Zelophehad’s Daughters

History and Faith

Posted by Lynnette

A couple of recent discussions have gotten me thinking about the relationship between history and faith. Not every person takes the same approach to navigating the challenges posed by historical problems, of course, and I respect that there are a variety of ways of conceptualizing the interplay betwen the two. What I can’t quite make sense of, however, is the idea that they can be completely separated, that one can talk about faith without reference to history or dismiss history as being irrelevant to faith. (In other words, the “if you have a testimony, then history doesn’t matter” line of thought.)

As I see it, given that we are historical beings, our faith is necessarily going to have historical content. We don’t speak of faith solely in terms of a transcendent realm which is unrelated to our world–if we did, it would be difficult to see how faith was at all relevant to our lives here. Our faith claims are closely tied up with our history. What does it mean, for example, to assert that the LDS church is true? One can only answer this in terms of history, as the Church isn’t an otherworldly entity but a historical institution. Even if the source of one’s testimony of the truthfulness of the Church lies in spiritual experience (itself a historical event in the life of the individual, I would add, despite its transcendent qualities), the claim is fundamentally a historical one.

Sometimes we seem to talk about history as if it were something which needs to be peeled away in order to discover the “pure doctrine” lying beneath. In this model, the road to truth is to get outside of history. But revelation comes to us in history, not apart from it. What we know of God is mediated through the particularities of our history, through our culture, through our language. God doesn’t call us out of history; the radical claim of Christianity is that God actually came to us and lived with us in human history. We as individuals encounter the divine in the concrete histories of our personal lives, not in some separate “spiritual” realm. We do not find God by escaping history; rather, we meet God in history.

This means that an encounter with new historical information has the potential to cause a person to seriously question and re-examine his or her beliefs. I don’t think we can get away from that. But I don’t see it as a problem; in fact, I would argue that we should take our history seriously enough that we let it affect the way we understand our religion. We freely acknowledge that history can play a role in sparking and strengthening faith; we tell “faith-promoting stories” precisely because we recognize this power. And I don’t think we can have it both ways. We can’t tell our favorite pioneer stories and celebrate the way in which history can build faith on the one hand, but then when more difficult aspects of history arise, dismiss them as irrelevant and quickly retreat to a notion that faith is ahistorical.

In the introduction to his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation, Douglas Davies comments that “history within Mormonism often plays the role occupied in other traditions by theology.” (p. 11) I’m fascinated by this observation. To be a Lutheran, a Lutheran pastor friend of mine once told me, is to have a worldview informed by the notion of justification by faith. Could one say in a similar way, I wonder, that to be a Mormon is to believe that Joseph Smith had a genuine encounter with the divine? In any case, it seems clear to me that history plays a particularly central role in LDS belief. We do not give investigators a list of theological propositions which constitute Mormonism; we tell them the story of the First Vision. We bear testimony of historical events. I also notice that academic work in Mormonism thus far has been dominated by historians, and that many who leave the Church do so specifically because they are troubled by aspects of Church history. History plays a major role for Christianity in general (the extent to which the Nicene Creed is a historical narrative is rather striking), but I think Mormons in particular are in no position to dismiss its importance or relevance.

When people encounter difficult aspects of Church history, often their situation gets framed as if they have only two choices: they can either abandon their faith, or they can dismiss the problematic material as irrelevant to their faith. But I believe there are other alternatives. I see faith not as a static quality which a person either has or does not have, rather, I see it as something dynamic, something living. I do not believe that having faith means claiming a particular spot of ground and then refusing to budge; scriptural metaphors suggest that faith is something which grows and changes. And I think part of this growth is the process of continually re-thinking our beliefs in light of our understanding of history, both our own personal history and the history of our tradition.

I therefore don’t believe that the most effective method of dealing with historical ambiguities is to either whitewash the history, or to attempt to completely disconnect it from faith. The former all too often leads to a sense of betrayal and shattered beliefs when a person stumbles across less rosy aspects of the past, and I think the latter is simply untenable, as a successful separation of faith from history would produce a faith which had nothing to do with one’s own concrete historical life. A much better approach, I would say, is to engage the difficulties, to seriously think about what they mean for our beliefs— for example, to tackle such questions as “how do we understand what it means to be a prophet in light of these statements and behavior by past prophets?” I see this as being an area where the discipline of theology has much to offer; the theological project, after all, is to make sense of one’s faith in dialogue with one’s historical experience.

Some argue that the best way to safeguard faith is to remove it from the realm of anything which could potentially threaten it. Is science raising difficult questions for faith? Then put them in separate rooms and assert that they have nothing to say to each other. Might history be a problem? Then keep it far away before it infects anyone’s beliefs. But a faith which is carefully protected like this is, I believe, an impoverished one. I don’t think we need to rush to explain away or dismiss historical difficulties, or to interpret them as a reason to give up on faith altogether. Instead, I like the idea of simply sitting with them for a bit, taking them seriously, letting them challenge us.

38 Responses to “History and Faith”

  1. 1.

    Lynnette – it seems to me as though Christianity is a faith in tension with its own historical content. Christians have dealt with this in a number of ways. For instance, in a real sense it seems to me that pure Lutheranism or the Christianity of Schleiermacher or Barth is in fact an attempt to separate religion from the world of history; to reduce it to a pure timeless encounter between the soul and God that trumps our context.

    While there is some of this in Mormonism, it seems that a more prominent way we attempt to cope with history is to manage it, to make it providential – to rethink history in terms for faith rather than the other way around. ‘Difficult’ aspects of church history can be assimilated in this way – polygamy can become an act of charity for poor benighted widows or an Abrahamic test of faith. This is what evangelicals do; it’s not really separation, and it makes me wonder if Davies is right.

  2. 2.

    Matt, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that many Christian thinkers have dealt with the conundrums of history by attempting to reduce religion to an otherworldly encounter. It’s an approach I find problematic, for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned here, though I think I can understand the impetus behind such a move–historians in the last few centuries have invaded religious turf with a vengeance, and I can appreciate the desire to carve out a space for faith where it can’t be touched by the vagaries of historical scholarship. But I don’t think that’s the optimal solution to the problem.

    I wrote this post partly in response to the answer which I’ve seen given so often when people raise concerns about Joseph Smith and polygamy or whatever else–namely, if you have a spiritual witness of the Church, then there’s simply no need to worry about that stuff. But you’re right that another common answer is to read all events in light of some grand divine scheme, in which case as you say, history isn’t really in dialogue with faith, but is subordinated to it. And I hadn’t thought about that tendency in connection with Davies’ assertion–you raise a good question there.

  3. 3.

    Great post, Lynnette.

    I agree that Mormonism is a religion that emphatically inserts the divine into the mundane, and as a consequence the mundane has implications for our view of the divine. So we have two conjoined realms in which to discover truth, all of which should be circumscribed into one undivided whole, as they say.

    We also have two methods for discovering truth: intellectual inquiry and revelation. Because, for us, the sacred and the secular are deeply interwoven, we can’t assign one of these methods to one realm and the other to the other. So, I think, another way of describing the issue you’re struggling with is: how should we approach situations in which reason (whether of a historical, theological, etc. nature) comes into conflict with revelation as a mode of finding truth?

    Some people simply reject the premise; the two can never conflict. Others feel that they have experienced such conflict. When there is conflict, I see at least four possibilities. 1) Conclude that revelation is an unreliable tool for discovering truth. 2) Conclude that reason is an unreliable tool for discovering truth. 3) Use reason to revise the content of revealed faith claims until they are compatible with the other fruits of reason. 4) Hold onto the contradiction, without resolution, in the faith that some day you’ll be able to make sense of it.

    I can see advantages to each of these approaches. My personal experience favors some mixture of the third and fourth, but I can’t see any reason that this preference couldn’t simply be idiosyncratic on my part. For other people, it might simply be the case that what seems right to me is wrong for them, no?

  4. 4.

    As usual, a thought-provoking comment, RT. You’ve gotten me thinking about my own approach–which is also probably a combination of your options three and four. But can I make a case that this is the best way to do things, or is this simply a matter of personal preference? As I said in my opening paragraph, I can respect that there are a number of ways to balance history and faith, (or as you’ve framed the question, reason and revelation). However, I’m not sure that I could accept a strict version of either option one or option two, simply because I don’t see how it’s possible to speak of faith/revelation completely independent of history/reason, or vice versa. I do think, however, that the weight which one gives to one or the other likely falls into the realm of varying personal religious worldviews, which leaves quite a bit of room for diversity.

    Thinking about this more, I should note that I’m not really objecting to someone explaining that because of the way in which she understands her faith, the historical stuff which freaks some people out really doesn’t bother her. I have no problem believing that’s genuinely the case for some people, though I’d nonetheless stand by my assertion that all faith is to some degree historically shaped. What does bother me, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, is that when people raise concerns about history, the response they often get is something along the lines of, “there’s no reason for that to bother someone with a testimony.” I think we as a church don’t do a very stellar job when it comes to dealing with the ambiguities in our history (how’s that for understatement), as evidenced by the all too common pattern of someone discovering previously unknown historical data and having a serious crisis of faith as a result. So maybe what I’m getting at is that while a version of number two might be a viable option for some, I think we have a tendency to over-prescribe it, and I’d like to at least raise alternate possibilities.

    And of course I’m completely making this up as I go, so thanks for pushing me to think about this more.

  5. 5.

    I have been expending too much of my intellectual energy wrestling with issues like these, so thank you for this thoughtful post.

    It seems to me that RT’s #3 (use reason to revise the content of revealed faith) implies an acceptance of #1 (conclude that revelation is an unreliable tool for discovering truth). After all, you would use reason to “revise” the truth discovered by revelation only if you also believe that revelation is unreliable on its own. And #4 (hold on to the contradiction until it can explained at some future time) implies an acceptance of #2 (conclude that reason is an unreliable tool for discovering truth), since you hold to revelation in the face of contradictory evidence only if you believed that the conclusions compelled by reason were unreliable and thus subject to change as more information becomes available or as one’s reasoning becomes more refined. If this is correct, then I don’t think you can some mixture of 3 and 4 without, at the same time, adopting some mixture 1 and 2.

