Heresy, opposition, and becoming gods, with Adam J. Powell [MIPodcast #64]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died at the hands of an angry mob in June of 1844. Shortly before his death, he’s reported to have made this bold declaration: “I should be like a fish out of water if I were out of persecutions. The Lord has constituted me so curiously that I glory in persecution.”
Dr. Adam Powell of Durham University has written a book on opposition faced by Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints. He argues that, like early Christians of the second century, the opposition faced by early Mormons played a major role in shaping their theology. The idea that humans can become gods appeared in a setting of extreme opposition, both for early Mormons like Joseph Smith and early Christians like Irenaeus.
In this episode, Dr. Powell joins us to talk about his book Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-making Heresy. Dr. Powell is a junior research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and he joined us at the Maxwell Institute here at BYU in Provo, Utah where he also delivered a lecture on the subject. If you missed the lecture, you’ll be able to watch it on the Institute’s YouTube channel. We’re talking about how opposition helps shape theology with Adam Powell in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Send questions and comments about this and other episodes to email@example.com, and don’t forget to rate and review this show in iTunes.
HODGES: Dr. Adam J. Powell, thank you so much for joining us on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
ADAM J. POWELL: Yes, thanks for having me.
HODGES: It’s great to have you here, and you’re actually here at Brigham Young University for a guest lecture, but right now we’re going to talk about your book Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy.
Let’s begin by talking about “heresy” in general—the common definition. In John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” he wrote that “every church is orthodox to itself, but to others, erroneous or heretical.” You note in the book that heresy for the heretic is orthodoxy. Let’s begin with the common understanding of what heresy is, because your book actually differs from that.
POWELL: Right. So, in a sense I would say the common understanding of heresy could be defined as something like deviation from the truth, or from something called orthodoxy by insiders themselves. So in this sense, heretics are kind of what the sociologist Lester Kurtz has called “deviant insiders.” So I think that’s roughly the basic, kind of traditional, Christian, theological notion of heresy.
HODGES: Yes. So it comes from the inside and it’s based on truth claims that differ from—it’s in contrast with orthodoxy, or the correct belief, right?
HODGES: But your book differs. Here’s a quote from you. You say, “Heresy in its most basic sense consists in opposition from any or all directions against the solidarity, identity, and existing worldview of a collective.” Unpack this different idea of heresy, and I’m also interested to know how you arrived at this new proposed definition.
POWELL: On the one hand, that definition that you quoted of mine is just a working definition. So that is, it’s a formulated kind of definition that’s constructed in a certain way to represent what is ideal, typical, and, useful within the analytical framework of my study. So on the one hand I’m intentionally creating a working operational definition that may not, in fact, make sense outside of the analytical framework of the book.
But on the other hand, I arrived at that definition really in two ways. One is by looking at both the original meaning of haeresis. So this term originally meant essentially “to choose,” and then it pretty quickly became this notion of “to choose an alternative philosophy” or something. So haeresis was to choose something else, kind of idea.
And then the other thing I looked at was the actual social processes at work that force religious in-groups to articulate and defend this thing they call “orthodoxy.” So when you start looking at well, what are the actual social processes at play here? It becomes pretty quickly evident that heresy—as its being attributed to certain ideas or the term heretic to certain individuals—that, in fact, historically and socially that is actually rarely some kind of deviation from something that already exist as orthodoxy.
So a good example would be something like with Irenaeus or Athanasius or some of these early church fathers, they’re called heresiologists. But in a way, they’re actually engaged in constructing this thing that becomes orthodoxy.
HODGES: They’re the ones rooting out the heresy—the heresiologists are going on the hunt for heresy—
POWELL: Right, and in doing so they are in fact in the business of constructing orthodoxy, which tells me—as someone coming at it from more of a social scientific angle—that this thing called orthodoxy didn’t pre-exist or pre-date this thing being labeled heresy. So that’s kind of the two sides as I was saying. There’s that, and then there’s this aspect of how haeresis at that time kind of just meant to choose an alternative—not necessarily an insider alternative—just an alternative philosophical school, for instance.
HODGES: And in a religious context that makes sense. I think people will be able to wrap their heads around that. Do you see any parallels in academic enterprises, in the construction of academic orthodoxies and heresies, so to speak?
