Edited by George D. Smith
An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography
Martin E. Marty
[p.169]Mormons have acquired as distinctive a character in the larger public as Judaism possesses. Often overlooked in assessments of American religious demography, this “new religious tradition” increasingly demands separate analysis. A striking feature of Mormonism is that while “differentiation” is an aspect of modernity that challenges other sets of people, the current Mormon crisis has to do with the challenge of modern historical consciousness and criticism. Such a burden of history assaults all fundamentalisms and conservatisms, but it confronts Mormons most directly, for reasons that we shall shortly point out.
Mormon thought is experiencing a crisis comparable to but more profound than that which Roman Catholicism recognized around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Whatever other changes were occurring in the Catholic church, there was a dramatic, sometimes traumatic shift in ways of regarding the tradition. One of the conventional ways of speaking of this shift comes from the observation of philosopher Bernard Lonergan. He and others argued that Catholicism was moving from a “classic” view of dogma to a thoroughly “historical” view of faith.
In the classic view Catholic teaching has come intact, as it were, protected from contingency, from a revealing God. Deposited in scripture, church tradition, and especially dogma, it was protected [p.170]from anything but ordinary or trivial historical accidents. In the new vision this classic understanding gave place to an approach which saw Catholic events, thought, and experience as being at all points and in every way colored by the contingencies and accidents of history. God was revealed in the midst of this history.
Mormonism never was constituted around anything so formal and, it was believed by Catholics, uncontingent as dogma. From the beginning this faith was always characterized by its thoroughly historical mode and mold. Yet almost inevitably this understanding after a century took on what we might call an “historically classical” form. Today in what some might regard as a dramatic and traumatic shift among Mormon intellectuals, there is a move so expansive and sudden that it hardly needs chronicling. While tautology might sound cute, one could say this shift is from an “historical classical” to an “historically historical” understanding. A focus on this issue can serve for reexamination of the historian’s vocation–whether this be of the believing “insider” or the non- or other-believing “outsider.” At the same time the inquiry can point to some of the limits of historical contributions to issues of faith and certitude.
Whatever else historians do, there are at least two components in their work. They deal with the past and they tell stories. As G. J. Renier1 reminds us, their subject is the human social past (in contrast to, say, “natural history”). And while today various structuralisms and “cliometric” statistical approaches may obscure the story character, yet over all the historical mode is one of narrative, of story. Stories have subjects. Here things begin to get interesting.
The ethics of the profession calls historians to do careful research, not to hide evidence, to be suspicious when handling sources, and then to be fair. People used to say they should be “objective,” but objectivity seems to be a dream denied. This means that historians have to be reasonably aware of their assumptions, the viewpoints they bring, the thought worlds of the people they are representing at second hand. What results, all thoughtful historians agree, is not a reproduction of reality, which cannot even be grasped by people on the scene during events, but “a social construction of reality.” The historian invents.
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 [p.171]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.” They are especially on the spot when what they discover and publish causes people to “stop to think.” They have successfully done so, from within and without, in the case of Mormonism in recent times.
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,”2 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 [p.172]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. So can people in massive isolations of the sort which bind together every fifth human, religions like Islam. Most places where it is strong it has a monopoly, and the Muslim never knows and need never consider alternative ways of being or believing.
The primitive naivete of Catholic Europe, protected by space from the Muslim and contrived space in the form of ghetto walls from the Jews, was challenged with the introduction of variety by the Protestant Reformation on western soil. Yet it waited for the Enlightenment to introduce the full-fledged assault on this naivete. The Enlightenment brought other religions close to home: one thinks of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise as a typical attempt to see rough parity between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Enlightenment went further: while beginning to relativize Christian distinctiveness in the face of other ways, it also used critical tools on Christian texts and traces from the past.
In the nineteenth century, the age of modern critical history, the crisis of historical consciousness became intense and drastic. Now no events, experiences, traces, or texts were exempt from scrutiny by historians who believed they could be value-free, dispassionate. Today of course no one sees them as being successful in their search. They were tainted by radical Hegelian dialectics, neo-Kantian rigorisms, or the biases of a positivism that thought it could be unbiased. We may see these critical historians as naive in this respect. Otherwise they were highly successful at destroying the primitive naivete among those who read them seriously. The responses could vary among these readers. Some lost faith while others shored it up with defensive fundamentalisms which focused on papal infallibility or biblical inerrancy. Most adapted their way of looking at faith and lived with it in transformed ways. Whatever else happened, however, the believer who made the passage beyond primitive naivete was very busy picking and choosing responsive attitudes.
