No One Knows Your History Either: Some Thoughts On What It Means to Be Human

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.


  1. An exchange between two radically different alien species discussing the human race:

    Orson Scott Card, Xenocide

  2. Nuts, formatting removed the exchange – is there a way to get that back?

  3. Excellent, Jacob.

  4. Seth , I don’t know what happened. You could try posting it again.

  5. “The best explanation for Joseph Smith is that he was thoroughly human . . . 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.”

    Amen, Jacob.

    I absolutely love Joseph Smith, the man I have come to know over time; I really dislike Joseph Smiths, the competing caricatures so many people have created. I understand my own perception of him still is a caricature to some degree, but as the humanity has been filled into the caricature, he has become much more inspirational and real to me.

    Last summer, I wrote a post on my personal blog entitled, “Why I Love and Honor Joseph Smith – and Emma”. It emphasizes the fact that he was a complex, multi-dimensional person – with good and bad characteristics that seemed to have been at war inside him, just like the rest of us. If anyone is interested, here is the link:

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Jacob.

  7. Ray like you I am disappointed at both those who will insist Joseph is a Saint and those who will insist he is a Devil. He was human. Subject to all our failings and trappings just like the rest of us. It is why I love him as well. It wasn’t always so. For the first few years that I was a member of The Church I swayed with the wind of those talking. I hated Joseph when I was told to, and loved him when I was told to. Until I took the bull by the horns and found him for myself, and found how I could appreciate someone who I never met, but has had probably one of the biggest impacts on my life of anyone.

    I also agree with Jacob that as a Church we are stuck in a veritable quagmire. We insist on touting our history, but then leave so much of it out, or skew it. He is right that other Christian religions don’t struggle with this. Their histories are sometimes even a thousand times more alarming than our own, but they have decided to leave the past in the past. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t love an incorrect past. I was raised Catholic, so I know from shocking religious history. Maybe that is why the history does not bother me as much as it bothers others. I think if one insists on holding figured from the past to today’s standards though I can’t see any country or religious organization that they can pledge their allegiance to. There are skeletons everywhere. Individually our history is not known, neither is it collectively.

  8. OK, going to repost – and you can delete my earlier comments if you want:

    An exchange between two radically different alien species discussing the human race:

    -The most unpleasant thing about human beings is that they don’t metamorphose. Your people and mine are born as grubs, but we transform ourselves into a higher form before we reproduce. Human beings remain grubs all their lives.-
    -Human beings DO metamorphose. They change their identity constantly. However, each new identity thrives under the delusion that it was always in possession of the body it has just conquered.-
    -Such changes are superficial. The nature of the organism remains the same. Humans are very proud of their changes, but every imagined transformation turns out to be a new set of excuses for behaving exactly as the individual has always behaved.-
    -You are too different from humans ever to understand them.-
    -You are too similar to humans for you ever to be able to see them clearly.-

    Orson Scott Card, Xenocide

  9. One of my favorite books on Mormonism of the last several years was John Turner’s Brigham Young biography. Apart from being an enjoyable read, the lack of hand-wringing and angst that so often accompany works by church members was incredibly refreshing. Brigham Young could be profane, racist, violent, etc., without obligatory pretzel-like explanations of why he’s still a prophet. Turner places Young squarely in his times, and it makes Brigham all the more human and all the more likable and sympathetic, despite his shortcomings.

  10. Thanks for commenting everyone. I should clarify that one thing I was trying to get across here is that just because there are gaps in someone’s “historical record” (Joseph Smith, you, me, whoever), this doesn’t give us license to wholly excuse or dismiss whatever we like. I am not trying to say, “well, we just can’t know anything about so and so, therefore, apologists and critics alike create who they want to see and it’s all pure love or pure hate, one seething ocean of relativity.” I am saying that fully definitive, Determined for All Time Interpretations of these figures (ourselves included) are not available to us. But, we do try to do with the evidence (be it historical, anthropological, religious) what we can, and we do that because that’s also human. We are interpreting beings, and to understand anything on any level is to interpret, to come to a conclusion. So, we are going to conclude x, y, or z and we can’t escape that. But we should be aware, for good or for bad, that such conclusions are inescapably contingent, temporary (however long they may hold) and subject to revision. That’s the kind of historical humility I think Ardis was aiming at in Ben’s thread. In so many ways, we are oh so small, earthy, narrow-minded creatures, no matter our occasional moments of escaping our own personal world’s gravitational pull and writing something grand across the sky.

  11. Do others observe that the people who insist on black and white versions of church history, also want it in their U.S. History, politics and news? Faith promoting fairy tales all around. They prefer all knowledge to be correlated by a committee somewhere.

  12. #10 – Amen, Jacob. Well said.