    I would agree with you, Lynette, when you say that when historical issues challenge our faith, we should resist the urge to whitewash. Instead, you suggest that we should “engage the difficulties, [and] seriously think about what they mean for our beliefs, for example, to tackle such questions as “how do we understand what it means to be a prophet in light of these statements and behavior by past prophets?” This is the right approach if one’s faith is to be taken for granted. However, this approach begs the most important question. Maybe revelation, or at least our perception of what constitutes revealed truth, isn’t revelation at all. When that question is put out on the table as an open question, then a lot changes. And if we are going to at least partially subordinate revelation to reason by allowing reason to inform and amend our understanding of those truths which we believe have been revealed, then why not also allow reason to challenge the very premise that those “truths” which we thought were revealed, were revealed at all?

  6. 6.

    RT,
    You can reason that reason is an unreliable, or at least limited tool for discovering truth, just ask Karl Popper. I suppose you could coherently go with the first method, but you would have to be a whole lot more skilled in spiritual discernment than I. That is a road that can lead to some sad abuses in history, if such is to be believed. For this reason, I think both are required, and that a combination of 3 and 4 is really the only way to go. I don’t see it as a matter of preference so much a balancing of tensions that leads you in the correct path to God.

  7. 7.

    I like your points, Lynnette, particularly this one:

    We do not find God by escaping history; rather, we meet God in history.

    I am probably just restating what several of you have already said, but it seems impossible to me to encounter revelation without reason. I mean, revelation comes to us in the form of language, after all, so we have to at least reason about what the language means. I guess I think something like your #3, RT, is inevitable. It’s just a question of how much reason gets used to interpret revelation.

    Regarding RT’s #4, I wonder if some of us aren’t dispositionally better at holding contradictions in our heads without forcing some resolution. Some personality psychologists talk about a need for cognitive closure. I used to think I was low in this trait–that I was good at holding on to apparent contradictions–but I’ve come to realize that I’m probably not.

  8. 8.

    The first question that came to my mind is why put historical restrictions or requirements on the LDS church that don’t seem to apply to any other Christian religion? Every Christian church has similar historical hurdles, going back to the basics of Jesus’ divinity, the atonement and the resurrection.

    No Christian religion can historically prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, that he paid for all mankind’s sins, and that he was resurrected. Those three things have to be discovered through revelation, usually via a process of exercising faith. They can’t be historically proven or disproven.

    If Christianity could be “proven” then all the smart people, or all the best historians in the world would be Christians. No religion can be historically proven to be true.

    If faith, and not history, is sufficient for discovering Christ’s divinity, atonement, and resurrection, why is faith not sufficient for discovering lesser important items, such as “which church should I join?”

    Every Christian church and religion formed from the 2nd century onward has historical hurdles, especially the Catholic church and every denomination that spun off of it. Even accepting which ancient documents are and are not reliable as the “Word of God” is a historical hurdle, so that reliance on the Bible itself cannot be a given.

    It was the ancient Catholic church which decided which writings to include or not include in the canon of the Bible. So if the authority of the Catholic church is not a given, even the canonized nature of the Bible is suspect and must be proven via faith and revelation, not history.

    I’m sure Catholic apologists have rejoinders to all the historical questions that an investigator of Catholicism might have. But even apologists of all Christian religions, must come to the point where they admit that acceptance of the correctness of their religion comes via faith, and not historical proof.

    The original post of this thread took me back to my investigation of Christianity during my teen years. I came to a faith in Christ, i.e., “accepted him as my Savior” while attending a Protestant-style non-denominational church. The question in my mind was not whether the Bible was correct, or which church was official or “best”. The question of evil deeds done in the name of Christianity, though I was aware of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the hypocrisy of many Christians, never entered into my decision-making process. The existance of a God, and the existance of a biblical Jesus didn’t depend on what mere mortal men said or did.

    The personal history of the preacher was also of no relevance. The question, or prayer, in my mind, was whether what he was saying was true. Was there a God? Was their a Jesus Christ, son of God? Did he really die for our sins? Was he really brought back to life?

    Those questions are too important for one to rely on historians or ancient record-keepers for the answers. Men are liars. That preacher could have been a liar. The people who wrote the bible could have lied. The people who decided what went into the Bible and what was kept out could have been liars.

    Reliance on “history” is reliance on men.

    If there is a God, and if God wants us to “follow him”, whatever that means, then there must be answers outside of the history-discovering process.

    So yes, history really is irrelevant to faith and revelation. Or at least it should be.

    History cannot be satisfactorily proven, mainly because men are going to lie about facts in regards to things they disagree with.

    I have a testimony, by revelation, that there is a God, that there is a Jesus, his son, who made an atoning sacrifice for our sins. All history of Christians and Christianity pales in comparison. It doesn’t matter what Christians, or professed Christians have done. Those things don’t alter the fact that God lives, and that Jesus is the Savior, and that I know those things. The selling of indulgences? The Crusades? The Inquisition? The force conversions? The slaughters? The hypocrisy and lies of so-called Christians? None of it matters to the question of whether God is God and whether Jesus is the Savior.

    I have a testimony, by revelation, that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, and that the Jesus of the 3rd Book of Nephi is the same Jesus of the Bible. I know that because God told me, or caused me to know, via the Holy Ghost. The history of Joseph Smith and his followers pales in comparison. No matter what he did, or what happened to him, nothing changes the fact that he saw God and Jesus, and that the Book of Mormon is what it says, and that I know those things.

    While it may be intellectually interesting to study things like the Spaulding manuscript, View of the Hebrews, and the Golden Flower Pot, no historical evidence (or better said “claims” of historical evidence, because men are as much liars today as they were anciently), can change the revelation or miraculous testimony that I’ve received.

    Polygamy? Mountain Meadows? Blood atonement? Priesthood ban? They don’t matter if Joseph Smith was a true prophet and if Brigham Young was his true successor. If Joseph Smith was really a prophet, and if his authority was passed on to Brigham Young, then the LDS church of today (the one based in SLC) is the true church. Everything else, even the faith-challenging things, pales in comparison, whether those other things are true or not.

    For even if the faith-challenging things are true, they are so outweighed by the more important facts, that the need for explanations or reconcilliations between the challenges and the over-arching facts also pale in comparison.

    The Spaulding manuscript? I don’t care what the explanation or resolution is. But I can easily come up with four possibilities. 1) There really was no plagiarism, and the similarities are just coincidence. There are more and stronger similarities between the Book of Mormon, and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” which was written later. 2) It was created after the fact, planted as a hoax, a conspiracy to discredit the Book of Mormon. 3) It was inspired of Satan who had a general idea of what was going to be in the Book of Mormon, with the purpose of discrediting the Book of Mormon. 4) It was inspired of God with the purpose of creating a test or trial of faith.

    It’s fun to come up with those scenarios, but it really doesn’t matter to me which one might be close, if any.

    I don’t rule out divine (or satanic) interference in the making or creating of historical challenges. Because the receipt of a powerful Spirit-borne testimony (of God, the scriptures, and the church) is in itself miraculous. My testimony is proof, to me, of the existence of the divine, and God’s miraculous interaction with men. Therefore, no jumps of logic are needed to suppose that there can exist miraculous, if needed, explanations to every supposedly historical occurance.

    Once the premise of God’s miraculous intervention is established (and it is established when one receives a Spirit-borne testimony), then miraculous intervention becomes a possible answer to all challenges to faith.

    As far as I’m aware, no religion tries to “prove” its correctness via historical arguments. (Though many use their history to illustrate possibility or plausibility.) No religion claims to have historical perfection among its past leaders and theology.

    I disagree with your statement that our missionaries don’t give investigators a list of theological propositions. The plan of salvation, the atonement of Christ, the nature and purpose of God, the premortal existence, the 3 degrees of heaven, are all taught by missionaries, and are theological propositions, aren’t they?

  9. 9.

    Bookslinger,
    Thanks for offering a more extended version of “if you have a testimony, then history doesn’t matter” approach. My problem with this approach is that just as history and reason can be revised, so can our understanding of revelation. For example, after the priesthood ban was lifted, didn’t Bruce R. McConkie and others who had said so assuredly that it would never be lifted admit that they had been mistaken? Doesn’t that sound like they were operating with revelation, but weren’t understanding it fully?

    In your comment, although you clearly disagreed with Lynnette’s point, you seemed to be using a revelation plus interpretation (i.e., reason) approach when you said,

    If Joseph Smith was really a prophet, and if his authority was passed on to Brigham Young, then the LDS church of today (the one based in SLC) is the true church. Everything else, even the faith-challenging things, pales in comparison, whether those other things are true or not.

    So if God tells me Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were prophets, I can reason to the conclusion that the LDS church is true? What if God tells me those things, but I later decide, as fundamentalist Mormons have, that Wilford Woodruff broke the chain of true prophets by stopping polygamy. Then wouldn’t I be reinterpreting God’s original revelation to me about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young? While I might have originally thought that he was telling me they were prophets in order to lead me to the LDS church, I might now think that he was specifically telling me about these men and not about subsequent LDS leaders because they were fallen prophets for having given up polygamy.

    Regarding the issue of miracles, it seems to me that you have again mixed the revelation you have received with your own reasoning. You have your own testimony, which you regard as miraculous, but you then generalize (i.e., reason) to the conclusion that miracles are possible explanations for any weirdness in Church history. Maybe all God was trying to tell you was that your particular testimony was miraculous, not that miracles were potentially commonplace.

    I think when we receive revelation, whether from God or through prophets, we interpret it. Even if we think that we’re just taking its plain meaning, we have to interpret it to understand it, and this involves reasoning. The two cannot be divorced. You might argue over which particular interpretations are better, but I don’t think that you can divorce revelation from reasoning.

  10. 10.

    Bookslinger, thanks for adding your perspective to this conversation. I think you’ve raised a lot of good issues. I have a couple of thoughts in response.