POWELL: Yeah. I mean I think what happens—an example that immediately comes to mind actually would be something like the German philosophical debates about epistemology. So if you go back to Kant and idealism and these kinds of things—
HODGES: —”What is it to know?” How do we know and what is knowledge—
POWELL: Yeah, these debates were kind of raging because there was force from outside saying “what’s the value of philosophy,” right? So it’s in this external force being applied on the discipline itself that you then start engaging and constructing, “well here’s what philosophers think” or “here’s what it means to have a kind of canon of philosophical classics” or something like that.
HODGES: To kind of sum all of that up, the common idea of heresy as being something coming from the inside in opposition to truth, you invert that and talk about heresy in terms of opposition from any—it could be from inside or outside or from wherever—opposition rather than false beliefs or different beliefs. It’s more about opposition.
One more thing about the word “heresy” though, it seems like you’re swimming upstream to use the word heresy already—
POWELL: Right. [laughs]
HODGES: —right off the bat. Did you think about that when you were selecting the term?
POWELL: Yeah, absolutely. I would say, you know, on the one hand it was exciting to just have this kind of thought experiment, you know? What if we reframed heresy? I’ve described it before as kind of lifting heresy as a category or concept out of theological mornings, you know? What if it wasn’t relegated to historical theology?
But in a sense, I mean, I wasn’t the first to do this. You think back to something like Walter Bauer and what’s not called the Bauer thesis which, you know, he’s writing in the early twentieth century, I believe, and he’s basically saying, you know, what became orthodoxy is just simply the option that won out, okay? So this is a kind of a famous thing. It’s been picked up most popularly by Bart Ehrman.
POWELL: So I was kind of, you know, following somewhat closely that kind of idea, but looking at what happens with new religious movements and what happens when they’re opposed and face opposition on a number of fronts, and then in the process of adapting to that opposition they come to express a more highly developed doctrinal kind of system. So in my research I began to see that the category of heresy could be useful for capturing that sort of religiously inflected opposition that catalyzes orthodoxy. I was curious about whether heresy be a useful category for social scientists who are seeing a particular type of religiously inflected opposition faced by religious groups in their nascent stages that is sort of recognizable, at least in one sense, because it catalyzes orthodoxy.
HODGES: I think this speaks to something very interesting about academic approaches to religion in general. They require some level of buy-in on the part of people who are reading the work or other scholars who are interacting with the work. People could, at the outset, just say, “well, I don’t want to use heresy that way, so I’m really not going to engage.” Other people could say, “see, this is an interesting expansion of that term.” It’s kind of gamble. It’s kind of a risk. You’re risking people either not wanting to play along, or people misunderstanding, but the hope would be, it seems, that people would be able to accept the terms and then follow the analysis and make the criticisms on that level rather than sort of—
POWELL: Yeah, that’s right.
HODGES: —at the level of these terms.
POWELL: Yeah, that’s right. And I think that I was speaking to and sort of for a kind of social science audience and knowingly not really a theological audience. So, you know, I’m fully aware of what I’m doing and I’m not trying to kind of commandeer this term and use it differently for any kind of, you know, nefarious reason.
POWEL: Believe it or not! But I do think that when you look at, again, like the heresiologists of the early church, again, from a perspective that’s attuned to social tensions and social processes, it was always really about identifying significant threats and not simply about a kind of doctrinal…
HODGES: Correct ideas?
POWELL: Yeah, correct ideas or sort of, you know, for Irenaeus he’s constantly is talking about the “rule of faith,” and these heretics have deviated from this rule of faith. And yes, on the kind of rationalistic theological side, yeah, it’s true. It’s about that. But there are social dynamics at work, and to call someone a heretic or to call their ideas heresy or their school of thought heresy was really about pointing to them and saying, “you are a significant threat,” right, “to any kind of cohesive sense of unity or solidarity.” And so those threats are not always from the inside, but in every other way can look precisely the same—
HODGES: And do the same type of things.
POWELL: —Yeah exactly and so I was trying to say that heresy in this kind of socially informed sense would include deviation from the inside. But more than that, it would also be the threats from outside that in every other way look precisely the same as those from the inside.
HODGES: And you distinguished between a social science type of approach versus a theological type of approach? In a nutshell, how would you distinguish those two groups for people who aren’t familiar with those particular fields? What separates them?
POWELL: So there are all sorts of hot debates raging about these kind of disciplinary tensions and things.
HODGES: We can settle them all right now, so please.
