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C. Stephen Evans

HISTORY WARS I: The History of History

Theology was once queen of the sciences. From her royal perch she imperiously appropriated what she wanted or needed from philosophy. Already in the early nineteenth century, Soren Kierkegaard presents a different image of theology's relation to philosophy: "Theology sits all rouged and powdered in the window … and offers its charms to philosophy. It is supposed to be difficult to understand Hegel but to understand Abraham is a small matter."1

Kierkegaard sees theology as a prostitute because of her lack of confidence in her own inherent value. Abraham is to be left for Sunday school classes; to gain respect in the academy one must hitch one's wagon to the latest trendy philosopher.

The new edition of Van A. Harvey's The Historian and the Believer offers yet another chapter in this unedifying saga of theology riding piggyback on philosophy. Harvey's book is a reissue of a work published in 1966. In the original edition, Harvey drew on a strange brew of philosophical ideas: the philosophy of history offered by idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley, and some reflections on biblical scholarship and history from German theologian Ernst Troeltsch, as well as a mix of empiricist views of knowledge and neo-Kantian claims about the relation of God to the natural world. All of this was offered to argue that orthodox Christian belief is undermined by rigorous historical scholarship. What Harvey called the "morality of knowledge" demands that the theologian fearlessly face the results of unhampered historical learning.

As Harvey described historical scholarship, it requires a commitment to the autonomy of the historian, which is in turn understood as demanding an attitude of suspicion toward all historical sources, particularly testimony. Quoting R. G. Collingwood with approval, Harvey affirmed that "insofar as an historian accepts the testimony of an authority and treats it as historical truth, he obviously forfeits the name of historian." The true historian gives tentative assent to historical claims only in proportion to the strength of the evidence or warrant for those claims. Most important, for a theologian, the genuine historian simply cannot take seriously miracles or divine causality, since such things are not compatible with a scientific world-view. Genuine history is based on a tough-minded commitment to the facts, and we know in advance there are no supernatural facts.

The new edition of Harvey's book is of interest mainly for the new introduction contributed by the author. Here Harvey confesses what an astute reader of the original edition could have guessed: that the book was written by a man brought up in a fundamentalist home who "was really working out the theological conflicts that were emotionally rooted in [his] upbringing." Even more important, however, is Harvey's encounter with the contemporary intellectual situation sub se quent to the publication of the first edition. The wheel of history has turned, and the quasi-positivist philosophy of history invoked by Harvey in 1966 is now in disrepute. Harvey rightly sees that many postmodern thinkers would describe the conflict between faith and historical scholarship that Harvey delineates not as a contest between a group blinded by faith and dogma and another group committed to the "will to truth" (as Harvey himself had done) but as a conflict between two different kinds of believers. Secular historical scholars are themselves a group of ideological believers, and there is no such thing as history free from ideological assumptions. Harvey seems oblivious to the fact that his own autobiographical confession seems to support this criticism.

In his defense against this postmodern attack, Harvey invokes the name of one of the trendiest philosophers around: Ludwig Wittgenstein. In an odd use of Wittgenstein's appeal to ordinary language, Harvey tries to fend off the postmodern claim that there are no theory-free facts by claiming that the distinction between facts and theory is part of the ordinary working vocabulary of historians. There is no need for any philosophical ac count of the difference; good historians just base their theories on facts.

What Harvey does not see is that this move exactly parallels the claims made by the so-called Wittgensteinian fideists in theology, who have attempted to evade questions about religious truth by simply appealing to the fact that the religious language game is played. Essentially, such fideists say that God exists because the religious community talks about him as existing. However, such a move cannot satisfy the critic who wonders about the value and appropriateness of a whole kind of discourse.

The same is true for the critic who wonders about the "rules" of what we might call the game of the historian. If it is true that historical scholarship of the debunking sort that Harvey endorses has been shaped by dubious philosophical assumptions, then one can hardly evade critical questions about such practices by asserting with Wittgenstein that "this game is played." The proper response to such a move is simple: "Yes, I know, but should it be played, or at least played just the way it is?"

