Monday, March 23, 2009

Faith Promoting History

This week I am covering Mormon History in my American Religious Histories classes. As always, I find it is every bit as challenging to teach the history of my own faith tradition as it is to teach the history of the faith traditions of others. If not more challenging!

I am, of course, vividly aware of the fact that I don't teach LDS Church history to liberal Protestant seminary students in a graduate level history course in the same way I would teach it to LDS members in a Sunday School or Priesthood class. Yet, I have a testimony, and that certainly informs my teaching in the academic setting, just as it would inform my teaching in a church setting.

For instance, in three and a half years of attending LDS Sunday School and Priesthood classes, I have witnessed only one mention of polygamy (that I can remember). And it was referred to only parenthetically, as the teacher discussed how Emma Smith's faith and how her love for her husband were put to the test by polygamy. (That was actually a rather remarkable discussion!) Yet, no graduate-level history class that includes any coverage of Mormonism could afford to minimize discussion of polygamy in the same way. (By the way, one of the best treatments of LDS polygamy, from a doctrinal as well as a historical perspective, is Lawrence Foster's Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. The author is a non-Mormon, but the book is written from a perspective that is very sympathetic toward Mormonism, and the discussion of LDS polygamy is respectful and insightful.)

I'm not saying that the lack of discussion of polygamy in modern LDS devotional settings is wrong. I believe it is appropriate to focus discussion in devotional settings on what is necessary for us to live the gospel today -- to focus on teaching with the Spirit in such a way that we will be equipped to practice faith, repentance, and charity in our daily lives. And in general a detailed discussion of the history of polygamy really would be irrelevant to that objective. I do believe it behooves Church members to be well-enough educated about their own history to be able to answer questions by non-members intelligently (and correctly). But it is probably right that Sunday School is not the setting in which all of that education needs to happen.

But while the content of a more secular teaching setting must necessarily be different, still I do not believe that teaching in that setting should exclude the context of faith. Of course, just as certain academic teaching norms would be inappropriate in Sunday School, so certain devotional approaches would be inappropriate in a grad school course. Yet I do not -- I cannot -- teach church history (my own or others') merely as an academic exercise. My students need to understand how the historical travails of the church have produced a dynamic, living community. They need to understand something about the faith that provides Latter-day Saints a compass for navigating through the challenges of today's world. As a believing Latter-day Saint, I can also share how that works for me personally.

Every time I teach, it is challenging and exciting. I'm still re-examining and weighing old approaches, thinking about what worked last time, and what I'd like to do differently this time. And each class is different. The student dynamics are different, and what I bring to my teaching is different, depending on what questions and challenges I am wrestling with. So every teaching experience is really art more than science, really spirit more than letter.

I can't wait to see what happens tonight!


playasinmar said...

Good luck.

Bravone said...

The very way the church avoids discussing polygamy is what began my crisis of faith a few years ago. I eventually left the church and later returned. Last week, I was faced with the challenge of teaching "The Only True and Living Church" to my 16-18 year-old Sunday School class.

It was a test of my faith, and I am not sure how well I fared. It remains a challenge for me. Focusing on the gospel is much easier for me.

J G-W said...

Playa - Hello, sweetie!! I haven't seen you around here in a while!

Bravone - Part of me wishes that I had as students faithful Latter-day Saints, so that we could explore our history together in a non-devotional setting, but still share a framework of faith and testimony. That would be so exciting!

I experienced the same "crisis of faith" myself, and it was a factor (though I think not the only or even the decisive one) in my decision to leave the Church many, many years ago. Polygamy troubled me, but not as much as certain other Mormon historical oddities (such as historical questions about the Book of Mormon, the doctrine of blood atonement, the Danites, secret theocratic governments, the Mountain Meadows massacre).

I've since been able to put things into perspective. Part of my journey back to the Church included a hunger to learn as much as I possibly could about Church history. Gradually I learned enough to better understand these events' context (both human and divine). I think there's truth in the saying, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so drink deep..."

At this point, I have wrestled so extensively with these things and have come to such an understanding of them that they no longer trouble me in the least, and no longer are any sort of weak point in my faith. Consequently, my testimony is much stronger.

I think the challenge to faith is not so much in the historical facts themselves, as in what we bring to those facts. Usually, we have distorted or naive ideas about history, and then we are disappointed when those distorted or naive ideas are shown to be false. But the good news is -- faith not only survives but thrives once we ground it on a deeper understanding of the past and present...

GeckoMan said...

Good to read you again and think about all the ideas of your latest posts. Many thanks for your spirit, testimony and example. I hope your class went well.

J G-W said...

Hey Geckoman! Class went very well, thanks. I'm looking forward to my larger Thursday section too.