POWELL: [laughs] Yeah, so I’ll do my best. But I mean I think at the most basic disciplinary level, sociology is going to differ from theology in its kind of epistemological presuppositions concerning the supernatural or what we might call the “superempirical” as a source of knowledge. So—
HODGES: Like could you rely on a claimed revelation from God or something?
POWELL: Yeah, so I think from my perspective, it’s actually not so much about the reality or claims about the existence of the supernatural or superempirical. It’s this epistemological difference about, “can something called divine revelation be a source of information or knowledge for the academic enterprise or not,” you know? So at that level I think theology differs from social science really, and social science is going to see revelation as another bit of data for analysis, not as a source.
HODGES: And it seems like that could even be agnostic as well in terms of like—a social scientist approach could bracket the idea of God, and not say God doesn’t necessarily exist but that’s just not part of the discussion?
HODGES: Or it could say, take on a naturalistic metaphysic and say, “no, we don’t believe that and we’re doing this type of thing.” So I think that’s an important distinction to make that people can be doing social science research that sort of brackets the idea of God without making claims about God’s involvement or God’s existence or they could make claims saying they don’t accept them, yeah.
POWELL: Yeah. You know, it makes me think in mid-twentieth century kind of debates, I mean I think immediately of this debate between Ninian Smart and Peter Berger which was literally— Ninian Smart saying, “no, social scientist need to adopt methodological agnosticism” and Peter Berger saying “no, it needs to be methodological atheism,” and they have their reasons for doing so. But I think as I see it, the main difference is this epistemological presupposition that revelation from the supraempirical kind of realm or level can either be a valid source of knowledge for scholarship or it cannot be, and at best it would be a kind of another phenomenon to study.
HODGES: Okay. So in the book, you’re taking this sociological approach to examine early Mormonism in comparison to ancient early Christians, and you’re arguing that the sort of opposition that these groups faced made a significant impact on the “plan of salvation” that they embraced or that they taught—particularly the idea that humans can become gods. We just talked about how sociological approaches differ from theological approaches. Are there many differences between sociological approaches and more straightforward historical approaches? What’s different between telling a history of these ideas versus taking a sociological approach?
POWELL: I mean in a sense I would say for this kind of analysis that I’m doing—which is what you might call a sociologically informed historical analysis—I would say the line between that and the work of a historian is really very thin, and in fact I would probably be called a historian depending on the context. So yes, I don’t see quite as significant a difference between the work of historians and the work of sociologists as I do between the work of theologians and the work of social scientists. Now, if anything it may be simply that historians are at their best when they’re uncovering the minutia of the past in order to reconstruct the wider narrative, and sociologists who engage in this kind of historical analysis may be at their best when they’re using that data that was uncovered by historians to highlight social or political or religious kind of patterns. But I think particularly as of late the line has been blurred quite a bit, and there are some fantastic historians doing some fantastic work that borrows from social theory and vice versa. I think there are some—though maybe relatively few of us—who are kind of more steeped in social science, but who enjoy applying that to historical cases.
HODGES: That makes sense. It seems like the voice of a book written in the genre of history might be more narrative-driven and have less of the superstructure as with the sociological approach. You can really see in social science where you leave a lot of scaffolding up about your assumptions and about the theory that you’re applying to the historical data, and you try to let that drive the conclusions. Historians and books of history seem to come across—I mean they’re more enjoyable to read for a lot of people, frankly, because they don’t have that extra scaffolding, but then at the same time you might not see as much how the historian has gone about making the decisions they made.
POWELL: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean I think when I say historians are at their best when they’re uncovering minutia in service of a kind of narrative, that’s definitely my personal opinion because I do tend to actually find some historical work to be less compelling when they try to utilize too much kind of social theory without constructing or indicating upfront what this scaffolding is going to be, or identify any kind of presuppositions they may hold. So every now and then I do find some historical work less compelling precisely because they didn’t just lay that out there and then kind of outline the theoretical ideas or the framework.
So yeah I think it’s probably mostly fair to say that that’s one of the differences, yeah.
HODGES: One of the books that I think best kind of splits that divide is probably Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ron Walker and I think Glen Leonard and Richard Turley—they’re telling a history but they’re taking a theoretical framework and sort of putting it on top of that story. If listeners want to see another book that sort of splits that difference between social science and history I would recommend that one.