In theory, Harvey recognizes the relativity of all human scholarship, including historical scholarship. In practice, he still thinks of the methods of the "critical historian" as lifted above the flux of history, standing in judgment on the historically conditioned belief and thinking of all other peoples. Harvey needs to take more seriously than he does the implications of "historical relativism" for the practice of history. His instincts in wishing to preserve in the face of postmodernist relativism some notion of historical truth and objective evidence are sound. Nevertheless, he needs to reflect more than he does whether or not the "methods" of the group he calls critical historians give them a monopoly on gaining such truth, or rather whether they might reflect debatable philosophical assumptions. Harvey never considers whether God is himself, through his church and revelation, capable of giving people the good news they need to hear. The Christian claim that salvation depends upon historical events is surprising and shocking enough; the claim that the path to salvation rests on the shoulders of modern critical historians is just a little too paradoxical.

As a theologian, in the original edition Harvey was critical of neo-orthodox thinkers such as Bultmann for supposing that one can evade the significance of historical inquiry. He has now himself moved dramatically in their direction by em bracing the perspective of Leo Strauss, who denied the importance of history for faith. Christian theology and practice is informed by "stories" (myths in Straussian terms) whose historical truth is unimportant. The heart of Christian faith is found in Richard Niebuhr's concept of a "trust in the Void," which is that "last shadowy and vague reality, the secret of existence by virtue of which things come into being, are what they are, and pass away." The lesson I would draw from this is that if one empties Christian faith of all intelligible content, it really does have nothing to fear from historical inquiry, or indeed from inquiry of any kind. "Nothing ventured, nothing lost" could be the slogan of this kind of theology.

A better perspective on the actual practice of history is given by Robert Frykenberg's History and Belief. This wide-ranging, ambitious study, by a distinguished South Asian historian, focuses on some of the same issues that Harvey treats. As Frykenberg himself fears, it is not a book for everyone. Historians will find it too philosophical, and philosophers will perhaps find it too historical or at least would like more conceptual clarity. However, Frykenberg's book is characterized by historical and cultural perspective that is absent from Harvey. As Harvey tells the tale, genuine history is pretty much the invention of post- Enlightenment Western culture. Frykenberg tells the story of the history of history, and it is a story in which non-Western and ancient peoples play a much stronger role than Harvey allows.

The hallmark of Fryken berg's story is the complexity and messiness of history, a complexity that is mirrored by the complexity and difficulty of his own book. History is rooted in memory and the love of and need for good stories—stories that tell us who we are. Yet history is linked to evidence and the need for criticism. With the postmodernist, Fry ken berg claims that all history is in fact written from what he calls a "belief perspective." There is no history free from philosophical and even theological assumptions. Nevertheless, as a professional historian, he saves his most heated rhetoric for the critics of "Orientalism," who root their criticisms of standard history in postmodern views about the relation of truth to power. Frykenberg makes some telling points here about the ways in which the critics of "Orientalism" in fact project their own Western values and agenda onto non-Western peoples, though at some points his wrath threatens to obscure his points.

Fundamentally, he calls for history to see itself as grounded in a "three-legged stool." Good history is always rooted in a belief system, but it is also grounded in a critical apparatus that seeks evidential support and re cognizes the limits of all historical knowing. These three legs of the stool are, as Frykenberg himself asserts, in tension with each other. He gives no systematic recipe for put ting them together, but simply holds that the good historian must somehow bring together all three elements in a creative tension. This is probably sound common sense, but nevertheless I wish he had said more about how these different strands are to be unified. For example, if philosophical beliefs inevitably pervade and color history, why are postmodernists judged so harshly? We need more thought about how presuppositions legitimately—and illegitimately—color historical judgment.

Unsurprisingly, the judgments Frykenberg makes about the mysterious and the supernatural are far different from Harvey's. From Frykenberg's point of view, the good historian knows enough to recognize how little history can achieve. In particular he does not assume, as does Harvey, that critical historians can serve as arbiters of historical religious truth.

Like many good books, History and Belief raises at least as many questions as it answers. Can responsible historians self-consciously allow their work to be shaped by philosophical assumptions and still be responsible to some kind of common evidence? What would such history look like? Are there such things as Christian history, Buddhist history, Marxist history, feminist history? If so, how are they different, and how are they the same? There is plenty of work for the next generation of Christian historiographers.

C. Stephen Evans is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and a member of the editorial board of BOOKS & CULTURE. He is the author most recently of Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Eerdmans).

1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), p. 32.

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