Protestantism, like Catholicism, had a “classical” aspect through its own dogmatic structure. All Christians then, like the Latter-day Saints now, had much at stake because their faith was so [p.173]thoroughly historical in character. It lived by reference to events like the Creation, the call of Israel through its exodus and exile, the happening of Jesus Christ and especially his death and resurrection within calendrical history, and the calling into being of an historical people, the church. To see these events as shaped by historical forces, their traces and texts unexempt from critical examination, altered responses of faith and practice.
The clash between classic and historical views was stated classically by Lessing (1729-81), the Lutheran minister’s son who became an Enlightenment philosopher. He argued what has since become commonplace: historical truth was not capable of logical demonstration. Reported miracles from creation through the signs and wonders which accompany biblical accounts of Israel and Jesus and through the visions which led to the vocations of prophets and apostles down to the resurrection of Christ could never thus demonstrate the truth of Christianity. “Accidental truths of history can never become the necessary truths of reason.” Lessing called the gulf between the truths of history and the truths of reason “the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.”3
Henceforth whoever believed in God and the integrity of God’s people, while aware of what Lessing and his successors posed, clearly had to believe in a different way—Ricoeur would say through a “second naivete.” After criticism people believe not in spite of but through interpretation. Much of educated catholic (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity is made up of people who thus believe. They would not call themselves “literalists” about history and would even question whether self-styled literalists are really literal or whether these do not select which events to protect from scrutiny under the leaky canopy of historical contingency.
The transit of the second mode of being and believing was not easy; a little garland of testimonies should suffice to recall it. John Viscount Lord Morley4 spoke of the subsequently developed “triumph of the principle of relativity in historic judgment,” the “substitution of becoming for being, the relative for the absolute, dynamic movement for dogmatic immobility.”
The result was what historian Friedrich Meinecke called “one of the greatest spiritual revolutions which western thought has experienced.” Ernst Troeltsch, a great Christian scholar, personalized it [p.174]in a way that speaks to and for many. He had come with a solid belief in the events and the demonstrability of events which made up the Christian story, protected from and within the rest of history. Like others he personally had felt the “demand of the religious consciousness for certainty, for unity, and for peace.” But: “I soon discovered that the historical studies which had so largely formed me, and the theology and philosophy in which I was so immersed, stood in sharp opposition, indeed even in conflict, with one another. I was confronted, upon the one hand, with the perpetual flux of the historian’s data, and the trustful attitude of the historical critic towards conventional traditions. . . .” So Christianity was henceforth “a purely historical, individual, relative phenomenon.” Further, the inference from all this was “that a religion, in the several forms assumed by it, always depends upon the intellectual, social, and national conditions among which it exists.” Gone for him was “the absolute validity of Christianity.”
Not all scholars took Troeltsch’s course. Critical historians who are Christian believers abound in most Catholic and Protestant communions. Yet the testimony of a profound and empathic figure like Troeltsch has led them not to be disdainful of people who take “literalistic” or “fundamentalistic” ways of responding to the crisis—just as they have to hope for sympathy and understanding from those who resist and, in resisting, show the depth of “the crisis of historical consciousness.”
Similarly, from the earliest years, there have been Mormons who left the faith because their view of the historical events which gave shape to it no longer permitted them to sustain it. Others remained with the Mormon people but were uneasy and made their own adjustment. We may safely assume that all thoughtful people must have some struggles with elements of a complex history. Faith attached to or mediated through historical events has always had some dimensions of an “offense” or “scandal” to the insider just as it has been only that to the outsider who despises. Awareness of pettinesses and peccadillos among leaders or injustices in the record of a people—one thinks of the Christian Crusades and Inquisition or papal corruption in many ages—has to be some sort of threat to the clarity of faith’s vision, though it clearly has not meant the loss of faith or abandonment of peoplehood on the part of so many who are aware.
