about what perfection consists in. I wanted to show how the notion of perfection as an absolute upper limit led them to think of God in impersonal rather than personal terms. Now I’m well aware that there are exceptions and that there is an entire school of Personalists (I discuss them a bit in later chapters). That wasn’t my concern. I was interested in the ways that more or less standard orthodox views had developed and why.

    I wanted to introduce process thought because it started from a very different view of perfection as self-surpassing. I wanted to show how that developed and why and how it leads to a very different view of God.

    Second, I’m not all that interested in arguing about an “apostasy narrative”. I believe that apostasy occurs in the Old Testament whenever folks refuse to listen to God’s prophets and do what they say God asks them to do. Apostasy follows from refusing to hear God’s voice when he speaks: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” That is, there aren’t various different covenants to which God calls you, but he calls you now to heed this prophetic proclamation received by direct revelation from God. To not heed that clarion call is apostasy.

    The notion of apostasy was really a mere suggestion about how theology can affect our relationship with God. I mention my notion of apostasy up front and then show how theology develops in such a way as to lead away from an interpersonal relationship with God and God in fact any real relation to the world. Thus, it follows logically on the meanings of “God” in the first chapter. I’m very clear about what I take the effect of such absolutist thinking to be in relation to such apostasy to be in terms of philosophical influence/effect of apostasy: “”apostasy occurred when Christians subordinated the scriptures and revelation to the philosophical assumptions of Middle and Neoplatonism. Second, in subordinating revelation these theologians attempted to appropriate Greek concepts of absolutes as “god.” Thus, apostasy occurs when God is conceived to have the same properties as the Platonic ideas or forms, to have properties such as simplicity, aseity, immutability, timelessness, impassibility and incorporeality. Now I add that in many ways the use of Greek philosophy as a vehicle to make sense of the Christian revelation was inevitable.” (p. 27)

    Finally, I think that if you are going to state that I just get Plato and Neoplatonism wrong and misrepresent Augustine, you at least owe an argument or support. Further, I would like to know what you take to be unfair in my portrayal of Aquinas and “what he was really after.”

    Further, perhaps you could expand on what you mean by redeeming a theology (especially since people are redeemed and theologies never are in scripture). It seems to me to be a category mistake.

  9. Aaron, Your quotes regarding the apostasy and the BoM overlook, “Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” And preceding this we read that it’s pride that causes people to do the “fighting”. (I don’t suggest this is the only true or possible interpretation of this verse by a long shot)

    But that sounds pretty clear to me like the BoM said the churches would be destroyed if they fight against the Apostles. Now I agree, it’s not written in terms of priesthood authority or organization of offices, etc. being destroyed, but I think for a variety of reasons we conceptualize, and construct our abstract world differently than they did “back then”.

  10. So from what I understood, you are making the case that apostasy in Mormon theology shouldn’t be cast as a linear historical narrative (i.e. priesthood authority taken away not long after death of Christ and then restored by JS).

    I get the sense that you are making this more complex and arcane than it really needs to be. The way I see it, apostasy within the context of LDS church discourse refers to three things:

    1) apostasy as a conscious violation of God’s law
    2) apostasy as the advocacy of or belief in doctrine that is incompatible with official or perhaps even semi-official church doctrine
    3) apostasy as the dissolution of Christ’s church and priesthood organization, established both before and after his mortal life (due to factors related to apostasies 1 and 2).

    If I understand you correctly, you seem to want to shape a Mormon theological discourse that emphasizes number 1 and perhaps 2 to a lesser extent, but that dismisses number 3.

    I would certainly be in favor of this. The problem is that apostasy no. 3 seems to be part and parcel of official discourse. I remember this narrative being part of the 3rd discussion when I was a missionary. It seemed like the common worldview among missionaries and even many high-ranking leaders was that every other organization and time-period was a manifestation of apostasy and deviation from the full truth, even if it did have part of the truth. The church was a manifestation of the full truth.

    Anyhow, good luck with this. I would be interested in hearing more.

  11. “She’s convinced that traces of truth are everywhere, but that they can only be dug out through careful, detailed work”

    Replace “careful, detailed work” with revelation and I’m with you. If careful, detailed work were all that was necessary, then no one doing careful, detailed work, in other words any well educated theologian or philosopher, would avoid apostasy.

    I prefer to think of apostasy as something that is always present and always resisted, both in individuals and in organizations, both in an out of the church. I would say that the idea resisting apostasy, or the idea that is positioned somewhere near opposition to apostasy, is learning, and especially (though not only) learning true information about the nature and character of God. (Learning isn’t only opposed by unlearning, but is opposed by the assumption of having learned, and therefore doctrine creation, even when that creation contains true information, is itself a kind of apostasy unless it is very careful. Doctrine that resists apostasy must remain in motion forward.) If the Restoration restored anything lost, it was not, in some kind of single burst, all right information about God, dissolving all wrong information, but rather the means to obtain that information. If authority has anything to do with it, it is authority to ‘administer’ the means. Why I remain in the church is not because I think everything the church teaches, has taught, or will teach is right and precise information about God (or anything else), but because my experience is that through ordinances I’ve received personal revelation on the subject. Nothing else we do in and around the church – from discussions about modesty to the relations between the sexes to the language we use in testimony, nothing – is essential to me. This is not to say, naturally, that God doesn’t speak outside of these ordinances, and certainly not to say that giving ideas generated outside of Priesthood ordinances a good faith, goodhearted and thorough hearing, scavenging for truth wherever we can find it, isn’t the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do, and is especially beneficial when it infuses itself into the great project of anti-apostasy, or learning. Apostasy therefore might include removing oneself from ordinances, but is not defined by that; nor is remaining a participant in ordinances a sufficient qualification for avoiding apostasy, since participation alone also does not guarantee revelation.

