Standing Up To History

LDS scholar Dan Peterson has written an article in the Deseret News on February 9th titled The Restoration Stands Up to History. His notion is that there are three levels to church history following an Hegelian model of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Although this puts a happy face and familiar intellectual language on the subject, I respectfully disagree.

The first level is what could be described using any of the following terms, some favorable and some insulting:
Faith Promoting
Sunday School’s version
General Conferencesque
Testimony Building
Burning-in-the-bosom inspiring
Entirely Trustworthy
Missing Important Details
(many others)

These descriptors reflect the point of view of the one using them. Depending on the person’s vantage point, they describe the view a certain way. Interestingly, there are people of great faith who would feel comfortable using some of the more pejorative terms.

The second level could be described in any of the following equally contradictory terms:
Historically Accurate
The Full Story
Faith Destroying
More Trustworthy
Including Important Details
Not Allowed in Sunday School
(many others)

These descriptors overlap with the first and begin to show the problem of the first two category approach (thesis/antithesis). Once again, despite the fact some are unflattering, these second level descriptors could be used by people of faith who strongly believe in the Restoration.

This leads to the final level where Bro. Peterson proposes it is possible to return to something akin to the first level, but with “a richer and more complicated version of history.” This is the happy ending of the process.

This kind of orderly progression is becoming more difficult by the day. The Internet has introduced a new world. The result of that explosion in available information has made the first level an island of isolated views. Anyone participating in such lessons can return home (or even sit in class), go on-line and look further into anything said by the instructor or manual. What was once “Fantasy Island” is now just a peninsula being besieged. It cannot thrive any longer in pretended isolation. The barbarians are already inside the gate.

If the church persists in imposing the first level as its stock-in-trade, the “apostasy” Bro. Marlin Jensen speaks about will continue. The first level cannot sustain a day long shelf life anymore. We need to drop the pretense of having all antiseptic characters, living or dead. History needs to unfold. It WILL still be faith promoting. But the faith it will promote will be more hearty, robust, realistic and enduring. We will become acquainted with characters who at times made serious mistakes, were struggling, befuddled, headed in the wrong direction, but suffered for their mistakes and came to peace with faith despite the pain of this mortal realm.

The basic argument of Bro. Peterson is absolutely correct. The Restoration WILL stand up to history. In a much more marvelous way than it does in the first level of wasted effort. That may have been good in an era of limited information, and may still be good for the Primary children. By the time they are age 12, the complications of life and the failures of mortals should be introduced and discussed.

Why hide George Albert Smith’s mental illness? Why avoid the origins of his mental instability? Why not let those who suffer from similar maladies know there has been a church president with such serious problems? Why use the pedestal to support a fictional character? Why not let him emerge as the frail, likable man he was?

Why not take the initiative as saints to go to the third level voluntarily? Why not acknowledge, face and discuss the very matters that are costing people their faith right now? Why let them discover the problems from hostile sources instead of from friendly sources? Why not strengthen one another in our faithful search for the truth, rather than let those who dispense historical events from a perspective which challenges faith get the first chance to tell our children and our converts? When they do that they gain credibility and we lose it.