I have a decent vocabulary, but I am always on the lookout for new words. This past week I stumbled across a word I had not noticed before. It might not be new to you, but it is new to me. Even better, it was the perfect time to learn about this word, and the meaning behind it. Without further ado, the word is…
Here is a dictionary definition: “noun pres·ent·ism \pre-zᵊn-ˌti-zəm\ an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” (Merriam-Webster)
Why is it timely? Because tomorrow is Columbus Day.
When I was a kid, it was all about “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and coloring pictures of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. What we talked about was how Columbus discovered the Americas.
Today it is a bit different. Here are some news headlines as of last night:
• Why police have to guard a statue of Christopher Columbus in New York around the clock
• Goodbye, Columbus. Hello, Indigenous Peoples’ Day
• Christopher Columbus: No Monuments for Murderers
Yes, Columbus did set in motion many horrific things, leading to the death and enslavement of many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. That is indisputable, and tragic. Yet what is also tragic, is how people are using presentism as a way to turn Columbus into a villainous monster of historic proportion.
In Columbus case, every year people dust off their grievances against him, and express them in an effort to malign him, and further their personal agendas. whatever they may be.
Which is it? Was Columbus a villain, or a hero?
Our doctrine subscribes to the latter. In 1992, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke about Columbus in General Conference:
“The entire world is celebrating this month the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus…In my private commemoration of this event, I have read and reread one important and prophetic verse from the Book of Mormon, and also a very long biography of Christopher Columbus.
That verse from Nephi’s vision states: “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1 Ne. 13:12.)
We interpret that to refer to Columbus. It is interesting to note that the Spirit of God wrought upon him. After reading that long biography, a Pulitzer winner of forty years ago, titled Admiral of the Ocean Sea—I have no doubt that Christopher Columbus was a man of faith, as well as a man of indomitable determination.
I recognize that in this anniversary year a host of critics have spoken out against him. I do not dispute that there were others who came to this Western Hemisphere before him. But it was he who in faith lighted a lamp to look for a new way to China and who in the process discovered America. His was an awesome undertaking—to sail west across the unknown seas farther than any before him of his generation. He it was who, in spite of the terror of the unknown and the complaints and near mutiny of his crew, sailed on with frequent prayers to the Almighty for guidance. In his reports to the sovereigns of Spain, Columbus repeatedly asserted that his voyage was for the glory of God and the spread of the Christian faith. Properly do we honor him for his unyielding strength in the face of uncertainty and danger.” (link)
The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi saw him in vision. The modern prophet President Hinkley added his witness. Could Columbus really be the villain he is portrayed to be? I, for one, am not planning on tearing down any statues.
This is the problem with presentism. We see it happening more and more. There is not an American hero who is not being subjected to a reinterpretation of their place in history based on today’s ideas, standards, politics and ideologies, rather than what was prevalent in the time period where they actually lived.
Another example: You can’t hear a discussion about the Founding Fathers anymore without it primarily being a vivisection for their history as slaveholders. Yes, they owned slaves, but that was a common, accepted practice in their time. Here is what I wrote about it back in July:
“It makes me crazy when people apply today’s cultural standards to people who lived in other times. It is true that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, but in 1776 slavery was part of life -even the African tribes where the slaves came from bought and sold slaves from each other. (I have an ancestor that was an “indentured servant” and he was from Ireland.) It is entirely unfair to use this long-abandoned practice to diminish people who were living the normal standard of their time – even though now we rightly see it as detestable.” (link)
I was making a case against presentism, without even knowing there was a word for it.
Problem #1 with Presentism: It is patently unfair.
For example: This isn’t 1492. To accuse a man of genocide for willfully introducing virus and bacteria into an indigenous population is ridiculous, being that “germ theory” was not even a thing at that time. It would be equally unfair to accuse Queen Isabella of Spain for failure to send antibiotics with Columbus. To push it to reductio ad absurdum, the blame could fall on the indigenous people for having cruddy immune systems! Assigning today’s knowledge and morality to people dead 500 years is unfair.
I have seen the question asked, “What if your life were defined by your worst moment?” Often, that’s what happens when history is leveraged for an agenda. An entire life can be summarized as “slaveholder,” forgetting the part about writing the inspired documents that founded our nation. )See Thomas Jefferson)
Elder Dalin Oaks said, “The Lord’s way of final judgment will be to apply His perfect knowledge of the law a person has received and to judge on the basis of that person’s circumstances, motives, and actions throughout his or her entire life.” (link)
There is also something unfair about waging new attacks against people who are not around to defend themselves. I would love to hear George Washington respond to his modern-day detractors.
