Saturday, February 10, 2007

Towards a Christian Historiography

Over the last week and a bit, I`ve been engaged in an interesting discussion on The Forbidden Gospels blog about the relationship of history and theology. The discussion has been amicable and useful, but there is a point, I recognize, when one has to come out of rebuttal mode and contribute a positive statement to the mix. So, here we are.

What I want to work out here is what do I mean by a Christian historiographical tradition in the real nitty-gritty of historical writing. I have approached this topic last September in a discussion about what I meant by tradition here. So, I'm already assuming that discussion. I openly associate myself as part of a living tradition which stretches from the patristic era to now. My self-assigned task is to figure out how to write Christian history (which, after all, emerged in the early days of the Constantinian era)in the post-Constantinian milieu in which we find ourselves.

Here are some preliminary thoughts:

1. Christian history is a particular narrative

As Christians, we already have a sense of how history has happened and how it will unfold. We begin with the idea that God created the world, has worked and is working in the world and will redeem the world and His people at the end of history. We know the shape of the narrative and we've seen the opening few acts (as N.T. Wright has said). Our job as historians is to explicate that part of the narrative we have chosen. That means the same thing as non-Christian historians: research, hypothesis and reconstruction of the past on its own terms. The techniques remain the same, even if the assumptions don't.

2. The Christian historian is part of the narrative

This will be a controversial point, largely because what I'm going to argue is counter to the accepted wisdom in historical circles over the past few centuries. We all have been taught for as long as we have been studying history (however long that is) that the historian is an independent observer of the events. I don't buy that because I don't think it is either possible or desirable to be outside of the flow of events. Even with the 'humanist' or modernist tradition, for all of their rhetoric, doesn't do this because they too have an implicit narrative. What I am doing is making explicit that I am in the Christian tradition and that I am explaining the narrative in which I find myself in. This may cause some to dismiss my comments, but I'm sure if I've already put them off already.

However, what I gain in recognizing my place in the Christian narrative is to make explicit where I am coming from. That is all very post-modern and all, but, if only out of honesty, I feel compelled to make that clear. Besides, I also affirm my committement to understanding Christian history and tradition as the coherent whole that it is. 'Humanist' historiograpy is so focused on analysis and dissection that it looses the coherence that a tradition represents. As a result, history becomes random or determined by forces outside the human dimension. We look for causes ,not coherence; for explanations, not wisdom. When we follow that procedure, we are all impoverished.

3. Christian history is methodologically rigourous

One of the criticism of the Christian historical tradition is that it is too uncritical, too credulous. Even when we filter out modernist polemical assumptions in this criticism, I think we have to concede that this has been true far too often. One of the reasons for this is that the Christian historical tradition has been every bit about apologetics as it has been about history for its own sake. This makes sense because, if we understand history in the proper sense, it can be a powerful proof for the faith. Yet, I think we have to be careful not to put scoring apologetic points over historical accuracy. In point of fact, this apologetic strategy inevitably backfires because, if our opponents are able to refute our vision of history, any benefits we had from scoring our point are instantly negated, but, worse, we are immediately put on the defensive. If we've stretch a point in one place, where else have we done it? For our own good, we need to be rigourous in our historical thinking and practice.

4. Christian history focuses on different things.

I'm still working out what this means, but, as Christian historians, we have to fundamentally shift our focus in our historical writing from the way that it has been practiced in recent centuries. History's focus in both the ancient and modern period has always been the human dimension which has led a concern with the 'big' events and people of history whose influence affects us all in real, tangible ways. It is important to know how, for instance, the Presidency of the United States has developed over the two hundred and more years of its existence, because it affects us profoundly today, whether we are American or not.

