“Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.”Isaiah 54:2
Since December 29th of 2019, the iconic Salt Lake Temple has been closed and has undergone extensive renovations, repairs, and modifications. As announced during the April 2019 General Conference by Church President Russell M. Nelson, the renovations are intended to accomplish several purposes, including beautifying the grounds and temple exterior, updating obsolete systems in the temple interior, and addressing crucial safety and seismic concerns. The full project is expected to be completed by 2024, celebrated by a global open-house event.
Though some of the changes will impact the temple’s aesthetics, the majority of the alterations have been far from superficial.
For example, in order to adequately support and strengthen the temple’s ability to sustain the impact of future potential earthquakes, it has been necessary to dig under the very foundations of the temple itself so as to install what is know as a “base isolation system”. This investment has consisted of a “yearlong process of placing hundreds of what look like giant hockey pucks at intervals between the ground and the enormous temple’s footings and foundation”. The ultimate goal is to help the sacred edifice sustain and survive the impact of up to a 7.3 magnitude earthquake.
While these renovations have been comprehensive in nature—requiring extensive drilling, demolition, and deep excavations over the span of four years—I imagine that few would argue that they are not worthwhile investments. Though particular aspects of the preservation efforts (especially those that involve the artistic interior) have faced some levels of criticism, overall the sentiments of expanding accessibility and investing in the safety and wellbeing of the temple and its patrons have been welcomed and supported. Instead of representing an argument against the needed updates, the sacrality of the temple and the importance of its purpose and ordinance work have been the motivating factors driving the renovations. Without them, the historic temple stands at a greater risk of being damaged and compromised in the event of looming future seismic events. In this sense, the devotion of the time, labor, and resources necessary to renovate the Salt Lake Temple attest to its significance and the high-degree to which Church leaders and members value it.
I believe there is a valuable lesson to be learned here, should we apply the Salt Lake Temple as a metaphor towards the theology and doctrinal framework of the Restored Gospel. Too often, it is suggested that should certain hypothetical changes or shifts occur within our theology, that such would entail throwing out the very foundations of our tradition, doctrine, and practice. Hypothetical changes which would affect or impact what are seen as “foundational” elements of Latter-day Saint theology are often categorically dismissed as being entirely beyond the pale of potential revelatory alteration. In a tradition uniquely characterized by its belief in continuing revelation (and by implication, theological flexibility), far too many Latter-day Saints these days limit the bounds of prophetic imagination and innovation to matters of internal policy and practice. Whereas the number of additions to our scriptural canon within the last century could be counted on a single hand, perhaps these prevailing sentiments shouldn’t surprise us.
A recent push to offer a conception of orthodoxy which accounts for these perceived limits—while still making room for varying levels of further modification and imagination—can be seen in the “Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto” and the published views of its major signatories. Positioning itself as “an approach to the Restored Gospel that seeks to harmonize fidelity with exploration and cultural improvement,” Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy has made some small waves across the Mormon Bloggernacle by its joint-opposition to what it identifies as “unbridled progressivism and obstinate fundamentalism.” Due to this, criticism of this school of thought have understandably come from both ideological directions, with those expressing their disagreements either finding it to be too loyal to the Church and its leaders, or seemingly not loyal enough.
One of the ways in which Radical Orthodoxy has outlined the theological framework from which it operates can be seen in The Three Tentpoles of Radical Orthodoxy, written by one of the group’s founders, Jeffrey Thayne. The trifold model espoused in the article (and reflected in the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto) asserts that “meticulously heeding and unabashedly embracing the counsel and teachings of prophets and apostles regarding chastity and morality, the divinity of Christ, and the foundational claims of the Restoration—even when doing so runs contrary to popular, worldly views” is of the utmost importance. The tentpoles themselves are seen as based upon the widely-published Church documents The Living Christ, the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and The Family: A Proclamation to the World. These identified areas of quintessential importance can be simplified down to the Church’s doctrine of family, Christ, and the Restoration as shown in the graphic below:
The belief of the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto’s authors is that “once you dismiss, critique, or undermine the core teachings found in The Living Christ, the Proclamation on the Restoration, and the Proclamation on the Family, you’ve left the tent of radical orthodoxy” though they are careful to note that they aren’t seeking to establish new requirements for temple attendance or membership. However, from the perspective of the signatories there remains “a recognition that total silence when those within our circle of influence challenge these teachings can be as damaging as the critiques themselves.” In this, Radical Orthodoxy “requires a willingness to speak out in defense of the divine truths in these documents” which the movement’s most prominent blogs and thinkers have regularly done.