    First of all, I wasn’t intending to put historical requirements on the LDS faith that don’t apply to other Christians, as I alluded to, I think this is an issue for Christianity generally. I do think it’s possibly more prominent in our church, however, both because we place a lot of emphasis on our history (my off-the-top guess would be that Mormons are more likely than those of many other denominations to be familiar with the events surrounding the founding of their church), and because I think while Christians generally have one major historical event at their core: the death and resurrection of Christ, we have two: the death and resurrection of Christ, and the Restoration. So the challenges posed by history are perhaps somewhat intensified.

    Also, this may not have been clear, but I wasn’t at all trying to argue that we should base our faith on history. I agree with you that historical scholarship isn’t going to prove the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ, and that such knowledge ultimately has to come through revelation. The point I was trying to make is that I think that even though our beliefs are grounded in revelation, they are nonetheless inevitably shaped by history. Which is why I can’t agree with your comment that

    So yes, history really is irrelevant to faith and revelation. Or at least it should be.

    If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that you have a testimony that there is a God (for example), and that history can’t challenge that firm conviction. That makes sense to me, I think. But when I look at my own belief in God–which I would say is based on spiritual experience–I find that my understanding of who that God is is profoundly shaped by history, both my own personal history, and the histories of God’s dealings with various people as recorded in scripture and other places. When I encounter stories I find difficult (e.g., Abraham and Isaac), they challenge my understanding of God. That’s why it’s hard for me to understand how history could be irrelevant to faith. Once I start talking about my faith in any kind of concrete way, I always find myself talking about things in terms of history.

    Also, if history really were irrelevant, I’m not sure that we would have the kind of scriptures that we do, ones which are by and large a record of history. I’d think that instead God would give us a list of abstract theological propositions.

    Once the premise of God’s miraculous intervention is established (and it is established when one receives a Spirit-borne testimony), then miraculous intervention becomes a possible answer to all challenges to faith.

    Just a quick, somewhat tangential, thought on that–one of my deepest concerns doesn’t involve the possibility of miraculous intervention, but the deafening silence of so much apparent non-intervention in the face of horrific evil. That’s actually where I find history the most challenging, personally. It’s not accepting the possibility that miraculous intervention could have occurred, but making sense of how often it hasn’t.

    I also have to admit that I’m a bit wary of the appealing to supernatural intervention to account for particular historical events. I can’t rule it out as a possibility, but I also think it’s good to be cautious in pulling it out as a trump card.

    I disagree with your statement that our missionaries don’t give investigators a list of theological propositions. The plan of salvation, the atonement of Christ, the nature and purpose of God, the premortal existence, the 3 degrees of heaven, are all taught by missionaries, and are theological propositions, aren’t they?

    Okay, you’ve got me there; I did overstate my case on that one. You’re right, we certainly do include theology in such discussions. What I was trying to get at is that I think that the core of our faith is a historical event (or events), rather than a particular theological proposition.

    (I was actually just talking last night with someone who had met with the missionaries as an undergrad. She said that her basic problem with LDS beliefs involved christology in some way, though she couldn’t remember her exact concern. I was curious; I asked what the missionaries had said. She said that they wouldn’t talk about it, because they wanted to first go over the Joseph Smith story. I don’t know if this is typical or not, but it was interesting to hear.)

  11. 11.

    Lynnette,

    Great post, as always.

    I’m reminded of the essay by former assistant church historian Davis Bitton, called “I don’t have a testimony of the history of the church.” He writes:

    What’s potentially damaging or challenging to faith depends entirely, I think, on one’s expectations, and not necessarily history. Any kind of experience can be shattering to faith if the expectation is such that one is not prepared for the experience. . . .

    The problem is the incongruity between the expectation and the reality. History is similar. One moves into the land of history, so to speak, and finds shattering incongruities which can be devastating to faith. But the problem is with the expectation, not with the history. . . .

    The Lord does not expect us to believe lies. We believe in being honest and true, as well as chaste and benevolent. My experience, like that of Leonard [Arrington], has not been one of having my faith destroyed. I think my faith has changed and deepened and become richer and more consistent with the complexities of human experience. Perhaps the only answer to a question about faith and history is to say that we are examples of people who know a fair amount about Mormon history and still have strong testimonies of the gospel.

    (See http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/getpdf.php?filename=MTkyMTU0MjE1NS0xNi0yLnBkZg==&type=cmV2aWV3 )

  12. 12.

    Gary and Doc, I appreciate your thoughts about how RT’s various options might be related. I think my own ideal is a real back-and-forth dialogue in which reason and revelation, faith and history, genuinely inform and shape each other, rather than a one-way affair in which revelation is the underlying structure and the role of reason is simply to smooth out the rough edges, so to speak (or, of course, vice versa).

    Also, Gary, I can see your point about being open to the possibility that what we think is revelation is not in fact revelatory. In looking at what I’ve said, I’m realizing that (for better or worse) I’m coming at this with the biases of a systematic theologian. Systematic theology starts with the faith claims of a particular tradition and reflects on them, puts them in dialogue with experience and reason and all of that. But since its audience is generally believers, it doesn’t usually get into what’s sometimes called “fundamental theology,” which seeks to establish the truth of the claims in the first place. Both are obviously important and necessary, but I have to confess that my own interests largely lie in the first area, which doubtless accounts for the way I’ve framed this. The question I’m personally interested in is, given that Mormons accept these particular faith claims, how do we then put them in dialogue with the ambiguities of our history? But the question of, on what basis do we accept these particular faith claims as genuinely revelatory, is certainly also one worth exploring.

  13. 13.

    Lynette: I am also more interested in how we let our reason inform and modify our faith without pulling the rug right out from underneath it. When confronted with intellectual challenges to my faith, whether arising from history or from other sources, I try to ask the question “what does this tell me about what it means to be a prophet, or what it means for the church to be true, or what does this tell me about the way in which God relates to his children?” However, I have to admit that when I do this, I may be begging the real question, because the evidence is sometimes best explained by letting go of the premise I want to cling to.

  14. 14.

    Ziff, thanks for the comments. I’m intrigued by the link you suggest to personal temperament. I often wonder to what extent various religious approaches are simply a result of diverse personality traits. I too have tended to think I have a reasonably high tolerance for ambiguity, but I also have to admit that after a point it starts to make me a bit crazy.

    And I think in #9, you’ve really hit on the crux of the problem: we don’t have “pure” (i.e., ahistorical, non-linguistic, etc. access to revelation). I don’t see how we can possibly untangle revelation from our interpretation of it. Which pretty much sums up, I think, why I’m so skeptical about the possibility of separating faith from history.

    Thanks for the link, Kaimi. I especially appreciate the observation that Bitton makes about how one’s expectations influence the extent to which historical data is troubling.

    Gary observed,

    I have to admit that when I do this, I may be begging the real question, because the evidence is sometimes best explained by letting go of the premise I want to cling to.

    You’ve definitely got a point there, unsettling though it may be. I can’t deny that I’ve had similar thoughts. And I suppose that as long as we’re dealing with faith and its inherent uncertainty, we can’t–by definition–ever escape the possibility that we might be completely wrong in what we believe.

    And just one more comment in response to #8, this being a feminist blog and all:

    Reliance on “history” is reliance on men.

    So does reliance on revelation involve reliance on women? ;)

  15. 15.

    Lynnette,

    While I agree with most of what you said in your post, and also with most of the comments, I want to speak up in favor of the “If you have a testimony, history doesn’t matter” approach. I don’t mean that history doesn’t matter, because as you have demonstrated, it matters a lot. I think a better wasy to say it would be: “If you have a testimony, this new historical datum probably isn’t dispositive one way or the other.”

    I am not arguing that we should separate testimony from history, because I don’t think that is even possible. I am arguing that we should situate testimony within history.

    I think a very good way to think of my testimony is as the sum of my historical experience. I have accumulated hundreds of facts, experiences, and impressions over the years that have led me to some conclusions about God and the claims of the LDS church. When a new fact comes to light, it deserves to be evaluated, but it does not automatically and immediately deserve the same weight as the hundreds of other facts I have already encountered and evaluated. Otherwise, we would have to give up our belief in the law of gravity every time we see a plane take off.

    I’m pretty much agreeing with everything you say, Lynnette, especially with your argument about why history matters. But I think it is a mistake to exclude our own, personal histories from consideration. They are part of the story too, and they deserve to be taken into account.

  16. 16.

    Ziff, you’re right. I’m taking my testimony of basic things (God/Jesus/BoM/Joseph Smith), using it as a foundation, and then using scripture study, logic and reason to build layers of faith that appear to me to fit upon that foundation. Those “mushy” subsequent layers of faith eventually gel or harden into firmness, even if they don’t have the foundational strength, or “level of testimony” of the first layer.

    I had my point, after I joined the church, when I questioned whether the line of authority continued with Brigham Young or Joseph Smith III. While pondering that, Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the 12, spoke at our stake conference. The Spirit bore witness to me that he was a true apostle. That was a nice “shortcut”, because I then didn’t have to pray over each succeeding president since Joseph Smith. I used my own reasoning to deduce that if David B. Haight was a true apostle, then the line of authority continued through Brigham Young, and the currently consitituted Salt-Lake-based LDS church is still the true church.

    So yes, you’re right, I’m using revelation, then using study and reasoning to build on it.

    “but you then generalize (i.e., reason) to the conclusion that miracles are possible explanations for any weirdness in Church history.”

    Correct. I believe that particular generalization can be based on scriptures, that God doesn’t change, and that God is not a respecter of persons, etc.

    I don’t believe McConkie said the priesthood ban would _never_ be lifted. I’m pretty confident that Presidents from Spencer Kimball going back to at least David O. McKay said that it eventually would be lifted.

    The church has been silent on _why_ the priesthood ban was in place and _why_ the ban was removed, other than to say “the time has come.” The church has not repudiated the ban, just removed it. So we are left to wonder if the ban was really God’s will in the first place, or whether it was just a tradition started by Brigham Young. I don’t know the answer to that. My faith and testimony won’t (I hope) be shaken to find out for sure either way.