HODGES: But we’re talking about with Adam Powell about his book Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy and as I mentioned a moment ago, Adam, you’re examining early Mormonism and some early Christians and talking about how the opposition that they faced impacted the theologies that they ended up teaching. You talk about three different types of opposition in the book. There’s doctrinal, personal, and societal. What are some examples of how those play out?
POWELL: Yeah. So this was, you know, as these things tend to be, a kind of artificial separation of the types of opposition facing early Christians and early Mormons so that it’s just simply easier to see on paper. So the doctrinal is what you might think it would be. This would be opposition faced by these groups from religious competitors, and typically in relation to beliefs and kind of rational arguments about all that. They may take on kind of a polemical tone, but there are kind of arguments about teachings, about sacred texts—
HODGES: Like “the Bible canon is closed” versus “here’s this new scripture that you should”—
POWELL: Yeah, yes. So with early Mormonism, the perfect example is Alexander Campbell’s attack on the Book of Mormon. So that’s what I’m—I’m viewing that loosely as doctrinal opposition in that it is sort of unashamedly and overtly a challenge to the teachings and religious beliefs of the new group by religious competitors from outside.
HODGES: What kind of doctrinal attacks did the early Christians face for comparison?
POWELL: Oh yeah, so I mean you had a lot of opposition to what they were saying about this person Jesus. So you think of something like Celsus and Origen and their kind of debate. For Celsus, he’s basically arguing that “your teachings about Jesus just don’t make sense,” and he’s using existing philosophical categories to show why he thinks that just doesn’t make sense. So he’s kind of saying “if he’s a god, that’s one thing and if he’s a man, that’s another thing, if he’s a God-man then is he some kind of angel or…” you know, and you see him kind of struggling to make sense of it but at the same time very much attacking the Christian belief, and so this absolutely initiates Origen’s writings.
So that would be a perfect example of how this is external force, this is doctrinal in nature, but it’s causing an insider to have to really formulate more concrete ideas about what they believe.
HODGES: Okay. How about societal opposition? That’s the second category—doctrinal, personal, and societal. What about societal? What does that look like for Mormons and also for early Christians?
POWELL: Yes. So societal. This is where I get into things like attempts to label the group—what are they, who are these people? Attempts to kind of make sense of the fact that they’re kind of viewed as outsiders—that is, early Mormons and early Christians are viewed as outsiders in their respective environments. And then also accusations of social subversion and so—
HODGES: Like they’re a threat to democratic values or something like that?
POWELL: Right. Yeah, so I mean this is where I was really struck by the similarities between early Mormons and early Christians—which I’m defining, by the way, early Mormonism I’m defining as Joseph Smith tenure, so the first fourteen years, and for early Christians I’m really zooming in on second century Christians particularly in Gaul, and kind of using Irenaeus as a representative.
But I mean, yeah, so some examples of that would be the way in which—so for early Christians, they’re being opposed and told that their practices or their unwillingness to be involved in the “civil religion” of the empire, that that is socially subversive, you know—
HODGES: Participating in like pagan sacrifices and festivals, and bowing down to the—
POWELL: Exactly, yes. So some of the kind of rituals involved—
HODGES: Like us pledging allegiance, in the United States, to the flag sort of—
POWELL: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So if you resisted that, that’s going to be typically not interpreted by outsiders in terms of doctrine, but interpreted in terms of kind of this social subversion, are you a threat to the status quo?
HODGES: Yeah, to the body politic or something.
POWELL: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
HODGES: Jehovah’s Witnesses still face a lot of this in other countries because they’re pacifists and things like this.
POWELL: Yes, exactly. So you had that with early Christians. I mean in the Roman Empire you got the Pax Deorum and the Pax Romana are tied together. They gotta appease the gods in order to kind of have peace in the empire. And so then you have this group calling themselves Christians who are not willing to do that. They’re not willing to participate, which could be a problem. So yeah, got that kind of thing.
The other one that I think is striking because it’s similar is you have early Christians being attacked in terms of labels, right? So they—no one is willing to call early Christians a religion because that would give them kind of legitimacy. So they call them superstitio, a superstition, or they call them—I mean Galen calls them a philosophy or a philosophical school, but even that is sort of a step toward legitimacy. I mean for the most part it’s kind of “they’re a superstition” and “they’re some kind of strange cult.”