Yes, it would be wrong to try and sweep the negatives user the rug, but focusing on the positive is not a bad way to go through life. We can learn from the past without creating a false moral equivalence. We can also learn from the past to improve our morality – not to castigate those who went before.
Problem #2 with Presentism: It is not justified.
One of the tenents of our religion is to not judge unrighteously. (link) Sure, we judge every day of our lives, but it is not for us to condemn. That is God’s job, and I’ll leave it to Him.
There is a Rush song called “Available Light.” I love that expression in the context of what we can expect God to judge us for. He will judge us based on what we do with the available light that we have received.
Never has there been so much “light” available to any generation as we have right now. It is not just to expect those who were not given this same intensity of light to be accountable to it – as we are. This does not just apply to those who lived in another time, it also applies to those who live among us or in the world who have never had the opportunity to be enlightened.
Joseph Smith taught, “Men will be held accountable for the things which they have and not for the things they have not. … All the light and intelligence communicated to them from their beneficent creator, whether it is much or little, by the same they in justice will be judged.” (link)
and, “God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them.”
Elder M. Russell Ballard in a landmark discourse about suicide taught, “Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth. When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.” (link) (I took the liberty of bolding two of the items, in that they seem relevant to this discussion.)
In other words, the judgment is a very complicated, individualized thing – there are a lot of factors in play. Let’s leave it up to God. I am confident he will get it right.
Problem #3 with Presentism: It is usually leveraged to tear down, rather than to build.
This is not just a common concern related to explorers and Founding Fathers. You see this in attacks on early Church leaders. Detractors has been trying to heap dirt on Joseph Smith since he was fourteen. What helps them in their cause is that Joseph was not a perfect man. He made mistakes. He had flaws. He made poor choices. By applying presentism to his life, his human flaws can be accentuated. Life in 1830 was vastly different from today in ways I do not understand. Even the meaning of words used back then are different. Often, those differences are used to detract from the prophet’s message.
From President Monson, “Great courage will be required as we remain faithful and true amid the ever-increasing pressures and insidious influences with which we are surrounded and which distort the truth, tear down the good and the decent, and attempt to substitute the man-made philosophies of the world.” (link)
A few years ago, President Uchtdorf explained that “The world needs builders, especially bridge builders, not destroyers.” (link)
Problem #4 with Presentism: Backwards application
Michael Otterson, head Public Affairs man for the Church, mentioned it in a speech a couple years back: “Most people here will understand the word “presentism” — defined by Webster’s as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” Presentism is a common problem. It’s so easy to dig into the past and find a statement that reflects the norms of the times in which it was stated and then incorrectly apply it to our day.” (link)
I’ve seen this backward application in arguments as to how the Church is being run incorrectly, or how ordinances are being performed wrong, etc. It is bogus, but lends an air of credibility to the bogus arguments. And usually, they require some very specific cherry-picking.
One of my favorites is, “Why can’t temple workers have beards? Jesus had a beard.” Seriously?
a) Jesus also couldn’t eat bacon or lobster.
b) Jesus probably never showered or wore deodorant.
You really want to go there? Are you all in, or just cherry-pick the parts you like?
Apostate groups have used backwards presentism to justify all sorts of wrong-mindedness about the doctrines and ordinances of the gospel, forgetting this simple: A living prophet out ranks a dead prophet.
Yes, this is getting long…
I am planning on honoring Columbus tomorrow, just as I honor the Founding Fathers on the 4th of July. I figure if it is good enough for Nephi, and for the modern prophets, it is good enough for me.
I’ll leave you with this, from Joseph Smith, “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard. … He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, ‘according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,’ or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India. … We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 218)
MMM Note: Yes, this is a little long, and a little heavy. I just spent the afternoon at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, IL. As I learned about the vicious opposition he went through in his lifetime, and the personal struggles he dealt with, I grew to love the man even more – flawed as he may be.
And as I stood and heard a voice read the words of the Gettysburg address, my eyes filled with tears. Tears of sadness, and tears of gratitude that God brings noble people like Abraham Lincoln into play when they are needed most.