[p.175]As far as the profession as a whole and the intellectual community at large are concerned, however, the crisis has been noticeable only in the past two decades and urgent only in very recent years. The hostility of the gentile world, geographical remoteness from alien forces, and the necessarily defensive agenda of the Mormon churches and people long protected the Saints. Serene in their grasp of Mormon faith, historians could busy themselves marshalling evidences to defend the integrity of the people. More often they simply chronicled the story of the amazing formation, trek, colonization, and expansion of a people—subjects that have to stir the hearts of either insiders or outsiders who have a musical ear for human drama.
Someday the crisis had to come. Few others of the 20,870 separate denominations listed in the most recent encyclopedia of Christianity have as much at stake so far as “historicness” is concerned as do Mormons. The character of their shaping events takes on a different nature in that these occurred so recently, on familiar soil, in check-outable times and places, after historical “science” had become developed. The shaping events of classic Christianity, whose story Mormons share, are accessible almost entirely through insider Christian sources alone. The Romans ignored them. Mormon events, meanwhile, occurred inside a history chronicled by small-town newspaper editors, diarists, hostile letter writers, contemporary historians. The beginnings are not so shrouded in obscurity as are Christian beginnings which were recorded especially in the New Testament. People now alive in their nineties who talked as little children to people then in their eighties have “memories” which link them to the years of Mormon beginnings. There is no place to hide. What can be sequestered in Mormon archives and put beyond the range of historians can often be approached by sources outside them. While Mormon iconography developed impressively early in its history, the images of Mormon beginnings are not yet haloed or sanctioned the way Christian beginnings are by their reflection in stained glass, their inspiration in centuries of classical music. There is little protection for Mormon sacredness.
Whoever knows how Christian faith survives and can survive knowledge of all the evidences of fallibility and scandal that occurred through history will understand why the outsider historian finds trivial the question of whether the faith is threatened by the revelation of human shortcomings in the later administration of the Mormon [p.176]churches. Of course, for public relations reasons, one likes to portray one’s heroes and Saints as saints. Lives of quality and character and policies of justice and fairness enhance one’s identification with them and the people at large. Yet intellectually these are not of much interest. One can cut through all the peripheral issues and see that most of the writing on Mormon history which poses the issue of the crisis of historical consciousness focuses finally on Joseph Smith’s First Vision, often capitalized to set it apart, and then, many agree, more importantly on the later vision which led to a second capitalization, the Book of Mormon.
Let me clear the air with a stark, almost crude, but still light-hearted and well-intended analogy: “When Cardinal de Polignac told Madame du Deffand that the martyr St. Denis, the first Bishop of Paris, had walked a hundred miles carrying his head in his hand, Madame du Deffand correctly observed, ‘In such a promenade it is the first step that is difficult.'”5
By analogy, if the beginning of the promenade of Mormon history, the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, can survive the crisis, then the rest of the promenade follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract from the miracle of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full, interest in the rest of the story.
When the historical crisis comes it can, of course, be addressed by fiat. Authority can invoke authority and silence questions, suppress curiosity, rule inquiry out of bounds, close off sources, purge questioners. Now and then rumors and reports of policies somewhere in this range of “heteronomy,” to use Paul Tillich’s term, reach the ears of gentiles. If these occur ecclesiastically, they are “none of our business.” Intellectually, professionally, and personally of course, one cares and feels sympathy for Mormon historians, who are believers and belongers through “secondary naivete” or “after criticism” or “through interpretation.” At the very least, one will also hear the whisper of those driven away or silenced: eppur si muove. Galileo kept integrity by murmuring such a truth after authority forced him to recant, to say that against all evidence the world did not move. “And yet it moves!”
Suppressed historians may busy themselves trying to comprehend the integrity of those who guard the tradition, eager as these are to protect the faith of Mormons who live in “primitive naivete.” [p.177]Yet historians can be understandably frustrated if they feel that their gift, which would help people pass to another, secondary mode of being and believing, is a priori denied. Still this is a matter of internal ecclesiastical concern, and it would come with bad grace for an outsider to intervene or pursue the matter much beyond the point of observation.
