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Overlapping domains of history and faith

Sep 08, 2004 12:42 PM
by kpauljohnson

--- In, "stevestubbs" <stevestubbs@y...> wrote:
> I am a little unclear what you mean, not having read (nor do I
intend to read) the Prothero dissertation. 

It's quite worthwhile IMO. What I mean, though, is that religious
studies as a discipline chooses to "bracket" matters of faith rather
than deal with them as true or false. This is clearly justifiable in
matters like the existence of God or the law of karma which can't be
proven true or false. The problem is that the same methodological
approach is taken to matters that are clearly amenable to historical
exploration. As for example whether the Book of Mormon was an ancient
text translated by Joseph Smith. Just because Mormons have faith that
runs counter to historical fact is no reason that scholars should
tiptoe about it and pretend that they have no way to know the truth
because it concerns religious faith. Some Theosophists want to put
the Masters on the same plane as Moroni, beyond the realm of
historical investigation; some religious studies scholars consider
that entirely appropriate. Historians by contrast seem to have no
problem seeing this as a historical question rather than a
metaphysical one. As you write:

It is impossible to prove that 
> religion is or is not true. However, knowing that Joseph Smith was 
> an out and out fraud (which is an historical fact) leaves me feeling 
> every bit as much satisfied as if it were possible to fingerprint
the angel Moroni and interview his neighbors on 666 Perdition Street. 
> Knight and Prophet are such transparent charlatans it does not seem 
> to me a whole hell of a lot of critical thinking on Melton's part is 
> necessary. Most of these characters are easily disposed of.
Some of the "ex-cult" movement folks are furious at him for his links
to the organizations he writes about. Of course ex-cult or anti-cult
is another kind of cult. An opposite case is David Lane, who has been
attacked by Massimo Introvigne for his work on Twitchell and Eckankar.
Lane is seen as too much in bed with the anti-cult folks to be taken
seriously as a scholar, just as Melton is seen as too much in bed with
the "cults." Here's a link that offers some comment on Melton:

> Olcott is a different matter. I am not at all clear that he was a 
> charlatan, writing honestly and even naively as he did about his 
> experiences. He may have been a gull at times such as when he was 
> drugged by Ootan Liatto or wandered around in a cloud of HPB's
>second hand hashish smoke and thought he saw strange things. But I
do not see him as a conscious impostor. 
There are questions about Olcott that have to be bracketed or finessed
since there is no real way of dealing with them-- the paranormal
questions I mean. But the nature and meaning of his relationship with
HPB, and whether or not there is any truth to his claims of contacts
with Masters, are absolutely central questions that any biographer
needs to consider. These are historical and psychological questions,
not metaphysical ones. I'm not condemning Prothero's book, which I
consider excellent within the limits the author sets. But a historian
would be less comfortable finessing these fundamental historical
questions than a religious studies scholar would. That's my take as
an outsider to both disciplines who has read many works from both. 

I'll leave your other questions to those who are interested in these
claims and counterclaims.



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