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.