It does belong to the historian’s vocation, however, to say that alongside the unreflective faith of Christian believers who have not come to the crisis of historical consciousness, there are reflective, historically conscious people who do believe. There may be something of worth in their history, a history of great complexity, which might serve Mormons through analogy and precedent. There can be more than one kind of integrity in faith and peoplehood.
Having dismissed as secondary, late stages in the promenade, both what we might call “political embarrassments” and “borderline religious issues” (like the role of Masonry, the development and demise of polygamy), we can concentrate on what I will call the generative issues. They come down to what historians of religion call “theophany,” the appearance of gods or godlike figures, and “revelation,” the disclosure from one order of being and reality to another. The First Vision belongs to the category of theophany, the Book of Mormon to revelation.
The four primary accounts of the First Vision do not quite match, a fact no less and no more interesting than that details in the four Christian gospels do not always match. What matters is the event, which is accessible only through these traces. It is hard to read Mormon history as I have for twenty years without coming to agree with Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft that this First Vision is “that pivotal event which is so central to the message of Mormonism that belief therein has become a touchstone of faith for the orthodox Mormon and Mormon convert.” James B. Allen says that it is “second only to belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth,” and “next to the resurrection of Christ, nothing holds a more central place in modern Mormon thought than that sacred event of 1820.”6 Reflective Mormons have to cross Lessing’s “ugly ditch” as they face up to such events.
Second, more urgently, the vision of 1823, the story of golden plates and seer stones and the text translated and published as the Book of Mormon, is both theophany and revelation. While the book [p.178]may go unread by many Mormons—it always surprises gentiles to see how little awareness of much of its content there is among their Mormon neighbors—it is the event itself, the whole generative shape of the discovery, translation, and publication, which has made up a single base for Mormon history. When historians call into question both the process and the product, they come to or stand on holy ground. Not all Mormon historians devote their energies to these generative events, just as I as a historian of twentieth-century Christianity do not have to do research on the resurrection of Jesus: “It’s not my period.” Yet the basis for faith and concerns for events which follow are at stake when professional colleagues converge on these focal issues.
After 150 years when historians inside or outside the Mormon community focus on the generative events, it has become conventional to see them as concentrating on a direct, simple question. It is all supposed to come down to “Was Joseph Smith a prophet or a fraud?” To say “prophet” made one a Saint, for how could one then stay away from the history and people which issue from these events? To say “fraud” is precisely what made one leave Mormonism or never convert in the first place. That was that.
Then two things happened. Many non-Mormon historians bracketed (put in brackets, suspended) that question. Seeing four million and more people shaped by Smith’s theophanic and revelational vision, people who in many cases were as intelligent and “modern” as they, the historians asked a new range of questions. If they would get hung up on the prophet/fraud dialectic, however much it may have nagged or tantalized them, they could not get to another range of questions: what sort of people are these people, what sort of faith is this faith, what sort of prophet with what sort of theophany and revelation was Joseph Smith? His consciousness, his “myth,” and his effect could be pursued if one refused to be tyrannized by the literal stark prophet/fraud polarity in the question.
Meanwhile Saints historians asked more radical questions than before. They had to move through history and interpretation toward a “second naivete” which made possible transformed belief and persistent identification with the people. They brought new instruments to their inquiry into Mormon origins; shortly I shall detail what strike me as the three main approaches used by outsiders and insiders alike.
[p.179]For now a very obvious and important point needs to be made. According to the norms and approaches of the historical profession, the “ground rules” accepted by historians, it would be impossible to prove that Smith was a prophet. As Renier reminds us, past events are as events wholly lost to us. We have only traces, testimonies, texts. As historians we cannot get behind those testimonies to the New York hills where the visions occurred, and we cannot regress in time. There is no way in which empirical evidence can produce for our verification the “two personages” or the later angel of the visions. If by some now-inconceivable time machine device we could be there, we might be duly impressed that something was happening beyond the ordinary. But in 1820 and 1823 as in 1983, we would be suspicious of visions–and Smith called them that–because they can be contrived, can elude ordinary analysis without themselves being extraordinary. We can see some things more remarkable on television or on stage any day of a week, yet these do not inspire the response of faith.
