Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Faithful Historian's Secular History of the Faith: Impossible?

I was asked to move this comment from a previous entry to its own post. Voila!

In my opinion there are very compelling reasons why people should be taught to draw distinctions between secular scholarship and devotional history. Think of the nature of secular scholarship on history. Ideally it should be aimed at providing the best possible analysis of historical evidences using a particular set of intellectual tools. It is not the aim of the historian's craft, at least as most people define it today, to promote or to challenge faith.

Devotional history is a religious exercise as well as a scholarly one. The devotional historian seeks to enhance or deepen believers' spiritual experience of their tradition. BTW, I really think Nate is on to something when he writes about faithful history being an ongoing practice in determining what is normative. What can we bring from our past into the present? How can we define our relationship with the past, while remaining true to our current spiritual convictions? The presentation of the past in this mode does not exclude new insights that would be equally welcome in a secular environment. Bushman's work is as close to perfect in walking the line between the two kinds of history I think we will ever see.

Each kind of history is as much about the present as it is about the past. Secular scholars are sometimes cynical about spiritual experiences and motivations when it comes to writing the history of a faith. Devotional historians craft a view of a faith's past that does as little violence as possible to contemporary belief. People can be educated to understand how to appreciate the difference and use that knowledge to guide them in their response to what they read.

In short, one can write with different aims and methods, and arrive at very different results. Not all history writing is suitable in every context. I do not read from Quinn's Magic World View when I teach Sunday School. I will not use President Hinckley's brief history much when I write my own article on the Restoration (hypothetical).

If we can accept that there are different kinds of history, can we allow that LDS scholars might write different kinds of history and not hold them to devotional history standards whenever they write? Is there ever a time when a scholar is allowed, in a scholarly forum, to forward a hypothesis that contradicts his faith position, but which he or she feels must be explored in forming a secular scholarly view? I think the possibility must exist. Any responsible scholar understands that secular scholarship is tentative. The person who leaps to dismissing faith from the discovery of a tidbit from history is operating in a defective paradigm of truth categories.

Look at the difference between Grant Palmer and Mike Quinn. Someone like a Grant Palmer states clearly that he or she has an agenda that contradicts the faith. In that instance the person is not simply behaving as a scholar, but taking a faith position. A Quinn, who avows loyalty to the LDS Church, writes a historical article in which he explores ideas that make the leadership of that Church uncomfortable (either the Manifesto piece, or the Relief Society piece). He does not seem to have a faith-motivated agenda to change the LDS Church. I simply cannot detect one. Should he punished for sharing his scholarly views? Treating the situation as a hypothetical, I say no.

Secular scholarship always has been and always should be considered a tentative enterprise. Unlike spiritual convictions, which relate to timeless truths acquired through divine illumination, secular scholarship is understood to be perpetually on the move. New methods, new philosophies, new evidences: all these things change our picture of the past on a daily basis. It is only our sad misunderstanding of the differing categories of truth that leads us to fear scholarly analysis as an enemy of faith or eschew spiritual revelation based on scholarly discoveries.


Blogger Hellmut said...

Great essay, Hirum.

I find it interesting that several Utah bishops find it necessary to send their sheep to Grant Palmer to dissuade them from resigning their membership.

Grant Palmer says that his "agenda" is an implication of the research. He struggles to preserve faith as much as possible in light of a reasonable and plausible approach to the evidence.

Anonymous Watt Mahoun said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Hiram.

I agree that we are best served by recognizing the purpose of a particular history, in the sense that all histories are exclusive of some larger collection of perspectives...and the very act of identifying and isolating a perspective belies an agenda.

But the thing that bothers me about faithful history is that it suggests to the mind that it is the preferred perspective for generating and maintainig faith which, in my personal experience, is just the opposite. Sure, to an extent it generates and sustains a certain level of faith for a large number of people...but I believe this comes at the cost of a kind of dumb-down that, while broadly appealing, is too shallow to sustain serious an immune system made weak by under-exposure.

So I am thankful for the histories which are researched and written by the likes of Quinn and Palmer, and agree with you that these valuable. But in my experience, an over-exposure to faithful history, followed by a sudden exposure to other types of history has proven nearly fatal to my faith...not just because my system was shocked by a new virus but because it had first been weaked and then further tramatized by the misguided, even deceitful notion that faithful history was all that mattered, indeed, was all that was true and meaningful.

Blogger Hiram Page said...

First, in response to Hellmut on Palmer:

What does the fact that bishops send members on the edge of leaving Mormonism to Palmer indicate? It tells me that they know there is one man who can make a good case for being a Protestant within the Mormon faith for the sake of clinging to the culture. I don't think it tells us much else.

I also refuse to accept that Palmer's conclusions about the need for a Protestantization of Mormonism are simply the implications of his research. They represent his way of reconciling himself to staying in Mormonism when he rejects many of its unique claims. The sad thing is that Christian claims are equally assailable. Why believe in that Jewish revolutionary Jesus as the son of God, anyway? Are we to trust Paul that much?

Sorry, Hellmut. It is one thing for Palmer to disbelieve Mormonism, but it is another to call his plea for Mormon reform of a distinctly Protestant kind "the implications of research." It is in his religious agenda that Palmer goes beyond scholarship into proselyting against Mormonism as the LDS Church defines it. I not only do not blame them for disciplining him, but I am also frankly amazed that he got off with merely being disfellowshiped.

I know you like to compare this to Galileo, but I don't see it. Palmer's call for Mormon reform of the kind he recommends is not simply the result of research. It is one step away from an ex-Mormons for Jesus witness. I think you have a much better case for Galileo in Mike Quinn, as I imply in the post.

Blogger Hiram Page said...


Thanks for the comments. I agree with you up to a point. In my opinion the Church's failure is one of taking the notion of milk before meat and then removing the second course from the menu. There is a place for milk, and a place for the story of the past that is more akin to the NT Gospels than, say, Vogel's Smith biography. The problem is that there is no concerted attempt on the part of the Church to educate its members beyond the simplest fundamentals.

And, when referring to faithful history, one can bring Bushman's biography into the discussion. I would like to see the day when some Sunday curriculum included the use of more mature works like this one. It takes much of the material from the edgier histories/biographies and puts a more believer-sympathetic spin on the argument.

However, I think there is a time for going gangbusters for whatever one can get a hold of that is worth reading. I can't say when that time is for anyone else. I don't think it is the Church's job to tell us when we have reached that point in time. But, I believe that a mature person can engage even the most controversial material and come out better for the experience. Doubt should be embraced as the friend of faith. It is not something to be feared.

Anonymous Watt Mahoun said...

Totally agreed. Thanks for the response.

The thing is...that more mature faith can often times look so different from that which one is taught as to be entirely unrecognizable as faith.


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