Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Context (Sorry no catchy New York Post titles on this one)

How's this for an assertion: ultimately everything has to be understood within its own historical context. Ideas, institutions, works of art, etc. all come to life in history, and can only really be understood in light of that history.

The other night I was reading about Joseph Fielding Smith. This man was Church Historian from 1921 to 1970, but had worked in the historian's office since 1901. Whether you agree with them or not, his books on Church History are among the classics of our LDS canon. What interested me about him, though, is that his obsession with history came from a desire to understand the Doctine and Covenants in its historical context. I don't have the exact quotation, but he believed that it was impossible to understand these revelations outside of the church's history that surrounded them.

So what does this idea that context is everything mean for works like the Book of Mormon? Is there enough context already in the book, or when more gets laid out in the future will we all let out a collective "ah-ha"? More generally, (for those of you who get a little sick of the LDS blather)how much context is enough to understand an event? I mean, we'll never have it all. Is there a threshold that you cross and say, "ok now I understand the context"?


At 2/21/2005 01:54:00 AM,

"Ideas, institutions, works of art, etc. all come to life in history, and can only really be understood in light of that history."

Chris, this sounds a lot like Alasdair MacIntyre's book about how our "identity" is really an historical narrative - speaking as much about our historical surroundings as it does about ourselves.

In any case, it seems to me that a full understanding of the D&C, or Book of Mormon, would require one to understand several different contexts, i.e. the context of divine revelation, the context of record keeping, etc. Maybe the rubric of "historical context" is broad enough to cover all of these.

However, I think that couching our approach to these scriptures in epistemological terms is dangerous. While I think the official line of the Church is that the members can have an epistemologically valid "knowledge" of the scriptures, I personally feel like this emphasis is misplaced. I think we discussed this in an earlier thread (about the historicity of the Book of Mormon). No doubt a knowledge of early Church history will strengthen our understanding of the D&C. But with the controversy about the PGP, as well as certain aspects of the BOM and the Bible, it seems IMO that our search for religious truth might be better served avoiding these epistemological claims to knowledge.

That being said, the idea of a threshold still pertains - for any framework. For instance, in knowledge, the threshold deals with reality (the validity of your knowledge is rated according to its correspondence with reality). From a religious point of view, the threshold seems to be related to its pertinence to one's individual experience. For me, at least, my testimony is based less on the objective truth of a gospel principle than its applicability in my life. Maybe that's because I take its truth-quality for granted. But in any case, the "threshold" when something becomes part of my testimony is closely related to my own personal experiences.




<< Home