Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Historical Scholarship and Priesthood Authority

Recently at the Juvenile Instructor blog, Ben Park made an excellent post about the Sweetwater Rescue (an event in the history of the LDS handcart companies making their way west to Utah - one of many events, unfortunately, that have accumulated a fair bit of ahistorical baggage in the retelling), "Pioneer Day, The Sweetwater Rescue, and the Role of History in Mormonism". It's a post quite worth reading. Importantly, it points to an interesting facet of LDS culture as concerns the relative worth of scholarship and 'priesthood authority'. Ben recounts cases in which LDS students have read scholarly articles that thoroughly, from a historical point of view, demonstrate that some traditional historical narrative is in some way exaggerated and inaccurate; and yet the students protest on various grounds that the traditional narrative should nevertheless be believed. One such ground might be that the student 'feels the Spirit' when reading the (historically inaccurate) traditional narrative but not the (historically accurate) reconstructed narrative. Another might be that the traditional narrative has such value that no good can come of attempting to revise it, even for the sake of eliminating gross historical inaccuracies. A third such, and quite an interesting one, is when students demean 'academia'/'scholarship'/'intellectualism' in favor of priesthood or prophetic lines of authority. For instance, if - as in the case of the Sweetwater Rescue - a General Authority repeats the traditional narrative of the story, his prophetic authority must surely outweigh the historical work of any scholar.

This reminds me of a discussion I somewhat recently engaged in. In brief, a highly cordial Baptist, in the course of a discussion with a Latter-day Saint, referred the latter to an article by LDS scholar Thomas G. Alexander, though - as a sort of test - the former quoted from the article and indicated it had been read at a meeting of the Mormon History Association but left the author unattributed. The article was not at all about current Church doctrine or practice, or anything of that nature; it was about the character of early LDS beliefs, as expressed in early LDS writings. The Latter-day Saint involved did not bother to inquire as to who the author was; the Latter-day Saint did not seem to care to read the article to evaluate for himself whether or not the author made valid points. Indeed, I have seen no indication to this day that the Latter-day Saint involved ever read the (quite brief) article, even after the details were provided, including a link. Even before obtaining any such information, as well as afterwards, the Latter-day Saint disparaged the article as the mere "opinion" of a scholar, which holds no weight; it was irrelevant to him what the article said, because it was not an official publication of the Church, and only those are "binding". Never mind that most of the article's sources were in fact official publications of the Church. The Latter-day Saint involved was not interested in knowing that. It fascinates me that in a matter of historical record - say, what Latter-day Saints believed in the early 1830s - someone would genuinely choose to believe an article in, say, the Ensign (not that any article in the Ensign, to my knowledge, has ever addressed the subject matter that was at hand, let alone to do so in a way that conflicts with Thomas G. Alexander's conclusions) over a well-researched article by someone who is qualified to write precisely that sort of article. Now, the Latter-day Saint involved in this debate did not ever specifically say that he disagreed with the contents of the article; rather, he steadfastly avoided engaging the contents at all, preferring to dodge and demean. The discussion eventually degenerated and died out as a direct result of the Latter-day Saint participant's boorish behavior and his wild, desperate accusations of immorality and prejudice against all of his interlocutors, myself included. Sad, but not exactly foreign to my experience in dialogue with some Latter-day Saints, including the individual in question in particular. (Other Latter-day Saints, of course, make much better dialogue partners than the individual in my example.)

Now, let me put forward a statement that I think, though I may be wrong, should be fairly unobjectionable. In terms of ascertaining the LDS Church's current stance on any given doctrinal, moral, or practical matter, chief attention should be given to the Standard Works, to other works published under the Church's aegis (e.g., the Ensign), and to various correlated religious practices (e.g., rituals performed in the temple, or any standardized aspects of sacrament meeting liturgy) - all of which must, in order to discern the degree to which a Latter-day Saint is 'bound' by his or her membership to accept the Church's official stance, be evaluated in terms of its authoritative qualities. In terms of ascertaining what a Latter-day Saint or anyone else 'ought' to believe about a historical matter, chief attention should be given to historical records themselves and to the contents of scholarly works by academically qualified persons, the contents of which are to be judged on their merits. (In short, if a scholar makes a genuinely good case - especially a -nearincontrovertible case - that such-and-such historical reality was this way or that way, then barring any sound considerations to the contrary it ought to be believed to have been that way; it is, in a sense, 'intellectually binding'.) The possible exception to this, for Latter-day Saints, might be in cases in which official Church sources attempt to pronounce authoritatively on such a historical reality - in which case, perhaps, one might choose either to side with the Church source and discount the historical reconstruction of scholars, or else side with the historical work of the scholars and reject the official Church line. So with regard to questions about, say, what the Latter-day Saints did or believed at a certain time, the normally proper manner of approach ought to be to consult primary sources directly, and/or to evaluate the argument(s) presented by qualified scholars on the matter. It would not generally be appropriate to disregard this approach merely because those scholars are not speaking on behalf of the Church. One need not be speaking on behalf of the Church to be absolutely correct; one need not be speaking on behalf of the Church to make a powerful, intellectually compelling case for a position. And given the subject matter, even if 'the Church is true', that still counts more than whether an alternative story is retold in Church manuals or by General Authorities (unless perhaps those General Authorities actually claim to be putting the authority of God or of the Church behind their chosen version of events). I do not at present see a reason why this stand in favor of the value of historical scholarship should be incompatible with a strong belief in the special divine authorization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Certainly many of the excellent scholars currently working on LDS historical studies are themselves faithful Latter-day Saints.

No comments:

Post a Comment