Me, the Prophets, and History

I have to confess that I am not really a fan of the prophets. No, its not the modern ones. My main gripe is actually with the Deuteronomic Historians, but it extends to pretty much the rest of the prophets as well. The issue is that they espouse a premodern view of historical events that I think is generally pretty problematic. Specifically, they teach a version of divine providence where God is the only real agent, and wars and calamities, like famine and disease, are the result of God’s specific interventions. This theological view of history strikes me as problematic at best, and dangerous at worst.

The Deuteronomic Historians take a similar view to historical events as the Book of Mormon (a perhaps interesting coincidence given the Book of Mormon’s claimed intellectual milieu). The “Pride Cycle” suggests that the people of God are righteous, prosper, forget God and sin, and finally must be chastened with military destruction. At the center of this history are God’s people, and all other actors are pretty much irrelevant except for the role they play in either chastening God’s people, or submitting to them. Others simply play bit parts in God’s drama with his people as the main event.

This view of history has been challenged since the enlightenment, especially since Marx’s emphasis on materialistic explanations for historical events. Instead of seeing the cause of Assyrian or Babylonian dominance in the Ancient Near East as the result of whether or not Yahweh’s shrine was properly attended to with enough sacrifices, or the Israelites were caring enough for the poor, as the prophets would claim, we now see these events as the result of geopolitical events with roots in the shift in political power, military strength, the socio-political events of the past.

The Syro-Ephraimite alliance against the Assyrians in the 730s, and subsequent attack of Judah who had decided to remain loyal to Assyria, is much more productively understood in geopolitical and economic terms than in anything Isaiah has to say about it. This is a problem. History has been so thoroughly naturalized that the theological explanations for historical events offered by the prophets are far more problematic even than Jesus’ miracles.

Of course, there are many, many people in the world who still see geopolitical and historical events in cosmic terms, where God is battled against evil, supporting or chastening his chosen people, or worse calling on some people who see themselves as the chosen people to militarily punish whom they see as wicked. This reviews the danger that these ideas can have, not only in justifying violence to others, but often to do violence to members of society seen as the cause of catastrophe. Consider the blame that some Christian leaders lay at the feet of feminists and homosexuals when natural or manmade disasters strike. This is the unfortunate legacy of the prophets’ theological view of history. So, I am left with a concern. If the message of divine providence offered by the prophets loses credibility, as a sort of remnant of a premodern worldview that I would venture to say most LDSs do not actually believe when push comes to shove, what else do they have to offer?

8 Replies to “Me, the Prophets, and History”

  1. I wonder if there is not some Deuteronomic views in early LDS history and revelations–attributing bad things that happened to the Saints to their lack of obedience. Also, my understanding is that attributing bad things to disobedience or lack of valiance of believers is one proposed answer to the theodicy–something Job’s good friends attempted to persuade him was true.

  2. I predict an earthquake will strike FPR in the next few hours. Or maybe a famine.

    Isn’t this on a large scale what we face every time a personal tragedy occurs? If we pray harder, Suzy will live. Johnny wasn’t valiant, so his business failed. Wasn’t my son as righteous as his friend in the seat next to him who did survive the crash? But most of us don’t believe that righteousness or wickedness of the individual is always or often the determining factor (I admit that some do seem to believe that), and yet I think we believe that God can and does sometimes intervene, if he chooses to, and that righteousness or wickedness may sometimes play a role (i.e., that blessings do follow obedience to the commandments they are tied to).

    We manage to find meaning and comfort in the gospel even when we can’t bring ourselves to believe every trial is a direct punishment or accept every success as an earned blessing. I don’t think you’re really asking us to spell out how and why, right? However we do that on an individual basis, though, can be magnified to the cosmic scale. However/whatever that is, is your “what else they have to offer.”

  3. TT, you just need to take a break on those eastern superstitions, fo realz. The Jews’ god and Mother Cybele and all the rest are totally whack and your Roman soul knows this. Read my poem, you will feel better. Promise.