As I have read and reflected on the writings reflecting Radical Orthodoxy thought, and as I have conversed with many of the Manifesto’s signatories (several of whom I consider close friends) I have been generally impressed with the care and thoughtfulness which has typically characterized the movement. However, I have also found myself unable to fully associate and identify within the group due to several limiting factors which have been articulated by its framers. Though we share similar aspirations with respect to highlighting the strengths and beauties of the Restoration, encouraging thoughtful discussion of the Church’s history and teachings, and in proposing more informed and sustainable models of faith and membership, exactly where we perceive the limits of appropriate theological imagination differs considerably.
Though these differences tend to manifest themselves in our respective notions of gender, sexuality, and marriage from within a Restored Gospel paradigm, I see such particulars as being ancillary to the larger differences in outlook which undergird our personal understandings of the faith tradition. Where I can’t claim to share the same sentiments of Radical Orthodoxy is in how they frame and understand conceptions of revelatory permanence and authority within a Latter-day Saint worldview. From my perspective, the Radical Orthodoxy initiative relies too heavily on the “collective witness model” which argues that “essential doctrines” (and by implication, those which are not subject to significant change or revision) are those which have been plainly, repeatedly, and consistently affirmed by the collective witness of God’s prophets. As different signatories may view these limits slightly differently, and perhaps even with a hypothetical sense of openness, my observation is that chief priority is given to the collective witness of past and current inspired leaders in seeking to navigate these waters. Though it bears perhaps some utility, I find this framework to be severely undermined by several points of historical precedent in the development of Mormon theology.
Put simply, I don’t believe that the foundational sentiments of Radical Orthodoxy would have fared all too well during the life of Joseph Smith.
“I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass, as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions; they cannot stand the fire at all.”“History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1867, The Joseph Smith Papers
The crowning jewel of Joseph Smith’s prophetic imagination may easily be that which I refer to as “King Follett Theology”, which reached its fullest expression during the end of Smith’s life in Nauvoo. Though various scriptural projects such as the Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and several sections of the Doctrine and Covenants helped to inform Smith’s theological trajectory, the single best source in which these teachings were articulated survive through the multiple scribal accounts produced out of Smith’s “King Follett Sermon”. Delivered as a eulogy address during the funeral of church member King Follett, on April 7th, 1844, the discourse culminated Smith’s teachings on the eternal nature and divine potential of humanity, the eternality of matter, the plurality of gods, and how God was once mortal and progressed to godhood.
Perhaps most striking were the ways in which King Follett Theology ran against established tradition. The teachings ran counter to the conception of the cosmos as understood for centuries by both the tradition of classical theism espoused by traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They ran counter to the theological worldviews of the prophetic voices of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and the Book of Mormon. They also ran against the understandings of numerous Latter-day Saints of Smith’s time, leading some to cite such teachings against him soon after through the first (and only) issue of the Nauvoo Expositor.
By proposing that humanity and deity are of the same fundamental “kind”, Joseph transformed the Creature/Creator binary that had been consistently espoused by prophets and scripture up to that point to a single continuum—a change with metaphysical implications so tremendous that they cannot be overstated. Though some more cryptic passages of scripture or esoteric traditions occasionally blurred these lines, none ever fully approached the magnitude of King Follett Theology. In this, we can plainly see that the teachings of a single prophet, Joseph Smith, abrogated the entire collective witness that traditionally preceded him. We consider it established doctrine today. This radical reorientation didn’t result in the death of the Restored Church either. It created some of the most dynamic and impressive Christian theology to come out of the last two millennium.