    I didn’t mean to contradict anything else, Joe. Just wanted to state my preference in regard those exact words that you used.

    I’m interested in hearing how you folks who are doing theology or philosophy professionally handle the tension between the necessity of receiving personal revelation on an individual basis – and the fact that the process of receiving revelation sits necessarily outside the domain of your profession. The question is interesting to me, personally, since I have avoided certain areas of study precisely because I do not want the tension implied. I am going to do post-grad work in Latin American history, not Mormon history, mostly because that is where my deeper interest lies; but also because I don’t want, for myself, any of these kind of entanglements.

    The reason I will never write at length on Mormonism is … well, first, I don’t think I’m capable of doing it justice … but also because although I love making bombastic and dogmatic statements, I constantly experience the trap of tying my ideas to my ego or my identity. Because to resist learning is a form of apostasy for more egregious than holding wrong beliefs in a tentative way, and once my ego is intertwined with certain ideas, I resist learning.


  12. apostasy as the advocacy of or belief in doctrine that is incompatible with official or perhaps even semi-official church doctrine

    I think it would be more accurate to say that definition is the cause of apostasy, not apostasy itself. Any belief in anything from anybody that shuts down further light on the subject, is the highway to apostasy, in fact in my opinion the number one reason why most of the Christian world is in a state of apostasy on numerous critical points of doctrine today.

    It is a 2 Ne 29 kind of thing, and it doesn’t happen only with books of scripture, but with regard to any true statement made be anyone, official or un-official. Those who turn the statements of church authorities into some sort of infallible creed are probably the worst problem the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever had.

  13. wreddyornot #7 – The antecedent is “the apostasy.”

    Blake #9 – I’m not sure my question doesn’t still stand: Why bother with an apostasy narrative at all if the point was to introduce different concepts of perfection? I’m unfairly—consciously unfairly—using the unmotivatedness of the apostasy narrative in the architectonic of the chapter to raise questions about the role of apostasy narratives in Mormon theology more generally. I do so in part because, where others may not be all that interested in arguing about apostasy narratives, I’m frankly not all that interested in the different notions of perfection. As for the details I’d want to quibble about regarding Plato, Neoplatonism, Augustine, Aquinas, etc., I haven’t the time to do justice to them (to be honest, I haven’t the time to be doing this series in the first place!), so I apologize for the brevity of my critique (which I only hesitantly decided to include for precisely the reason that I’d be asked for details). But I think what I spell out in my post here largely provides the outline of the sort of answer I’d give: our task is not to part ways with these immensely complex and interesting figures, but to engage with them productively. Finally, when I speak of redeeming theology, I do so in the sense that, say, Walter Benjamin speaks of redeeming history. That might be a category mistake, but it’s one I’m borrowing. :)

    Brad #11 – My case is less that the apostasy shouldn’t be cast as a linear historical narrative than that it can’t be so cast. But my intention is not therefore to shift from apostasy-as-history to apostasy-as-concept. Rather, my intention is to say that we have to reconceive the role of the apostasy in our theological work: our task is not to trace an impossible-to-trace history in order to delineate exactly where things went wrong and why that marks the Restoration as right, but to sort through the debris of the apostasy (of the apostasy, but also of apostasy in every other form) in order to redeem it. Is that clearer?

    Thomas Parkin #12 – If you continue to the end of the sentence from which you excerpted, I think you’ll see I’m in complete agreement. Careful, detailed work, but always in the wake of and in full fidelity to the events—the revelations—of the Restoration. And I take for granted that all careful, detailed work is accompanied by Spirit-seeking prayer. And that, too, is probably my answer concerning the role of revelation in my philosophical or theological work. I undertake it, too, with prayer and always as a part of fulfilling the law of consecration. Whether my humble offering is of any value to the kingdom is for others to decide.

  14. I guess the simple question is, why should we redeem it and to what? Isn’t the point of recognising a general Apostasy in relation to a revelatory Restoration that its no redeemable? Otherwise, Mormonism would have gone the way of all Protestant Primitivism. Its completely cutting all historical strings that there was New Scriptures, New Revelations, New Covenants, and New Priesthood authority. Even all old things (Christian Scripture) were interpreted anew without any intermediary theological attachments.

  15. Joe, I’m trying to wrap my mind around what you’re getting at. I think everyone will agree the boundaries of the apostasy are blurry at best. (My favorite example – what does it mean for authority to depart if John wandered the earth — a example best given to those who take that account as accurate) However I think Jettboy’s point is apt. If you want to understand the apostasy see it as the inverse of the restoration. I think that a fair way to conceive of the narrative of apostasy. I think there are plenty of different apostasy narratives one could tell with differing degrees of ambiguity. But I don’t think we can simply discount most of them the way you are. I guess I’m saying embrace the plurality.

  16. BTW – I think the apostasy narrative is caught up with the idea that perfection as a concept was lost and was replaced with secular concepts. While I don’t share your critique exactly I think a big problem with this approach is that “perfection” seems a pretty muddled and unclear concept in Mormonism. Even if Blake thinks his conception is the right one it doesn’t seem a straightforward way to proceed. That said I am clearly very sympathetic to how the God of the Greek philosophers was unified with the God of the Hebrews. I think that explains much of our theological difference from contemporary Christianity.

  17. “but to engage with them productively”

    Why engage with them instead of getting it straight from the root source? That’s not to say nothing they say can be worthwhile (far from it), but as you say in your comment there is only so much time and to look to those without a prophetic call for understanding the mysterious of Godliness is probably not going to be as fruitful as looking to the source.