Yet, Christian history, as Eusebius alludes to in his preface to the fifth book of the Ecclesiastical History (I comment more on this passage here), cannot stop with merely the powerful and the smart. It has to consider the odd ways in which God has entered history. This means that there must be a shift in focus from an over-emphasis on the powers and principalities of this world towards attention to what appear to us to be minor events, but whose spiritual significance is vast. After all, the struggles of a Lutheran pastor in the late 1980s led to the peaceful marches which helped to bring down East Germany's communist government and, with it, the rest of the Communist bloc. That is, I concede, a rather too dramatic example, but I hope it demonstrates what I'm driving at.

This point isn't going to make sense to my non-Christian readers or even to those with sound academic training. I'm not sure it makes much sense to me, so I will have to continue to try to make sense of what I'm saying here.

5. Christian history sometimes needs to call for confession.

These next two points are linked. One of the criticisms of Christian history is its tendency towards triumphalism: a presumption that the present times are seeing or are about to see the final consummation of God's kingdom in the world. Part of that tendency is the kind of realized eschatology implicit in the kind of Constantinian dream introduced by Eusebius in those heady years after the end of the Great Persecution and the beginning of imperial preference towards Christainity. Understandably, Eusebius and others in the 320s and 330s felt that God, through Constantine, was building a Christian Empire and they were eager to show their support for it. One of the unfortunate consequences of this experience was that this excitement blinded us to the fact that, while the Kingdom of God was at hand so we must act like it is here, it was not yet here.

The simple fact of the matter is that Christians have continued to screw-up, sin and do evil over the last two thousand years. We have to be ready to own up to that. Glossing over our past mistakes and sins discredits our witness and gives us a reputation of being extremely tendentious historians. I'm not saying we have take the blame for everything that has gone wrong in the last two thousand years (as some of our opponents would allege), but we have to concede that we, the Church, have been complicit in many things because of our alliance with the State or simply out of our own pride/weakness/anger. As historians, we have to be ready to admit this because this is the first step to seeking forgiveness. If our communities don't recognize these faults, we have to remind them of the historical record for our own good.

6. Christian history is hopeful, not triumphalistic.

This is the corollary of the previous point. Since we do understand a pattern to history which includes looking towards an fulfillment of our historical experience on earth, we have to assume an eschatology in which God redeems us and his Creation. Yet, the point of this eschatology shouldn't be a "Yeah, we win", partly for the simple fact that we don't win, God does. The fulfillment of history isn't about us, but rather about God's redemptive purpose. That should lead us to bringing hope both to fellow Christians and non-Christians about what has come, what has happened and what will come. As ugly as history gets, we should remember that God is working out his purposes in it and that we will see a fulfillment of it in which God's redemption will become clear.

This is, of course, a theological statement, but it should govern us about how we Christian historians write the history before us. We cannot presume that humanity is in control of all history nor should we presume that we are mere playthings of God. Somewhere in between is the middle ground which the Christian historian has staked out.

I hope that, somehow these preliminary thoughts have made some sense. Let me know what you think.

Peace,
Phil

15 comments:

Jim said...

Phil,

Are you sure we are not seperated twins? I am working on a post for my rather un-read blog with the working title "can we do good theology with bad history?" ;-) Yes it is about the Windsor fiasco, not something as far reaching as the patristic foundations you use, but none-the-less we seem to be focusing on a simialr issue.

FWIW
jimB

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Great post.

Phil S. said...

I don't think I have a twin :).

I look forward to your post, but I suspect we are actually looking at the problem from different ends. I'm really looking at how do we write history which admits that is theologically informed. You seem to be trying to write a theology which is historically informed. I would argue that it is the theology which trumps (because it has to--history is the story which theology explicates), but I'll be interested in what you come up with.

Peace,
Phil

Bartimaeus said...

Phil,
Wonderfully said. I appreciate your narrative approach and your call for humility. AMEN.

Mike Grondin said...

Phil,
"Christian Historiography" is an oxymoron. It might better be called 'Christoriography'. Not that Christians can't do historiography, mind you. They can and do. But only if they leave their hat at the door (as the Christian historian Mahlon Smith used to say he did when doing historiography). What you're talking about is the total abandonment of the historiographer's goal of impartiality. It's one thing to recognize an inescapable subjective element to historiography, but quite another to wallow in it. The one key question I would ask you is this: would a "Christian Historiography" approach ALL religious texts with the same degree of credulity that you approach the texts of the Christian Bible? If not, then you're talking about "Christoriography", no getting around it.