This is where things could become complicated for a paradigm like Radical Orthodoxy.
If one were to apply the general precepts of the initiative within the lifetime of Joseph Smith, the collapse of a Creature/Creator binary onto a single ontological continuum wherein humans can progress to become like God (and in which God was once mortal) would have likely been rejected. I can imagine some scenarios however, in which Smith’s theology could potentially be rendered more compatible with the collective witness of past prophets.
The first possibility would be through arguing that Mormonism since Smith’s lifetime has severely misunderstood his intended teachings in the King Follett Sermon, and that he never intended to teach such things as an “infinite regress of Gods”. Though representing a minority position within the faith’s intellectual tradition, there have been some notable Latter-day Saint thinkers such as Blake Ostler, who have proposed this angle. Worth-noting here as well is Ostler’s soft-rejection of the LDS doctrine of Heavenly Mother as a result of this approach, though he maintains a recognition of the collapse of the Creature/Creator binary. Ironically, this attempt to preserve Smith from being at-odds with the prophetic voices which preceded him places one in a position where they disagree with the understanding and active teaching of Smith’s King Follett Theology by virtually every Latter-day Saint prophet since him. While the King Follett Sermon has never been formally canonized, its basic tenets can be found in other places within Smith’s scriptural corpus.
The second possible way to potentially reconcile these differences is by insisting that contemporary Mormon theology with respect to the King Follett sermon is supported (or hinted at) enough by prior scripture so as to make it a natural development rather than a serious leap. This position stands to misuse or misrepresent biblical passages (such as Psalm 82, 2 Peter 1:3-4, and others) so as to suggest that the original authors espoused a theological worldview which views Deity and humanity as of the same ontological kind. Smith himself emphasized the novelty of what he taught in the sermon in light of tradition, saying that “[people] have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.”
The people that Joseph spoke of refuting on this point weren’t just laity—they included prophets and apostles, modern and ancient. What Joseph taught here wasn’t just innovative, it was frankly dangerous. It alienated both religious outsiders and some church members to such a point that this Nauvoo-era theology contributed to the environment which eventually cost Smith his life. If would come to face a vigilante execution at the hands of an armed mob in the 19th century, surely he would have been stoned for blasphemy in Iron Age Israel.
Thirdly, another potential way in which this seeming dissonance might be reconciled is through granting Smith an exception as the prophetic head of a new dispensation. While this paradigm may offer an explanation for why no Restoration prophet since Smith has proved as theologically versatile or as eager to contribute to the canon, it does little to explain how the Restoration “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (Article of Faith #9) It also has the potential to greatly diminish the theoretical capacity of present or future Church leaders to radically expand our understanding of God, the Plan of Salvation, and other items of the Gospel of Christ, should they seemingly run counter to earlier teachings.
Finally, if we accept that what Joseph Smith taught in King Follett Theology ran counter to the collective witness of scripture and prophets which preceded him, and we if recognize how such has become official church doctrine since, then I am led to conclude that we should exercise more openness to the likelihood of “tentpoles” changing than I typically observe. Of course, this also leads us with the difficult pursuit of seeking to sustain and support Church leaders within the scope of our conscience and personal communion with God. There are ample historical role models within our faith tradition which can help us understand what this kind of faithful tension can look like.
In essence, the “tentpole” paradigm runs into the historical difficulty of reconciling contradictory “tentpoles” across different religious traditions—such as those between Judaism and Christianity—but also in adequately recognizing and responding to the times within our own faith tradition where such grounding tenets have been drastically modified.
From my reading of the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto, one would need to reject Smith’s teachings regarding God not eternally experiencing godhood and being of the same ontological “kind” as humans, out of their “fierce fidelity to revealed truth, the institutional Church, and the Lord’s authorized representatives”, given that the collective witness of prior prophets taught differently on both these points. Though this form of Orthodoxy considers itself “radical because it promotes bold exploration beyond what is familiar”, this kind of exploration is limited to either simple thought exercises for the sake of argument or grassroots theology and buttressing on points deemed “acceptable” for members to approach with greater flexibility. As most signatories of Radical Orthodoxy likely wouldn’t reject Smith on these matters, my hope is that this example can be applied to other areas of our faith as well.
