December 20, 2010 4 Comments
With Christmas closing in, I’ve been wondering about what we might mean in regard to history as it relates to faith. Can history be faith-promoting?
Doing history involves interpretive acts. Those acts are colored by the historian, her background and training, her life experience and mental state, her native intellectual talents. We can speak of the raw materials of history, letters written in the past, diaries and journals, reports of speeches, newspapers, books, previously written history, annals of the past, and so on. The history written in the present partakes of the past through those materials.
Can, or should history be the servant of faith?
Part of the issue here I think is that we are so limited in our perceptions. Permit some parabolic stuff. If for example our natural eye sight included the ability to see in the ultraviolet spectrum, how might that have changed the way we think of the past? What if we could read minds (whatever that may mean)? History may be a struggle to regain and explain the past in the light of the present (or explain the present in light of the past) but the raw material we have to go on is so limiting that the enterprise seems doomed. If only a few of us see in the ultraviolet spectrum, how would that effect our understanding of the past? It may be fun to speculate, but drawing solid conclusions would be tough I think.
But to the point, let’s take the story of Jesus’s birth for example. The reports we have in the gospels are exceedingly sparse in detail. The meaning of those details is colored by long tradition. That Mary was a virgin, for example. The author of Matt. 1:23 quotes Isaiah as support for Mary’s state of sexual experience. The use of Isaiah however does not actually support the idea that Mary was a virgin with child. KJV use of “virgin” in Isa. 7:14 is a translational malapropism. The meaning is simply “young woman.”
In-house productions of religious history tend to ignore problematic events, for example the interesting internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention, the theological fireworks of 19th century American Protestantism, the church/state oddities of Medieval Christianity, violent denominational name-calling and so forth. Mormonism is no exception of course. Mormon treatment of the Missouri – Mormon war and related matters has generally painted the Mormons as innocent bystanders, burned out, shot and driven solely for their different religious ideas and practices by devils-on-earth like Lilburn Boggs. Not being a Boggs apologist here! But I wonder if our history of the time has done us a disservice as a people. Seeing the people of the past as icons puts up barriers that keeps us from the lessons that could be productive even in a faithful environment.
But I think we are beginning to come to terms with the past in constructive ways. In my opinion, it is possible to maintain faith in Mormonism, despite its foibles, its doctrinal sidetracks and rigidity. Our conception of what it means to have revelatory guidance in a modern church has undergone (and I think will undergo) considerable growth by looking carefully, if somewhat uncomfortably, at the past. The whole process of prophetic guidance is beginning to be seen as less untouchable, more down to earth and interactive than we might have imagined a hundred years ago. In the middle of those kinds of changes, I think it is still possible, indeed completely acceptable to find faith. Faith in an atoning Christ, a prophetic restoration and in angels heard on high and on earth.
So have a Merry and Hopeful Christmas, and a little faith in the bargain! Yes, God bless us, every one.
 An important step here is the publication of The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books volume. It will, I think, have a profound effect on how we see Joseph and the restoration along with the nature of revelation itself.