To a large degree Mormonism is about the recapitulation of the past. Our religious ordinances all involve the re-enactment of certain stories, e.g. the last supper, the fall of Adam and Eve, etc. More basically, Joseph Smith’s revelations offered early Mormons an opportunity to — in the words of Richard Bushman — recapitulate the stories of the Bible. Early Mormons did not simply read the Bible, they got to relive it, complete with forced exoduses and polygamy.
The youth of Mormonism frustrates a lot of intellectuals. They note — entirely correctly — that older religious traditions have a much richer literature on theology, philosophy, and scriptural hermeneutics. For some this even leads to a crisis of faith, and they sell their birthright for a shelf full of books. This is tragic, but not for the reasons that one might normally imagine. I always think that turning away from the Restoration, the fellowship of the Saints, and the power of the priesthood is tragic, but to do so because of the intellectual immaturity of Mormonism is sad for other, purely intellectual reasons.
First, it is tragic because it rests on the mistaken belief that Mormonism somehow cuts one off from the shelves of books, which can only be grasped and appreciated by rejecting the Restoration. However, it is tragic at a deeper level. Nineteenth-century Mormons got to recapitulate in their own lives the stories of the Bible. Mormon intellectuals have the opportunity to recapitulate the intellectual history of other faiths. A few Mormons — Orson Pratt and B.H. Roberts come to mind — have realize this and grasped at the possibility, realizing what a rare position they find themselves in. To be sure, reading Origen and Augustine is a wonderful experience. Mormon intellectuals, however, get to do so much more than read Origen and Augustine. They get to live Origen and Augustine, thrashing out for a new faith its relationship to the life of mankind’s mind. Like Origen and Augustine, they find themselves with a new — and in many ways crude — religion trying to come to terms with a conversation that has already been happening for centuries.
A Mormon can read Augustine and Origen not simply out of intellectual reverence or historical curiosity, but as fellow adventurers at the dawning of a new religious tradition. It is an opportunity that only comes around every millennia or two, and missing it is the tragedy of turning from the intellectual immaturity of Mormonism.