Reconciling the Peculiar People: Reassessing the LDS Relationship to Medieval Christianity

photo-1471624257787-362e0c864ab2Within the Latter-day Saint community, there generally exists a standard abridged narrative of Christian history. Following the death of the Apostles and the associated loss of the priesthood, a gaping abyss occupies our mental timeline, neatly demarcated under the heading of ‘apostasy’. The term is a loaded one, invoking images of wilful spiritual blindness, slavish devotion to vain ritual, and hopelessly backward doctrine.In our lessons and teaching manuals, centuries of wildly diverse and eventful Christian historyare disposed of in but a few short sentences, until the narrative once again meaningfully resumes with the Restoration.

This is a very comfortable narrative for us as a community. After all, the Church was initially founded as a rejection of alternate forms of Christianity, in favour of a restoration of the true form of the gospel.  In many ways, we choose to define ourselves by our ‘otherness’, and the ways in which we stand apart from other Christian sects.

I was introduced to the beauties of western medieval Christianity during my second year of university. For me, it was something of a personal revelation, a window into a vanished world of astonishing faith, humility, and devotion. Although medieval Christians obviously lacked knowledge of the fullness of the restored gospel, a modern Latter-day Saint audience can still find spiritual enrichment and insight in the writings of this once-beloved, but now rather unfashionable, religious tradition.

Much of medieval theology may not seem particularly accessible to a layperson today. Theologians such as Saint Augustine applied rigorous intellectual inquiry to their faith, rendering their texts densely (and challengingly) philosophical. This is not something with which Latter-day Saints are necessarily comfortable; our faith tends to be more about how we feel, rather than how we think. However, as the Doctrine and Covenants advises us, Heavenly Father considers it crucial that we study things out in our minds first. [1] We were endowed with the gifts of reason and logic for a purpose. Accordingly, the medieval tradition of thoughtful theology may provide a valuable model on how to use our intellect in support of our faith. Medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, for example, did not attempt to use their logic in order to disprove God, as is so often the case today. Rather, they operated from a tireless perspective of faith, as they scrutinized their beliefs and grappled with the implications thereof, in order to come to a deeper understanding of God.

Another challenge to our approach of apostate Christianity is the fact that the medieval Church operated within a radically different cultural framework than the one Latter-day Saints tend to occupy today. Latter-day Saint culture is more attuned to the simplicities of American Protestantism, making pre-Reformation Catholic Christianity look almost pagan in comparison. Although medieval Christians spoke outside an idiom with which we may be instinctively comfortable, their explorations of God may still offer a number of helpful and relevant insights for us today. For example, Julian of Norwich was a female mystic, who, as a young woman, experienced a number of revelatory visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. She recorded these visions in her 1395 book of devotions, Revelations of Divine Love. Her perspective of God is profound, beautiful, and timeless:

And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.[2]

Julian of Norwich’s idea of God was defined by wonder, love, and an unshakable faith in the future. Prefiguring the words of modern revelation and Latter-day Saint hymns, she offered an eternally relevant message for any of us seeking comfort in difficult times: that God communicates with His children, that God will set everything to right in the end, and that we will one day stand as witnesses that all is, indeed, well.

The lack of the priesthood on Earth during the Apostasy does not mean that God was altogether absent during these centuries, or that there is nothing that medieval Christians may have to teach us about how we approach our religion today. There is a growing awareness and respect within the Church towards the contributions of Christians of the Apostasy; the publication of Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young’s Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy is just one notable recent example. However, on a personal level, it may be time for a second, closer, and more empathetic look at what preceded the Restoration. If nothing else, it may teach us a greater sense of generosity in assessing both our history and our relationship to other faiths—a realisation that all of us, no matter how limited our understanding, are simply striving towards a common goal of coming to know God.

[1] Doctrine and Covenants 9:8.

[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love 31.

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