    I’ve read some of McConkie’s pre-1978 statements and many of his post-1978 statements on the matter. I believe his pre-1978 statements were put forth as suppositions, and deductions, not doctrine. The church never officially endorsed the “not valiant in the pre-mortal existance” line, even though more than one apostle repeated it. And since 1978, the church has not officially and explicitly denied the “not valiant” line either.

    I’m satisfied with the “We’ve received further light and knowledge, so let’s move on ahead from this point” line of explanation. Those who aren’t satisfied are free to seek spiritual confirmation.

    I can accept the changes with the explanation of “We’ve received further light and knowledge so let’s move on” because that fits in with the “line upon line, precept upon precept” idea taught in scriptures. And yes, I’m using my own reasoning and logic to arrive at that, and I’m comfortable with it.

    Lynette, I put the history in scriptures in a different category apart from secular history.

    I think the difficult things in the scriptures are there to help us understand more of the nature and attributes of both God and man.

    I think the presence of untold evil in the world is also there to help us understand the nature of God, man, and the nature of existance itself. They are difficult things to synthesize. Many times the best we can do is come up with _possible_ explanations to the challenges.

    For instance, in response to the Lamanite DNA challenge, I quickly read about and thought of several possibilities, both miraculous and mundane. 1) maybe there were Asian immigrants already in the Americas with whom the Nephites and/or Lamanites mixed. 2) maybe there came Asians to the Americas during or after the Nephite dynasty. 3) Maybe leftover Jaredites had Asian DNA that was mixed in. 4) If there were Asian immigrants concurrent with the Lamanites, maybe there were “bottlenecks” such that the Lehite DNA was bred out. 5) Maybe God miraculous changed the Lamanite DNA when he caused them to have a dark skin. 6) Maybe Sariah, Ishmael or Mrs. Ishmael were themselves Asian.

    If we’re all descended from Noah, or Adam/Eve, then why are there different Y-chromosomes among males, and different mitochondrial DNA among women? Possibilities: 1) maybe there has been enough time since Noah/Adam for there to be DNA mutations or “drift”, or 2) maybe God changed people’s DNA since Adam.

    We don’t know the reasons for untold suffering and evil in the world. But the doctrine of pre-mortal existance, and the promise of a judgement at the end of the world, puts temporal suffering into perspective. I think it’s wrong to say that everyone who suffers deserves to suffer, and that it’s wrong to say suffering doesn’t matter. But the doctrines open the door to possibilities.

    And if I’m not satisfied with those possibilities, I’m free to both study more, and go to the Lord for spiritual assurances.

  17. 17.

    [...] March 18th, 2007 at 3:32 pm (Uncategorized) A comment by RoastedTomatoes on Zelophehad’s Daughters: Mormonism is a religion that emphatically inserts the divine into the mundane, and as a consequence the mundane has implications for our view of the divine. So we have two conjoined realms in which to discover truth, all of which should be circumscribed into one undivided whole, as they say. We also have two methods for discovering truth: intellectual inquiry and revelation. Because, for us, the sacred and the secular are deeply interwoven, we can’t assign one of these methods to one realm and the other to the other. So, I think, another way of describing the issue you’re struggling with is: how should we approach situations in which reason (whether of a historical, theological, etc. nature) comes into conflict with revelation as a mode of finding truth? [...]

  18. 18.

    Lynette, thanks for this post. Like Gary, this is a topic that has occupied my mind a lot lately. (well, since last fall, I guess) For those of you who have been grappling with these issues for longer, does it get any easier? Mark seems to be in a place where he can accept difficult historical events without having his faith challenged. I like the idea that we can’t give troubling news the same weight as the hundreds of experiences our testimonies are based on.
    However, some of the questions reason brings up (for me, it is women’s role in the church) cause me to question all of those things, as though I’ve been potentially brainwashed, or as Gary said, they call into question the validity of the “revelation” that men are the only ones entitled to the priesthood.
    So, I think of the reason/faith issue in this way- There may be troubling historical events, like Mountain Meadows, that I can try to weigh and balance properly with my experience in the church. But for me, there seem to be others, like my new awareness of inequality in the church, that are much more difficult for me to see in the same light, or attribute to mistakes of men.
    I don’t think we can assimilate all history into our testimonies in the same way. Especially if the difficult bits of history are still happening.

  19. 19.

    Marvelous post, Lynnette. Mormon faith does seem to be grounded in a set of canonized (or at least authoritative) historical narratives. But those who set out the essentials of Mormon belief or the Mormon view of salvation make ahistorical truth claims. There be tension there.

    I think the defense an LDS apologist would offer amounts to the idea that revelation, in one or another form, provides a conduit for direct, unmediated truth not subject to any historical straightjacket. But that is the same “higher ground” argument that LDS apologists have been denying dissenting historians for the last twenty years. To turn around and deploy the same argument in defense of revelation seems suspect. This line of thinking definitely deserves more discussion in a future post.

  20. 20.

    Bookslinger, not wanting to threadjack here, but I can’t help responding to what you said about DNA. The part about mutations. That’s the whole point that DNA does mutate, and has mutated, and so you can tell where different branches of the human family split off by which of those mutations are carried in the DNA of the Y chromosome. These studies don’t study most of the DNA (although people are working on how to use the other chromosomes). The Y chromosome is passed unchanged most of the time from father to son, but occasionally a mutation occurs,and is then passed on, and that’s what’s studied. (There is also mitochondrial DNA for women, but it’s not as useful.) My father’s family is from Denmark, and he’s had a DNA sample tested, and the lab, which did not know where he was from, returned the results that his DNA was from Scandinavia, and about a third of the men in Denmark have that basic Y chromosome structure. The gene for skin color is not found on the Y chromosome, and since people from Asia, and Native Americans have similar Y chromosomes, but not skin color, well, it just doesn’t make sense to say that the Y chromosome DNA had to be changed to change the skin color. I don’t mean to sound mean or condescending, although I am probably successful at sounding both, but it would probably be helpful for you to read more about this before making guesses. There’s a good book, which does not deal with LDS claims at all, which explains how the DNA analysis works, “Trace your roots with DNA” by Megan Smolenyak

  21. 21.

    Lynette. Great post. I want to approach this notion of theology as history or vice versa from the very historical grounding you say it has — precisely to show that it is the theology and not the history that is important. I want to argue that historical events have meaning for faith only because we load them with prior theological meaning.

    Look at Joseph’s First Vision. It functions for us today in a way that it didn’t for Joseph in his 1832, 1835 and 1838 accounts. Joseph didn’t know in 1820 or even 1830 that God had a body. He didn’t know of the distinctness of Father and Son based on the First Vision. He learned that and then saw that such meaning could be present in his experience. Further, the bare fact that others had vey similar experiences has almost no theological significance for Latter-day Saints. These historical events are not part of our theology — without the prior theological meaning to place these events into a context they simply have no significance for us (they don’t signify theological meaning for us).

    Now it is important that Joseph had a First Vision. There are theological implications given the mere fact of the First Vision. But I can provide literally hundreds of accounts from the early 1800s of similar experiences and none of them have the meaning that Joseph later gave to his First Vision — though in 1832 his explanation of his experience was a lot closer to the kinds of things As he moved forward in life he could see that his later revelations cast theological light on his earlier experiences.

    Now there are of course theological consquences if these events did not take place. But let’s be clear that it is the theological significance that we care about. If Joseph Smith didn’t have the First Vision, then the consequence is that God did not call him in 1820 to be a prophet as Joseph said and his story to be able to receive revelation has little plausibility. But we care about this experience because it is part of a theological world-view; not because it is history or an historical event. Otherwise, we would give the same import to all the others who had similar visions.

    As post-Bultmannian Christianity has shown, even the resurrection can be given up if its theological meaning can be retained. I doubt that it can because a part of its theological power is the belief that it really occurred. In this sense the facticity of historical events has theological meaning — but only because there is a prior theological world-view or commitment to give it meaning. Bare history has no meaning in itself. Further, neither history nor narrative can function as a vehicle of theological import in the absence of a theological schema into which it already fits to give it it meaning.

  22. 22.

    I want to approach this notion of theology as history or vice versa from the very historical grounding you say it has, precisely to show that it is the theology and not the history that is important. I want to argue that historical events have meaning for faith only because we load them with prior theological meaning.

    Blake, it seems to me that your analysis here doesn’t eradicate history’s significance. I think you’re is dead on in the broadest possible sense; no history, global or personal, has any meaning outside of some interpretive schema, theological or otherwise. But the necessity–the inevitability–of interpretation doesn’t make the history itself unimportant, or even less important than whatever interpretive schema we apply to it. If it’s true that there can’t be history without interpretive significance, neither can there be interpretive significance without history.

    Historical evidence, like any other kind of text, places limits on interpretation. It’s not as if any kind of historical claims whatsoever will support a given theological schema; only certain very specific historical claims can give content to our theology. And just as interpretation as inevitable–just as no history can be stripped of any interpretive scheme whatsoever–neither can theology can be completely stripped of its historical content. Even if it could, it’s difficult to see how “bare theology” could have any more meaning than “bare history” could.

    It’s also worth remembering that theological schemata are themselves products of history. There’s no such thing as an ahistorical theological schema that exists prior to history and into which we can arrange the historical evidence.

  23. 23.

    Wow! This has become quite the thought-provoking discussion. Here’s hoping I can manage some halfway coherent responses.

    Mark IV, I would definitely include our own personal histories as part of this. And I really like your point about taking a broad perspective rather than viewing events in isolation. Like you, I don’t see my faith as arising from a single event in my life, but from my life history more generally.

    Bookslinger, my perspective is that even the testimony of those “basic things” already involves interpretation, which means that the process of reasoning isn’t something that only kicks in subsequently as one adds layers to those basics, which is I think what Ziff was getting at, if I’m reading him correctly.

