Prometheus would have loved Joseph Smith. Prometheus, of course, was a lesser god who gave fire and knowledge to mortals and thereby earned an eternity of having his guts gnawed out every day by a large bird. His is a character that shows up all over the place in Greek mythology; he is the man (or demi-god; the categories get fungible) who dared to struggle against the gods and gets creamed for his pains. For example, Achilles in the Iliad is Promethean in his rage after the death of Petrocolus, where his force becomes so overwhelming that it topples lesser gods and threatens the foundations of the world. Of course, the notion of human envy of the divine is hardly a uniquely Greek concern. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is a Promethean story about man wanting to become like God. So is the story of the Tower of Babel. Generally speaking these stories are plotted as tragedies, cautionary tales of the inevitable fall and divine vengeance that awaits those who aspire to too much.
I have always had a soft spot for Prometheus. I figure that to a greater or lesser extent we are probably going to basically fail at most everything that we do. That being the case, fail big. Set yourself a monstrous goal like toppling divinity and go down heroically, I say. The remarkable thing about Mormonism, of course, is that it takes the Prometheus story and retells it as comedy. In Mormon theology, no one gets their guts gnawed out for seeking to be like God. The entire traditional framework of the Fall gets rearranged. It wasn’t really a sin but a mere “transgression,” and it turns out that Eve has chosen the better course in the end. Satan becomes the villain not because — a la Milton’s Promethean devil — he aspired to take God’s glory but because he sought to destroy the agency and progress of man. The great sin turned out to be less about envy of God than of envy of his co-eternal intelligences. Perhaps most dramatically, in the King Follett Discourse, Joseph teaches that the desire to become god, far from being the sine non qua of blasphemy is actually the Great Secret of God’s plan. No small bit of radicalism that.
I wonder, however, if there might not be some value in keeping the Great Secret secret. After all, there is a certain spice in struggle and cosmic rebellion. If it turns out that ultimately there is no basis for existential envy of God, what are we to use as the grist for great literature? What will our Miltons take as their theme if the story of titanic rebellion against the divine is not available? J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of a literary device that he called ucatastrophe. This is the notion that at the very moment when things look bleakest and darkest, when there is no hope, the light breaks through and the day is saved. The armies of Gondor and Rohan standing hopelessly before the Gates of Mordor at the moment just before Sauron is overthrown is a moment of ucatastrophe. So is the resurrection of Christ after three terrible days of betrayal, destruction, torture, and death. In a sense, Mormonism is the ucatastrophe of humanity’s Promethean myth. We struggle with envy of the divine, and some of our more heroically arrogant souls set out to steal sacred fires, eat the fruit, or build towers to heaven. Then, just at the moment when the expected retribution (complete with the eternity of avian gut gnawings) is about to come, the veil is rent, we see God enthroned in yonder heaven and learn the Great Secret. Perhaps there is some drama after all.