Edited by George D. Smith
Looking for God in History
Neal W. Kramer
[p.133]How to write history has been a major topic of debate for centuries. This is hardly surprising since concepts such as history and time vary widely from culture to culture. A striking example of such differences is found in Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return.1 Eliade here contrasts the cyclical conception of time exemplified in Greek and Indian sacred mythology with the biblical conception of time as having a beginning and an end. The Greeks found solace in the continuity and regularity of nature and its cycles of life, while the Hebrews saw time as a limited sojourn apart from God. The early Christians continued the Hebraic tradition. They taught that the coming of Jesus Christ signified that God had created time and that history would continue only until the Second Coming.2
The Christians’ teleological conception of history persisted in western civilization until the beginning of the Renaissance. At that time scholars began rediscovering and translating ancient texts. One aspect of their work was reevaluating the idea of history. The resulting conflict between Hellenistic and Christian ideas of history helped produce an atmosphere in which a new conception could be nurtured. This approach advocated by a group of non-clerical but university-trained historians was based on a developing methodology of science. Philosophers like John Locke and David Hume articulated theories of how truth could be uncovered through careful study of the past.3
In the nineteenth century attempts at writing empirically verifiable, logically coherent, cause-and-effect history were well under way. By this time there was no longer any need to interpret [p.134]history with reference to God or to a divine plan because facts when properly organized interpreted themselves. History became a chronological narrative of events as they happened. All the historian required was tenacity, a set of rules for determining the validity of evidence, and access to the necessary primary sources. The past had become an object for scientific inquiry. Evidence was judged by empirical standards and whatever did not qualify as “real” under the new guidelines was considered the result of ignorance, illness, superstition, and so on.
Such notions were the foundation of not only the historiography practiced by German historian Leopold von Ranke but also the positivistic sociology of the French philosopher Auguste Comte and the materialisms of Marxists on the one hand and utilitarians on the other.4 The second half of the nineteenth century marked the high tide of the belief in the all-encompassing ability of scientific methodologies to comprehend all things. Thomas Huxley’s advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and the beginnings of Fabian economic socialism in England typify what was becoming the ideology of history in the western world. Logical positivists extended the limits of this epistemology to construct a theory of knowledge which in effect equated all knowledge with scientific knowledge.5 That which could not be verified through sensory experience was declared cognitively meaningless.
A challenge to the underpinnings of logical positivism has been mounted in the twentieth century. Much of the critique has centered on assumptions about language. Positivism assumes that language is transparent, describing the world exactly as it is without being subject to conceptual bias. In contrast, Ludwig Wittgenstein has shown that use of language is based on a set of arbitrarily established rules.6 The rules limit what a concept means and in which contexts it is meaningful. One who adopts a particular mode of thought interprets the world according to the rules of his or her conceptual mode.
Structuralists, the name applied to a diverse group of thinkers which includes Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jean Piaget, and Michel Foucault, developed similar ideas about how our use of language mirrors other human activities. Foucault, for example, offers a lucid account of “discourse” as a set of restrictions on what we are or are not able to say.7 His work stresses [p.135]that we are limited in what we can know by what we can say about the world.
Jacques Derrida, another French philosopher, has tried to demonstrate the tenuousness of writing as the medium through which the world can be understood.8 Written language, according to Derrida, tends to “deconstruct.” By deconstruct, he means that the meaning of something, which was temporarily so obvious, tends to disintegrate into possibilities for meaning that are incapable of describing the world as it is. Rather than opening the world to our understanding, language limits how we think about reality and what we can ever claim to know. Absolute knowledge becomes nothing more than a fleeting dream because of the limiting effects of language. Adopting a set of rules or conventions is thus more a gesture of what one wishes to talk about than of what it is possible to know.
This understanding of the limitations of language has implications for writing Christian history generally and Mormon history in particular. It demands a reevaluation of the basic philosophy and methodology of historiography. The originators of the positivist tradition effectively dismissed God from discourse about the past.9 Though there was a sort of kinship between their “idea of progress” and the earlier teleological eschatology of Christianity, they denied any actual power behind historical movement and described instead a kind of “natural” historical inertia.10
It now appears to be the case that religious experience can be described within its own linguistic contexts and evaluated on its own terms. Religious history need not be intimidated by a value system that reduces the experiences religious writers describe to superstition. One can strive to include the deep spiritual power of the past in a narrative instead of seeking a representation of the scientific “facts.”
Belief in scientific history still proliferates among some professional historians and sociologists writing about Mormons today. Since professional training in major graduate schools in the United States and Great Britain has tended to be dominated by the scientific approach, many professional scholars have adopted the epistemological values it seeks to inculcate. And since a large portion of the scholarly writing on Mormonism today comes from people trained in the methods described, it comes as no surprise that such writing tends to try to fit the writing [p.136]of our history within the limits of positivism.
Professionally trained historians often write for a specific audience—other historians. They go to professional schools to master a particular kind of language which carries with it a peculiar way of thinking about the world. They then expect others who wish to communicate with them to adopt the same point of view in order to make sense of what is being said. That this limits what may be discussed is never brought up. Thus when a work is promoted for more general audiences, neither reader nor author is usually able to break the conceptual bonds imposed upon them by the conventions of modern professional history.
The limitations of positivistic historical discourse are too narrow to allow it to become the only conceptual framework behind writing the history of the Mormon church. For example some historians contend that there is no place in their work for non-scientific testimony of the role of God in the rise of Mormonism and the continuing guidance of his church and people. These historians suggest the creation of categories like sacred history and profane history. Elder Boyd K. Packer’s speech to Church Education System employees represents the concerns some church leaders have with some of the histories of the church published in the last two to three decades.11 I think that it is proper to infer from Elder Packer’s remarks that he disapproves of the sort of methodology that leaves out what he and others see as the most important facets of the history of the church.