Conversely, of course, historians may find it possible to prove to their own satisfaction that Smith was a fraud. This is hard to do with the First Vision, if we grant that somewhat different accountings of detail on four occasions are no more challenges to its integrity than are the four Gospel accounts to the gospel event. It could be easier to do, and many have done so to their own and others’ satisfaction in respect to the Book of Mormon, both so far as its external circumstances and internal character are concerned. Yet this proving of fraudulence has not been compelling, not “proof,” to millions of Saints, who do not really lie abed in suspense lest the next discovery or assault achieve what the first eight score years of attack could not achieve. For our purposes it is more important to note that the issue of fraud, hoax, or charlatanry simply need not, does not, preoccupy the historical profession most of the time.
It is not necessary here to detail fully two of the three approaches to questions beyond the prophet/fraud issues addressed to generative Mormon events. I need only cite them and point to major statements of the issue. The first family has been familiarly summarized in Klaus Hansen’s Mormonism and the American Experience.7 We might call the studies summarized and enlarged upon there “consciousness” studies, contributions to the question of the consciousness of a modern prophet. After reference to social and envi-[p.180]ronmental contexts and explanations, Hansen moves to the consciousness sphere.
Quoting Jan Shipps, he develops first “the analogy of musical genius” and then more speculatively Julian Jaynes’s hypotheses about consciousness as it relates to hemispheres of the brain. Other “possible explanatory frameworks for getting a handle on Smith’s revelations” include non-Mormon T. L. Brink’s summaries of four alternatives derived from “depth psychology.” On their basis Brink can assume that Joseph Smith “was a man of sound mind and sincere religious convictions.” Sigmund Freud, more plausibly C. G. Jung, and then Alfred Adler and Erik Erikson are called as witnesses to make plausible the prophethood and throw light on prophetic character.
Emphatically in my understanding of the historical approach, none of these produce proof that Smith was a prophet or fraud. Instead they make possible a different level of urgent inquiry and make plausible the concepts of Smith’s “soundness” and “sincerity.” I should add that Larry Foster8 has developed his own approaches to prophetic consciousness, approaches which have made it possible for him sometimes to speak up more emphatically for Smith than many Mormons can or do. These scholars show that one can use psychological instruments to illumine without falling into a reductionism which would insist that Smith was “nothing but” an exemplar of this or that stage of adolescent psychology or whatever.
The second address to the crisis of Mormon historical consciousness comes from a cluster of scholars whose work is focused in and summarized by another non-Mormon, Jan Shipps. Aware, as is Hansen from within, that the issue of prophet/fraud is in many ways a question of faith which can be illumined but not proven by historical inquiry, Shipps employs still another discipline for her work, Religionsgeschichte, which in America is usually translated as history of religion. (History here is not the same as ordinary “history of religions” but implies a somewhat different set of methods and has far less interest in narrative. It may be more taken with synchrony than diachrony, with structure than with happening.)
For Shipps’s purposes, to begin with the First Vision casts the questions in an inappropriate light; the Book of Mormon here (as in Foster’s work) is determinative. With the Book of Mormon the public career of the prophet began, and here it becomes accessible [p.181]to the historian. Shipps is interested explicitly in shifting the focus from the prophet/fraud questions to the notion that Smith’s story is “best understood in the context of his sequential assumption of positions/roles that allowed the Saints to recover a usable past.” That was his religious function and achievement. She can go on to say that when one sees how this endeavor legitimated the prophetic task, “the question of whether Smith was prophet or fraud is not particularly important.”
The fourth chapter of Shipps’s book, “In and Out of Time,” suggests the promise of the history of religion approaches for ordinary historians.9 The sacred and non-sacred, wrote Mircea Eliade, are “different modes of being in the world.” Historians using their ordinary canons have to be aware of this difference. They must be aware that the original Mormons saw their prophet and themselves stepping outside ordinary time and space, beyond the reach of conventional critical criteria. Temporally they wanted to live “once again at the beginning, in illo tempore,” the kind of time which lies beyond empirical evidence.