HODGES: They’re atheists even, they’re you know—
POWELL: Yeah. They’re atheists or cannibals and this kind of thing. So with early Mormonism you’ve got much the same stuff. You’ve got people saying that they’re a superstition—literally using exact same word—that it’s folk magic, that they’re impostors, they’re outsiders , and that sort of thing so I mean—
HODGES: Theocrats, like political government questions—
POWELL: Yes, exactly, and I mentioned, you know, that some of this is based on behavior. So like with early Mormonism they do engage in this kind of en bloc voting in Missouri. Well, you know, if you’re doing bloc voting it’s not a stretch to then be accused of kind of subverting democracy or something. But it’s just a matter of, you know, how that’s interpreted by the in group.
HODGES: And who has the social power to make the labels and make the labels matter.
POWELL: Yeah exactly. Yeah, I mean one thing I point to in the book that’s interesting, I think, is that for both groups in their kind of respected environments , both of them represent less than one percent of the population. Or far less, in fact, I think it’s like two hundredths of a percent of the population. So, yeah, I mean, you’ve got some serious power dynamics going on with societal opposition.
HODGES: So that’s doctrinal and societal. How about personal opposition? What are some examples of that?
POWELL: I kind of use interchangeably personal or physical opposition, by which I really just mean the actual violence against, or opposition against, the personal well-being, physical well-being of these communities. So this is actually pretty straightforward. For early Christians second century you do have persecution and, you know, Christians being taken and killed in the Colosseum and you get this kind of martyrdom—what’s interpreted by the in-group anyway as martyrdom. And then for early Mormons just an abundance of examples, but you’ve got things like anything from, you know, Joseph Smith being tarred and feathered to Mormons being completely as a group expelled from Missouri. You’ve got loss of life, you’ve got possessions being burned or livestock being shot or I mean, so you’ve got all kinds of attacks on personal well-being.
HODGES: So we’ve got doctrinal, personal, societal opposition, which in your book is referred to as heresy—this sort of opposition that these groups are encountering. You also point to three phases that the group itself goes through as they’re facing opposition. You talk about the reception, the recognition, and the resolution. Why is that component necessary for your study?
POWELL: Yeah, again, it was a kind of breaking things down into an outline just simply to help make the argument…And I state repeatedly that, in a way, these three—reception, recognition, and resolution—it’s not as though they’re not overlapping. I mean, these are—
HODGES: “On February 1st we perceived, on March 2nd we recognized…”
POWELL: Yeah, exactly [laughs]. And I had to be really careful about it because, I mean, when you are applying social theory to historical cases it’s very easy to do a very heavy-handed analysis. One reason is there’s just no one to cry foul, right? So, in a way, I wanted to be very careful to say, these aren’t really sequential steps. These are just kind of a way of kind of breaking out three elements to the way in which opposition is integrated into beliefs.
HODGES: Like when you’re on the receiving end of it, how you negotiate that.
POWELL: Yeah. I roughly kind of followed a couple of other ideas. I mean, one was, you have this anthropologist Victor Turner who has this idea of like the pre-liminal and the liminal and the post liminal. And then on the psychological side, Leon Festinger with cognitive dissonance, where he studied a kind of new religious movement in the mid-twentieth century, and looks at how there are these kind of, yeah, “phases” is probably a good term. Kind of phases of what people have gone through collectively when they’re faced with opposition. So with reception this is essentially the opposition happening.
HODGES: So either like pamphlets being published against them, a house getting burned down, accusations being leveled about how you’re impacting society negatively or something—
POWELL: Yeah, exactly. You have these things just transpiring. I mean, just put very briefly that pretty much is what I mean by reception. So this is just kind of the initial experience itself.
But recognition is when there’s—this is the first step toward sort of, as a collective, having a collective awareness that this opposition just happened, that it’s maybe not going anywhere, and that it must be dealt with in some sense. And it is kind of where, I would say, the opposition kind of seeps into the collective consciousness. So it’s literally recognizing it for what it is. “Oh,” you know, “I’ve restored the truth. I’ve produced this ancient text, the Book of Mormon,” for example. “But,” you know, “some people don’t seem to be receiving that very well.” Right?
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah.
POWELL: So this kind of initial “oh.” And I think as a group—now it may not be, you know, evenly distributed across the board, but you have, at least for like or early Mormons, you’ve got kind of an inner group, inner core kind of group of leaders, emerging leaders, and they’re starting to realize that there will need to be some approach to this opposition. And then that can vary—
HODGES: And you want to account for it, like why it’s happening in the context of your beliefs and then what maybe what to do about it?