  18. Joe: “Why bother with an apostasy narrative at all if the point was to introduce different concepts of perfection?”

    I guess that I thought I had answered that: to see the consequences of different views of perfection and how they can lead us not merely astray but away from an interpersonal relationship with God — and equally importantly to show how God could not have an interpersonal relation (and in fact no real relations at all) with the world. I assert that the tradition adopted a view of God that literally made interpersonal relationships inconceivable. When theologians in the absolutist tradition pray, they are acting in a manner that is contrary to their explicitly elucidated theologies. I know a lot of folks who conclude that it makes no sense to engage in petitionary prayer at all because it makes no sense given their theology — and they are right about that. So much the worse for that theological tradition.

    With respect to the apostasy narrative question, let’s do a thought experiment. Say that another church said: “By Jove, I think those Mormons are onto something. Let’s teach the same things and make the organization of our church exactly like theirs.” Would we agree that this Church is a restoration of the gospel? I submit emphatically not. Why not. Because proper beliefs and organization are not enough — and perhaps not even essential to the Restoration. So we have to give up the idea that the apostasy consists in a particular set of beliefs held by the Primitive Church and/or a particular organization that was lost over time. These alone don’t constitute a restoration of the gospel. In fact, if you believe David Paulsen, other traditions are coming around to affirm something close to LDS ideas.

    So what is missing? The fact that God endorsed it. We still don’t have a fullness of truth so we have certainly don’t have all and only correct beliefs(as if there could be such a set). Getting doctrine right isn’t that important except to the extent it fosters interpersonal communication and relationship with God. Organizational structure isn’t that important because it changes all of the time — except to the extent that it reflects how God asks us to be organized at the time in question.

    So I suggest that we see apostasy as simply the refusal to hear God’s voice when his prophets speak. That is what it always was in the Old Testament. Apostasy is the failure or refusal to enter into relationship with God when called. That doesn’t mean others aren’t called to God in their own traditions and receive all of the light that they are willing to receive. Every tradition is salvific to a greater or lesser degree according to D&C 76. It just means that when God calls through his prophets, we will respond by accepting the greater light. If not, then we are in apostasy and any organization that refuses to acknowledge God’s new revelation is like the Jewish hierarchy and priesthood in Jesus’s day. They had the Law and the prophets — a surpassed Law and dead prophets. What is needed is a living law and living prophets.

  19. Blake, if I could perhaps expand upon the point I *think* Joe is getting at. There is a sense that theology is simply unpacking the incorrect ideas that transformed originally completely correct ideas. That is the idea that there was this pure notion of God that was had in the first century and which became corrupted by Greek absolutism.

    Without putting words in Joe’s mouth I think this is somewhat problematic because it’s not clear that there was a shared correct notion of God or of relation. The very attempt to find this clearly delineated definitions might itself be inherently problematic (and itself a by product of the way Greeks tried to think religion) That is this very approach to theology might be the problem rather than merely having incorrect notions within that approach.

    While I’m quite sympathetic to the problem of Greek absolutism (the idea of God as unrelated and unconditioned) I simultaneously tend to find the questions the Greeks raise quite reasonable questions on their own terms. Yet I also think that when the apostasy is conceived of merely in terms of having false theories and models that we’ve missed something fundamental about what went on narratively.

    As you know I enjoy thinking theology in this way. Yet were I to make a critique it would be that a certain vagueness and ambiguity ought be an essential part of our theology. That is to speak of relationship in the clear terms of theory is perhaps to miss what a relationship is. I think you’re right that in a fundamental way our relating with God went astray during the process of apostasy. Yet to try and think relationships still in terms of theory might indeed be the very problem. That is the attempt to break with apostasy by rethinking relationship might still be caught up in the logic of the apostasy.

    Once again, perhaps I’m putting too many words in Joe’s mouth, but I think that’s what he’s getting at.

  20. Clark: If that is indeed Joe’s idea about what I am getting at, that there was some “pure idea” of God that got tarnished in the apostasy, then it is quite irrelevant since I never suggest such an idea. Indeed, I would have thought that what I wrote would show that I don’t accept the notion of the Primitive Church with a unitary and correct understanding that went astray. It is simply a theological development that went astray. If that is indeed what Joe is getting at (and I’m not sure it is, but Joe is still alive so he can correct us both), then we can resolve this misunderstanding right now. I don’t believe that anything I wrote conveys such a misconceived notion (though maybe I’m wrong and I did so unintentionally or assumed it somehow but I’m not aware of it).

    I agree that trying to think relationships, or conceptualize them, is to miss what a relationship devolves in motion. A relation is a living-in-between that is alive. Yet that is precisely why the kind of theology that I analyze in the Tradition of a God who is simple, impassible, immutable and timeless leads away from relationship. I am not trying to think relationship — I am clearing the way so that human-divine relationship can occur and live and breath – or at least that is my aim.

  21. Jettboy #15 – With your last sentence, you get at something like what I’m after. My point is to ask why we don’t do with everything what we do with the Christian scriptures. Why not learn to read everything in a Mormon way, where “a Mormon way” doesn’t mean simply reject everything that isn’t obviously Mormon, but instead means redeem it productively so that, as Brigham said, all truth is ours?

    Clark #16 – I like the gesture you’re making here: embrace the plurality of apostasy narratives. I want to think about that more. It would be another way to break with the problematic approach I’m trying to criticize (whether it can be attributed to Blake or not).