Guilford Dudley has written that “the mystic time of beginnings is sacred by definition.” The experience on the hill in New York or, for Shipps more important, the Mormon entry into the promised lands was “entry into sacred space” and sacred time. This did not mean that the Mormons ever were anything but practical people; they were not insubstantial or otherworldly. Yet their special kind of millennialism removed many of their claims beyond the realm of the mundane and practical and has served to provide extraordinary interpretations for the life of the people. Mundane Mormons even today “possess the means of reentering sacred time and space” in their temples and special times. These help endow their peoplehood with value and guarantee that the mythic dimensions of their history, which remain beyond the range of historians’ destruction, also become a part of their historical constructions.
A third approach, not yet fully developed but rich in promise, is the hermeneutical. This version of “interpretation theory” helps Mormon intellectuals make the passage from primitive to secondary naivete or from belief before criticism to belief through criticism and interpretation. It also helps both Mormons and non-Mormons in the historical profession understand each other and do some justice to the generative events without being mired in the prophet/fraud [p.182]polarity or posing.
I propose a hermeneutical approach to the problem of Mormon texts. By texts I mean both those which impart Joseph Smith’s visions and the Book of Mormon itself. Contemporary hermeneutics, the focus of so much philosophical passion today, can be treated extremely technically in ways which would seem alien to most historians. Yet the subject has on occasion been rather simply introduced, and I shall depend upon a summary by a noted literary critic, E. D. Hirsch, to outline it.10
Hermeneutics, he points out, is associated with Hermes, the divine messenger between gods and men. (The parallel name is Interpres from which we get “interpretation.”) God’s hidden message needs such a conveyor to ordinary people. In 1927 Martin Heidegger in Sein und Zeit borrowed a term from hermeneutics, Vorverstaendnis or “pre-understanding.” He showed that unprejudiced, objective knowledge was not possible. All knowledge is bound in part by “pre-knowing” which is determined by our historical, social, and personal backgrounds. Such pre-knowing for example determines in large measure what attitudes we have toward and what we derive from Islamic, Marxist, Christian, or Mormon texts.
“Pre-understanding,” to step back further, derives from Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), who showed how understanding of a text is a circular process. As a non-Mormon I can discuss the Book of Mormon in such terms: “First we encounter words and clauses which have no distinct meaning until we know how they function in the text as a whole. But since we can only know the whole meaning through the various parts of the text and since we cannot know before what the parts mean or how they work together before we know the whole text, we find ourselves in a logical puzzle, a circularity. This is the famous ‘hermeneutical circle.’ It can be broken only by resolving the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, the whole or the part. By general agreement from which there has been virtually no dissent, the question of priority is decided in favor of the whole. The whole must be known in some fashion before we know the part. For how can I know that I am seeing a nose unless I first know that I am seeing a face? And from the doctrine of the priority of the whole came the doctrine of pre-understanding. Since we must know the whole before the part, we must assume some kind of pre-understanding in all interpretation.”
[p.183]Muslim children come to Muslim texts and Mormon children come to Mormon texts with pre-understandings which allow them to grasp the whole before they take apart the parts. These pre-understandings, no doubt often creatively, bias their understandings of the whole and the parts. Those who stand outside the circle have great difficulty sharing the understandings which come from the pre-understandings, although of course there can be and are conversions which bring illuminations of texts “from within” as it were.
Fortunately for our purposes, philosophers Jean Nabert and Paul Ricoeur have developed the theme of a “hermeneutics . . . of testimony.”11 The philosophy of testimony evokes an enormous paradox. Nabert in L’Essai sur le mal asks in the spirit of Lessing, “Does one have the right to invest with an absolute character a moment of history?” This must be addressed. Now testimony begins with a “quasi-empirical meaning”; it “designates the action of testifying, that is, of relating what one has seen or heard.” Then comes the sort of transfer on which all Mormon faith depends: “there is the one who testifies and the one who hears the testimony. The witness has seen, but the one who receives his testimony has not seen but hears,” and it is in this hearing that faith or unfaith is decided. The statement and the story constitute “information on the basis of which one forms an opinion about a sequence of events, the connection of an action, the motives for the act, the character of the person, in short on the meaning of what has happened.”