    The question of when to invoke the miraculous to explain history is certainly a knotty one. I would say that even if particular historical events can be attributed ultimately to the action of God, that doesn’t automatically rule out the necessity of also investigating them from other perspectives; a historical explanation along the lines of “God brought this about through supernatural means” doesn’t get usually you very far in understanding what happened. Of course, as a believer I can’t completely rule out the possibility that the direct intervention of God could in fact be a primary cause in some situations, but I’m hesitant to go there too quickly; my bias (and I do realize it’s a bias) is to believe that God generally works through secondary causes.

    I’ll dodge the DNA conversation, as I’m quite unqualified to say anything (yeah, I know, that doesn’t usually stop me ;)), but thanks for adding your knowledge of the subject, Paula.

  24. 24.

    Jessawhy, I’ve been thinking about your question, which is a good one. What do we do with the stuff that isn’t just hard to make sense of in an intellectual way, but that we find deeply disturbing on a more personal level? I’m very much with you in struggling with that, especially with those things which, as you say, continue into the present and challenge my faith in a loving and a just God who is no respecter of persons. I think my own tendency has been to make sense of certain things by believing that God is to some degree hands-off, at least when it comes to how the Church functions as an institution, he doesn’t always intervene to correct things or prevent problems, and he seems unlikely to force answers upon us to questions we haven’t asked. I don’t think that “true church” has to mean divine micromanagement. But I could be wrong, of course. And believing this, even if it helps me intellectually account for certain things, doesn’t necessarily make dealing with them less painful.

    There are some who argue that any answer to the problem of evil (i.e., how can evil co-exist with a good God) is problematic, because it has the effect of in some way justifying that evil. I think there might be something to that. The explanations I see for various disturbing elements of church history are often as troubling as the original events themselves. In many cases, I’d rather stick with, “this is horribly disturbing and I simply don’t understand it” rather than jump to either “this is why it’s not really that disturbing” or “this is how it fit into God’s plan.” Though I realize that’s not the most satisfying of resolutions.

  25. 25.

    Dave, thanks for your comment (and for the DMI link). I agree that the use of history in apologetics, and how it relates to the use of history by dissenting historians, is a subject worth further discussion.

    Blake, it’s interesting to hear your thoughts on this. I completely agree that historical events don’t come with meaning intact. However, I’m as wary of making history subordinate to theology as of doing the reverse, as I would argue that the two exist in a dialectic in which both inform–and are informed by–the other. And like Eve, I’m not clear as to whether you see historical events as in any way constraining theological interpretations of them.

  26. 26.

    In pondering your “History and Faith” subject I feel to expand a metaphor:

    God’s plan for us, his desires for us to reach our potential, our freedom here on earth to choose and to grow, the joy of service, the communion with and companionship of the spirit flowing with enlightenment and peace, these are like a precious, pure newborn baby who is sacred and divine.

    The less palatable circumstances and history of God’s interactions with his children, (ancient and recent) full of violence, inconsistencies, incredible assertions, disturbing facts and contradictions, this is like murky bathwater.

    We can’t help but have our attention repeatedly drawn by the distasteful bits of flotsam as we work to see the baby that is partially hidden by them. The problem arises when we find we can’t tear our eyes from its ebb and flow nor stop ourselves endlessly examining each bit that is exposed by its constant churning.

    We would do well to remember, the baby and the bathwater have both come from God and, unless we plan to create another God with a more pristine way of presenting things we would do well to focus on the baby, learn of the baby, and receive all the joy the baby has to offer. Eventually the bathwater will be left behind as this earth and its history are only details of a short, albeit pivotal time in our eternal history. We know that right now we cannot throw out one and retain the other.

    Here’s a worse scenario to consider when thinking of the conundrum posed by unpleasant historical facts collide with faith:

    You might find this hard to believe but there are a few people who knowingly work to subvert the faith of others. They have had experiences where they’ve participated in miraculous events and felt power beyond their own flow from them or knowledge, outside their own ability to conjure, burst upon and fill their minds.

    Despite this fact, for whatever reason I could list, they delight in watching others go from believing or wanting to believe through the stages of shock, doubt, and disgust to complete disbelief, first with the church, and then with God altogether. They love dropping the bombshells of incontrovertible proof and watching the damage unfold in slow motion from the first shock of pain when it hits to the death rattle as the last breath of belief is expelled.

    Speaking of “incontrovertible proof”…

    Have you ever had an experience where something, either a photograph or a situation or theory based on scientific proof was iron clad in the obvious conclusion it presented, I mean IRON CLAD, and then a piece of information or an expanded view of that picture shatters that conclusion and you feel like a fool for having your belief so erroneously placed?

    If you are someone that has experienced that moment where your former belief has been withered in the face of new information then it will be easy for you to imagine that happening again when yet another piece of information or an even more expanded view of the picture shatters the new conclusion that left you feeling like a fool the first time and makes you feel like the biggest fool of all.

    Just a thought that the seemingly simplistic “some day you’ll be able to make sense of it.” theory might turn out to be quite profound after all.

    I’m certainly not going to bet the farm on some piece of incontrovertible faith destroying proof or historical “fact” I’m presented with in this life.

  27. 27.

    Eve & Lynette: I have argued that theology is necessarily prior to history’s meaning. We don’t even know which events to count as significant until we have some reason to assess significance. I doubt that the First Vision in 1832 had anything like the significance we now attach to it or that Joseph came to see in it by 1842. His different accounts are not conflicting at all; they are merely assessed in their signficiance and what about that experience became signficant as he grew to see the scope of his prophetic calling. In 1842 it was important that the Father and the Son both appeared. The 1832 account is modelled on Paul’s account of his encounter with the resurrected Christ, so only one person was important in that account. Same experience; different facets of the experience seen as important to tell.

    I pointed to several case studies of other “first visions” that don’t have anything like the meaning that Joseph’s First Vision has for us; yet as mere historical event they are essentially identical. I gave that as a counter-example to the notion that historical events could have meaning outside of a theological schema. Further, these accounts show that similar experiences or historical events don’t give rise to similar theologies. Why not if historical event as such are theologically limiting as you say? Further, it seems to me that historical events have meaning only insofar as they are part of a larger theological schema — otherwise, why do these other first visions have so little theological meaning for Latter-day Saints?

    I agree with you both that there is a dialectic of the meaning of historical event — but we don’t even know which events to find meaningful unless they are part of a larger story — something like a story of salvation history I suppose.

    As an example, polygamy has meaning for us only because it is counter-cultural. It wouldn’t and couldn’t have the meaning of an Abrahamic test that Joseph gave it in a culture that accepted polygamy as the norm. In fact, what bothers us about polygamy is not some immutable principles of right and wrong, but our own presumptions regarding monogamy and consent of those married and so forth. In numerous cultures, such relationships would have simply been the norm.

    On the other hand, events like the resurrection have import as historical event because of their existential import. However, I am convinced by my study of the resurrection narratives that the disciples “saw” the resurrected Christ only because they were interpreting their experience as such. They couldn’t even “see” Christ and recognize him until their eyes were opened by having the prophecies and schema of salvation history laid out for them.

  28. 28.

    Blake, I suspect we we agree more than we disagree. I don’t think Lynnette or anyone else is claiming that historical events have meaning outside of theological schema, as you call them (given that her life’s work is the consideration of various theologies and theological systems, it’s highly unlikely she would make such a case). And I’m certainly not making that argument. The only point I made is that just as history can’t dispense with interpretation, interpretation can’t dispense with history.

    Further, these accounts show that similar experiences or historical events don’t give rise to similar theologies. Why not if historical event as such are theologically limiting as you say?

    Clearly no historical event or text or datum impinges upon interpretation to such a degree that only one meaning is extractable. But no one’s making that claim here. To claim that history is interpretively constraining is not at all the same as claiming that a given historical event admits of only one interpretation. The only claim I make is that history, text, and evidence don’t admit of any interpretation whatsoever, and that not all interpretations are equally adequate to the available evidence. In that sense history constrains interpretation in the same moment it makes interpretation possible.

  29. 29.

    I want to argue that historical events have meaning for faith only because we load them with prior theological meaning.

    But we care about this experience because it is part of a theological world-view; not because it is history or an historical event.

    I’m not sure how you can argue on the one hand for the mutuality of history and theology, but on the other assert that theology is prior to history. I understand what you are saying in regards to the fact that we bring our “theology” with us in the interpretation of history. And so if theology is “prior” in the sense that it is part of the tools we bring to the retrospective understanding of history, then fine; but theology is always historically situated. The theology we use in constructing meaning for historical events has a history it self. I’m guessing we agree on this point?

    But it seems what you are pushing toward is a separation between historical-fact and theological-value. History happens first and we secondarily assign value to it. I’m not sure such a gap exists. IMO facts are embedded in value and there is no such thing as “bare history”. While it is true that value changes depending on time and location, there is no fact that stands without meaning. I don’t think the fact that there were many similar claims of visions in the 19th century to be “mere history”. While our theology assigns little to no value to these competing visions there is no reason that our theology could not be amended on the basis of these visions (not that I’m actually taking this position). In short by separating these two things you borderline on a situation where history is read according to a certain theological hermeneutic, but that hermeneutic somehow transcends its historical situatedness.

  30. 30.

    Theology is often called the queen of the sciences because it speaks into each of them. I agree, we shouldn’t compartmentalize our disciplines or elements of our worldview. They should speak into one another.

  31. 31.

    Wow. I really like this post. Thanks for putting it up Lynnette.

    I think it leads to so many potential areas of interesting exploration: the process of developing faith and testimony, the meaning of faith, the importance of transparency in human interaction, honesty, how we protect our beliefts, and on and on.

    So thank you. It made me think of a lot of things, a few of which I’ll mention below. Starting with your first paragraph, we’ll see if I make it any further than that.