  4. Ardis,

    I think there’s a special place in hell (right next to teaching false doctrine on the bloggernacle) for those who preach and teach a “Johnny wasn’t valiant, so his business failed” gospel of prosperity doctrine.

    “yet I think we believe that God can and does sometimes intervene, if he chooses to, and that righteousness or wickedness may sometimes play a role.” Gets a huge star.

  5. psycho,
    From my perspective, you have made two totally contraditory claims, but I actually have some questions about this supposed solution to the problem that I’ve posed.
    How do you make any determination about when God has, or hasn’t intervened? Is it totally arbitrary when he “chooses” to, or are there some expectations of consistency in this regard? It seems to make God rather capricious if he is selectively blessing and punishing people for their deeds, and leaving others totally alone. Why would he choose to intervene in some cases but not others, and why do we think that this is somehow a solution at all? The problem is not that God doesn’t intervene, but that he intervenes at all, and the selective intervention seems to only amplify the problem.

  6. Of course there is rhyme and reason to why and when God intervenes, we just don’t always know it. What changes a perception of Him from “capricious” to “unchanging” is the faith and eventual knowledge that He loves us—really does love us—that whatever He does, it is for our own best interest in the eternal sphere.

    At the point that we realize deep down in our deepest darkest hearts that “all these things shall give [us] experience and be for [our] good,” and not in a cold, scientist-and-lab-rat way, but in a warm put-our-welfare-above-His-own way, we become powerful enough to accept the pain of not knowing without turning against Him, kicking and flailing and wailing. Knowing that He knows becomes enough for us.

  7. I do think God chastens His people and this gives them experience. People do not willingly change or grow much on their own but when God or something else kicks their butt two things happen they are motivated and they change.

  8. Hi TT,
    I certainly wasn’t trying to be contradictory, I’m just not very good at expressing myself. Let me try again.

    A 1:1 mapping of righteousness to success is demonstrably false. This is a testable hypothesis (and unfortuneatly, I admit to having tested it). One can go about their life trying to assign all their successes to righteousness and all of their failures to sin. The end of that road is depression. Because even in absolute sin not many utterly fail, and even in relative righteousness, no one succeeds completely.

    My compromise, is recognizng that not all sin means mortal failure, and not all mortal failure means sin. However in some circumstances, there are times when God chooses to positively intervene in the lives of those who are “trying” their best and avoiding some sins.

    As to why God chooses sometimes and not others, I can’t really read His mind. I don’t think it’s arbitrary, and I feel like it is according to His wisdom it what will help us the most. I don’t think we can expect consistency, because I think His requirements change with us as our abilities change. For instance, when I began coming back to church and holding a calling and home teaching again, He immediately delivered a spouse and spiritually led me through every part of the courting process. Now, I receive no major {earth shattering} benefit from church attendance and holding a calling because I have grown from the entire experience. He knew me where I was and granted blessings to me according to the faithfulness I was able to give at that time. And now He requires more faithfulness. So it is certainly not consistent, but it is fair. In fact, some of my deepest depression came from expecting certain blessings from God for my “supposed faithfulness”, as though I had earned something.

    At the same time, I had been single and active for some 7 years previous, and hadn’t received that blessing. I think it’s a damnable doctrine (Gospel of Prosperity) because it causes sadness, depression and damnation by encouraging us to compare, complain, and criticize.

    I personally try to not make judgments about whom God blesses and doesn’t. There’s just too much about them and their circumstances that I don’t know. In fact, I have to be pretty darn careful about the judgements I make of my blessings too. So any determination happens very cautiously. I cannot judge God (as capricious) or otherwise (now, although I have in the past), but I can now dimly see, blessing and obedience isn’t a 1:1, but it is true, He does bless us. Although some feel totally alone (that feeling is real) we must recognize that it’s not complete accurate. Sometimes it’s OK to recognize our feelings and still question whether they are true. And when we stop insisting that God has left us completely alone, we can turn around, and eventually be surprised by joy.

    I’m sure I’ve rambled a lot and haven’t gotten anything useful out. I’ll try again later.
    In the meantime, I’ve already tried to tack the gospel of prosperity.

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