The Hierarchy of Truth

Narratives wield a power measured not in historical accuracy but in effect on the reader. In many cases, the values expressed in a narrative, and especially the way that narrative moves us to thought and action, outranks the relationship of that narrative to history. In fiction, truths such as love, loyalty, following principles and defending freedoms shine even more clearly as they are unencumbered by the complexities of reality. But when we are reading Lord of the Rings, we know that we are reading fiction. We don’t expect the accounts to match up to history. What about scriptural accounts, where in many cases the accounts did not literally happen, were not intended as historical truth, but where readers are deeply invested in current literal interpretation?

It is in this context theological truth trumps the historical. God works within our worldviews, and I believe that for the majority of readers of scripture, it is better in most cases for teachers to do the same. To those aware of the critical issues, D&C 122’s encouragement that Joseph is “not yet as Job” may seem disingenuous, somewhat like saying “you do not have it as bad as Frodo” today. But Joseph’s revelation helped him endure a difficult situation that did happen, regardless of the reality of Job.

I thought through this balance while listening to Elder Holland’s 2003 General Conference talk on the “Grandeur of God”. I noted that in this excellent, uplifting talk, the characterization of Jesus was taken almost exclusively from the Gospel of John. At first I was troubled that my views were in conflict with an apostle’s, but then I placed the conflict in perspective.

The Fourth Gospel illustrates my point well because I see it as the gospel the most theologically true, but least accurate historically. All Christian literature portrays different degrees of pre- and post-resurrection understanding of Jesus. Our earliest gospel, Mark, best reflects “what really happened” during Jesus’ life. John seems to be the result of a question such as, “If we understood then what we know now about Jesus, what would his ministry have looked like?” Therefore this gospel best captures the resurrected, eternal Jesus, while leaving the historical Jesus behind. But the important point is that it is the eternal Lord Jesus that most readers of the New Testament seek, and it is this Jesus that Elder Holland describes. Again, theological truth trumps historical.

I am not advocating making up inspiring stories and saying they really happened in sacrament talks. I also realize that this position casts a shadow of Plato’s “noble lie”. A critique of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces thoughtfully asked what the problem was with falsified memoirs and powerfully concluded that such falsehood creates “stolen empathy”—when we say we experienced something we have not, we are lessening the suffering of those who have. The simple words “I know what you mean” are so powerful because the price of earning the right to say them can be so high.

There is a difference between putting forth something as true you know is false and working within someone’s interpretive framework. We do this in relationships—tact balances the “truth” of saying whatever is in our heads at any given moment with the deeper truth of our love for those we are talking to. This is how God works (see 2 Nephi 31:3), and the realities of current interpretation also constrain the way we balance theology and history. Is problematizing the historicity of scriptural accounts worth the price of disconnecting general readership from the theological power of these narratives?

Some biblical narratives lend themselves very well to an approach that highlights both history and theology. In Daniel, for example, the historical purpose of encouraging readers to remain faithful in the midst of persecution rings much truer than the message that faith makes you fireproof. Proper understanding of Jonah as a satire enriches the powerful message that God loves all people, rather than diminishing it with literal belief in gastronomical habitation and penitent cattle. The story of Lot and his incestuous daughters is much less troubling when understood as an ancient “redneck joke” than as history. The challenge is that the same approach that enriches these narratives threatens others, such as the Tower of Babel and Ether, or a critical understanding of John 21 and D&C 7.

The ideal is to teach both theological and historical truth in a complementary manner.
In the LDS community, unfortunately, I am doubtful that this will happen to a large extent, given the constraints that modern scripture places on biblical interpretation. You can harmonize the Documentary Hypothesis or Multiple Authorship of Isaiah with the Book of Mormon, but you need to unravel literal interpretation of the latter pretty far to do so.

One of the risks of an intellectual approach to the scriptures is when we look down on the “simple” interpretation of the masses. I value that simplicity of the “truer than true” understanding of the world, see it as needed, even as I embrace biblical scholarship. The complexity of the critical-historical method has value, but also a very high cost. I favor an approach that is responsive rather than aggressive, nurturing inquiry for those drawn to quest historical details, while privileging theological truth for the vast multitude who never will be troubled by such particulars.

17 Replies to “The Hierarchy of Truth”

  1. I was drawn to your essay by the title’s word “heirarchy” expecting some mention of Mormonism’s heavy reliance on priesthood heirarchy to define truth. And, even though your essay is excellent, perhaps something is missing that could add a lot of depth to the essay in terms of Mormonism’s dependence on its leaders to define scriptural literalism. After all, many Mormons do rely on leaders to guide their views of truth from the scripture stories, and hence the reason for so many heated and deep-seated arguments within Mormonism about things like evolution and even political conservatism.

  2. To those aware of the critical issues, D&C 122’s encouragement that Joseph is “not yet as Job” may seem disingenuous, somewhat like saying “you do not have it as bad as Frodo” today. But Joseph’s revelation helped him endure a difficult situation that did happen, regardless of the reality of Job.