    Chris #18 – I’m not at all suggesting we shouldn’t get truth from the root source. I’m claiming that approaching non-root-source things after getting truth from the root source doesn’t have to be a polemical gesture, but might instead be a productive activity. Revealed truths give us to see with clarity, yes, but I don’t think that clear-seeing has to be the scope on the barrel of a gun.

    Blake #19 – I entirely agree with your concerns about absolutism. And I entirely agree that something like process thought is going to be closer to the truth revealed in scripture. But then I ask myself the following: Why is it necessary to tell a story about the first centuries of the Christian era in order “to see the consequences of different views of perfection and how they can lead us not merely astray but away from an interpersonal relationship with God”? Why not just lay out the apostate concept without tying it to a specifiable apostasy narrative? That’s the question that motivated my post. Our difference here perhaps emerges in the course of your thought experiment. I emphatically agree that true beliefs do not a true church make, but I’d want nonetheless to tweak what you say at a crucial point: I wouldn’t say that getting doctrine right is important to the extent it fosters the right (that is, a personal) relationship with God, but that getting doctrine right is something we only bother to do if we’ve already got the right relationship with God. I suspect that the shape of your apostasy narrative (however incidental it is to your purposes in the chapter) and its very reason for being there at all are rooted in the way you put this point (doctrine fosters or prevents relationship), and my concerns about the narrative are a consequence of the way I’d tweak it (doctrine follows from relationship).

    Clark and Blake #’s 20 and 21 – Could people during the apostasy end up with the right relationship to God? Undoubtedly. Did some, even many? Well, we’re doing work for the dead for a reason. If I’m right that doctrine follows from right orientation, then the apostasy is filled with true doctrine, not only theological and philosophical gestures that we might recognize because they look like our own, but also theological and philosophical gestures also from which we might learn a great deal. Augustine, it seems to me, largely had the right relationship to God. Consequently, I think the best way to read him is emphatically not to fix all of his theology on a naive concept of creatio ex nihilo that we can reject out of hand, but to ask how his doctrine of creatio ex nihilo itself might be an expression of the right relationship to God. If it gets anything wrong, it’s only at the ontological level (there was, in fact, stuff, co-eternal with God, etc.), but it seems to me that it gets a great deal right in all kinds of other ways. Or take Augustine’s discussion of time in the last books of the Confessions. There’s a great deal there that’s right, a beautiful exposition of the right way of relating to God. We miss the point if we point out that since we know God’s in time, Augustine was simply wrong. There’s a great deal in that discussion that’s absolutely right, from which we can learn a great deal. I don’t think Blake directly gives us a picture in which a pristine notion of God pre-exists the apostasy and then is tarnished progressively, but something like that seems to be implicit in his way of handling someone like Augustine. Perhaps Augustine adopted absolutism, which is wrong, for all the right reasons, and I think we might do well to dig those right reasons out of his work. In a word: Let’s redeem dead persons with temple work, and let’s redeem dead ideas with theological work! :)

  22. Joe, I very much like what you’re saying here. I wonder if your main point can’t be cast differently, in terms that may resonate better with some folks here: We need to read Christian history (including theology) more charitably!

    That said, we have to understand that charity does not mean we turn a blind eye to faults, weaknesses, etc. In fact, to do so is a recipe for disaster. Forgiving others presupposes being wronged (or, better, experiencing hurt). So, charitable reading is not incompatible with critical reading (in fact, charity probably demands critical reading).

  23. Blake (21), I don’t think he means an absolutely pure known view. But I think he means a certain view which definitely is in your approach. I think I’m mixed on Joe’s position. I think there are a wide range of ways people think about God within Mormonism. Most of them share a rejection of Greek absolutism (or at least heavy degree of absolutism). That said I also think the conflict between Young and Pratt illustrates a tension within Mormonism between thinking God as an anthropology vs thinking God as a kind of correct scientific like knowledge. I’m odd as I alternative between the two rather regularly.

    Joe (22), I think this is an important point. I think we sometimes like to portray the apostasy as more absolute than it was. Individuals during that era undoubtedly received guidance and inspiration. Indeed it’s a common Mormon narrative that many aspects of the reformation were directed by God. Even more controversial figures like Swedenborg are held by some to have had at least a degree of actual inspiration.

    That said in terms of the world I think the more dualistic approach works. It’s interesting keeping in mind how to move between the dualism of Book of Mormon apocalyptic imagery and how to think it in terms of historic narrative. A point we bring up relative to the destructions in the Book of Mormon as well.

    Does doctrine follow correct orientation? I think I’ve simply known too many ignorant in terms of correct propositions but who seem to have an instinctual connection to God in terms of spirituality and living a Christlike life. So even within the Church I am skeptical of this position. I don’t want to discount doctrine though. I think Blake is completely correct that doctrines are helpful it getting us to a relationship with God. I’m more skeptical that’s true of everyone. It’s an interesting question when you bring up a community though. Nibley liked to contrast the Hopi community and the Mormon community and perhaps that’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I think Mormons still have a strong element of Protestant “right belief” to our thought. Yet a part of me worries about trying to expunge that aspect. There’s something right about this even if we can go overboard.

  24. Robert #23 – I think this is nicely put. Many thanks.

    Clark #24 – First, thanks for the first several paragraphs of what you say. I don’t think I disagree with any of it. Second, let me clarify that when I say doctrine follows correct orientation, I don’t mean follows from, but follows after. Not “if right relation, then right doctrine,” but “if right relation, then not entirely wrong doctrine.” At any rate, doesn’t your statement, “I think I’ve simply known too many ignorant in terms of correct propositions but who seem to have an instinctual connection to God in terms of spirituality and living a Christlike life,” back up my contestation of the idea that doctrine fosters or impedes right relationship? (Indeed, it’s precisely this sort of experience, which I share, that convinces me of this point!) If all sorts of people have screwy ideas but seem to be oriented to God in the right way, then orientation is independent of ideas—though I want to say that we might well do work in the wake of right relation to get the ideas right.

