Ben’s recent post about one of the more troubling aspects of a topic that is already troubling, along with Brad’s reflections on navigating the choppy waters of infallible fallible prophetic infallibility got me thinking about courses I took from Richard Bushman on Joseph Smith and Mormon history at Claremont Graduate University. By this point in my life and academic career I had already sufficiently studied church history to not have been particularly surprised by any aspect of our history. But we wrestled with the implications of much of it in these classes, trying to be as academically honest and unflinching as we could be.
Which wasn’t easy. The vast majority of these classes were attended by faithful active Mormons. Collectively, we often spiraled into navel-gazing insider-speak about these topics. Many of us would always try to right the ship with reminders of academic integrity, that this wasn’t Sunday School, etc. I think for the most part we did a pretty good job under the circumstances in trying to manage a complex dynamic where personal beliefs, faith, and tradition were coming in messy contact with academic rigor and honesty. But our neuroses were on display. And in an important sense we were compromised.
I recall a non-Mormon student in the class who observed something about our curious little group that has always stayed with me. I’m not sure if he coined this phrase, but he called our wrestlings with tradition and academic objectivity “the fallacy of the native exegete.” The native is always already compromised when it comes to attempts to detach herself from subjective knowledge and experience and consider her environment and the genealogy of her values objectively. The native interprets her world as, well, a native. David Foster Wallace’s opening anecdote in his famous commencement address illustrates this well:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
As Mormons, we can very easily have a hard time judging the temperature and purity of the water since we’ve swam in it all our lives. This is true of everyone in their respective worlds, of course. And we can also, no doubt, posit the “fallacy of the foreign exegete.” There are some things that outsiders can never really understand or interpret accurately by virtue of the fact that they are foreigners.
It’s all so messy, isn’t it? Of course, much of the messiness we have created ourselves with our monolithic, one-dimensional, and selective descriptions of important figures in our history, especially the founders. I imagine that every society, actually, reconstructs its founders in heroic and even mythic terms. On the one hand, it seems nonsensical and besides the point for the church to stop being a religious organization and start being a history teacher, but on the other hand we have made the teaching of our history very intimately and inextricably a part of our religion, in a way that I don’t think is quite commensurate in other Christian denominations. The messiness, I think, will continue to be a lot more messy than it needs to be until we come to grips with ways to officially tell the stories of our history in a fuller and more complete manner. Of course, trying to construct a coherent narrative out of native and foreign interpretations is immensely difficult. What are we left with in the end?
What we’re left with is where we began: with a human story. We begin and end with the question of what it ultimately means to be human, how to live together, how to live together forever, all of us. The best explanation for Joseph Smith is that he was thoroughly human. However, we don’t fully understand–and we doubtfully will ever understand–all that it means to be human. Were environment and culture influential factors, as they are for all of us? Yes, absolutely. But human beings also transcend their environments, displaying creativity and novelty not entirely reducible to social and cultural environmental factors. Those that are the artistic and political movers and shakers of history–those that have shaped history and rewritten the boundaries of what human beings can think and do– by being unusually “not reducible” to environment uniquely display this kind of dynamism. Humans can be, in greater and lesser degrees simultaneously evil and good, charitable and selfish, receivers of revelation and makers of religion. And there is a mystery-component about all of us, something that external factors can only, in the end, tell a partial story about, something that escapes even our own understanding about ourselves. And it is our stories that ultimately reveal our complexity. We are paradoxes because only stories can reveal us, and stories are not empirical data but how we communicate empirical data and make it meaningful, valuable, and present, present both in terms of the here and now and in terms of a genuine gift. As one commenter pointed out in Ben’s post, the historical records regarding much of Joseph Smith’s doings are incomplete, and likely always will be. Consequently, a little more historical humility is in order when we make attempts to reconstruct the past. We’re not talking about excusing, justifying, or condemning, and neither are we talking about endlessly withholding judgment, as if that were even possible. What we are talking about is ridding ourselves of the static totality of judgment, wherein we anoint the subject as Sinner or Saint for all time. When Joseph Smith says no man knows his history, this is emblematic of pretty much everyone. No one knows my history either. I certainly don’t, not fully. Many can try to tell my story from evidence they gather, and I can contribute with my own stories, my own interpretations of me and my decisions, but even here there are gaps, and the best case scenario, the most I can hope for, is that I will have a never-ending stream of people that will try to tell my story, fill in some of the gaps, tell another storyline in a more convincing and hopefully charitable fashion, contribute something to my identity, which is never fully written and sealed. What it means to be human is, in part, to accept that these very gaps themselves are a part of my humanity, and the humanity of us all.