    “A couple of recent discussions have gotten me thinking about the relationship between history and faith. Not every person takes the same approach to navigating the challenges posed by historical problems, of course, and I respect that there are a variety of ways of conceptualizing the interplay betwen the two. What I can’t quite make sense of, however, is the idea that they can be completely separated, that one can talk about faith without reference to history or dismiss history as being irrelevant to faith. (In other words, the “if you have a testimony, then history doesn’t matter, line of thought.)”

    I would hope that people would not try to consciously separate the two, although I can’t discount the possibility that someone might do this and not realize that’s what they’re doing. For those actually attempting this, it seems a little bewildering to me, and perhaps to you, in that if you’re looking at history in terms of attempting to record events, then everything we believe in any area of our lives is built on history. Our lives are a series of events, a thought, a gesture, a sneeze. We have our own personal histories which may not be written down, but are still recorded through our memories (however flawed these may be), and our memories influence our actions.

    So, if we take this a little further, for example when we ask a question in our prayers about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, or something more mundane like, “can you help me get over this cold before the big meeting?”. If you then feel the Lord has promised you that you will, and you do get over your cold, that’s probably a faith building moment. It’s also a series of events, and history, whether or not we record it.

    The interesting thing about this is that it can be a faith building moment, regardless of what happens. It just depends on how we tell the story in our own minds, or how others help us tell the story of these events (e.g. “I thought the answer to my prayer was clear, but it didn’t happen. Why? Hmm, let’s see, well, it must have been because I didn’t keep ___ commitment with the Lord”. Or, “Why does it seem like I’m not receiving an answer to my prayer? Perhaps I’m just not trying hard enough, not doing enough of ___, doing too much ___, I haven’t tried ___ yet, I’m not ready for the answer, and I’m sure you can come up with many more which we’ve all experienced at some time)
    The reason things happen in this way, I believe, is based in part on a critical premise, which most of us who are religious believe: God is never wrong. And I would point out I don’t disagree with this premise, just in case anyone is freaking out right now.

    This coupled with Faith, can lead to a huge series of other quite interesting beliefs. Additionally, I can better understand what these other beliefs are, why I have them, how I developed them, the degree to which I’m making errors in judgement–if I understand that Faith is essentially another term for Trust, a specialized form of trust. It’s the trust that we develop between us and our Heavenly Father. And more generally, it’s the trust that we develop in the truthfulness of gospel principles, events, and individuals (I’ll get to how this relates in a little bit).

    In saying this, I do not mean to discount that “Faith” may sometimes, or apparently be used in a different way. But I think this only serves to highlight that in those instances we’re probably arguing about two different things, and the argument is based on our using the same word for a different meaning. It appears that in almost every instance of scripture Trust can be substituted for Faith quite elegantly, and that the Lord is essentially looking for ways to help us build our Trust in a principle, an individual, or through this, build our Trust in him (e.g. Alma 32).

    I make this substitution in part, because I believe Trust is a clearer concept in many people’s minds than Faith, particularly the less religious.

    Additionally, it helps me see what the Lord is looking and asking for, why Faith is critical, how it relates to other principles (e.g. Hope and Charity, which may then be understood as Goals and the perfection of our Characters), and it just generally answers a lot of questions about “Faith”.

    Earlier I mentioned a series of “other quite interesting beliefs” that might come out of my belief: God is never wrong. Continuing there and adding my Faith (regardless of whether you find my case for trust compelling), where does that lead me?

    Well, I’ve noticed it creates a dynamic that is very useful in reconciling conflicting beliefs, although from the outside can be seen as somewhat dubious. For example, we’re told in scriptures that we should pray in our closets, fast and pray in secret “not to be seen of men”, and many other instances where we should avoid having our otherwise positive acts seen of others. At the same time we’re also told that we should be the light of the world, don’t hide your light under a bushel, be the salt of the earth.

    Well, for a non-religious person this could all be potentially confusing. But with my belief that God is always right, I and the people I know can come up with a solution that satisfies even the trickiest of dilemmas, not just a fairly simple one like this. In this instance for example I’ve decided, and had confirmed by scripture and conference talks, that these things are based on intention although I’m sure there are other explanations as well. Which solution right? That’s not explicitly clear.

    The same dynamic happens in nearly every relief society and priesthood meeting I’ve been to. Someone raises two ideas which appear to be in clear conflict, but are ostensibly from God or one of his servants, we knowingly or more than likely unconsciously begin discussing a possible solution to this conflict based on our fundamental belief that God is always right (again, I reiterate that I’m not arguing against this belief), and eventually we come up with a solution as a class that most, although not all of us, agree on. The issue is then at least partially “settled” and we move on, and will likely raise this solution to the problem in a future class by stating, “Ya know, I had a religion class once where this came up, and the professor suggested that ___”, citing a source of authority.

    Simultaneously however, there are other classes that ran into the same apparent contradiction, and came up with a completely different solution. So really, who knows to what degree either solution actually has merit. Whether or not we believe a solution will largely depend on which class we were in and how much we trust the sources cited in support.

    The degree to which church members pass these along to others largely seems to be based on two factors

    1) how simple/short/easy the solution
    2) how emotionally intense (or compelling) the solution

    The next class learns both solutions and the more compelling of the two gets passed along in higher frequency. They’re basically memes.

    This goes on from class to class with each side citing their favorite authorities, and can go on indefinitely if the conflict stays at a sufficiently low level. If some level of leadership sees the conflict as becoming sufficiently large, a statement resolving the conflict will be issued. This statement will be more precise than previous statements, but will still have a fair amount of ambiguity in many members minds, it will however serve to resolve the conflict to enough people’s satisfaction, that the conflict dies back down to a low level. Repeat process if conflict arises again.

    The dynamic this creates however, from an outside perspective, would be that these statements are considered the word of God in perpetuity among the members, if not for the fact that so many of these statements in the past have then been redefined by future generations. I’m sure the words of brother Brigham were considered the word of God by most members at the time, and quoted as a source of authority to resolve conflict, but later were said to be his personal opinion.

    So if you’re an outsider, without the belief: God is always right (or more specifically, “our God”), what appears to be happening in this whole process is that new beliefs are being vetted by the community, and those that stand the test of time are cited as official, although still contain enough ambiguity that they can be re-interpreted by future generations should this be necessary.

    Anyone seen as a critic, will also run into many self protective mechanism that have been developed over hundreds of years to deal with them. These include stories of sophists so evil they not only had the most base of intentions imaginable (money, power, trickery, and anything else considered particularly evil), but were so evil in fact that they spoke directly with Satan himself.

    Now I can acknowledge that all of this may be the case, but I can also acknowledge the following:

    Most people painted with this brush are probably just sincere individuals looking for more satisfying solutions than the solutions which are otherwise perfectly acceptable to so many of their peers.

    And, when pushed to the wall, our faith is ultimately based on feelings we’ve had, and sustained by our favorable or unfavorable interpretation of events, and the support of others (e.g. Testimony meeting, people and feelings we trust).

    So it’s not unreasonable to note the possibility that much of what we believe may be a series of self-protective mechanisms designed to sustain our faith by having these mechanisms vetted through hundreds of years of human interaction, discussion, and analysis, not just by some of the most brilliant minds to have lived, but by a community of millions of individuals all trying to come up with solutions to problems, conflicts, and arguments for and against their Faith. The solutions they come up with are likely to be pretty compelling to a lot of people if they’re going to survive.

    So hey, although this may be a slightly different direction on History and Faith than Lynnette’s comments may have intended, I felt like throwing down a few things that it made me think of, particularly when it comes to conflicting opinions.

    And while we’re at it, it might be nice to remember to avoid “playing the faith card” (Dennet), by saying “It’s right”, or “You should do it”, because “God told me so”. That’s fine for those of us who already believe in the “same God”, but how would you feel if people told you to do something because their friend Fred told you so, and Fred is always right?

    Well, I hope this is all still in the spirit of the discussion. I’m a little tired now, so I’m off.

  32. 32.

    Just to be clear, this is simply a global suggestion, and use of a hypothetical “you” that I use below. In looking at it, I probably should have used “we” or “people” instead of “you”. Thanks again for the post.

    “And while we’re at it, it might be nice to remember to avoid “playing the faith card” (Dennet), by saying “It’s right”, or “You should do it”, because “God told me so”. That’s fine for those of us who already believe in the “same God”, but how would you feel if people told you to do something because their friend Fred told you so, and Fred is always right?”

  33. 33.

    Hofnarr,
    Your take on resolving ambiguities within the church is very interesting. I was struck by this part,

    Most people painted with this brush are probably just sincere individuals looking for more satisfying solutions than the solutions which are otherwise perfectly acceptable to so many of their peers.

    I think many of us on the bloggernacle are people who just can’t find some answers perfectly acceptable, when others aren’t even ruffled. It’s amazing to me how this happens. (I’m interested in your take on why this is, are people in different stages, do all undergo a crisis of understanding at some point?)
    Lately I’ve been thinking more about the contradictions, and it seems that whenever I bring them up, there is always a “vetted solution” that someone supplies to keep the conversation comfortable.
    For me, I find more growth by considering the question anew, without the predetermined solutions. It is very freeing to have all of the answers available to me and to think of the most likely possibilities and even those that seem very unlikely, and still not end up with a solution.
    Life isn’t a tidy sitcom (or RS lesson) where all of our problems and questions are resolved in 25 minutes.
    Faith as Trust is an interesting idea. It does seem to me that you had some doublespeak in your claim that God is always right. How do you believe this and resolve the situation you explained about vetted and ambiguous solutions? I don’t understand how you are reconciling these ideas.
    Thanks for your comments, quite a lot to think about.

  34. 34.

    Hofnarr,

    Your take on resolving ambiguities within the church is very interesting. I was struck by this part,

    Most people painted with this brush are probably just sincere individuals looking for more satisfying solutions than the solutions which are otherwise perfectly acceptable to so many of their peers.

    I think many of us on the bloggernacle are people who just can’t find some answers perfectly acceptable, when others aren’t even ruffled. It’s amazing to me how this happens. (I’m interested in your take on why this is, are people in different stages, do all undergo a crisis of understanding at some point?)

