A few quotes have been on my mind lately. The first is from Hugh Nibley:
“History is all hindsight; it is a sizing up, a way of looking at things. It is not what happened or how things really were, but an evaluation. . . . The modern college teaches us, if nothing else, to accept history on authority. Yet at the end of his life the great [historian] Eduard Meyer . . . marveled that he had always been most wrong where he thought he was most right, and vice versa.” (Temple and Cosmos, 440)
The second from Confucius:
“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
The third from Joseph Smith:
“Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were [total] darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” JS, Kirtland, OH, to William W. Phelps, [Independence, MO], 27 Nov. 1832, in JS Letterbook 1, p. 4.
The fourth is from Brigham Young:
“I do not believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:314)
If revelations are not perfect, then what does that say about what we call “history?” I believe that many of the problems we encounter with history, scripture, and the written or spoken word, in general, is the inability of language to capture experiences, events, or perceptions perfectly. We will always be at a disadvantage when language is all we have left to understand the past.
The best we can hope for is that some principle or idea will point us forward so that we may experience good things for ourselves. How do we look at history and how do we decide whose version of events is credible? I couldn’t even write my own history in a manner that would do reality justice; even if I could, it would only represent reality inflected to my own bias.
How can I begin to sort through this limited collection of words to capture the intimate outpourings of divine experiences in my life? I’ve thought a lot about what Joseph Smith said concerning his own history:
“You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself. I never did harm any man since I was born in the world. My voice is always for peace.”
Could Joseph’s observations about his own experience echo to the whole of humanity? How many times do we continually go back and reassess or rewrite national or personal history? How do we know that what we have now is closer to or further from the truth, and how will present views shift as time creates distance and perspective evolves?
We make such big decisions based on what we understand about history today. There are things that have happened, people lived and died, wars were won or lost, and things were built or destroyed. In religious history, fantastic stories outside of what we consider normal or possible entertain the idea that there is more than what we see at work in this world.
Science has proven this to the extent that we have increased our ability to see far away galaxies and the structure of molecules and the inner workings of cells. We have been able to perceive different wavelengths of light and sound, and through mathematics, propose the existence of things we cannot yet see.
Perhaps the scriptures describe phenomena that are currently beyond our comprehension. We dismiss them because they sound simplistic, ancient, ignorant or impossible, but how would an ancient person have described our day to the people in their own time?
We learn by comparison so it wouldn’t make sense to explain to an ancient that an iPhone is a “little TV that can make phone calls.” They might have called it a flat stone that illuminates mysterious visions. In the same way, we would seem like ignorant primitives to the world 100 years from now.
Each generation seems to pride themselves on being the elite of all human history, the pinnacle, the wisest. How do we live a meaningful life while using the records of the past constructively?
First, we continue to use our minds, second, we continually seek to accept God’s invitation to commune with him at places of greater vantage.
“…What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” ~ Rene Daumal
“For he had said unto him in times before, that if he would believe in him that he could show unto him all things—it should be shown unto him; therefore the Lord could not withhold anything from him, for he knew that the Lord could show him all things.” (Ether 3:26)
The question of history is always of whose history. Objectivity, even if the objective, is unreachable with mortal means of communication.
Of phenomena beyond our comprehension, perhaps we have incorrect and/or incomplete conceptions of reality. Perhaps some current realities were different anciently. Perhaps some phenomena have occurred only once or are seldom observed. Of that which is recorded, how can we understand that for which we have no frame of reference? And perhaps theories distort our perception, especially those that merely propose reality but cannot be tested, which some dogmatically espouse.
Learning from history and applying its lessons are matters of sifting and discernment as we “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
Exactly. Some historical facts can be addressed objectively like if there was a war or an earthquake or an election. These are things that happened and they can be demonstrated through photos, video, or scientific measurements. It is when we try to derive meaning that we get into trouble because meaning is subjective. It gets even more murky when you try to understand a person’s actions or motives based on the testimony of other witnesses that have their own biases.
What they felt or thought they saw may have been real enough but what was actually happening could have been totally different, even the opposite.
This is why doctrine and principles are so important and the other things are less so. Even a very poor retelling of a historical event can convey a true principle and make a good point. One can even embellish that historical account to make that principle stand out more. Ultimately the story itself isn’t that important if the principle is true, the story is only revealing a dimension of the principle.
We do this with fiction. Les Miserables is fiction but it beautifully portrays the principles of redemption and mercy while based in a real place with believable portrayals of human beings. We appreciate stories like these.
Yet we will tear apart a historical account for the smallest flaw and miss the larger point. It’s tricky business for sure. Personally, I care less about the details and more about what is true. I search history for truths and as I discover them myself, I can return to those accounts and see the truth reflected. I always assume some embellishment is happening here or there. Some truths are too beautiful to be expressed in words, and others are so subtle they may need a little help and context.