Phil S. said...

Mike;

I posted a comment on Forbidden Gospels, but I will respond here to your key question.

Unfortunately, I need you to define what precisely you mean by "would a "Christian Historiography" approach ALL religious texts with the same degree of credulity that you approach the texts of the Christian Bible?"

Specifically, what do you mean by the same degree of credulity? I can think of several ways of taking this, but I'd really like to know yours before I start.

Now, as for this goal of impartiality, I challenge even its possibility. This goal of impartiality in historiography is a construct of 19th century historiography and I'm not sure that that many historians actually buy that is even possible. For myself, I'm pretty sure it is isn't.

The truth is that what you are alleging is that I'm not writing history according to the tradition of Post-Englightenment historiography that you are espousing. You're right. I'm not. I also reject that this is the only way to write history. If it were, we would have to dismiss all historians before the 19th century as non-historians because they don't fit your template. Now, I know people who are perfectly willing to do that, but that has always struck me as much cultural imperialism as Christians have been accused of in the bad old days of Constantinianism.

Mike, you can write in whatever tradition you like and claim to be impartial. It really doesn't make it so. If you want to have a substantive discussion, I'm happy to continue this, but let's drop this nonsense that there is only one way to write history.

Peace,
Phil

Mike Grondin said...

Phil,
By "same degree of credulity", I was referring to your statement that "... I believe the canonical texts are giving a true narrative," which you characterized as an assumption (not a conclusion from studying the texts). A historiographer should apply the same standards to whatever texts are being considered, so if "Christian historiography" is worthy of being considered historiography (and not apologetics), it would seem that you would have to adopt the same degree of credulity when looking at, say, Mormon or Islamic texts. Do you also assume that they are giving a true narrative? Or do you believe that a historiographer need not apply the same standards to the texts of different religions?

Now I've never said, and no one else has either, that there's "only one way to write history". I think that the Hebrew Bible gives us a clear model of one type of historiography - call it Theo-historiography, perhaps. In that model, events are typically explained as being due to the pleasure or displeasure of God. I don't think that is a model you would appeal to, but at the same time there seems to be echoes of that in what you are saying about 'Christian historiography'.

Another of your favorite straw-men is the impossibility of attaining impartiality in historical studies. Well, of course that's true, but so what? Does that mean that we should stop trying to be as impartial as we can? It may not be possible for me to score 100% on a test, but does that mean I shouldn't do as well as I can? Same with news reporters. Just because they can't be "totally objective" doesn't mean that they should wallow in rah-rah home-team boosterism. And in fact you recognize that, in your eschewing of "Constantinian" type Christian historiography (which is a type of "home-team boosterism"). But you say that it's legitimate to let one's faith commitment infect one's historiography. So we end up with "Islamic "historiography", "Jewish historiography", "Mormon historiography", etc. Is there any field of study which regards such splintering based on faith commitments to be legitimate?

Phil S. said...

Mike;

A few comments on your last post.

First, in answer to your question about whether I would treat other non-canonical texts as true narratives. My answer would be that I could not. The reason I say that is that the non-canonical texts are such that they and the canonical texts of Christianity cannot be held in tension as both true without either saying that there is, in essence, no truth possible or assuming another overarching narrative which reconciles them. This is similarly true of texts of other religious traditions.

Now, what I can say is that these different documents assume and imply specific truth claims. Indeed, I would also have to say that Christian canonical texts do the same (the only difference being is that I believe the claims of the canonical texts in a way that I do not the other religious traditions we're talking about). That means, in order to treat these sources fairly, I have to recognize that their assumptions are not mine and vice versa. In this sense, I take your point on impartiality in the sense that, if I am analysing these texts, I cannot read them in the same way I would canonical texts, if I am to understand them properly. That may mean I have to temporarily suspend my assumptions, in order to get it. This does not mean that I am conceding my truth claim, but merely that I'm trying to understand another point of view.