When, asks Ricoeur, do we give testimony and listen to it? In a form of discourse called “the trial,” which whether they have noticed it or not defenders and attackers of Joseph Smith so regularly establish. “Hence the question: what is a true witness, a faithful witness?” Ricoeur connects witness with the Greek word martus; the witness is linked with the martyr: “A man becomes a martyr because he is first a witness. . . . It is necessary, then, that the just die.” And “the witness is the man who is identified with the just cause which the crowd and the great hate and who, for this just cause, risks his life.” Thus “testimony is the action . . . as it attests outside of himself, to the interior man, to his conviction, to his faith.”
This is the point at which the religious meaning of testimony is most clear. Historical faith connects what one “testifies for” a meaning with the notion that one is testifying that something has happened which signifies this meaning. There is tension between [p.184]confession of faith and narration of things seen, but it is this tension that means that faith is dependent upon testimony, not sight, not “proof.”
Mormons are people who, though aware of many historical ambiguities in the record and fallibilities in the prophet Joseph Smith, also see in his character, vocation, career, and witnessing—finally martyrdom—a credentialing which leads them to connect confession of faith with “something that has happened.”
We have connected Jean Nabert and Paul Ricoeur with the hermeneutics of being the testifier, the witness. When one deals with the text of the Book of Mormon, the issue now becomes the hermeneutics of testimony. Ricoeur asks, “Do we have the right to invest a moment of history with an absolute character? One needs a hermeneutics, a philosophy of interpretation.” Here Nabert remarks that “consciousness makes itself judge of the divine and consequently chooses its God or its gods.” Testimony gives something to interpretation, but it also demands to be interpreted. There is the story of an event and a demand for decision, a choice that the testimony functions to awaken faith in the truth. “The judge in a court makes up his mind about things seen only by hearing said.”
It is interesting to this gentile to notice the Book of Mormon is not widely read in the church. People come to faith because living witnesses base their speaking and way of life on what they have read, “heard,” there—and a new generation of children or converts comes to faith by “hearing.” None of them see golden plates to authenticate this faith. There is “no manifestation of the absolute without the crisis of false testimony, with the decision which distinguished between sign and idol.” The Mormon believer and the non-Mormon rejecter are on the same terms, so far as material traces of actual past events are concerned.
Nabert speaks of this norm for judging the divine “the expression of the greatest effort that consciousness can make in order to take away the conditions which prevent it from attaining complete satisfaction.” Faith is not absolute knowledge of an event that is forever lost except through testimony. Here is the break between “reason and faith, . . . philosophy and religion.” And “this is what signifies the ‘trial,’ the ‘crisis’ of testimony.” We must “choose between philosophy of absolute knowledge and the hermeneutics of testimony.” The enforcer of orthodoxy who limits the inquiry of the [p.185]historian wants history to do what a “philosophy of absolute knowledge” would do. The historian to whom past events are lost and for whom only traces in testimony remain lives with “the hermeneutics of testimony,” which is in the end at the basis of all faith.
I must add a word on how a text like the Book of Mormon ministers in the tension and authenticates itself as testimony. To summarize almost to the point of cliché a very complicated set of developments in “interpretation theory,” let us say that one moves through and beyond both historical and literary criticism to the interpretive level. That is, one wants to understand “the world behind the text,” the world of Joseph Smith and the events described in the Book of Mormon. Yet having learned all that can be learned is not what either brings about or destroys faith. Second, one can use literary tools to understand the world “of the text.” What is its genre or form? Yet here too is not the birth or death of faith. Instead one deals with “the world in front of the text,” for here testimony forces its challenge.
Not was Joseph Smith a prophet or a fraud, but does the Book of Mormon connect confession and event in such a way that it discloses possible modes of being or thinking or behaving that the reader or better the listener (to a contemporary witness based on it) must entertain the risk of acceptance or rejection of the testimony? There is where faith or unfaith is born. David Tracy, employing an insight from Hans-Georg Gadamer, says that here is “the fusion of horizons”: “the reader overcomes the strangeness of another horizon not by empathizing with the psychic state or cultural situation of the author but rather by understanding the basic vision of the author implied by the text and the mode-of-being-in-the-world referred to by the text.”12 One is henceforth freed of the burdens of “psychologizing” and is less burdened by concern over the exact reference to literal historical events.
Are there analogies in “ordinary Christians'” approaches to the issues of trace or testimony and event in respect to the resurrection of Jesus? How far does historical inquiry and doubt go and where must one make that leap “from trace to event” which is at the basis of narrative and in some respects of faith itself?