POWELL: Exactly and so then that goes into the third phase, which is a resolution. So, what’s interesting, and the reason I say these very much overlap, is that if you just look at the first fourteen years of Mormonism, for example, the strategies used, or the reactions to the opposition, differ at different times.
I mean, you could have, for instance, tension breaking out in Missouri between Mormons and non-Mormons and Joseph Smith producing a revelation that says “we need to address our non-Mormon neighbors peacefully.” Then, you know, a few years later you may have something like Danites, who are following at least some of the Mormon leadership in taking a much more aggressive approach to dealing with non-Mormons.
So, I mean, it varies, it’s not that there’s just this awareness, “oh, people don’t like us” or something and then they get together and write up the grand strategy for how to deal with that. It’s much more fluid than that.
HODGES: And Adam, then, what you do is you’re looking at these types of oppositions and how they play out on the inside and then how they impacted what seems to be similar kind of theology about humans becoming Gods. You’re seeing this emerge amongst early Mormons and amongst early Christians. So in both of these cases you’re suggesting that in some ways this “heresy” or this outside opposition can result in a similar kind of salvation scheme. Talk about how that plays out in the book.
POWELL: Yes. So I think what I do in the book once I outlined those three phases, for the rest of the book I’m looking at the resolution phase, because what I’m particularly interested in is how the experiences relate to the beliefs, the developing beliefs. And so the argument goes essentially that one major way in which the opposition is resolved is through the construction of these—what I’m calling in the book “salvation schemas.” But these are kind of—with that term I’m trying to get at something that’s more than just meta-narrative. So it’s sort of one part meta-narrative but it’s also got this kind of pragmatic, animating, mobilizing kind of aspect in the here and now.
So it kind of frames your experiences, it frames your behavior, it frames your ritual life within the community, as well as your kind of myth or narrative. So, essentially, I think for both early Christians and early Mormons…I mean, even the terminology, first of all, is really interesting. So with Irenaeus he comes up with or kind of outlines what he calls the “economy of salvation.” And this is where we actually get oikonomia, eventually we get “dispensation” from it, and dispensation is of course is a common term in nineteenth century America and is incorporated into Mormonism, as well.
And then, of course, Joseph Smith—really it develops mostly after his martyrdom—but you get this idea of “the plan of salvation,” or sometimes called the “great plan of happiness,” so you’ve got “economy of salvation,” “plan of salvation. Both of them mean—what I’m describing—they both mean a kind of salvation history. They both mean God’s sort of divine plan for his creation. But they also mean sort of, what does the community itself need to do, what mobilizes it, what gives it a sense of purpose, how do they connect kind of past, present and future?
So deification then is a key component for both Irenaeus and his early Christians, and Joseph Smith—at least by the last year or two of his life you get this kind of notion, some kind of idea that in these large salvation schemes that people are progressing toward something called godhood, and that that—and I think this is key—is more than just doctrine. Okay? It’s more than just a nice, tidy belief about the future, or about kind of metaphysical possibility or something. It’s a motivating identity for right now, and a way of seeing the past as connected to the future through what you’re doing in the present.
And so for both of them, then, in these soteriologies they emphasize things like the use of your agency, they both talk about using your agency, to choose right over wrong, to choose God, obedience to God’s Commandments over disobedience, and to choose to endure persecution. Both of them highlight and strongly emphasize that there will be justice in the future, but that right now the best you can do is kind of endure persecution with an awareness of that future justice that will come. So they developed these ideas alongside the idea of progressing on to godhood kind of thing.
So I think in doing that, they happened to resolve precisely the types of oppositions they were facing, so they no longer have to worry about whether they a legitimate religion because now they literally are the unique agent in God’s plan for the world. They don’t have to, you know, worry about whether their truth claims are right or not because what they need to do is endure persecution. They don’t have to worry about the persecution because there will be future justice for those who are persecuting them.
So that’s kind of the way in which I think the opposition becomes incorporated or integrated into their beliefs, and that theology resolves the opposition.
HODGES: That’s Adam J. Powell. He’s a junior research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and we’re talking about his book Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy.
So now that we have a general idea of the comparison that you make, the question becomes “why compare these particular two examples?” Are you suggesting that this kind of opposition will result in these type of theologies, or why select these two examples if it doesn’t always wind up this way? How would you respond to questions about the comparative approach in general?
