Friday, May 28, 2004

Historicity and faith, part 2

When questions of historicity come up in Mormonism, the conversation often changes direction, from focusing on the historicity of the textual accounts to focusing on the historicity of the provenance of the text. The Semiotician quickly made that move in the comments on my earlier post on historicity.

Terryl Givens does very much the same thing in By the Hand of Mormon. He claims that, contra my contention that scriptural historicity may be an unimportant issue, historicity plays a vital role in our approach to the Book of Mormon. But he quickly shifts from a discussion of the state of debate about the historicity of the Book of Mormon account itself to the historicity of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the role this has historically played in the growth of the Church and the role of the Book of Mormon. This is where his argument is the strongest, in my view, but I don't think he does a very good job of tying this argument back to the value of the historicity of the text itself.

Why do these shifts occur in our dialogues on this issue? Givens points out that the divine intervention claimed in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon poses a challenge to the listener -- a challenge that must be resolved by what Givens calls “dialogic revelation:” essentially, revelation in which one can ask questions and receive answers in an essentially propositional way. (And he rightly notes that this is a strong theme throughout the Book of Mormon text, too.) The reason that this poses such a challenge is precisely because the claim is made that God intervenes in the affairs of men today.

And here, I think, is where we see the value of textual historicity. While the historicity of any given account may not be terribly important to the primary purposes of the account, if we lose the idea of historicity altogether, we lose the claim that God actually intervenes in the world -- that we can interact with him.

And I think this idea of historicity is an important step in our progression of faith. We begin to trust that God can affect our lives because we believe that he has done so for other people. But if those interactions were not historical, then they are just “nice stories.” Stories have their place and their value (and I value them very highly), but if we regard them as nothing more than “just stories,” they lose much of their power to inspire faith and emulation.

I imagine that it might be possible for someone to have a faith that can say, “Despite the utter lack of evidence that God has ever intervened in the affairs of men, I still have faith that he can and will intervene in my life, for my benefit.” But I doubt that most of us could claim such a faith. It may be possible that some could have enough personal experience with divine intervention that they can have confidence in it, even if there is no one else who has ever experienced it. But it seems that such people would be more, not less, inclined to regard scriptural accounts of divine intervention as historical, because of their own experience with such things.

And so it seems to me that, while challenging the historicity of specific scriptural accounts may have benefits, challenging the idea of scriptural historicity generally really serves only to deter faith, not to encourage it.

10 comments:

  1. Ok, I confess that this is a bit of a tangent, but it's the question that this post has spawned and which I've been mulling for several days now: Is the difference between our understanding of the past and our imagination (understanding) of the future one of kind or degree?

    Every time I try to put my finger on how the past is more "concrete" than the future, it seems to slip out, somewhere else.

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  2. It seems the obvious answer is that the future is, as yet, undetermined while the past is determined. While we may guess what the future holds just as we guess what the past held, the fact we can't change the past is a rather large difference. Certainly there are facts about the future that we have little control over. (i.e. will the sun rise) Yet that seems more a matter of technology and thus of degree whereas the past is quite a different matter entirely.

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  3. What is it about the past that is determined any more than the future? I only live in the instant we call "now."

    My perception of the past is a construct of my mind. My perception of the future is also a construct of my mind.

    How I interact with those constructs, which ones I choose to believe or disbelieve, don't seem terribly different to me.

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  4. GH, I'm at the disadvantage of not having read Givens' book nor your earlier post, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea that challenges to historicity should be evaluated based on whether they deter faith. An honest inquiry into historicity can't be conducted if one is constantly looking over one's shoulder at a faith barometer.

    It's also worth distinguishing between two meanings of "history" or "historical." First, the narrow meaning relates to stories about the past constructed and supported by historical documents. "Provenance" in this inquiry relates to which documents can be safely relied on as against others which are subject to doubt or wholesale rejection. Faith can do many things but it cannot establish provenance, so in this narrow inquiry the provenance of the Book of Mormon runs to 1829.