Because my own interest in Mormon history is avocational rather than professional, I hesitate to criticize works which evidence obvious expertise. Yet I feel that their authors must continue to be challenged to include the divine as they seek to explain the growth of the church and the accomplishments of the Latter-day Saints. By hedging our bets, couching our descriptions of spiritual experiences in ambiguous language, hiding our belief in the reality of revelation behind objective criteria, we may satisfy the expectations of colleagues but risk offending delicate testimonies. Such writing desacralizes a most sacred history.
The Mormon community at large has generally avoided the intrusion of positivism into its experience. Indeed Mormonism brought with it the reality of the divine in history. The Book of [p.137]Mormon itself testifies of this important facet of the religion. Some of the holiest experiences in church history have now become a sanctified part of scriptural record. One feels compelled to see in the restoration of the church the restoration of the knowledge that God plays a significant role in history and that the writing of it serves to reveal sacred truths about him to all people.
There have been some outstanding works of Mormon history written in the past. For me, however, the single most impressive aspect of each has not been its objectivity; rather it has been the simple presentation of human experience with the divine. My personal favorites include Orson F. Whitney’s Life of Heber C. Kimball, Matthias F. Cowley’s Wilford Woodruff, and B. H. Roberts’s Life of John Taylor. The quintessential Mormon history, however, is the Joseph Smith story. For me, no single account of the Mormon past has ever matched the power and simplicity of Joseph’s few words and pure testimony.
It must be more than obvious that one of my criteria for effective Mormon history is the straightforward narration of personal experience as it was perceived without the added embellishment of sophisticated, secular commentary meant to soften the impact of the situation. Part of the model I would adopt has its basis in the stories of Jesus presented by the writers of the gospels. Another part comes from Nephi’s narrative of his father’s experience in the Book of Mormon. Both types of narrative are characterized by attempts faithfully to describe single events in detail and then to testify of the admittedly subjective truthfulness of the occurrences depicted. The testimony may be presented through an aspect of style (such as Nephi’s use of parallelism to describe similar experiences), the adoption of a particular interpretive mode (as in Matthew’s incorporating the use of typology in his gospel), or simple exhortation (Mormon’s comments at various points throughout his book). It should be noted that the scriptures are filled with other ways of telling and testifying. My intuition leads me to believe that spiritual maturity might produce more figurative histories, but I do not advocate the deliberate mystification of a text. Nephi’s “plainness” is much more to my liking.
Plain or simple need not imply, however, that the writer strive to be naive. Evaluation of evidence must include careful consideration of all available materials and the consequent weeding out of sources of questionable value and/or veracity. Few people familiar [p.138]with Joseph Smith or Brigham Young would maintain that their lives were simple or naive. But the histories of their lives and work should not be cluttered with speculative psychological diagnoses or objective evaluations of the quality of the revelations they received. These histories can be presented as the stories of real people engaged in what they perceived to be a holy work. The reader should not be asked to judge whether the narrative itself conforms to some transitory standards of professional propriety but whether the work described is authentic.
It seems to me that this is the sort of history we need to have written by Mormon historians. Unfortunately my experience with much of the history I have read dictates that most scholars resist this approach. Much of what happened in the early days of the church has not yet been written. When it is, it will more than likely reveal personal apostasy as well as personal testimony. It will reveal personal weakness at times as well as personal strength, even in the church’s staunchest defenders. We need not gloss over aspects of people’s lives that do not match our expectations of them, but we do need to include their personal spiritual triumphs unmasked by various rhetorical disguises. Ultimately we cannot move away from what is for us an undeniable reality—that the hand of God is revealed in the history of this church from its earliest days to the present. The same God who appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the gospel to him reveals his pleasure to today’s living prophet. If we claim any less, then we have forgotten what we really believe.
NEAL W. KRAMER is professor of English at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. “Looking for God in History” first appeared in Sunstone 8 (Jan.-Mar. 1983): 15-17.
1. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or Cosmos and History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954). The entire work serves as a sort of prolegomenon to a philosophy of history, tracing the origins of the concept of history and differentiating between various archaic approaches and more modern counterparts.
2. Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 182-90. Lowith examines “the theological implications of the philosophy of history” and offers an account of the rise of scientific historiography in relation to fundamental theological concepts.
3. Locke’s empiricism, relating all knowledge to direct sense experience, is best formulated in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding—arguably the most significant philosophical work of the seventeenth century. [p.139]A perfect example of the skeptical approach is David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion. Hume’s definition of nature and the narrow context in which he defines the concept of natural law is typical of what I call the empirical/skeptical approach. Religious history is explained here as a set of superstitious responses to natural phenomena.
4. Both Lowith’s book and Hayden White’s Metahistory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973) offer instructive accounts of the development of historiography in the nineteenth century, relating it to the evolution of the dominant epistemologies of the period. Patrick Gardner’s The Nature of Historical Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961) offers a British account of scientific explanation in historiography.
6. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is his most important work on epistemology. Its implications about how concepts are formed and used through “language games” as they relate to particular “forms of life” have fostered new and interesting attempts at understanding even the most basic notions about concept formation and our understanding of the world. Of value in understanding concepts from the historical point of view is Stephen Toulmin’s Human Understanding (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972).
8. Derrida’s most important work on writing appears in his two books Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) and Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976). An interesting account of Derrida and his relationship to French philosophy appears in Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
9. I have already referred to Hume above. David Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Ernest Renan offered historical critiques of Christianity. In each they built upon a scientific approach to what ought to be accepted as fact and strengthened the methodology they sought to defend.