    Theological work put to pastoral use usually takes the shape of helping someone to see that their struggles are a result of taking their distorting ideas more seriously than their already-right relation to God. The task isn’t to give them right ideas so that they can get the right relation in place, but to get them to see that their trouble is chiefly imaginary, intellectual troubles ultimately.

    I haven’t said this last point clearly, mostly because I’m just trying to work through it out loud. I’ll be thinking about how to say it more clearly.

  25. Joe, I agree on the individual level that screwy doctrine needn’t impede an appropriate relationship. What I tried to raise, perhaps not clearly enough, is the question of whether that’s true on a community level. Put an other way I think you’re raising the question of the distinction between individual apostasy and community apostasy but assuming the two are intertwined in a stronger way than I think warranted.

    This is a place I suspect Blake and I will agree in that both of us see emergent systems with novel characteristics. (We disagree over the ontology of the system – I tend to be more reductive than Blake) However I think it erroneous to move the narrative between the two systems in the same way.

    Where I’ll fully confess my ignorance is the relationship of doctrine to the community.

  26. “Even all old things (Christian Scripture) were interpreted anew without any intermediary theological attachments.”

    “With your last sentence, you get at something like what I’m after. My point is to ask why we don’t do with everything what we do with the Christian scriptures”

    I guess it has to do with my interpretation of Joseph Smith’s and therefore the LDS Church’s mission. You grabbed hold of the first part of my sentence without grasping the second part about letting go of historical theological arguments. The mission of the Restoration, as I see it, is to start over with ancient tools. All the tools that have been used since Jesus and his Apostles walked the Earth have been square pegs forced into the round whole of God’s Word and Authority. When Joseph Smith said God told him that the creeds of modern Christianity are an abomination, I take that seriously. The seeds of that abomination came from the ideas of the Apostasy years. To revive them and incorporate them (making them Mormon as you say) is to once again introduce an infection into a relatively healthy body. You can’t redeem a cancer. It has to be taken out early and thrown away or it kills.

  27. Clark #26 – Ah, I see. This I need to think about.

    Jettboy #27 – I’m not suggesting weaving old theological attachments into Mormonism. I’m suggesting that old theological projects can be investigated without having to reject them wholesale from our revealed theological position.

    To use your metaphor, I’m not suggesting we infect the healthy body; rather, I’m suggesting that healthy bodies don’t need to be so afraid of diseased ones that the only viable action is euthanasia. I entirely agree that a cancer can’t be redeemed, but the usual approach (which I’m trying to criticize) is to kill the cancer victim, not to remove the cancer. A little better than the usual approach, perhaps, is the one that removes the cancer but never really gets to know the person thus delivered, usually saying something like “I’m sure they’ve got interesting things to say, but….” But what I’m calling for is a removal of the cancer that is aimed less just at delivering the person than at also carrying on a conversation with her, learning from her, thinking with her. Only this last approach, it seems to me, is good theology.

  28. Just to go back a little bit to some earlier comments of Joe (22). I think what you are after is reading these figures deconstructively in a positive fashion. This might arise out of being familiar with Heidegger who does this a lot. Is that about what you mean by “redeem dead ideas with theological work”? If so, I’m quite sympathetic (although Heidegger also deconstructively read people for polemics – arguably that’s what he did with Plato)

    I’ll fully admit that I have pretty negative feelings and ideas about Augustine even though I admit there are parts of The Confession that are deeply moving and with interesting theoretical ideas. (I think the very notion of subjective time arises there) While I’m open to reading Augustine and others in productive ways (I think I do that with Duns Scotus myself) I also think we have to read with an awareness of the risk inherent in this reading.

    I raise risk both because it’s something I see as a key philosophical notion (arising out of Heidegger – especially in the Dreyfus form) but also because I think the very notion of apostasy (in either its various narrative guises or as more abstract concepts) shows that there is this danger. There’s always an abyss when you engage with these readers of injecting a kind of corruption into ones thought. So if we are to read I think we need read via a hermeneutics of suspicion. It’s interesting in that I think the traditional Mormon distrust of philosophy which comes out of an apostasy narrative (philosophies of men mingled with scripture) prones us to that sort of reading. I think that perhaps Mormon philosophers and theologians forget that at times but it’s well worth keeping in mind.

    If this is true then of course an apostasy narrative must be part of Blake’s book. It’s a key component if only to keep in our mind the dangers of doing theology. So when in your post you ask, “why concede the standard approach of apostasy,” the reply is, “to keep you aware of the danger of the abyss.” Now I don’t think formally that’s why Blake raises it. But I think there is a kind of apostasy narrative at play within Blake’s book in the background. Where I differ with you is that I think this is important.

  29. joespencer, I guess it depends on if you think the theologies contain cancer or if they are in fact the cancer. I subscribe, of course, to the latter. If that wasn’t the case then I would think that Joseph Smith would have used them. The closest he got was that the apocrypha was good, but flawed.