Now, on the impartiality issue. I take your point that what I was setting up was a straw man, although I would note that, in raising the impartiality issue, you set up a straw man in your own right. Still, you're right to call me on this because I really don't think the issue here is about impartiality.

What is this about then? What seems to be the problem (from my perspective)is that you are continuing to cling to an idea of a universalized history where one can and should abandon one's own tradition in order to write history. I don't buy that for the very good reason that the only thing that has been created out of this Englightenment era project is merely another tradition of historiography.

Don't get me wrong. Some excellent history is written in this tradition and its rigourousness has raised the bar for writing history in general. Yet, this is in the realm of technique, not so much because this historical tradition is intrinsically superior. What I'm still working out is how to take these techniques and apply them responsibily to my own professed tradition.

I'm not sure we're going to agree here, but I am finding this conversation useful. Sometimes a worthy opponent is the blessing that one needs. In that spirit, I hope that we can continue our discussion and you'll continue to challenge me.

Peace,
Phil

Mike Grondin said...

Phil,
Two points before I get into the meat of this note:
1. From reading other entries (but not all of them) in your blog, I've gained a greater understanding of where you're coming from, and I very much like what I read. In a certain way, we're opposites, you and I, because you came from outside Christianity to within, from a feeling of being exiled, while I came from inside Christianity (Catholicism, to be precise) to without, from a feeling that I was an "exile within", i.e., that even as I continued to participate in that tradition, I had already left it in my heart and mind. Nevertheless, I appreciate a good Christian when I see one, and I would suggest that you are one of those folks - unfortunately, too rare, IMO. So why do you labor under anonymity? Is there some reason why you hide your last name?

2. From reading the entry in Phil Harland's blog that you mention in one of your own entries, I see that you and I may have been using the word 'historiography' in different ways. Harland uses it in the sense of "the study of the writing of history". That's actually the second meaning in the OAD. The primary meaning in the OAD (and the one I was using) is "the writing of history". If we're going to continue using this term, we need to agree on which meaning we're using. Also, of course, I need to know which meaning you've been using.

OK, on to the meat. You wrote:
"[As Christians] We begin with the idea that God created the world, has worked and is working in the world and will redeem the world and His people at the end of history."
Two things strike me about this: the word 'redeem' and the phrase 'His people'. As to redemption, don't Christians believe that God has already "redeemed the world" through the blood-sacrifice of Jesus? How does that relate to God's supposed continuing redemptive work - which I assume has occurred in all times and places throughout history?

As to "His people", the natural question is, "Who are they?" Given your thoughtfulness, may I assume that you don't agree with John's gospel that they have to be Christian? Myself, I would think that if God has a people, they must be good people of all religions, or none. Among my own theological principles (which are all conditionals, BTW), is this: A good and just God wouldn't play favorites with religions." To put it differently, there never has been, nor ever will be, any organized group of "chosen people" - if there are such, they're individuals. I think that the issue this raises about your statement is whether you're talking about a history which is 'Christian' with a capital 'C', or 'christian' in a broader (and better, IMO) sense.

Phil S. said...

mike;

I'm glad that you see better what I'm on about on this blog and I certainly appreciate your comments about how I live out my faith. It was particularly appreciated because I've been down with quite a bad stomach flu today, so I've been a bit of a low ebb.

You ask about the whole anonymity thing. It is a bit of a carry-over from the days when I was posting more on Anglican bulletin boards where the level of venom and un-Christian behavior makes me cautious about fully revealing my identity. Perhaps this is something I should think about again.

On my usage of historiography, I think what I was trying to lay out here was a program for writing history. As much as I enjoy thinking about how history has been written, I think the real test of a historiography is how it is applied. I've tried a few experiements on this blog and will keep doing more to see how the program I set out here works. The proof is, of course, in the pudding.