    Thanks for your response Jessawhy. I’m really interested in these things as well.

    I have to say that’s a really big question, simply because I believe there are so many reasons why someone may more easily accept an answer (e.g. strong negative experience involving a particular topic, bad mood that day, something they’ve thought about or feel they know a lot about, something someone they highly trust has mentioned, etc.)

    The classic cop-out might be that it likely has to do with both individual genetic predisposition (e.g. greater openness or willingness to entertain new ideas), as well as upbringing.

    But simply saying it’s both nature and nuture isn’t that compelling eh, at least not to me and I’d guess most everyone who swings by here. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, I’m going out on a limb there. As an aside, the “it’s probably a little of both” answer we use and so often see in dialogue in its many disguised forms, while probably developed for consensus building, not only seems to create a false sense of having arrived at a solution, it also tends to shut down further examination. Even if you pick two factors, these things tend to span a continuum, and I tend to think it’s much more illuminating to give our opinions on where we think these things fall on a continuum (e.g. 70/30), than to say it’s both, or “more” of this and “less” of that, unless the parties involved are so sensitive that what you need is less precision and more consensus. Add to that, that rarely if ever is something on a continuum of two factors, so it’s helpful simply to let others know to what degree we think any and all of the factors play a roll, unless we’re in consensus building mode (which by the way is an easy way to rationalize not exploring an issue further. Heck, I do it all the time).

    Anyway, I doubt I know the answer to this question, but just so I don’t leave you with a “little of both” answer, I guess I’ll try to consolidate the responses that come to mind into categories that seem to have common patterns from my perspective.

    One of the first things that comes to mind is that people just seem to be naturally predisposed toward openness to new ideas or closed to new ideas. This shows up in a lot of psychological research and surveys whether that’s Fisk, Hogan, Myers-Briggs, etc. I tend to like the “big 5″ or o.c.e.a.n grouping that Goldberg and Costa and McCrae use, because it has a bit more granularity (25 categories instead of 16), and the terms seem to be a little more accurate, rather than something like the more culturally popular Myers-Briggs. They’re probably the modern day man’s equivalent of astrology, in that they meet some of the same needs (as does religion by the way), reducing uncertainty for example.

    But whichever we prefer this week, doesn’t really matter in this particular instance in that I’m just trying to highlight that there’s an effect there, whether we call it judging vs. perceiving, or open vs closed to new experience. Some people like more certainty, some like things more open-ended. It may simply be that when we were children we were rewarded for making concrete, firm decisions, or we were rewarded for exploring all the options. It may be that when an adult claimed a concrete answer we were capable of recognizing and seeing a greater number of exclusions to this than the next person, and we rewarded or punished ourselves for this (or others did). Or, depending on whether we saw this as a good/bad, these kinds of things over time generated a greater sense of certainty or uncertainty about the universe and it’s rules. I tend to think these things are more genetic than learned, or above the 50% level, that we pick a lot of this up because our parents are predisposed with these tendencies, which means we are predisposed, and even if we aren’t it then becomes a learned behavior to some degree through our parents, which in some instances means we’re fighting internally with the learned behavior from our parents and our natural disposition.

    The second thing that came to mind, which actually seems closely related to those just mentioned, is the love of thinking. It could be viewed a bit like a favorite hobby. So the example I’d cite, is something like: I enjoy thinking about these things the way someone else enjoys playing baseball. It may not necessarily be that we’re at different stages, although that’s possible too. But, I like that answer a bit less in that the term “stages” tends to denote some relatively clear-cut or drastic physiological change, like hormonal changes during puberty, or the learning of a new principle, that has drastic effects across a broad spectrum of behaviors (I don’t think most of the things we call “stages” are actually stages in the way I’d prefer to see the word). It’s that the discussion of ___ gospel principle for one person, is just dull at some point, just as their hobby may be to me. More precisely, we all seem to have thresholds of what is a “good enough” solution, and once we hit that threshold we become disinterested, and have difficulty relating to why others may still be interested. Thinking can be hard, and sometimes we’d just rather be playing baseball than talking about ___, even if others still want to.

    I do however prefer not to be too global about categorizing “thinking” as a hobby or favorite past-time, and thus allowing the categorization of someone’s behavior. I don’t want people to get the idea that “her talent is thinking, his talent is ___”, and that explains why they are behaving the way they do. I see this as both a true and false statement dependent on the specific intended meaning being applied by the speaker. “Thinking” is a really broad word.

    The objection to one use would be, “Well, he really enjoys thinking about baseball, does it extremely well, so how can you say his hobby isn’t thinking” The counter to this is the kind of “thinking as a hobby” I’m talking about here, and that is, some people just really enjoy analyzing almost anything, and for longer, than the average individual. It’s as enjoyable as a sport is to the next person, and can be on any subject.

    To summarize on this “second thought” that came to mind, what I’m essentially talking about here are the concepts of “enjoyment” and “good enough” and their relationship to each other. Another way of phrasing your question might be, why is something “good enough” for one person and not the next?

    So that’s some of what comes to mind on “good enough”. While I’m at it, let me address my use of the word “enjoyment”. I’m not really all that locked in on this term, or any of the terms I’ve used, so if someone wants to suggest others that’s cool, particularly since it’s easy to raise the objection, “The exploration of ___ gospel principle isn’t ‘enjoyable’, in fact it’s been fairly painful to me.” The reason I use this term is mostly just expediency, but comes from a perspective something like this: why does someone subject themselves to something extremely painful? Because they believe that not doing so would make them feel even worse.

    Why did Jesus sacrifice so much for us, because he perceived not doing so would make him break some principle he believed in. Doing so is “enjoyable” (following a belief).

    “Lately I’ve been thinking more about the contradictions, and it seems that whenever I bring them up, there is always a “vetted solution” that someone supplies to keep the conversation comfortable.

    For me, I find more growth by considering the question anew, without the predetermined solutions. It is very freeing to have all of the answers available to me and to think of the most likely possibilities and even those that seem very unlikely, and still not end up with a solution.

    Life isn’t a tidy sitcom (or RS lesson) where all of our problems and questions are resolved in 25 minutes.

    Faith as Trust is an interesting idea. It does seem to me that you had some doublespeak in your claim that God is always right. How do you believe this and resolve the situation you explained about vetted and ambiguous solutions? I don’t understand how you are reconciling these ideas.”

    Yes, I do. I’m glad you noticed. I’d say it’s seemingly self-contradictory. So if that’s what you meant, then doublespeak works too.

    I’m not sure how to explain this in the most concise form, so here goes: I don’t discount multiple posibilities, so I’m just providing arguments for a couple sides. I’m using my education to deal with cognitive dissonance.

    And since this might be fun, think of something you believe strongly. What’s the possibility you’re mistaken in some way? I can’t be sure, but my guess is that somewhere in our experience you came to the realization that our answer will never truly be 0%. When it is 0%, I believe we’re using a convention, more than this is your actual belief. As in, “I’m a 100% sure we can do it”, even if we’re only 99%, sure.

    It’s that classic kind of, “I don’t discount the possibility that I’m an cute little pig floating in a giant vat of milk. My fuzzy adorable little ears have electrodes clipped to them, pink ones, feeding sensory information to my brain. This is my reality.”

    If we take a somewhat weaker belief, one that feels about like there’s a 70% chance it may be accurate, and a 30% chance it may be wrong, how do we express the opinion? We may express them both, we may say “I think” and share just the more likely of the two, or we’ll probably use a word like “probably”. I think when people express their thoughts on something they generally just express the option they feel is more likely to be true, unless they’re belief in the probability of two or several options is fairly close, or they’re torn for some reason. I tend to have a lower threshold for sharing other options, but I’m also somewhat torn (we all are in some way. I’m 99% sure).

    That raises another interesting question. Have we talked about why testimonies decay if left alone? Aren’t we taught to continue “building our testimonies”, or “A testimony can’t stand still, it’s either growing or diminishing”, even of specific principles?

    I’m sure I’m not coming up with anything new here, but I don’t have to continue building my belief in the moon landings. If I let time pass, will my belief that they happened weaken? At the same time, I don’t discount the small possibility that I could be presented with information that would make me think differently, but that possibility doesn’t cause my “testimony of moon landings” to weaken over time.

    Probably too much to cover here, but I think this has to do with the frequency and type of contrary evidence we’re presented with (one type effect being: trust), and the fleeting nature of “feeling” and how memories of “feeling” are recorded differently in our brains than some other bits of information.

    “Thanks for your comments, quite a lot to think about.”

    Yeah, you too.

  35. 35.

    And since this might be fun, think of something you believe strongly. What’s the possibility you’re mistaken in some way? I can’t be sure, but my guess is that somewhere in our experience you came to the realization that our answer will never truly be 0%. When it is 0%, I believe we’re using a convention, more than this is your actual belief. As in, “I’m a 100% sure we can do it”, even if we’re only 99%, sure.

    What a mess :)

    This should read:

    And since this might be fun, think of something you believe strongly. What’s the possibility you’re mistaken in some way? I can’t be sure, but my guess is that somewhere in your experience you came to the realization that the answer will never truly be 0%. When it is 0%, I believe you’re using a convention, more than this is your actual belief. As in, “I’m a 100% sure I can do it”, even if you’re only 99%, sure.

  36. 36.

    Here’s another way of looking at your question of why some individuals seem to be more quickly satisfied with some answers than others. From Isaiah Berlin:

    http://www.cc.gatech.edu/people/home/idris/Essays/Hedge_n_Fox.htm

    There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

    Of course, like all over-simple classifications…

  37. 37.

    Hofnarr, apologies for the rather late response, but I appreciate your contribution to the discussion. Just a couple of thoughts in response.

    I would hope that people would not try to consciously separate the two, although I can’t discount the possibility that someone might do this and not realize that’s what they’re doing. For those actually attempting this, it seems a little bewildering to me, and perhaps to you, in that if you’re looking at history in terms of attempting to record events, then everything we believe in any area of our lives is built on history.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to get at. We are historical beings; we live in history. And what we know of God, we know in the context of our personal life histories. What confuses me (and the separation I was talking about in my post) is the assertion which I do in fact occasionally hear that we know things through the Spirit instead of through history; in other words, that historical knowledge is irrelevant to faith, because the latter is entirely based upon spiritual experience.