  13. “Say, Jim, I’ll fetch the water if you’ll whitewash some.”- Tom Sawyer

  14. I’ve observed it in both the religious and atheists Rom. You’ll find fundamentalists everywhere – no god required.

  15. How, exactly, is one a fundamentalist atheist?

  16. I live in an area where the writings of Cleon Skousen are given great reverence. Skousen’s writings appear to “correlate” his political beliefs, his version of US History and his faith.

  17. I once heard someone refer to him as Klingon Skousen. It was one of the better days of my life.

  18. If you have a difference of opinion, they peg you as their polar opposite, someone who’s against everything they love. One of us or an enemy.

  19. mmiles – “fundamentalism” is nothing more than the reduction of the world to black-and-white, highly simplified principles and rigid inflexibility in deviating from them. It does NOT require belief in god(s), and the ranks of atheists are jam-packed with them.

    In fact, some of the biggest religious jerks tend to become some of the biggest atheist jerks. They change their mailing address, but nothing else really changes. All the same faulty all-or-nothing thinking, and all the same brazen intolerance. Just with a different theme song this time round.

  20. #14 #15 If fundamentalism means demanding a strict adherence to an ideology, I guess a fundamentalist atheist might be someone who advocates that any/all religion is bad. Bill Maher’s “Religiosity” and Christopher Hitchen’s “God is Not Great” might qualify. But they don’t seem to attach their dislike of religion to people who are religious. They seem to believe that inevitably some people will take their religion too far for bad result, therefore the world would be better off without it.

  21. But I think any hierarchical group, not just religion, experiences abuses. But religions tend to have few/sometimes no safeguards.

  22. It goes back to the infallibility business. Safeguards are only put in place to deal with bad decisions or policies. If every choice was inspired we won’t need safeguards.

  23. C Rom, I’ve found that non-hierarchical groups have even less safeguards.

  24. So if I try and say “that x tends to be y”, you’ll always claim without example or explanation that I have it all wrong, “it’s really -x that’s the most y”. Have I somehow offended you?

  25. Not particularly. Do you consider disagreement to be an automatic sign of dislike?

  26. [Interior monologue]

    Man, it’s my first time I’ve made a comment on this blog and it’s going badly, really badly. Where did I go wrong? Okay let’s review.

    #14 Okay he’s got a beef with Atheists.
    #17 That’s funny.
    #19 A lot of vitriol but really nothing about Atheists and their positions.
    #20 Just about the sum total of everything I know about Atheists.
    #23 What the heck? Does that even make sense? He doesn’t seem to care about atheists or hierarchies or even infallibility or safeguards. Is he just disagreeing to be disagreeable?
    #24 Did I piss you off?
    #25 More of the disagreeing without purpose.

    Okay I’ve heard about this . . . what’s it called . . oh yeah Passive Aggressive. Fighting over everything but the thing they’re mad about. What did I say that he’s NOT talking about. #11? Okay I didn’t say it until #16 but it was pretty obvious I was talking about Skousen at #11. #16 was just my attempt to pull it back onto #11.

    [Exterior Monologue]

    Seth R. Did I tick you off when I dissed Skousen?

    [Interior Monologue]

    Stupid! Stupid! he’s just going to say, “I didn’t say anything about Skousen” and then make a disagreeable comment on yet another topic he doesn’t really care about.

    I hate comment sections. I suck at them.

  27. C Rom, lots of people suck at them at first. I certainly did.

    Of course, some people would say I still do, and I’ve been at it regularly for 5 years now.

    Hang in there. It gets better, especially when everyone gets to know you better. As the post title says, at this point, no one knows your history.

  28. Yes, what Ray said. There should certainly be a serious attempt to treat others’ comments as if you were having an actual conversation in person with them, but this is also extremely difficult to manage, even for regular commenters. No problem. Just try again and keep visiting.

  29. Christian J says:

    I hate to beat a dead horse Jacob – really. Your post is beautiful and honest and *needed*, but of all the places in Mormondom – the BCC crowd is the least in need of hearing it. I would encourage you to submit it to the Ensign, Meridian Mag, send it to your local leaders, maybe some guy in your ward who’s a relative of a GA.

    The problem is not that our history is *human*. The problem is that beautiful sentiments like yours (that ring so true for me!) are not an embraced part of official teaching in the Church. I’ve often thought in recent years – its not the history that bothers me but the way we choose to deal with it.

  30. Thank you Christan J!!

    I find it ironic that for a time I really needed to hear what Jacob wrote, and it still doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it and to hear it expressed so much better than I could ever hope to articulate — but as you so clearly pointed out what I now am in need of is ways to acknowledge this in Church without feeling like a pariah.

  31. Christian J (29) right on!

  32. Seth’s internal dialogue:

    “I wonder if there’s anything good in the fridge….”

  33. Oh, and I don’t like Cleon Skousen all that much.

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