In a conservative Protestant survey, evangelical biblical scholar Daniel Fuller set forth a typology that began with “attempts to sustain knowledge of the Resurrection apart from historical rea-[p.186]soning” and then “partially from historical reasoning.” Of greatest interest to Fuller is a third category, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s “attempt to sustain knowledge of the resurrection wholly by historical reason.”
Fuller’s choice of Pannenberg was fortunate, because Pannenberg is an extremely formidable and sophisticated theologian, not someone to whom the term “fundamentalist” could be applied in any pejorative sense. “True faith is first awakened through an impartial observation of events,” according to Pannenberg. “There should be no talk of supernaturalism, which is unacceptable for the critically oriented reason of the historians, because it arbitrarily cuts off historical investigation of immanental causes and analogies through the assertion of a transcendental intervention.”
Fuller chooses to see the basis of faith better outlined by an earlier historian, the author of Luke-Acts: “Pannenberg, it will be remembered, wants to make faith the possibility for all men by having what is, virtually, a priesthood of historians. Theology’s task, as he sees it, is to assert the credibility of the Christian proclamation, so that laymen can believe it because of the authority that the theologian, with special historical skills, can provide. It does not seem, however, that Luke, who finds the basis for revelational knowledge in history, makes historical reasoning the exclusive way to such knowledge. Acts 11:24 is a passage of particular interest in this connection because it tells how a number of people came to believe on the basis of the moral impact of the minister, rather than by accepting his authority or by employing historical reasoning to get back to the truth of the resurrection. ‘[Barnabas] was a good man, fully of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And [as a result] a large company was added to the Lord.'”
How frustrating all this must be to someone who wants to prove Joseph Smith a prophet or a fraud or to make that issue the only one to interest insider or outsider historians. We have argued that it is impossible for historians as historians to prove that Smith was a prophet and improbable that they will prove him a fraud. Instead they seek to understand. That is a modest but still important task in the communities of both faith and inquiry. Similarly historians cannot prove that the Book of Mormon was translated from golden plates and have not proven that it was simply a fiction of Joseph Smith. Instead they seek to understand its revelatory appeal, [p.187]the claims it makes, and why it discloses modes of being and of believing that millions of Saints would otherwise not entertain.
If what I have outlined makes any sense at all, it might be a contribution to a lowering of suspicions of historians by Mormon guardians. At the same time it does not try to pretend away the depth of the crisis of historical consciousness for history-based Mormondom. The motive for this all is not to commend Mormon history to the secular academy, as if Mormon historians had to be driven by a push for relevance and respectability. The secular academy which despises Mormonism also has to despise Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, all of which make theophanic and revelational claims similar to those of Mormonism. Yet Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant historians have found means of pursuing their work and displaying their integrity.
There are many kinds of integrity. Some of these are appropriate to insiders and others to outsiders, some to church authorities and some to historians, some to those with “primitive naivete” and others to those who live in “second naivete.” Confusing these integrities is almost as destructive to them as is dismissing those sorts which are appropriate to other people in other callings. Discernment of them and empathy across the lines of the vocations of people who display them seem to be the most promising forms of address to the present crisis of historical consciousness.
MARTIN E. MARTY is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago. He is past president of the American Society of Church History and co-editor of Church History. “Two Integrities: An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography” was first published in Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 3-20, and subsequently reprinted in his Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 303-25, 377-78.
1. G. J. Renier, History: Its Purpose and Method (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), chaps. 1:i (for the social or collective character of history), 1:ii (for its story character), and 2:i (for “events and traces”). See p. 14 on “stopping to think.”
2. On “primitive” and “second” naivete, see Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1967), 351-53. His exact words on the second naivete (352): “For the second immediacy that we seek and the second naivete that we await are no longer accessible to us anywhere else than in a hermeneutics; we can believe only by interpreting. It is the `modern’ mode of belief in symbols, an expression of the distress of modernity and a remedy for that distress. . . . This second naivete aims to be the postcritical equivalent of the precritical hierophany.” Again (351): “If we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we [p.188]modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short, it is by interpreting that we can hear again.”
6. See Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 31, 43. The articles are Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” and James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.”