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.