  30. Jetboy, could you clarify that? It seems to me that Joseph has a pretty positive view of theology. In the original Doctrine & Covenants the doctrine was the Lectures on Faith which was explicitly a theological exposition. I think it pretty clear that Joseph did read works that did theology as well as various Biblical commentaries. He didn’t seem to cut off inquiry in that sense. Further he seems to have been quite open to finding truths in thinking that was contaminated by the apostasy. (Think of his approach with masonry)

  31. I am not saying that Joseph Smith didn’t do theology, as of course he did. However, one could show that he read the “Apostasy literature,” but nowhere do I think he engaged it more than as an awareness of its existence. He never quoted or used extensively more than esoteric Jewish mysticism. Arguably the reason he used that was learning Hebrew under Dr. Sexton rather than any number of theologians. He circumvented the Church Fathers and relied on, if you must show he relied on anything, loosely the Gnostic writers. Even that is circumstantial and he often deviated in main if not particulars. His sources of theology, other than direct Revelation, were the Christian Scriptures where a question would come up and he would divine the answers. He certainly didn’t consult Augustine for example; at least I’ve never seen it argued that he did.

    Masonry I think is completely different and raises subsets of questions. We do know that he was steeped in that because of family and friends. At first he was, if not resistant, rather neutral about it. Once it became too great a part of his surroundings it was recreated for Mormon theological and liturgical uses. I supposed one could say this could be done for the “Apostasy literature,” but I don’t see how myself without grave consequences. Masonry could be totally transformed because it doesn’t require self-sufficient explanations. Theological treaties and writings are nothing more than explanations of other’s ideas. They cannot be divorced from its history and meaning. It would either tear Mormonism apart or Mormonism would completely rip them from argumentative context. Critics of Mormon exegesis, by the way, already claim Mormonism does that with Christian Scriptures and engagement of the earliest theologians. All this is to say, Mormonism doesn’t need them and its dangerous to use them.

  32. Jettboy,

    I’m not personally so concerned with what exploration of ideas might do to Mormonism as I am with what being closed off to such exploration, and in reaction coalescing one’s personality around whatever set of ideas, is likely to do to the person whose project that is. The project is to gather truth wherever it might be found. The gospel process should grow within us tools for conducting just such exploration. I am, possibly, not convinced that old Christian theologians are a particularly rich source, and my personal feeling is that Protestant metaphors are, for us, more a burden than a blessing. Nevertheless, any person acting with any degree of good faith will find when he seeks, within the limits that history and personality place on him, and it feels like more than hubris to assume that we can’t go searching after what an old Christian theologian found. The lesson of the parable of the talents is that it is always more dangerous than to sit on what you have than to take your ideas to the marketplace.

  33. “However, one could show that he read the “Apostasy literature,” but nowhere do I think he engaged it more than as an awareness of its existence. He never quoted or used extensively more than esoteric Jewish mysticism.”

    Jettboy: this is frankly not true. Joseph Smith quoted extensively from contemporary theologians, and many of his written texts (letters, editorials, proclamations, etc.) were filled with both indirect and direct references, not to mention whole sections copied and pasted into the text.

  34. Only a moment to respond:

    Clark, I think the Heideggerian example is not a bad one, though I’d want to offer some caveats.

    And Ben’s exactly right. Joseph was pretty well aware of contemporary theology. The Lectures on Faith were largely stolen from Buck’s Theological Dictionary, for instance, and Joseph’s interest in Thomas Dick is notorious—just to take a couple of obvious examples. I don’t know that he read Augustine, but I don’t think that’s terribly surprising, given his intellectual and religious climate.

  35. Any papers or information on Thomas Dick’s influence on Joseph Smith? I’m curious, although skeptical. As for Buck’s Theological Dictionary, there is a question of how much Joseph Smith influenced The Lectures on Faith, although obviously he approved them. Regardless, it answers against my contention that Sexton was Joseph Smith’s main theological influence outside of revelation. That still leaves my contention that “Apostasy literature,” as I define between the last of the New Testament writings and near the end of the Enlightenment, were considered an abomination and not seriously consulted.

  36. Jettboy: I am aware of how lame and frustrating this answer will be, but I have an article focused on this very topic (“‘Reasonings Sufficient’: Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Context(s) of Early Mormon Thought”) that is coming out in the summer issue of Journal of Mormon History.

    I hate it when people dismiss a question by pointing to forthcoming scholarship, but I’m also a hypocrite.

  37. There’s a thesis that goes through a lot of Dick. Personally I find his influence pretty exaggerated. I think to the degree he was influential it was simply in the area of astronomy of the time. I find the connection to the Book of Abraham based upon fairly general categories.,

    I tend to think we err if we separate Joseph too much from Lectures on Faith. I think we need to remember the place of the School of the Prophets. I recognize Joseph wasn’t the driving force for the Lectures but I think it probably does reflect the public theological discussions of that era.

    So far as I know Joseph didn’t consult any of the Patristic writings. I don’t know how widely available they were at the time though. He did read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs apparently. Of course that has a strong anti-Catholic bias due to the political situation at the time. It’s surprising Joseph (and Brigham) were as positive towards Catholicism as they were. I think to say that the writings of Augustine, Acquinas and others “was an abomination” to him demands positive evidence. That’s a strong charge.

    I confess I just haven’t seen a good list of the books Joseph likely read. I read bits and pieces in various books – with many of the claims fairly speculative. I think to claim such a negative view really demands strong evidence. My guess from my limited reading is simply that he primarily read secondary literature and then focused in on what he was interested in. I think the case that there was a general Platonic influence pretty solid but I don’t see much evidence he was reading most philosophers directly (although he may have read some Swedenborg stuff which was popular at the time)

  38. BTW – LoF isn’t the only place you find a lot of influence from Buck’s Theological Dictionary. It seems to pop up in a lot of places like the April 1842 editorial. Once again one can argue whether Joseph actually wrote that but it does seem to indicate it was a reasonable source for discussion. I think it unlikely he wouldn’t have encountered a lot out of it in discussion even if he didn’t read it directly.

