An Historiographic Moment

As part of a yearlong conversation Northwest University is having with its second year faculty, the following topic has been posed for discussion: “Select and describe a presupposition from your academic discipline that does not align with your understanding of the Christian faith.  Explain how this dichotomy affects your teaching, research, and/or service.”

In the field of history, a prevailing assumption (postmodern protestations notwithstanding) is that scholars are to have a certain sense of objectivity–operating, in other words, in the truest sense of the term “social science.”  Though not exactly historical determinism, the field generally prefers to assume that all human events are the products of social factors, economic realities, volition acts, and inner psychology.  Many historians prefer not to answer the ultimate questions of human existence, but rather describe and explain “what has been.”

When it comes to matters of faith, history as a discipline takes at worst an atheist perspective and at best a kind of agnosticism or Deism.  In other words, if there is a God, He stepped off of the stage long ago; it would therefore be irresponsible to try to insert Him in the “scientific” discussion we are having.  God is only present for many historians as a perceived object of faith or idea.  Never a person.

For the historian who is an orthodox believer, a perspective of this kind creates a problem.  Christianity is, after all, an historic faith.  Christ (God incarnate) did live in space and time, and we believe the God can and does intervene in our world.  To ignore the reality of God would be faithless; to assign Him a definite role in every instance seems suspect and agenda-driven. Reconciling the history and Christian reality can be a little tricky.

My perspective tends to be a cautious one with regards to “inserting God” into the historical narrative.  With many of my fellow historians, I prefer to shy away from ultimate questions in favor of observable phenomena.  As a teacher, I prefer to work in terms of a narrative of themes, individuals, and events.  I reject the lazy historical shortcut “Well, God did it” in favor of the more complicated questions of what and why human beings acted.  Students need to think deeply about the past on its own terms, and only then come to some idea–never final, for we do not speak for the Almighty–about the mysterious hand of God at work in our midst.

I believe God intervenes and acts in human history.  In teaching and research, however, I prefer to let the historical actors and events speak for themselves.  It is enough, I think, to see things through their eyes (including their perspectives on faith) and let students and readers draw their own conclusions.  To be sure, my choice of academic discipline (Church history) and dissertation work (the Charismatic Movement in the 20th century) both reflect my faith commitments, but rarely if ever will you hear me say “God was really at work in X century,” or make normative statements about matters of faith.  By the same token I do not–like many historians–reject the presupposition that God is at work in the world.  That God is present is not to be debated.  How and why He is present?   This I leave to the personal reflection that follows after one understands the past.  I also leave it to my colleagues the theologians.  🙂

I consider my task more modest: to recall the past as best I can and provide the necessary tools for others to understand the perspectives and worlds of those who went before. For believers this understanding means learning the ways in which people very different from them lived their faith; for nonbelievers it means helping them comprehend the importance of the life of faith to so many throughout human history.  In so doing I would hope to offer the best testimony to the presence and place of God throughout human history: the lives of those He has touched.

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4 comments on “An Historiographic Moment

  1. wcosnett says:

    You state that historical scholars generally have a sense of objectivity, and mention the idea of social science. This idea interests me, and I don’t have much exposure to the interior halls of the upper levels of history scholarship except through you and a few other friends so i pose these questions to you.

    1. How is this reconciled with the fact that historians are unable to observe the object of their study first hand, which is often seen as paramount in a scientific field?

    2. Are there alternative, yet accepted ways of doing historical scholarship that don’t assume objectivity?

    3. Would you say that different areas of specialization have different methods and philosophies due to different limitations in their fields, or do all have this idea of objectivity? I’m thinking, for example, that someone specializing in prehistorical China would be dependent a lot more on artifacts than someone in the area of the late 20th century, who would have more documents and other media to use as sources.

    • Will,

      Some quick thoughts:

      1. Objectivity (i.e. the past as it really was, without bias) was a goal of history in the previous generation. With the postmodern turn, there is certainly more of an awareness that we are all biased. At the same time, I feel that there might still be an implicit expectation (despite admitting bias) that we ought to be objective in our presentation…and perhaps criticism if the historian is not being “fair.” Maybe “fair” more than objective is what I’m thinking of. Also, w certainly cannot observe everything about our object (like science), but every field deals with the limits of its observations or matters of uncertainty.

      2. It depends on what you mean. Advocacy history, I suppose…but even there is a historian doing the job if they are only telling one side? Implicitly, there is a sense in choosing your topic you are showing your bias right there. Writing about FDR? This means something? Writing about Reagan? This may mean something as well.

      3. If I restate objectivity as “fairness,” I think there still is a sense we do the best we can.

    • Also: when I talk about objectivity here, I am referring more toward’s historians’ tendency towards the observable or proximate to the often downplaying of the unobservable or ultimate. I note this with specific reference to the question of God. Supernatural explanations=not so hot. Naturalistic explanations=much more prevalent.

      There is still subjectivity in interpretation, however.

  2. […] seminar conversation I am having with fellow second-year faculty colleagues has continued on, and one of the questions […]

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