The last 4,000 years of religious history, up to and resulting in us, can be described as a series of questions and answers, with each new question arising out of the previous answer over generations or centuries as the full implications of each answer become understood. I think it worked something like this:
Good news! Our nation has only one god. We are united in worship.
– But what if the gods of our enemies are stronger or more appealing? Maybe I’ll wander a few miles to the north and worship the gods of the Hittites.
Good news! There is no god but God, everywhere. If we all follow his law, he will aid us.
– This is unbearable. God sees our faults and shortcomings no matter where we are. We cannot escape him no matter where we go. Surely he will destroy us for our iniquity.
Good news! Priests can make propitiation for the people through sacrifices and offerings.
– But I’m pious and literate, and omnipresent God sees into my soul. Surely God will destroy me, individually, for my sins. Also, I’m worried about my personal dissolution at death.
Good news! A personal savior has atoned for you and enabled your resurrection.
– So now I can do whatever I want?
No. You still need to live a god-pleasing life and access the Atonement in the proper way. Teachers will guide you, and priests will make sure the rituals by which you access the Atonement are conducted properly.
– But there are so many churches, and they disagree about the sacraments.
Good news! The true church has been restored.
And here we are.
Or in short: Monotheism generates the Law, the Law generates the Atonement, the Atonement generates the Church, and the Church generates the Restoration—not mechanistically, but through the gradual realization of a potential that was inherent from the start. This is how we find foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament, and foreshadowings of the Restoration in the New Testament. There are other paths, responding with different answers to the same questions or to questions that we ignore as unimportant, but this path is the one we took.
An implication of this is that historical development has introduced a series of dependencies to the inner logic of Mormonism such that if you kick out one of the critical pillars, the structure begins to collapse, and the farther back you go, the greater the damage. It’s one reason I’m suspicious of most theological tinkering, especially of proposals that fail to acknowledge their downstream effects. There is no “polytheistic Mormonism,” at least not one that is viable over a time frame of generations. I don’t think the Jewish and Muslim suspicions that Christians were polytheists because of belief in a trinity were warranted, or the suspicion from other Christians that Mormons are polytheists because we don’t subscribe to a particular Trinitarian formula, but the danger that lies in flirting with polytheism is quite real. For my taste, some varieties of Christian and Mormon speculation stray too far into polytheism, and once you admit the existence of another god who might prioritize commandments differently or offer salvation on different terms, the whole project is doomed. Likewise, the result of rejecting the Christian tenets of obedience, sin, and repentance is not a “humanistic Mormonism,” but the collapse of any need for a Savior, a Church, and a Restoration. Obedience will not save us, but unless we can feel the implacable demands of obedience, neither will we understand why we need a Savior.