Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Understanding the Past When You Don't "Agree" with It

I have heard many people complain about former situations with which they disagree (like polygamy or the Priesthood ban) and say something like the following:

They could have acted differently. What they did was wrong; I wouldn't have done that; they could have done something else.

I would posit that the chance for something to have happened differently than it did is 0% - since something would have to change about the situation in order for it to happen differently. It’s legitimate to try to learn from history in order to act differently now or in the future, but saying that someone should or could have acted differently than they actually did is imposing unrealistic expectations on them. They acted how they thought they needed to act; they would have to have been different to act differently - and they were who they were, doing the best they could, while dealing with what was in front of them at the time as they, like us, saw through their own glasses, darkly.

I am positive my own descendants will look at much of what I have written and said and wonder how I could have believed such silliness. I only hope they realize that I "shouldn't" have acted or believed any differently than I did, since I did the best I knew how.


ji said...

It is always unfair, yet so seemingly commonplace, to judge people of the past by today's understandings and sensibilities. Thanks for your words.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of us (myself included) sometimes make wrong/bad/sinful choices, because we're selfish, lazy, afraid, or otherwise subject to less than noble motives.

Your post seems to indicate a belief that all people throughout history have always done the best they were capable of. Is that what you meant?

Papa D said...

First, I just realized I mis-spelled the title of the post. *sigh* I fixed it.

ji, that does seem to be the natural practice - and it simply isn't charitable.

Anon, I agree that we all make wrong/bad/sinful choices - but I'm just not convinced many/most/all of those choices weren't inevitable. I'm not saying I believe in predestination, where we have no choice and act only as we are programmed to do. I don't believe that, at all.

I'm saying I don't know and can't judge specific actions and statements and beliefs of others - so I choose to try to be charitable and believe the people involved did the best they could.

For example, I personally would rather not assume someone has sinned when, in reality, that person might have made a decision based on the best information available to them. Iow, the decision might have been "wrong" from a totally objective standpoint, but it might have been the only possibility at that particular time and in that particular siutation for that particular person. I don't know, so I choose to try to view it as chartiably as possible.

Matthew said...

I agree that an important aspect of this idea is the amount of information we have access to.

We have a global network today that we can use to find out anything that has happened, just after it happened, and sometimes while it is actually happening. This is a new phenomenon in the history of the world and it is very easy to forget that.

For the majority of human history, communication has been a very limited resource, and it is sometimes difficult to imagine a world in which important events might go unheard of for weeks, months, maybe even years.

Mitch said...

The problem here is what is being said today. Because of access to past documents on the Internet many are now saying the priesthood ban was a policy, not docrtine. That's wasn't true growing up in the church.

I would love any current church leader to come out and talk about the SLC lynching that happened in the late 1800s.

Papa D said...

Mitch, the problem is that "doctrine" is such an amorphous word - especially in a religion that accepts the ability to make radical changes in practice, policy and doctrine as a result of "further light and knowledge". That drives some people nuts, especially those who conflate God with our beliefs about God, but I have no problem with it at all.

Fundamentally, however, that's not what this post addresses, so please don't turn it into a discussion about any particular issue. This is about how we view those who believed and said things we not longer believe and say.

Mitch said...

My post is still relevant because it shows how the average Mormon looks at the beliefs of the church. My parents remember on fast sunday how some members woould share their testimony that God does not allow marriage between the races. These people would quote from the Book of Mormon to prove their belief. We no longer hear that today, except for gay marriage.

My point is that no one in the Mormon church today is aware about that. We should not put on blinders to view our past.

Papa D said...

1) This post isn't about how members look at the former beliefs and practices of the Church; it's about how we should look at the people who held them. There is a HUGE difference between those two things.

2) All of us who are old enough to remember those discussions are old enough to have heard the repudiations of those beliefs. Those who are too young to have heard those discussions simply CAN'T study and be aware of everything that was said and believed in the past. That's true of ANY organiation, religious or not, so I have no problem with not throwing old stuff in people's faces constantly when we no longer teach or believe it.

That is part of what I am addressing in this post, but I didn't make it clear. Part of charity, imo, is letting go of the stuff with which we no longer agree. Part of it is not condemning them for having believed it, but another part simply is letting it go.

Jack Mormon said...

I agree with PapaD that it is unfair to judge the actions of the past through the morality of the present. One must initialize those actions against the degree of light that they possessed.

This is why those who die without a knowledge of the Gospel will be offered it in the next world. It would be unfair to judge them by the same standard as those fully exposed to the Gospel while in the flesh.

Michelle said...

I have no problem with not throwing old stuff in people's faces constantly when we no longer teach or believe it.

Here, here.

I also think that we are the ones who can learn to separate out what is doctrine and what is not. If people are saying stuff that isn't doctrinally sound, we can even treat that with charity. It's our own duty and opportunity to learn to discern the difference, to learn what is truth and what is not as we listen, study, look to the prophets, and seek for the Spirit.