Monday, March 09, 2009

Rationalists, Mormons, and the Validity of Folk History

After attending an excellent seminar on Saturday by Dr. Tracy McKenzie (Professor of U.S. History at the University of Washington, erstwhile opponent of Doug Wilson and his romanticized view of slavery, and member of the church I pastor) on the topic of "Thinking Christianly About History," I got to thinking....

Is there, or ought there to be, such a thing as folk history?

I guess what I'm asking is, What is the relationship between the actual events of the past and the lens of tradition through which we evaluate them? Take for an example the issue of the resurrection of Christ. No matter how many articles appear in Time or Newsweek quoting some scholar who claims to have discredited the doctrine, or some archaeologist who thinks he found the bones of Jesus, most Christians will not believe it. Our faith makes such claims highly suspicious.

The resurrection may not be the best example, though, since the event is recorded in Scripture. But what about the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel? Despite the fact that it is nowhere attested to in the New Testament itself, it is unlikely that any sincere Christian will come to reject it after reading some liberal scholar's arguments, no matter how well-reasoned.

Or, take the debate between Catholics and Protestants over the issue of the papacy. Because Catholic tradition states that Clement wrote to the Corinthians at the end of the first century exercising the authority belonging to the bishop of Rome, it really doesn't matter what contemporary historians may say to discredit the presence of a monarchical bishop in Rome in the first 150 years of church history. This is because the Catholic's lens of tradition functions more powerfully than does the testimony of some historian out there with an axe to grind (and I'm not faulting the Catholic for this, I'm just pointing it out).

So it seems to me that there are two distinct but related pitfalls to avoid as we seek to relate our faith to the study of the history on which it relies. On the one hand, we can accept the testimony of historians based solely on the merit of their research. On the other, we can cling to our story with such devotion that it becomes unfalsifiable.

If we adopt the former approach, what distinguishes us from rationalists? And if we choose the latter, how are we principally different from Mormons?