In theory, Radical Orthodoxy is far more capacious than it generally appears in practice— the boundaries of which are often heavily-influenced by and delineated according to the personal views of its primary founders. Because of this, its major writers may themselves become like “those who focus solely on conserving what we have already received….prone to conflate human tradition with eternal truth. This can lead them to condemn any form of question-asking, faithful exploration, or subsequent revelation.” These forms of rhetoric or behavior can at times run against the stated aims of the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto and its respective adherents. “Fundamentalist” and “progressive” are relative terms in this sense. Individuals who—after engaging in question-asking, faithful exploration, and the pursuit of personal revelation—find themselves in a place of disagreement with official Church policy, practice, or teachings, are generally encouraged to keep such wrestles to themselves, leaving them to maintain an air or appearance of greater orthodoxy.
“The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54; spelling and grammar modernized.
While tentpoles can provide a temporary sense of stability, permanence, and continuity, they can preclude us from the rare, but transformational, periods in which God reveals sacred truths that totally reorient our sense of place in the cosmos. These are the moments in which our scriptures had promised a conquering messiah and instead we receive a teacher from Nazareth, executed by crucifixion like a criminal. These are the moments in which a single charismatic frontier prophet declares the whole of classical theism and of recorded scripture to have misunderstood the character and nature of God. The power of these moments is in their ability to force upon us a single question: are we willing to give up what we have understood, assumed, and been taught in order to follow wherever God leads us? My hope is that we can thoughtfully, cautiously, and prayerfully do so—even if it means breaking with tradition.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a real threat of earthquakes on the horizon. Just within the last few weeks, Gallup has found that church membership has fallen beneath 50% for the first time in the history of the United States. As part of this, the total number of adults affiliated with a given church has fallen by twenty points since the turn of the century. While many factors contribute to this phenomena, and while Latter-day Saints have generally performed better at retaining members than most of their religious colleagues, the faith tradition has still experienced comparable trends in the face of increasingly irreligious American and European landscapes. Indeed, in this last General Conference (and heavily catalyzed by the limiting concerns of COVID-19) it was reported that global convert baptisms during 2020 had fallen by 50%, placing the LDS Church at a marginal growth level of 0.6%.
Besides common concerns about religious retention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue to face other earthquakes during its third-century. It will continue to experience varying levels of fallout from decades of unsustainable paradigms regarding the nature of prophets and revelation. It will continue to experience friction within a world which increasingly regards men and women as equals, forgoing notions of traditional gender roles. It will continue to restrict full-inclusion and representation within the Plan of Salvation to heterosexual couples, leaving scores of LGBTQ+ members to the painful decision of whether or not their faith tradition truly cares to have them as part of a Zion community. It will continue to provide unsatisfactory answers to a generation which remains stuck on the question: why personally affiliate with any institution which actively causes real harm in the lives of those I know and love?
Perhaps what we need is a paradigm shift akin to the lesson of the Salt Lake Temple.
In order to adequately prepare for the coming earthquakes, it was necessary to carry out significant changes.
The renovations required immense amounts of planning, skill, labor, and resources. These improvements weren’t “unbridled” though they were certainly “progressive”.
Parts of the temple and its grounds were demolished entirely, only to be replaced with safer and more accessible architecture and systems. This measured deconstruction wasn’t done without a purpose.
The temple wasn’t cheapened or diluted, it was strengthened. Earthquakes can and will still come, but their effect won’t be as great.
Like the example of Chesterton’s Fence, the example of earthquake-proofing the Salt Lake Temple “encourages us to not only examine the fence, but also explore the reasons why the fence exists in the first place, the purposes it served when it was put there, as well as the purposes it continues to serve. And it is open to the possibility that the fence might need to be changed, updated, or moved– though never cavalierly or recklessly, and always with an eye toward the roots of why it exists.