    Ben, I’m looking forward to that paper. I’m curious as to how you see it. I remember the first time I read Dick after hearing about all the influences. I came away pretty disappointed.

    BTW – has anyone done a more systematic collection of what Joseph was quoting from and what he most likely read? Sounds like a great project for some grad student.

    Jetboy, very few gnostic texts were available at Joseph’s time. I think we forget that much of our knowledge of the gnostics arose in the 20th century. I think there were similar notions coming out of the infusion of various Islamic texts to the west after the fall of Constantanople along with more Platonic styled texts. I don’t think any of those would have reached Joseph directly but they did contribute a great deal to the Renaissance which probably reached Joseph indirectly via hermetic and masonic secondary texts. I don’t know whether the Corpus Hermeticum was available in an English translation around Joseph but certainly a lot of the masonic secondary literature was influenced by it. So rather than talk about gnosticism I think it’s wiser to talk more about Platonism. That’s been discussed a fair bit over at Juvenile Instructor the past year or so.

  39. Terryl Givens’s book in progress on the history of Mormon theology focuses on this question of contemporary influence quite a bit. Givens presents JS as someone who saw “restoration” in two parts: with priesthood, the authority was lost and had to be restored through resurrected personages. But with doctrine, those truths were scattered throughout the earth and were to be collected. He demonstrates How JS not only relied on contemporary thinkers, but saw them as important figures in restoring the gospel’s truths. The beginning of this video outlines this concept: http://www.uvu.edu/religiousstudies/mormonstudies/conferences/publicmind/videos/flvs/prehistory.html

  40. Ben: I’ll be interested to see your forthcoming article — but I’m very very (in extremis) skeptical of your thesis. I know Dick forward and backwards and have done the research into this issue as well.

    Joe: “The Lectures on Faith were largely stolen from Buck’s Theological Dictionary.”

    On this one I’m just going to suggest it just ain’t so. I’d really like to see this claim supported. Let me give an example. The most controversial Lecture, No. 5, is the one most likely authored in significant part by Joseph Smith. It is almost entirely dependent on D&C 93 and Mosiah 15. The definition of faith in Buck’s Theological Dictionary is not the basis for the notion of faith as the ultimate ground of explanation of all action as it is in the Lectures. Perhaps you could give us some idea what motivates your comment.

    And here I thought we’d be discussing how alienating and foreign Aquinas’s theology is to the picture of a personal God revealed in scripture and how Process thought turns the Tradition on its head. That is what the chapter was really about — go figure.

  41. Joe: With respect to whether Augustine and others had a “right relationship” with God, I’m in no position to judge. I am in a position to judge whether their theologies foster such relationship. I do know that his doctrines of predestination, original sin and his synthesis of the notion of God with NeoPlatonism had immense influence on Western Catholic and Protestant Reformation thought. In these respects at least, his theology is not merely misleading and contrary to what is revealed, but implies a loathsome rejection of God’s love. That said, I love the Confessions and believe he was brilliant beyond belief. I still have never met anyone who has read all that Augustine wrote — he may be the most prolific author in the history of the world.

  42. Clark re: #24: In a sense you are correct that the apostasy plays in my project as a cautionary tale about the dangers of theology. In fact I thought I was explicit that when we supplant revelation and scripture with a controlling theology that then determines what the revelations and scriptural must mean and how they must be read (and what must be ignored, allegorized or taken as mere anthropomorphisms) then we have reached the point that apostasy occurs. I admit that we may all do this. For instance, it may be that in analyzing the LonF I twist what they say to make them square with the view that allows for God not to have foreknowledge. But I rather suspect that they don’t squarely address that issue. If so, then I am guilty also. I’ll let others judge that.

  43. Blake: it is impressive that you can be skeptical of my thesis without knowing what it is :)

    In seriousness, I sincerely doubt my article will match what you are fearing. I am not arguing that Smith was dependent on Joseph Smith. (Though he was aware of and interested in him.) I actually claim that to argue over the extent of intellectual borrowing and theological dependence is the wrong question altogether, and definitive claims either way is a misuse of intellectual history. Rather, i find the more important question to be what cultural questions both figures were either addressing (in a naturalist sense) or framing their understanding (if one accepts, as I do, the divine origins of revelation). I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it when it is out.

  44. He had multi personalities. His id, which was really the religious genius, was named Simon, and he was actually dependent on him.

    Or, that sentence was meant to be “I am not arguing that Smith was dependent on Joseph Smith…)

  45. “it is impressive that you can be skeptical of my thesis without knowing what it is :)”

    Well of course, for a person like me who doesn’t believe that even God has foreknowledge, by clairvoyance is an impressive feat.

  46. Ben (44) I’m glad that’s your conclusion. Not that I was skeptical of your conclusions, more curious as to whether I got it all wrong. (grin) I fully agree that in those very broad strokes there are parallels. However those also seem broad strokes where many people were thinking along those lines. The most interesting parallels end up being much more the rise of scientific knowledge in my view. As such I found most of his stuff interesting as a popularization mixed with religion. Compared to many other texts with pretty overt parallels that seemed a bit more novel it was disappointing to me when I read most of the books back in college.

    Blake (41), I think Joe’s less interested in discussing the particulars of your argument than in looking at places you adopt a particular broad narrative to ground those discussions. I actually think that’s a pretty fruitful way to think about your text, but it’s definitely not taking your text on its own grounds. I guess I’m finding it interesting since your text has been discussed on its own grounds pretty extensively already at my blog, New Cool Thang and elsewhere. This is a pretty novel approach. It just takes me a little bit to try and think through what Joe is thinking and the process he’s thinking through.

