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Eric Miller, John Fea, Jay Green


So What Is the Historian's Vocation?

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Is this not a scandal? If for Christians intellectual life centers on the question of the meaning of history, then getting the meaning of history into the heart of our accounts of the past would seem to be a matter of prime vocational importance. The impasse at which the profession finds itself on matters epistemological reflects the triumph of convenience and the failure of imagination. And Christian historians, poised at this impasse, suffer a failure of nerve.

Methodological circumspection cannot mask the reality of metahistorical presence. Our narratives do assume, always, a particular stance on and posture toward reality. If postmodernity's great, perhaps signal achievement is to have crashed the door of "objectivity," historians (along with academics in allied disciplines) wishing to push past current disciplinary boundaries face what amounts to a political obstacle. Today the question that confronts us is not whether "theory" matters but rather whose theories and which methodologies we should heed.

This, of course, is the kind of political circumstance that historically has not been particularly amenable to reasonable argument. There's too much at stake to allow intellectual consistency to rule. Still, as the journalist Richard Manning writes, "quality is subversive." Or as Dostoevsky put it, "beauty will rule the world." If Jesus Christ did indeed rise from the dead on the third day, and if the heavens do declare the glory of God, and if someday we will indeed beat our swords into plowshares, then we must summon the intellectual integrity, rhetorical vision, and literary verve to render such realities through narratives that seek to unveil this world—this real world, with its real past.

How might we move more fully in these directions? How might we do what John Henry Newman imagined Catholic writers and academics attempting a century and a half ago: "create a current in the direction of Catholic truth, when the waters are rapidly flowing the other way"?

First, we must take full advantage of the philosophic and rhetorical space created by such influential contemporary Christian philosophers—our "theorists"—as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and John Milbank. They have arrested attention and commanded respect, making possible the imagining of a form of historical reflection and analysis that fits within their broad historical and theoretical arguments. Christians need not write as if Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Derrida have had the last word about the nature of our world and our circumstance.

Second, we must take full advantage of the institutional strength that today undergirds the Christian intellectual project. Our colleges, universities, publishing houses, societies, and journals are capable of, and indeed are currently providing a fundament for, serious theoretical, analytic, and narratival experimentation—of the sort that can have a significant, consequential existence apart from mainstream institutions yet also the power to speak into them. Although tiny in relation to this other realm, the world of Christian institutions is not so small as to preclude real effect beyond it.

In a trenchant essay recently published in Christian Scholar's Review, the philosopher James K. A. Smith compellingly envisions a scholarly program in which the "architectonic is governed" not by generic secular paradigms but "by Trinitarian faith and the Scriptural narrative." In response to the retort that this vision of the world would rapidly diminish the audience of scholars brave enough to render it, he poses a question disarming in its simplicity: "But what if it is true?"

If it is true, it will yield light, a worthy end for any scholar charged with illuminating this present—and past—darkness.

John Fea, Messiah College

What is the historian's vocation? This question can be answered in many ways depending upon the setting in which a particular historian works. As a college professor who teaches American history, my vocation is to teach undergraduates how to think historically and, in thinking historically, how they might grow intellectually and, ultimately, in their love of God.

An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, selflessness, and hospitality. By studying history, we learn to listen to voices that differ from our own. We lay aside our moral condemnation of a person, idea, or event from the past in order to understand it. This is the essence of intellectual hospitality. The act of interpreting a primary source with students becomes the equivalent of inviting a person from the past into the classroom. By taking the time to listen to people from a "foreign country," we rid ourselves of the selfish quest to make the past serve our needs. The study of the past reminds us that we are not autonomous individuals, but part of a human story that is larger than ourselves. Sam Wineburg, in his masterful Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, sums it up well:

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