Faith-Promoting [Not] History

Several weeks ago we had a sacrament meeting talk that remains on my mind. The gentleman who concluded the meeting used most of his time to read a story that he frankly admitted came from his mother, who “got it from Google.” If you are thinking that the word “Google” is a bad sign in this context, your spidey sense is doing well.

The narrative he read was the highly embellished story of Gertrude Specht. You can read the Google version here and Jonathan Green’s research here. The bottom line is that the reality and the internet myth share only three points of contact: both talk about a German, both talk about a woman, and both indicate that the woman had at least one doctorate. Otherwise, the story appears to be what we will charitably call a fabrication in order to avoid offending any tender sensibilities with scatological references.

I must admit that I find it disturbing to hear this sort of thing in church – you want to think that what you hear in church can genuinely be called “worship.” But I must report that the irony runs even deeper. For the major emphasis behind the fabrication was an effort to make poor Dr. Specht, a housewife with a dissy in economics, into an expert who could affirm in detail the historicity of the complex of ideas we group under the term “Great Apostasy.” Yes indeedy, it was an unhistorical narrative contrived to lend the highest scholarly authority to the historicity of the LDS version of early Christianity.



So you might ask: Could the speaker have known it to be untrue? And I would have to say that he certainly should have realized something was amiss, even if he knew nothing at all about early Christianity, because the story is simply too good to be true. And then there’s that whole business of having gotten it from Google – which, by the way, would have confirmed the unsuitability of the story had he bothered to Google it himself. So I have to conclude that at the very least he failed to exercise due diligence.

Now it is not as if Mormons are the only folks with exaggerated micro-sagas. This sort of behavior has a long and dismal history. The thing about it is, though, we are supposed to be bringing the rest of the world more truth. And so you would think that we would have a heightened sensibility in precisely this area, if for no other reason than that we are known to run around telling others that their “truth” is deficient.

Does your gratitude for your membership in this church make you think more carefully about the truth of what you are saying when you talk about religious matters?  I have to say that until I started working on this post, I had never given the matter any thought one way or the other. And so I have begun to wonder why that might be. I cannot say I have all the answers, or even a good start. But I will share one aspect that I think matters.

For a fact, we are all conditioned to expect divine intervention in our lives because we read about it in scripture and in LDS history and we encourage each other in it at least monthly. This is a traditional Christian worldview! Nothing wrong with it! We are persuaded to regard such information as conveying spiritual truths, such as God’s care for his people, which is also traditional and good! However, we are not similarly urged to think carefully about the historicity of what we hear, or even to consciously distinguish between these forms of truth. If we have a spiritual witness, such as the “burning in the bosom,” does it follow that the matter is historical?

I hope I am not overstating the situation, but there seems to be a sense that sometimes the intersection of adequate faith and careful, discerning inquiry with respect to historicity is the null set. And this is deeply ironical in a church that was founded precisely to restore the truth. Do you think JS would have gone into those woods if he had had no skepticism? I have to say, I think skepticism is a religious virtue, and not least of all for Mormons!

Now I suppose that what I am trying to say here is that one reason we get silly faith-promoting anti-histories in church is that we have an attenuated approach to our search for truth. We do not have a shared theology of skepticism. Is skepticism a challenging quality? Yes, I think so. Skepticism can get the better of us, until it either destroys faith completely or renders us unable to tolerate the existence of doubt. But it cannot be avoided, especially if we value our own founding narratives and wish to safeguard the sanctity of our meetings.

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