  47. Clark: As I read what Joe says, it occurs to me that you are correct. I also admit that it is what drives me crazy about continental thought: arguing ad infinitum over what Heidegger may have or could have or just might have or in some possible world would have been motivated by just isn’t that interesting to us analytic types.

  48. Not to go down a tangent but I think a lot of Continental thought the past 40 years has been focused on narratives or historical processes as it relates to argument. Analytic thought has tended to focus on concept analysis and argument grounded on static concepts. There are middle grounds of course. Process thought is one. I think pragmatism is an other. The rise of object oriented ontology comes out of Continental thought but adopts many aspects of Analytic thought and typically has strong elements of Process thought. Then you still have phenomenology with a mix between the more Husserl style and the more Heideggarian style.

    It’s all good in my book and I learn something from each. Even neo-Nietzschean power relations like Foucalt is interesting to me.

  49. Wow. I’ve been teaching all day—mostly the apostasy: Plato’s Apology and Crito in one class, and the Dhammapada in the other—and I’ve missed a bunch. A few comments to catch up:

    On theological influences: Let me be clear that I don’t claim at all that Joseph is influenced by certain theological trends and persons; only that he wasn’t afraid of him. The selective use of Buck’s dictionary in the Lectures on Faith is a perfect example of what I think ought to be done: Not blind acceptance or straight copying, but adaptation, exploration, invention in working with the supposedly apostate. I’m no “let’s all learn from each other” sort of person; I’m a “let’s repurpose non-Mormon (i.e., apostate) things in a distinctly Mormon way.”

    On Augustine: Original sin is a beautiful doctrine, though it needs to be repurposed. I’d say the same of predestination and interest in Neoplatonism. All of these are productive ideas, but they have to be repurposed—explored and then put to new work. As all along in this conversation, I don’t understand the rejecting-rather-than-repurposing gesture.

    On this project and its aims: I should state that I find what Blake calls absolutism alienating, etc., and that I agree that process thought turns absolutism on its head. I don’t, though, for that reason find it productive. Indeed, I find process thought quite as alienating as absolutism. I couldn’t (and still can’t) anticipate exactly the role process thought is going to play in this project, so I had nothing to say about its merits for the moment. And because I agree about the alienating effect of absolutism and the reversal of absolutism effected by process thought, I had nothing really to say about the question of perfection either. But I found that I had something to say about the role of apostasy narratives in Mormon theology, and so I figured I would focus there. I don’t know exactly what about that is “Continental” (perhaps the myth I played around with is “Continental,” but I had in mind something more like the myths created by historical critics when I produced it—and produced it with a laugh), though I’ll confess it’s a bit odd or oblique. But the question, however arrived at, deserves attention in its own right, whether it’s entirely justified to use Blake’s chapter as the launching pad: What role should apostasy narratives play in the work of Mormon theology?

  50. Ugh. Depending upon what you mean by original sin it’s not a doctrine I could ever call beautiful. I’m all for the idea we freely chose to come here and have an extremely limited mortal existence beset by instincts that lead us astray. However that’s not really original sin as I understand Augustine.

    Likewise predestination, especially of the Calvinist form is also a pernicious doctrine. Maybe you can see a way to repurpose them but I’d rather put them in the dustbin of history. To me they are most useful as a polemic target.

    Neoplatonism I’m more open to – and I’ve argued D&C 93 and 88 probably should be read in those terms.

  51. One problem with the concept that Joseph was restoring ancient things, is that while we can find some things that do tie in anciently, some things just do not necessarily add up in a direct path.

    Do we determine apostasy by saying “this is Mormon belief #A, which traditional Christianity does not follow, therefore it is part of the apostasy”?

    Do we look at Joseph Smith’s “Translation” of the Bible, which really was not a translation, as “restoring” ancient things that were lost? If so, when did ancient peoples have the Book of Moses, and how do we determine the loss of such information, etc?

    Finally, on the general apostasy, how do we determine when it began (I think this is part of Joe’s question), and who was involved? Was the apostle Paul part of the apostasy, leading the Jewish sect of Christianity into a new and unrecognizable form that disagreed with the Christians in Jerusalem, leaving behind works and embracing cheap grace (as Luther would interpret Paul’s writings)?

    Or do we try a different tack towards determining the apostasy. As Hugh Nibley once noted, the apostasy is like a car wreck. We know something has happened, but the details are often lost in the wreckage.

    Was it a “total apostasy” or a “Great apostasy” as we claim. Or was it smaller than we think?

    Then again, when D&C 1:30 states, “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” does that mean there is no other church that is true or living, or that there may be many “true and living” churches, but only one in Joseph’s day/area with which the Lord was “well pleased”?

    For me, I prefer to minimize apostasy, and state that the Lord restored ancient authority and teachings (the plain and precious) that were lost. We can show that many of LDS teachings were believed by early Jews and Christians, showing us as an alternative to traditional beliefs, without having them feel they are complete apostates.

    Instead, I like to thank them for preserving the Bible and many great Christian teachings on the atonement, Christ’s resurrection, etc. And then welcome them to consider other ancient beliefs that we believe were restored.

  52. Paul’s idea of grace certainly wasn’t “cheap”:

    The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8:16-17)

    It is certainly possible, however, that Paul had other idiosyncrasies that eventually got blown all out of proportion. In some places he sounds like a proto-Calvinist, Romans 9 in particular. Take one idea and run with it, to the exclusion of all else, and pretty soon you have your own division of Christianity.

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