    It appears that in almost every instance of scripture Trust can be substituted for Faith quite elegantly, and that the Lord is essentially looking for ways to help us build our Trust in a principle, an individual, or through this, build our Trust in him (e.g. Alma 32).

    I like your link between faith and trust. I think there’s a difference between faith that God exists, and faith that God is good, as one could believe the former but not the latter. And maybe trust gets more at the latter requirement? It’s one thing to firmly believe in the existence of a Supreme Being. But it’s quite another to be in relation with that being, to trust in his ability and desire to save, and so forth. For me personally, the leap of faith is often not to believe in God, but to trust him.

    So it’s not unreasonable to note the possibility that much of what we believe may be a series of self-protective mechanisms designed to sustain our faith by having these mechanisms vetted through hundreds of years of human interaction, discussion, and analysis, not just by some of the most brilliant minds to have lived, but by a community of millions of individuals all trying to come up with solutions to problems, conflicts, and arguments for and against their Faith. The solutions they come up with are likely to be pretty compelling to a lot of people if they’re going to survive.

    I enjoyed your analysis of how conflicts are dealt with and beliefs both survive and are revised over time. On a bit of a tangent, I’m intrigued by how religious organizations deal with change, which I suppose is somewhat similar to how individuals account for change in their own lives. What does it mean to have a continuous sense of identity if you keep changing things? I think one common approach is to look for ways in which the new belief or approach was there all along. For example, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I decided to become a theologian. But once I’d decided that, I found myself looking back for earlier “clues” in my life that I would end up on this path. And that seems at least somewhat similar to how Mormons (and Catholics and others) account for seemingly new ideas and approaches: we attempt to locate them in antiquity, or explain that they have existed in the tradition all along. So I guess what I’m thinking is that part of this process you’re describing, in which we deal with contradictions and contemplate alternate interpretations, also involves somehow fitting our conclusions into our historical narratives.

  38. 38.

    37.
    on 06 Apr 2007 at 4:35 pm Lynnette
    Hofnarr, apologies for the rather late response, but I appreciate your contribution to the discussion. Just a couple of thoughts in response.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to get at. We are historical beings; we live in history. And what we know of God, we know in the context of our personal life histories. What confuses me (and the separation I was talking about in my post) is the assertion which I do in fact occasionally hear that we know things through the Spirit instead of through history; in other words, that historical knowledge is irrelevant to faith, because the latter is entirely based upon spiritual experience.

    That’s quite all right. It was a long post among many long posts on this thread.

    As far as people saying “historical knowledge is irrelevant to faith because [faith] is based on spiritual experience”, I don’t even know where to begin with a statement like that. I think what they’re trying to say is that there are observable facts, and there are feelings. But to me “feelings” are history. I guess if someone wants to have a discussion with me about how they’re using the words “history”, “spiritual”, “faith”, and “knowledge” I’m certainly willing to do that, but as far as I’m concerned everything we experience is history. That’s a non sequitur to me, or if not, then it just sounds specious–a bunch of words with enough amiguity that depending on which meaning you choose for them, that statement either makes sense or it doesn’t (kind of like some of Deepak Chopras’ stuff. I kid, it’s just that I recently had a discussion about his speaking style with a friend of mine)

    I like your link between faith and trust. I think there’s a difference between faith that God exists, and faith that God is good, as one could believe the former but not the latter. And maybe trust gets more at the latter requirement? It’s one thing to firmly believe in the existence of a Supreme Being. But it’s quite another to be in relation with that being, to trust in his ability and desire to save, and so forth. For me personally, the leap of faith is often not to believe in God, but to trust him.

    I’m no expert, but certainly. If by this distinction you’re refering to a comment like “I have faith in God”, which could mean either, “I believe he exists”, or “I believe he is good and will help me”. I assume that’s what you’re refering to, or something similar.

    In either case I’d say they’re still forms of trust [If they're talking the existence of God, they're refering to trust in those experiences that led them to believe in his existence, like feelings, history etc. If they're talking about his goodness, they're refering to beliefs they've had which lead them to believe he was good.] But people are free to argue with me based on how they use the word trust. As far as I’m concerned belief, trust, and faith can all be used exactly the same way, they’re pretty ambiguous words, in part I simply choose to focus on the word trust because there are associations and feelings that people typically have which they may not have with the word “faith” or “belief”. I think it’s a cleaner less ambiguous word that defines almost all of the dynamics, while adding further understanding to them.

    [As a tangent, a word like "Love" is a great example of ambiguity in action. A word imbued with so much honor by all of us, that it can be really powerful, but also so incredibly ambiguous as to be almost useless in conveying the author's meaning on some occassions. Which is a pretty big aspect of what I'm talking about in my post. "Do you 'love it' like your first born, or like a cookie?" How is it different than "like"? Ambiguity is useful for establishing consensus, and most people love consensus when they're trying to convince others of some notion they have. So when you have a word that is both extremely emotionally powerful and amibiguous, you have a word that people will just love to use. Pun intended. Swear words are like this too. It seems to be a pervasive pattern across all forms of persuation, poets use it, politicians use it, sophists use it, lawyers use it, oh wait, maybe some of those are the same thing, but anyway...]

    “So it’s not unreasonable to note the possibility that much of what we believe may be a series of self-protective mechanisms designed to sustain our faith by having these mechanisms vetted through hundreds of years of human interaction, discussion, and analysis, not just by some of the most brilliant minds to have lived, but by a community of millions of individuals all trying to come up with solutions to problems, conflicts, and arguments for and against their Faith. The solutions they come up with are likely to be pretty compelling to a lot of people if they’re going to survive.”

    I enjoyed your analysis of how conflicts are dealt with and beliefs both survive and are revised over time. On a bit of a tangent, I’m intrigued by how religious organizations deal with change, which I suppose is somewhat similar to how individuals account for change in their own lives. What does it mean to have a continuous sense of identity if you keep changing things? I think one common approach is to look for ways in which the new belief or approach was there all along. For example, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I decided to become a theologian. But once I’d decided that, I found myself looking back for earlier “clues” in my life that I would end up on this path. And that seems at least somewhat similar to how Mormons (and Catholics and others) account for seemingly new ideas and approaches: we attempt to locate them in antiquity, or explain that they have existed in the tradition all along. So I guess what I’m thinking is that part of this process you’re describing, in which we deal with contradictions and contemplate alternate interpretations, also involves somehow fitting our conclusions into our historical narratives.

    Yup, that’s part of what I was describing. I mean I guess if I were to make a list of what I was trying to describe it would include some of the following and some relationships between these things:
    How institutions deal with ambiguity
    How institutions use ambiguity
    How institutions manage change
    My definition of Faith
    Some properties of language
    Some ways in which people use these properties to help propagate their ideas, and increase their survival.
    How institutions deal with conflict
    My definition of history
    My definition of testimony
    As well as subsituting “individuals” for “instituttions” in these instances.
    And, People’s threshhold of “acceptable answer”

    Regarding your comments on identity. In one sense I’d say, yes, these are ways in which both institutions and individuals maintain a sense of identity. On the other hand, I don’t believe identity exists in the way most people use the term. And if I go further, I’m not even sure what the term means (but it’s wonderfully ambiguous. So it’s great for developing consensus or causing conflict, depending on how the actors perceive each other at the start of the process).

    In other words, if I try to understand the way most people use the term it would probably include another somewhat ambiguous term “personality”. Well, I think the personality (or more broadly– identity) that we believe we have throughout our lives is largely an illusion. There are some interesting studies that seem to back this up. There are also studies that indicate that our personalities when we’re angry vs. happy (and various other states) are often more different than the personalities of one person to the next.

    Really, my own preference would be to divide discussion of people’s personalities (or identity) into learned behaviors and inherent (born, physical etc.)tendencies, but even that isn’t clear cut because all creatures, especially we, are so adaptable. So if you want to make this “sense of identity” thing work, in my opinion you have to say that those aspects of our personality which are least adaptable could define our “sense of identity” and everything else changes. Not very helpful in my opinion for a variety of reasons. For one, what are these “least adaptable” aspects, and haven’t we just used essentially the same words to define the word itself. It seems pretty circular. Also, if for example we think about all the cute, unusual, strange beliefs we had as child about how the world operates, it’s a pretty amusing set of beliefs which I believe have a significant effect on personality. A critic might say, “yeah. But beliefs aren’t your identity/personality!”. Oh? How do you, or I, know my personality? Through observation perhaps? Memory? And if I have a lot of strange beliefs are they likely to affect my behavior? They certainly will. And what if I develop strange beliefs about proper behavior itself?

    Anyway, it would be easy enough for me to say at this point that this is a tangent that doesn’t relate to the original subject. I understand well enough that everyone has a different threshold for “how much of an answer” they’re looking for. The difficulty with that is that often the better answers to the most simple questions need this kind of exploration. It’s the kind of thing that historically has gotten us closer to some decent answers, and it’s the disinterest or acceptance of simple answers or disinterest that have caused problems. I’m a big believer in simple answers, it’s just time consuming to explain them sometimes if they’re different from the typical modes of thought.

    When it comes to discussion, we want the length we want. Not too much longer or shorter.

    And finally, there are a couple of upsides to this:
    –Most of the very few people who read a post this long are the intendend audience anyway, and we enjoy having conversations with each other. So it works out well for us.
    –Because my preference is to spend a lot of time exploring a single issue and it’s connections, rather than briefly exploring many seperately, the explorations tend to be longer.
    –Because it is so long, it doesn’t happen often. Consequently people aren’t subjected to this torturous length all that often. Lucky them.

    The down side:
    Those few moderators who feel obligated to read posts of this length. You poor souls. I’m sorry. I thought you would have learned after the first post. Well, I salute you.

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