Saturday, July 4, 2009

Heilsgeschichte

My German Bible has introductory commentaries to each book giving some brief sense of historical background and theological contributions. The word Heilsgeschichte comes up fairly often in the introductions: the word means, roughly, that God has shaped history to contribute to man's salvation. While the German term is fairly new, the idea is old: Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others have all felt it important to describe how God was working through history in distinct stages to reveal his will as neccessary for humanity.

Understanding what parts of history are sacred to a given religion (what its Heilsgeschichte is) can do a great deal to shed light on that religion. It's useful to know, for example, that the kingdom of David, while accepted as significant by Jews and Christians, plays a much different role in Jewish thought than in Christian thought. In Islam, the most fundamental difference between Sunni and Shia branches has to do with the Heilsgeschichte: for Sunnis, God's revelation culminates and ends with Muhammad, for Shias, the subsequent Imams are not simply historical, but essential sacred figures that history could not be considered complete without.

Sunnis and Shias alike, and most Christians, have a Heilsgeschichte which consists primarily of events that took place long ago, complemented by events which will unfold at the end of the world. Latter-day Saints believe that events of paramount religious significance unfolded during the nineteenth century, and that other key events continue to unfold. Although we believe with other Christians in the centrality of Christ's life, we emphasize the history of revelation and of the covenant people, continuing into the present. In doing so, our Heilsgeschichte departs radically from that of most Christians

The American revolution and drafting of the Constitution, for example, while politically signifant to the point of being secularly sacred for most Americans, have a unique religious relevance for Latter-day Saints: because we believe that the restoration of the gospel and coming forth of the church are essential to God's history, the creation of the United States as a land in which religious freedom was (at least nominally) protected becomes a sacred religious event as well as a significant political one. The Exodus of the Saints to Utah, likewise, becomes a significant event in our version of the religious history of the world.

This July, then, I am thinking about how one of the things Joseph Smith restored was an intensified sense of sacred history: a sense that it can still be sacred the ways it was for people long ago.

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