    The second meaning is more general: events that actually occur in the real world might be termed "historical" in contrast to made-up events which might be termed "fictional." This seems to the sense of the term "historicity" as it relates to the Book of Mormon discussion. Of course, fictional narratives may embody many truths, often more effectively than historical accounts. So the question of truth and the question of historicity are related but quite distinct.

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  5. Dave,

    I'm uncomfortable with the idea that challenges to historicity should be evaluated based on whether they deter faith.I agree, which is why I tried to make a distinction between specific challenges to historicity and getting rid of the idea of the importance of historicity generally. Apparently that distinction wasn't as clear as I had hoped.

    In this narrow inquiry the provenance of the Book of Mormon runs to 1829.That was what I meant by "provenance" in this post -- the events leading to the production of the text in 1829. Your second meaning is what I intended when I referred to the historicity of the textual accounts: whether they refer to events that actually occurred in the real world.

    Of course, fictional narratives may embody many truths, often more effectively than historical accounts. So the question of truth and the question of historicity are related but quite distinct.In most cases, I think you're right. However, there are cases in which the truth of a matter is closely tied to its historicity. Or perhaps stated better for my purposes: some kinds of truths generally must be grounded in historicity to have real value or meaning. The one I focus on in my post above is the truth that God intervenes in our lives. This kind of truth seems to require a grounding in historicity (that this kind of thing actually happens) in order to have real value. It just doesn't make sense to say, "God has never intervened in anyone's life specifically, but he does intervene in our lives for our benefit."

    Thus, it seems to me that we must preserve a sense in which scriptural accounts are historically grounded in a general sense, though I'm not making claims about either specific accounts or specific details of any account.

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  6. I don't think beliefs about both the future and the past are merely constructs of our mind. They certainly are in part mental constructs. But to say they are purely mental constructs is to adopt a kind of sollipsism. If the is correspondence in some sense between reality and our ideas, then clearly the issue of reference is important. You simply discount the entire issue of reference which, I think, is rather important.

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  7. But to the extent that there are external referents, there are referents as to the past and referents as to the future. That doesn't seem, to me, to be a particularly meaningful difference of kind. They both still throw me into what my mental constructs are.

    Just as my mental constructs of the past are shaped by external referents, so, too, are my constructs of the future shaped by external referents. Isn't my future as embodied in my present as my past? Did you mean something else?

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  8. The difference is a that a reference to the past is a reference to a largely fixed event. The reference to the future is a largely undetermined event. That seems to be a rather big difference. For instance in the sentence fragment "what I do tomorrow" it has a extremely different nature than "what I did yesterday." Not just ontologically but also in terms of how I react and treat them in terms of my intents.

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  9. The difference is a that a reference to the past is a reference to a largely fixed event. The reference to the future is a largely undetermined event. That seems to be a rather big difference.From my perspective, the future is not so indeterminate as you appear to suggest. Compared with what I am able to imagine, the reality of what actually will be is really very confined. As a perhaps silly example, I can imagine myself being in Tokyo five minutes from now. Yet my future is sufficiently constrained that it is impossible that I will, in fact, be there in five minutes. Even if one retains a strong belief in individual agency, the future is remarkably determinate. Moreover, the near future is more determinate than the more distant future, just as the near past is more determinate than the more distant past.

    For instance in the sentence fragment "what I do tomorrow" it has a extremely different nature than "what I did yesterday." Not just ontologically but also in terms of how I react and treat them in terms of my intents.The use one makes of conceptions of the future and conceptions of the past is a point I need to consider more. Would that question affect the nature of the conception itself, or just the way I utilize it?

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  10. While the future may be constrained, it seems constrained in a different way than the past. The constraints on the future are due to my limited power. (i.e. I can't destroy the sun so that it doesn't rise tomorrow) Yet this is a matter of degree. The past is fixed in a way that is not a matter of my power nor a matter of degree. There is nothing I can change about the past in terms of events.

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