Should History Be Religious?

Today, I’d like to talk about one helpful way my faith doesn’t impact my discipline. This is in keeping with the notion of “historical humility,” which I believe in some sense connects with my faith. You might say that in order to avoid using the Lord’s name in vain and remind myself that I do not fully understand the ways of the Almighty, I often remain methodologically agnostic (on purpose) while engaging in the task of history. This is also, I believe, part of what being a good historian is all about.

It comes to this: Can I speak definitely about the exact presence of God in history? No. But does talking about proximate causes and social, political, and economic developments necessitate an automatic atheism? Also, no.

In a recent issue of the journal Fides et Historia, religious historian Jon Roberts participates in a roundtable series of essays and offers his thoughts about faith and history in a short piece entitled “In Defense of Methodological Naturalism.”  Within, he talks about how he is uncomfortable with historians assigning divine causation to historical events. As such, he details four advantages of a much more religiously neutral alternative that he calls “methodological naturalism”:

1) It allows all historians to play by the same set of rules.
2) It allows us to treat our historical actors in a more balanced fashion.
3) It keeps us from assigning so much historical credit to the Almighty that we are distracted from the actual focus of our study: the historical events and actors themselves.
4) It keeps us from having easy answers to complex historical realities.

For those postmoderns who would reject Roberts’ approach, saying that true historical objectivity is impossible, I particularly like his response:

“…if the rejoinder to this admittedly hard line is that it simply isn’t possible to totally detach all elements of our personal identities from our interpretive strategies, my response would be, “Very well, but let’s not wallow in our personal subjectivity. Let’s do as much as we can to try to resist it. Because to the extent that a historian reads primary sources through self-referential lenses, that historian is probably going to be guilty of doing shoddy scholarship.'”

This view has been attractive to me for some time, but over the past number of years I have been worried that such an approach would be considered too simplistic by fellow members of the academy. The fact that a respected fellow historian holds the same perspective now gives me encouragement. Ultimately, working through the historical record and crafting historical scholarship in this way will serve to keep me both from ignorant hagiography and presumptuous judgment.  God is above and within human history; if the story of Creation is well told on its own terms, He is no less present.

Coming on Monday: My state-by-state election 2012 predictions!

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