Does history even matter to Mormons?
My quest is complete. The quotation I’ve been searching for since the start of this blog (most recently mentioned in, “What if Mormonism is wrong?”) has been found.
I chanced upon it in a Recovery from Mormonism deconversion narrative, but the actual source comes from Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Specifically, the summer 1970 release, in a review by Klaus J. Hansen.
…To a professional historian, for example, the recent translation of the Joseph Smith papyri may well present the potentially most damaging case against Mormonism since its foundation. Yet the ‘Powers That Be’ at the Church Historian’s Office should take comfort in the fact that almost total lack of response to this translation is an uncanny proof of Frank Kermode’s observation that even the most devastating acts of disconfirmation will have no effect whatever on true believers. Perhaps an even more telling response is that of the ‘liberals,’ or cultural Mormons. After the Joseph Smith’s papyri affair, one might have well expected a mass exodus of these people from the Church. Yet none has occurred. Why? Because cultural Mormons, of course, do not believe in the historical authenticity of M ormon scriptures in the first place. So there is nothing to disconfirm.
In the next sentence, Hansen laments the regrettable state of affairs (at least, for 1970s, that is) that “too many Mormons, whether “orthodox” or “liberal,” regard their history as irrelevant.”
Many disagree with me (as my previous article’s comments suggest), but I think that many people do not care for historicity and history. I suppose if one could take an orthodox believer and convince him of the incorrectness of some history (for whatever religion or cause) and then extinguish all possible rationalizations of faith that could come about, then you’d have yourself an apostate on your hands, and from very rough anecdotal experience, it seems that is precisely how some ex-mormons are made.
But for liberal or cultural Mormons, it won’t work. Because we, after all, do not believe in the historicity in the first place. I remember growing up and chuckling at accounts in the Book of Mormon of steel and horses — it seemed ridiculous enough to me even back then. I don’t mean to belittle the apologists who are working hard to make it work (or believing members who make it work every day now), but for me, I didn’t even worry enough to try to rationalize or explain. I casually noted, “Whoever wrote this was misinformed.”
I imagine what believing cultural and liberal Mormons do is begin to take these scriptures metaphorically or allegorically. Don’t liberal members of other denominations already do the same (especially for the Old Testament?) So, it doesn’t matter if Moses was an actual person…but the lessons are clear. And if your last name is Spong, apparently it doesn’t even matter if many of the central New Testament people and events were actual.
The question is if religion can work like this. Already, we’re asking *several* questions of the Book of Mormon when we ask about its truth. One of those questions has been: is it an authentic ancient document? General Authorities have worked hard to present the case that this is necessary. But is it so? In the far, far, far future (as far as Christianity has come to produce liberal denominations), could Mormonism exist without audacious historical claims? And would that be a better Mormonism? Is that a church worth pushing for (one that doesn’t look at you funny if you publicly don’t literally believe in its historicity?)
I think this provides some insight on the different kinds of members and therefore the different kinds of ex-members. It seems obvious and intuitive that there are orthodox members or even apologists who believe in the historicity of the scriptures, and also liberal or cultural members who value other criteria. And so, what I may have overlooked before was that there should be “orthodox” and “liberal” nonbelievers as well — I can even anecdotally pull up examples of each. The orthodox nonbeliever finds the perceived nonhistoricity of a religion terribly important and foreboding — perhaps it’s what shook him out in the first place. He is bothered when others aren’t bothered by the history. But the liberal nonbeliever (which I would like to refer to myself as, if it’s not too pretentious) isn’t affected, because that was never the emphasis of belief or nonbelief.