    Wouldn’t this revelation only work (to help someone endure a difficult situation) IF they believed in the reality of Job? For example, saying “you do not have it as bad as Frodo” doesn’t do much to relieve a sense of *real* world injustice by contrasting it with fictional and fantastic injustice. I get the sense that fictional accounts reveal real-world truths mainly by the stark contrast between the real world and the fictional world. When I become aware of the discrepancy (wow, good thing something like that couldn’t happen in real life), that makes me realize the things that could.

    In fact, as you say:

    Is problematizing the historicity of scriptural accounts worth the price of disconnecting general readership from the theological power of these narratives?

    So it seems there is an understanding that the theological power is in some way connected to the historicity. Maybe that’s only true in some senses, or in some cases…but I think it is true in those some cases. What happens if god becomes an idea with only “theological power” and no “historicity”?

  3. Don’t you face a problem though when an earlier prophet proclaims that such and such is literally true? Are we really then free to claim it is but figurative?

  4. ed42,

    I think truth claims raise lots of question. Is something true in that it actually happened in a specific way or is it true because it teaches of conveys true principles?

  5. “I favor an approach that is responsive rather than aggressive…”

    Enoch, I really like how you put this…I think I need to adopt such an attitude. I very much like the idea of valuing the scholarly path without having to smack people over the head with it. I am better with this in person than I am while blogging.

  6. ed42,
    What difference does it make if a prior prophet declares something “literally true?” That only presents a problem if we believe that prophets are infallible and omniscient. Mormonism teaches neither; instead it allows for a worldview where prophets declare the will of God for His covenant people, and then we’re allowed–and encouraged–to receive revelatory confirmation.

    And yes, I know there are members who believe that every word a prophet says is both inspired and true. Which is fine; I also don’t believe in the infallibility of my fellow Latter-day Saints. Heck, I don’t even believe in my own infallibility (most of the time).

  7. I know that this is strictly tangential to your point, but it has a connection: Ben Witherington strongly defended the notion that the writer of the Fourth Gospel was actually Lazarus. After Lazarus’s final death, John of Patmos made revisions in editing, and thus the book came to be associated with John rather than Lazarus. Witherington offers so many points of evidence that they become nearly incontrovertible. There are some issues in our uniquely LDS scriptures where these arguments could collide, but in the Bible alone, the case is exceptionally explanatory. That view helps to remove some of the apparent contradictions that are so unsettling to so many people. Check it out for an experience in spiritual enlightenment:

  8. thanks for your thoughts, enoch.

    i think i agree.

    what i don’t like about this scenario is that it seems to me to be unworkable for those who have come to see things as historically problematic. if theological truth is to be privileged (and as far as i can tell, it must if the show is to go on), then these unfortunates would have been better off not knowing. and the best they can do now is protect others from finding out.

  9. Excellent post Enoch! Thx!

    “To those aware of the critical issues, D&C 122’s encouragement that Joseph is “not yet as Job” may seem disingenuous…”

    I think this is a very interesting point (one that got brought up at one of my recent CES training meetings). However, if Job’s non-historicity is disingenuous, what does one do with Jesus’ (or at least the gospel writers’ version of Jesus’) parables? Surely these stories have brought comfort and joy to countless individuals. Is a non-historical figure or occurrence less genuine? Maybe…it seems that characters from the parables have on a certain level been made into “historical” figures. Is this because of a need for something/one to be “historical” in order to relate? I’m not saying LDS think the prodigal son was a historical person, but it seems to me that we often talk about him in a historical manner.

  10. “theological truth trumps historical”.

    I confess to being confused. Are you saying that historical truth – which must be both correct and accurate (yes, a hard thing to get at) – is trumped by theological truth, which may or may not be literal and incorporates elements of “tact” and “interpretation”?

  11. When is theological truth not literal (and what on earth does that mean?) Aren’t we confusing what is expressed with how it is expressed?

  12. I appreciate the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments on my post. Before I respond to the comments, I wanted to reiterate what I feel is the best way to approach this tricky subject. First, I think that in general we should teach people at their level, while encouraging them to grow beyond it—this is simply good teaching methods. Once we are in a more specialized environment such as a university course, we can push students harder. I find it helpful to start out with easier examples such as the ones I brought up in my post and then have students work out the implications themselves. A direct question always deserves an honest answer. And no, I have never told my children that Santa Claus is real.

    @kevinr “Priority” could work as well as “Hierarchy” I suppose, but either way, I tried to keep this post focused on my particular point. In reference to reliance on leaders, I think that the leaders are part of the history of interpretation, rather than controlling it from above. Very few if any General Authorities, I imagine, are aware of the issues raised in Biblical scholarship, and therefore are promoting teaching according to earlier traditions, rather than enforcing a particular way of viewing the scriptures (President Hinckley seemed more aware than most). They do decide what to do about particular scholars, but I see that as a more sociological issue than intellectual per se.

