Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What if Jesus Had Come to Earth as a Cucumber? American Religious History Counterfactuals

Randall Stephens

The above was Erasmus's tongue-in-cheek version of counterfactual scholastic flimflammery. He reduced his angel-dancing-on-pinhead opponents to stuttering monkeys.

Certainly, not all counterfactuals are worth their weight in imaginary gold. Plausibility is important. That seems to rule out the cucumber incarnation. John Lewis Gaddis writes that "the use of counterfactuals in history has got to be highly disciplined. . . . You can't experiment with single variables that weren't within the range of the technology or culture of the times" (Landscape of History, 102). No crusaders with tommy guns. No famous atheists in 17th century Boston.

Some, like John Luckas have called into question the very term and thrown doubt on the whole enterprise: "In any event, 'what if?' or 'if it had happened otherwise' are better terms than the clumsily cobbled word 'counterfactual' about which much nonsense has been recently written, as for example Virtual History by Niall Ferguson, so often too clever by half. . . . Good history does not need counterfactuals. Good history is the result of good historians" ("'Counterfactual' is Wrong," Historically Speaking, Nov/Dec 2005, 3).

Still, I think that counterfactuals make useful thought experiments. So, Maura Jane Farrelly and I emailed back and forth and came up with a handful:

What if the Shakers had thrived (through recruitment, ya know) and were still 6,000 strong? What sort of causes and handiwork would they have put their hearts and hands to? Karate? (Might break that plausibility rule.)

What if Flannery O'Connor had not died of lupus in 1964? What would she have made of the the post-60s American religious landscape? Would she have become politicized?

What if Walker Percy had not contracted tuberculosis from one of the cadavers he was working on? Would he still have converted to Catholicism? Would he still have left medicine to devote his life to fiction?

What if Joseph Smith had not been martyred in 1844? Would Mormonism have looked significantly different?

When Ellen White, founder of Adventism was nine, she was struck in the head with a rock and fell into a coma for three weeks. What if she had died as a result of that injury? How would America's breakfast table look? How would grrrrrrreatness be defined?



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