I don’t think that it is an accident that monotheism first come out of the desert. It is, I think, an issue of scale. Polytheism allows one to have limited deities on a local scale. One has the god of this spring or that hill, or perhaps of this particular clan or tribe. To be sure polytheistic religions frequently have some sort of shadowy master god in the background. Traditional Korean religion has Hananim. Prior to the advent of Islam, the Arabs had an array of deities but behind them stood the not fully articulated figure of Allah. Yet it seems to be in the desert that the over-god first came to the fore, dismissed the lesser gods as demons or delusions, and established himself as the One True God.
The God of monotheism is unimaginably huge, and correspondingly humanity becomes puny and small. I think that deserts facilitate the spiritual attitude necessary to make this kind of leap. In the desert the human scale is small. Huge cities are not possible. The margins of survival are small. There is constant anxiety about water, the force of the elements, or finding food. Every human accomplishment can be easily obliterated by the next sand storm, and one lives one’s life balanced on a knife edge between survival and eternity. In other words, it is an environment that makes one acutely aware of humanity as a pawn to much vaster and more powerful forces. The only other geography I can think of that would produce a similar spiritual outlook would be the open sea.
Of course, in one sense Mormon theology represents an assault on the scale of the massive monotheistic god of the desert. By presenting human beings as essentially theomorphic, we get an exalted vision of man that in some ways is more akin to the heroic Greek view of man as demi-god in waiting than to the puny vision of man alone in the desert. Yet despite the theological narrowing of the gap between the human and the divine, Mormon spirituality retains, I think, the essential sense of awe and humility before the power of God. Indeed, one of the problems that protestant polemics against Mormon theology regularly runs into is its assumption that Mormon spirituality flows in a simple and uncomplicated way from Mormon theology. Hence, they assume that our anthropomorphic deity and theomorphic humanity leads to a spirituality bereft of awe and worship. Yet the outsider descriptions of the inner spiritual life of Mormons rings hollow. Most Mormons, I think, retain a sense of awe before the power of God. If one thinks about it, this is curious if not surprising. After all, the protestants seem to have a point: our theology does radically narrow the gap between man and God and one would expect a corresponding diminishment of God in our spirituality. Why hasn’t this happened, or at least happened to the extent suggested that protestant polemics?
The answer, I think, lies is deserts. It is important I think that almost immediately after the most radically anthropomorphic elements of Mormon theology were let loose on the Saints in Nauvoo that they were cast into the wilderness. For the next three generations, at least, Mormon spirituality was dominated by the desert. To be sure, Mormons heard sermons that presented a radically finitist vision of God. Yet the day to day world in which Mormons practiced their spirituality was the marginal world of the desert. It was a world dominated by fear of floods, draughts, and the narrow band of half-arable land at the edge of a howling waste. Half a century or more of such experience at a key point in the history of Mormon spirituality has left its mark. Hence, when understanding how Mormons relate to God it is not enough simply to make deductions from our theology. One must also factor in the power of the Great Basin desert as a primal source of a spiritual world view.
In a sense, we maintained the core of monotheistic spirituality not by virtue of a militantly monotheistic theology (like Islam) but rather by virtue of geography.