Now, as far as my use of redemption, I quibble with some of your theology (especially the blood-sacrifice bit which is one of several atonement schemes). What I was trying to say, I think, is similar to what you were saying in that what the Bible seems to teach is that God's Kingdom (and, hence, our redemption) is both here and to come. That is, the final consumation of God's kingdom and the redemption of the world is still to come, although we know that it will happen. It is this strange in between time that we live and which, I think, explains the language I used in that passage.

Lastly, about the relationship to other religions. I am a fairly traditional Christian, so I would have to say that Christians have a peculiar relationship with God which other religions simply cannot have (with the possible exception of Judaism which also has God's promises, which God doesn't go back on). So, I would have to say that John is right about the exclusivity of salvation.

Yet, I would also hasten to add that I'm ready to say either that the fact of professing Christianity is sufficient for redemption. The Church in this world is a mixed one; with plenty of sinners to keep the saints occuped.

Further, I'm reluctant to restrict God's grace further than I've already done. I do think that being Christian gives one the best chance to developing the relationship with God which is necessary to discern God's will in the world. Yet, I also think we're going to be surprised with some of the people in heaven. God knows better what he's about than I do, so I hestitate to go further than I've already done.

I'm hoping that I've been coherent here. I'm still fuzzy from being sick, so, if anything doesn't make sense here, let me know.

Peace,
Phil

Mike Grondin said...

"... the final consumation of God's kingdom and the redemption of the world is still to come, although we know that it will happen."

"We" being Christians, I presume. There's other we's who know that it won't happen. It's a Christian pipe-dream rooted in Jewish pipe-dreams.

"... I would have to say that John is right about the exclusivity of salvation."

Too bad you have to say that. It's insulting to other religions and to God. Christianity should have outgrown John's cultish hyperbole and petty vision of God by now.

"... I'm reluctant to restrict God's grace further than I've already done."

You've already restricted it to the point of blasphemy. A God worthy of praise is bigger than that.

"... I also think we're going to be surprised with some of the people in heaven."

If there is a heaven, you certainly will be.

Phil S. said...

mike;

I understood that my previous post was going to be upsetting to you, but I did give you an honest answer which could easily have been predicted from my previous posts on this blog. I'm sorry that answer upset you, but you do want honesty, right?

I have held back from strong language here because I understand that your comments have less to do with me than with your own issue with the Catholic Church and your religious upbringing. No experience of exile is fun and the feeling of exile within a group which should be welcoming is doubly as bad. I ask you to consider the disjunction between your last posts to me and see if there isn't middle ground between us.

That said, we're going to have to let God sort this one out Himself. I can't be expected to hold a position with which I disagree any more than you can. We can throw around charges of superstition and blasphemy as much as we like, but I doubt that we will change each other's opinion about each other or about Christian/non-Christians. We can continue to talk about the matters at hand.

Peace,
Phil

Mike Grondin said...

Phil,
I don't think there's any need to go on with this. All that's happened is that I've confirmed to my satisfaction what I wrote in my first note. "Christian historiography" as you envision it would be nothing more than an unholy mix of Christian theology and history. It would presumably appeal to Christians, but certainly not to historians in general, nor to non-Christians (except as a curiosity.)

Phil S. said...

Okay Mike. While I dispute the 'unholy' in your comments, I concede that there is a mix of theology and history involved in my comments. I don't think I denied that. What I denied was that there was a need to reflexively discredit my approach merely because I am explicit about my presuppositions. I was, after all, setting out a program for Christian history. It would be very surprising to find it without theological content.

Peace,
Phil

Mike Grondin said...

Hi Phil,
No, I don't discredit your approach because you're explicit about your presuppositions. I discredit it because of the content of those presuppositions, and because you think that a history intimately involving such presuppositions is just as good as any other kind of history. It isn't. I wouldn't go so far as Prof. DeConick in saying that what you propose to be doing is flat-out theology, but I would say that insofar as theology intrudes, it isn't history.