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As I see it, given that we are historical beings, our faith is necessarily going to have historical content.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 beliefsâ€” 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.