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.