Skip to content

It’s History of Religion Time!

A Spectrum research operative sent this over and since we don’t mix enough animation and religion on this blog, I thought that we would take a moment from gazing at our own theological navels to view the metaphysics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Apparently this cartoon has been “banned” by the LDS Church for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t seem to be keeping tens of thousands of people from watching it on YouTube.

I guess the question is: can someone be a faithful Mormon and a historian of their own tradition?

Of course, this video comes from the sorta-dying out fad for cult hunting that was most popular among the Religious Right, back a decade or two.

It’s almost needless to say, but just in case someone new stumbles onto this site, it should be clear that I have little time for the fundamentalist attitude of that crowd. They show little awareness of the multifaceted history of religion in America, and so they miss the ways that many good folks in all faiths manage to do good, even as foundational religious intellectual structures shift in meaning. These self-appointed exposers tend to point out the theological splinters in others while blind to the weird, even contradictory parts of their own theology and sectarian history.

In Two Integrities: An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography, the dean of American religion studies, Martin Marty writes:

The Mormon ferment of today, like the Catholic analogue during and after Vatican II, is a species of a genus we might call “the crisis of historical consciousness.” This crisis cut to the marrow in the Protestant body of thoughtful scholars in western Europe in the nineteenth century and continues, though it has been lived with in various ways and thus seems more domesticated, in the late twentieth. Before the Enlightenment and the rise of a critical history focused on Christianity, professional historians were ordinarily cast as story-tellers who were defenders of the faith. A few learned to direct their suspicions against forgeries and frauds like the Donation of Constantine. Most were called, if they were Catholic, to summon events from the past to certify the truth of Catholicism over against Protestantism. Needless to say, vice versa.

This meant that ordinary historians were much like other believers in respect to the people’s past. It is useful here to introduce Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “primitive naivete,” by which he means nothing pejorative or condescending, merely something which designates. Children have such a naivete: they receive and accept more or less without question a world, a world view, and views, from parents and nurses and teachers. Tribal people can sustain a similar naivete; they know other tribes with other ways only from a distance, at best. Or they find no threat in these because they see no lure; other ways belong to the enemy. Isolated people, whether in a valley or an urban ghetto in a pluralist society, even in the age of mass media, can sustain the naivete.

He continues:

Historical construction or invention is more delicate when the subject is the experience of the sacred in the life of a people. The sacred, Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, appears in the midst of the mundane and ordinary world with an Otherness which sometimes threatens, often eludes, forever beguiles the historian who comes in range of it. Because people who respond to the sacred stake their arrangement of life and their eternal hopes on this experience, they bring to it a passion which often leads them to want to be protected from historians and other social scientists. “Our” sacred, “our” Otherness, we think, is different–pure, uncontingent, protected from accident, beyond the scope of inquiring historians, be they insiders or outsiders.

Most of the time both those internal to the history of a people and a faith as well as those external to it can go about their business without creating suspicion or arousing a defensive spirit. So long as the life of the people proceeds routinely, they may not pay much attention to what historians discover and publish. It is when people are in a period of crisis that they notice historians. Renier has a charming passage on how historians, used to obscurity, become suddenly relevant when people “stop to think.”

Beyond Mormon and Catholic history, of course, anyone who studies the Adventist past can hear the resonances. And with the never-ending debate about academic freedom on Adventist campuses, we continue to face that tension, shared with Mormons and Catholics and Baptists and Anglicans, and public education in America, one rooted in how we bend our hermeneutics to frame what we can teach as truth.

In 1854, during one of his fervent phases, Dostoevsky wrote to one of the Decemberist’s wives that if forced to choose, he would take Jesus over the truth.

The mere presence of those who “stop to think,” as Dr. Marty references, disrupts the intellectual fabric of those who have often made peace with their past by making peace with a community’s collective past.

Because these folks rarely employ a critical method (in an academic sense), it is not the plain facts that shake them because they will rarely investigate; rather, it is the presence of Other Humans. As Bonnie Dwyer has pointed out, we link our theological crises to actual people, from the Alpha who was Kellogg, to the Omega who was supposed to be Ford.

For those who are deeply, even existentially invested in a community, through life-changing conversion or employment or other deep bonds, the only solution to changes in belief is one as old as community itself: compelling the silence of the Others in the church through distance, discomfort or disfellowship.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.