Eric Miller, John Fea, Jay Green
So What Is the Historian's Vocation?
For several years Jay Green, John Fea, and I worked on coediting a collection of essays that has recently been published by the University of Notre Dame Press, Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation. The three of us were classmates at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1990s, where we studied with the historian John D. Woodbridge, and in January 2010 we presented a copy of it to him at a symposium in his honor. But at what might have been a moment of sweet consensus and warm reflection, the three of us spent the evening following the symposium in earnest, at times heated debate about what the historian's vocation actually is and what the present moment requires of Christian historians in particular—this despite hundreds of hours of conversation on this very topic in the years preceding the book's publication. After our evening of argument we decided to each take a swing at the question, So what is the historian's vocation?, and the essays that follow are the result.
But a bit more framing of these debates may be helpful. I sparked the argument that evening by claiming that since the conventions of the contemporary academy lead historians into disturbingly reductive conceptions of the past, Christians must seize the opportunity postmodern theoretical frameworks afford to construct narratives that capture more fully the Christian story. Both Fea and Green find this stance problematic, perhaps dangerous. Fea contends that history is not a handmaiden of moral philosophy but an encounter with the past designed to relieve us of our narcissism and teach us the virtues of humility, intellectual hospitality, and empathy for people whom we can only understand through the sources they have left behind. Green insists that even though traditional historical study is capable of yielding only limited kinds of knowledge—which should restrain our expectations about its use as a moral or theological arbiter—its unique facility to root, enrich, and chasten our vision of life in the world makes it indispensable and worthy of our efforts.
We hope these essays give a sense of both the diverging perspectives our book seeks to capture and the kinds of inquiry we suspect will preoccupy Christian historians for years to come.—Eric Miller
Eric Miller, Geneva College
I take the historian's vocation to center on telling the deepest truth possible about the past. This is a claim self-evident and fraught at once. If historians can't discover the truth, why bother? But if they can, why such reflexive skepticism?
On this matter of truth, American historians seem invariably torn between Christlike assertion and Pilatesque despair. Confidence about the way, the truth, and the life runs headlong into What is truth? at the first possible sign of epistemic boundary-crossing, and an unseemly proportion of our scholarly societies' organizational energies are directed toward patrolling these borders. Any truth claims a "professional" historian makes must be properly circumscribed by the very particular, contingent, rock-solid set of governing beliefs about the nature of reality the contemporary academy honors and asserts.
Still, the truth claim Hayden White classically made in his 1972 essay "Interpretation in History" stands. An intellectual historian and theorist of considerable influence across the humanities, White proposed that a historical narrative is "necessarily a mixture of adequately and inadequately explained events, a congeries of established and inferred facts, at once a representation that is an interpretation and an interpretation that passes for an explanation of the whole process mirrored in the narrative." But he didn't stop there. Insisting on the primacy of interpretation over the historical profession's fixation on what he called simply "explanation," White contended, more controversially, that "there can be no proper history without the presupposition of a full-blown metahistory by which to justify those interpretative strategies necessary for the representation of a given segment of the historical process."
Although the hermeneutical spiral has since White's essay was published swept up increasing swaths of the academy, free-ranging discussion of the metahistorical dimension of the historian's task—and of the past itself—has usually been nipped in the bud by first-order skepticism, which in effect has permitted the established metahistory, scientistic materialism (or what George Marsden terms "exclusivist naturalism"), to continue its unyielding hold. It's not that historians have failed to notice the regnant epistemological challenges to "objectivity." It's rather that to most historians there seem to be no real alternatives to existing interpretive, narratival pathways. Summing up the current state of affairs in Confessing History, William Katerberg notes that "Historians may agree that true objectivity is not possible …. But only rarely do questions about the use and meaning of history shape the thousands of books, dissertations, and essays that they produce in a direct, defining, determinate, and substantial way."