    @Andrew S. Your comment struck me, as it cut directly to the center of my most important point. The situation of D&C 122 works *only* if you believe that an event or person is historical. Otherwise, as you say, it rings false. Again, that is precisely my point—it is *because* Joseph believed in the reality of Job that this revelation helped him. And there is a power that comes from attributing greater reality to literary characters than they perhaps deserve. I have felt a personal connection to scriptural characters I am no longer certain existed, something I have not yet completely worked out within myself. It is difficult to balance respecting peoples’ relationship to certain interpretations with the potential feeling of disappointment, even betrayal, that they likely will feel if they learn certain things just aren’t so. I personally speak very precisely so that I am not saying anything untrue, but people not listening for nuance would not catch it either. For example, “the story of Moroni provides us with a powerful example…” I do not need to say one way or another whether Moroni existed to make my point. If people catch the distinctions, they are ready to hear more.

    As for your second point, certain doctrines or understandings would unravel thoroughly if they were proven ahistorical. The resurrection of Jesus is an obvious example. As for God, my study has forced me to reevaluate my understanding of deity. But again, my central point is that theological point comes from our *understanding* of reality rather than reality itself. Obviously the closer our understanding corresponds to reality the better.

    @ed42 Short answer: No difference to me. This has happened; the garden tomb of Jesus comes to mind. I agree with Sam B.’s points.

    @Chris H. I am glad you found this post helpful. Yes, truth claims are tricky, and I tried to make clear that “true” is a slippery word, and that something can be “true” even if it is not “historical”. Something can be true in either or both ways you mention. We who think for a living make such distinctions, but that does not necessarily mean we need to impose those on everyone.

    @ricke Thank you for the link to Witherington’s blog post; that gives me a lot to chew on. The most important point for my post is that no matter who the author of the Fourth Gospel was, if the Beloved Disciple died (which we both agree on), it causes a problem for D&C 7. I personally like the idea of Mary Magdalene standing as the authority behind the Fourth Gospel (with Raymon Jusino) rather than Lazarus. I need to think about this more, but my problem with Witherington’s thesis is how literally it takes the Fourth Gospel. I agree with scholars who say we need to choose Mark’s portrayal or John’s; they cannot both be historically accurate. And John’s gospel, as inspiring as it is, clearly places history second to theology. There is no way Jesus spoke the way he did in John. There is no way that he was crucified for raising Lazarus rather than being perceived as a political threat. The same goes for Jesus’ captors falling back in Gethsemane at Jesus’ “I AM” statement. And so it goes.

    @g.wesley Your comment is very poignant. It is true that the beliefs of the majority, and I would again add revealed scripture, put us in a tight spot. Who are the “unfortunates” of whom you speak? Us? I count myself among those who are happy and feel enriched by the academic knowledge I have. I feel fortunate that I have found a way to balance spirituality and academia. I imagine most of us who read this blog feel similarly. There are some for whom new knowledge does shatter faith, and that is tragic. More than “protect[ing] others from finding out” I see our responsibility as being very conscious and careful with how we teach what we know. And again I urge that we keep things in perspective, and remember the value of the simple, theological truths. I will conclude with my fridge analogy. We scholars may like taking fridges apart, see their inner workings. We take them apart and put them together. Our fridges hopefully are better for it. But we need to remember that the purpose of the fridge is to keep food cold, just as religion has specific purposes. I am a realist in acknowledging that for the majority, the details of what I study do not matter. Heaven forbid I take apart someone’s fridge and it loses its ability to serve its main purpose. I would not do the same with someone’s faith either.

    @MormonDeadhead The comfort and joy you bring up ties into my central point; I am saying that historical details should not, in general, be allowed to compromise the power of these narratives. There is a way to have both, but that takes too much graduate work. 🙂 Jesus’ parables are understood as being fictional, however they are talked about for convenience. The key is how stories are *understood*. Parables are seen as fiction, but many would say that Jonah and the ark of Noah really did exist as the Bible says.

    @larryco_ Yes that is what I am saying.

    @Clark. Historical is a better word than literal, but both work. Jesus saying “I am the door, the shepherd, the living water…” all these metaphors are theologically true, if not literal. I am concerned primarily with how stories are *understood* especially relating to their historicity. We could ask any member: “Did this story really happen, or is it just fiction?” I referred before to the story of Jonah–the message that God loves all his creations (the message of the book) is theologically true; the story is fiction, more precisely satire.

    I look forward to continued conversation on this stimulating blog.

  13. I personally speak very precisely so that I am not saying anything untrue, but people not listening for nuance would not catch it either. For example, “the story of Moroni provides us with a powerful example…” I do not need to say one way or another whether Moroni existed to make my point. If people catch the distinctions, they are ready to hear more.

    Very interesting! major props…

  14. Thanks for the way you framed the tensions discussed here. Teaching the OT to teenagers has made me think a lot about them the last 7 months. I hope I’m instilling a respect for the scriptures as actual texts employing literary strategies to convey their messages, though I sometimes worry that I am making future participation in LDS scriptural discussions too problematic for these young adults.

    I look forward to enjoying more of your posts here. As we can’t talk in EQ or in the hall anymore, this forum will be a nice second-best.

  15. Very interesting. Thank you for reminding me that the manner in which I deal with the problems I perceive in the scriptures (or Church History for that mater) is likely more important than the problems themselves.

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