POWELL: Right. Yes. So, I see that as two questions. I mean, why to compare these two? Because I think they are both striking examples of something very, very similar happening. Does that mean it’s inevitable, that any new kind of nascent religious movement facing these three types of opposition will come to embrace deification? Of course not. Of course not.
I was comparing them really because I had this question. Why does anyone come to embrace deification as a community? And really, this study sort of had its early birth in a different study, which was a theological comparison many years ago now. I had the kind of theological, philosophical answer to the comparison, which was essentially, you know, “no, they kind of differ on the ontological categories and they’re not exactly saying the same thing philosophically.” But I found that really insufficient from the kind of socio-cultural perspective, because I wanted to know, if these are two different groups, two different times and places, sure, they share some cultural inheritance, but really, I wanted to know why would they come to similar ideas at all, you know? Why would we have statements from Irenaeus or Athanasius or something like that that sound so strikingly similar to statements by Lorenzo Snow or Joseph Smith. And so it was the comparative kind of social scientific approach that I think allowed me to get at an answer to that question, which was that they faced similar types of opposition, and I’m someone who’s going to say there are a limited number of options for humans as they kind of face the human experience.
So I don’t think it’s inevitable and I don’t think every group—there are examples that I could point to of groups that didn’t embrace a similar belief.
So that’s, I think your first question, but, yeah, I mean, as far as the comparative method. I mean, this is obviously a hot topic—among some, anyway, in the social sciences. In fact, when I was defending this material which started out as my doctoral research, when it came time to defend the research, this was the first question I was asked was, “defend the comparative method.”
HODGES: [laughs] So they just got right at it right from the beginning..
POWELL: [laughing] Put me at ease…
POWELL: So, yeah, very briefly let me try to do that I think comparing these two cases does precisely what comparison always does. It directs our attention to particular elements of those cases—so certain phenomena, certain experiences, certain emotions, really kind of anything—but it points us to specific elements of the cases by indicating what is definitely not unique to one of the two cases, and what may perhaps be unique to one of the two.
So, in this way, I think comparison necessarily shapes the analysis because it’s the juxtaposition of the two that provides the kind of relief needed to see those elements. Now, that’s also precisely why the comparative method is unpopular sometimes because it can kind of tend toward generalizing. Because in addition to highlighting what is perhaps unique to each of the two, it does highlight what they share. So in that sense you, in other words, can see more clearly what they share, and so it can kind of lead toward generalizing.
HODGES: There’s this “parallelomania” type of phenomenon—
POWELL: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Likewise, there’s kind of a lack of freedom in comparison, right? Because it is sort of telling you what to see in a sense. Now, in the past I think, particularly in anthropology, we have been burned by this. And I think that’s why there’s a reluctance to engage in comparison, because I think in the past it led to some unfortunate kind of generalizations about, you know—and attempts to construct kind of universal theories.
HODGES: And colonialism becomes a problem, like putting ideas onto other cultures, flattening them out, erasing differences.
POWELL: Exactly, exactly, and so I think it was, again, if you’re talking kind of late nineteenth, early twentieth century, it lacked, we’ll say, self-awareness or reflexivity. So that you would come up with things like, you know, “world religions,” “salvation religions,” categories like “sacred texts” or even sometimes scripture, the idea of scripture.
HODGES: Yeah, you start judging texts based on a Christian idea of what scripture should be and that becomes this category that—
POWELL: Right, right.
HODGES: —warps the other thing is that’s studied.
POWELL: Right. Exactly. So, I mean, you get some of that from comparison. But one thing that I’ve told my students before in defense of comparison is that there’s nothing common without comparison. Okay? So if one is careful and reflexive and sort of willing to acknowledge differences and the cultural grounding of the phenomena that’s under investigation, comparison is still really useful, and I would actually argue unavoidable, but maybe we can save that for another time. I mean I think, cognitively speaking, we really couldn’t function without comparison. You wouldn’t have any categories at all. You wouldn’t have language or indeed the ability to learn language.
HODGES: What is comparison, other than relation, and relation is existence—
POWELL: Yeah. I mean, so, you know, I’ve got a four-year-old at home and comparison, I can tell you, is precisely how you learn everything at that age. So, comparison I think in a sense is just an in-built aspect of human cognition. But I think the point of course being—the careful comparison is something of a kind of bulwark against incessantly spinning our wheels as scholars, because it has this potential to inform categories and patterns and genuine differences, and I think you can avoid it and go too far in your avoidance of comparison so that you’re incessantly reinventing the wheel, because you’re not aware of similarities across time and that sort of thing.