In the case of the Salt Lake Temple, it was not only possible but necessary to dig completely under the foundation itself and bolster it. Though seriously revisited and altered, the original foundation is still a part of the edifice. Likewise, we shouldn’t see revising foundational understandings of our theology as throwing them out entirely, but rather replacing them with stronger, more durable, more informed materials consistent with advances in our knowledge, revelation, charity etc.
I imagine that few, if any, would say that the Salt Lake Temple isn’t the same temple as a result of the renovations.
The work of the Restoration there is made only more secure by their implementation.
Rather than a paradigm of absolute demolition and historical dishonoring should changes ever impact the foundations of our religious beliefs, we should instead embrace a paradigm of renovation and earthquake-proofing as observable in the case of the Salt Lake Temple. Such earthquake-proofing may not be possible from a Radical Orthodoxy framework, given that it would express openness to renovating some of the walls, roofs, and ancillary buildings and grounds while exercising extreme hesitation (even prohibition) towards touching upon the foundations—much less digging underneath them completely.
We may do well to liken the words of C.S. Lewis to ourselves here in imagining our understanding of the Restored Gospel as “a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”1
If a scriptural understanding of God has ever been considered a foundational tentpole within our sacred history, and I believe that it arguably has, then Joseph Smith demonstrated no ultimate unwillingness to replace it with something stronger. He demonstrated that one could drastically part ways with previous tradition and the prophets which preceded him, will not dishonoring, diminishing, or doing away with them entirely. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon remain wholly-vital parts of our scriptural canon. Recognizing this, we can perhaps exercise greater caution and restraint when it comes to partitioning entire facets of our religious tradition as off-limits to future prophetic expansion, revision, and restoration. A theological imagination tethered in such a manner potentially trades an oceanside beach for a playground sandbox. It places a character limit on God, restricting the scope of the divine messages we might receive to only those we declare within the realm of the permissible.
Whether in the form of a Manifesto, a Proclamation, or a Handbook, Joseph’s lived example taught us to be wary of creeds and their functional equivalents. Speaking months before the King Follett Sermon, Smith is recorded as saying that:
“I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes [limits], and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’ [Job 38:11]; which I cannot subscribe to.”History of the Church, 6:57; punctuation modernized; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Oct. 15, 1843, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Willard Richards.
With respect to the limits of Radical Orthodoxy, the authors themselves have offered examples of what going beyond the pale in this manner might look like, listing the examples of “if someone argues that the Book of Mormon is a modern midrash, argues that no unique divine authority was given to Joseph Smith, questions the historical Jesus as the sole anchor of our salvation, celebrates gender transitions as compatible with the Gospel, or promotes the expectation that same-sex couples will someday be sealed in the temple, they are no longer operating within the paradigm laid out by radical orthodoxy.”
While delineating such boundaries for a given school of thought within the faith tradition is totally within their capacity, these different understandings of revelatory permanence are what have made me hesitant to join some of my friends and mentors in becoming a signatory. Despite disagreeing in some of these important areas, there is much I can share in common with proponents of Radical Orthodoxy in the case of church membership, various religious beliefs, and a commitment to the charitable, good-faith exchange of ideas. If I have at all misunderstood or misrepresented the views and writings of Radical Orthodoxy or any of its founders, I am more than happy to correct and amend where I have lapsed. I have already made some edits in light of the feedback I have received.
At the end of the day however, I want to “come into the presence of God, and learn all things; but [the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto] sets up stakes [limits], and says, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’.”
As a Mormon, I simply cannot subscribe to that.
 —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 175–176.
Further Resources on Radical Orthodoxy
An academic analysis of the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto through the University of Virginia’s Mormon Studies program, featuring Dr. Cristina Rosetti.
An example of how the Manifesto was experienced by Queer Latter-day Saint, Blaire Ostler, upon reading.
Several of the primary authors of the Manifesto have already responded to me and recommended the following resources:
Rejecting the Living Prophets by Following Future Prophets (was specifically asked to pray over this one!)