HODGES: So we’ve talked about some similarities between early Christians and early Mormons. Were there any particular things as you performed comparative work that stuck out as a clear difference between the theologies that Irenaeus and Joseph Smith propounded?
POWELL: I think differences are very important in this comparison. One difference actually has to do with the material available, which I mention in the book. Toward the end of the book I end up focusing more on Mormonism than early Christianity because of this disparity in available material, and I say that’s why I’m doing so. For example, when you’re talking about Irenaeus, there’s some question over whether he wrote this one particular letter about martyrdom. If he didn’t, then you literally only have his polemical apologetic kind of writings that seemingly are motivated by, you know, this desire to lay out a rational defense against Valentinians. So you’ve got this one kind of text, and it’s a particular genre, and has a particular agenda, and it’s for a particular audience. But with Mormonism, of course, you’ve got all sorts of documents. It’s actually really wonderful [laughs]. I mean, there’s sort of no end to it you could look at.
HODGES: An embarrassment of riches.
POWELL: And so, I mean, that’s sort of the one difference from a methodological perspective. Another difference that that stood out to me is that you have, I guess related to the genre, is that with Joseph Smith you have less of a clear cut construction of orthodoxy in relation to opposition than you would with Irenaeus. So, if we looked at, for instance, the way I broke down the doctrinal, societal, and personal forms of opposition—one way to put it would be to say with Irenaeus, doctrinal is the major category, and with early Mormonism it’s kind of all of them fairly equally. But if anything, I would say doctrinal fades a little bit into the background, in fact, which I think is somewhat counterintuitive. People don’t realize that, but I mean, I think it’s actually the societal and the personal that is much more pronounced.
So I think there are those differences. Of course, we could talk about all kinds of socio-cultural differences as far as the two contexts are concerned. They share some cultural norms and inheritances but, of course, this is a different time, it’s a different type of pluralism in the Roman Empire, it’s a different type of social hierarchy at play, with different types of power dynamics. So there are all sorts of differences if you want to start just laying out particulars about their context, you know.
HODGES: I think that gives people a good sense of some of the differences that you also talk about in the book. The book is called Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy by Adam J. Powell.
The last thing I wanted to talk about is the idea of elasticity, Adam. In the conclusion of the book you introduce readers to this idea of elasticity. It’s something you also talked about in your recent Maxwell Institute guest lecture. Give us a sense for what you mean by elasticity in relation to opposition and heresy.
POWELL: I see elasticity as both a term that you could either accept or reject [laughs], and an attendant kind of phenomenon which I think you can’t reject. So elasticity—by that I mean it’s this ability to resolve the heresy or the opposition while still retaining some kind of cohesive, salient identity for the group. So it’s a kind of stretching without breaking, right? So very much like imagining a rubber band. It stretches, it’s one object. It can be stretched to fit around all sorts of different objects and hold them together. But it can also be stretched to the breaking point.
So elasticity is this kind of trait, I’m arguing, that sometimes becomes a kind of inherent or in-built component of a religious group. I actually think Mormonism is one of the best examples of this because it’s this notion that, you know, because they faced all those types of opposition in their earliest stages, then that overarching plan of salvation we mentioned becomes a particularly adaptable—or in my term elastic—kind of meaning system from then on.
The example I always use because it’s just really convenient would be the way in which you’ve got the Book of Mormon as this kind of rigid, closed, sacred text. It’s not going to change over time. But then you’ve got the Doctrine and Covenants, that is this kind of flexible yet still sacred text, still part of the canon, but it’s typically addressing more mundane or pragmatic issues, and it’s at least theoretically still open to change in the future.
So it’s that kind of notion, it’s that balancing act of being rigid in the service of a stable identity, but being flexible also in the service of a stable identity—that if you can incorporate changes in opposition then you can maintain your identity.
HODGES: Thank you, Adam. People can learn more about that idea of elasticity by checking out the lecture you delivered here BYU. It’s called “Crisis Converted,” and depending on when people are listening, they’ll be able to see that on Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel. Today we spoke with Adam J. Powell about his book Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy. Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us, Adam.
POWELL: Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)