Jonathan Tucker Boyd
HISTORY WARS I: If We Ever Needed The Lord Before
We live in a wonderful time for Christian academics, perhaps especially for Christian historians. So many barriers have dropped, and we have ranks of spirited pioneers to thank for making possible opened doors to graduate study, wider freedom and subject matter for research and teaching, comparatively deep springs of funding, and perhaps even a tenure-track job now and then. Academic hostility toward Christian belief is still deeply entrenched, but there's also much to be encouraged about.
Especially as an object of study is religion basking in something of a golden age. Despite some understandable grousing from specialists about being underappreciated, most would agree that the subfield of American religious history is undergoing a modest boom. More significantly, there is widespread agreement across the discipline that religion ought to be widely studied. Most academics seem to be reassured that religion can be safely handled, at least if contained inside the resilient bubble of academic historiography. Even though it's only in this limited sense, historians can truly be said to have "got religion."
Not only is religion relatively safe in historiography, but religious believers seem to be increasingly safe in history departments. The Christian faith of widely read American historians like Timothy Smith, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and Harry Stout has become common knowledge and an inspiration for younger cohorts of scholars, within and without the religious-history subfield. What's more, it is even relatively safe these days to talk about being a Christian academic (especially if you're tenured), and to do so before a wide audience. Not long ago, in the words of Mortimer Adler, "theology and metaphysics [were] either despised or, what is the same, degraded to topics about which laboratory scientists pontificate after they have won the Nobel Prize." That's no longer true, and we can thank the likes of Mark Schwehn and Marsden for plunking down on the academic barrelhead substantive essays like Exiles from Eden (1993) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997). Books like these are hard specie indeed upon which we can capitalize many a serious conversation with our colleagues about Christianity's role in learning (not to mention in living). We have advanced rapidly in our ability to talk openly and in print about religion in the university.
Into this setting arrives Religious Advocacy and American History, compiled by Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart from papers delivered at a 1994 conference. To borrow the editors' own words, "this volume makes clear [that] scholars can, and do, talk about personal religious belief and historical scholarship." Kuklick and Hart have finessed the original program by supplying an introduction as well as fore- and afterwords from noted historians, and by arranging the papers into three parts. The first part focuses on Christianity's utility, or lack thereof, for grounding and revising historians' scholarly practice. The second assesses ideologies and institutions that have competed with Christianity for power to explain the past. The third gathers essays addressing the problems of advocacy in writing and teaching religious history. But the 14 contributors, whether Christians or not, are all eager to discuss the stature of Christianity in the historical profession.
So with all the open doors, for all the ways we may be truly thankful for a modest loosening of the modernist gag order on religion, is there anything left for Christian historians to pray about? Certainly.
Despite the pockets of warmth I've described, the secular university is still a chilly place for theists, or for anyone who might be uncomfortable with academic naturalism—a tricky term that merits close attention. Naturalism is the sine qua non of academic discourse: all phenomena are spoken of as obeying strictly natural laws and forces, with strictly natural origins and consequences. But notice, naturalism can be either a philosophy of the world ("nature is all there is") or merely a mode of discourse ("we're here to talk just about natural things"). One is not "unchristian" for participating in naturalistic discourse, as we all routinely do. Nor does measuring the world implicate us in worldliness; after all, "Honest balances and scales are the LORD's; all the weights in the bag are his work" (Prov. 16:11). Academics no less than merchants need an open medium of exchange, so among colleagues we converse in the same lingua franca as everyone else. The gains of the last decades have been made by playing by the rules and trusting that "methodological atheism" can remain merely methodological.
Kuklick and Hart's volume zeros in on this issue repeatedly. Just what does make Christian historians Christian? A forceful expression of the crux of the matter appears in Kuklick's own essay, "On Critical History":
In their work, all professional historians have effectively accepted … the critical [naturalistic] conception of history. … For Christian scholars it has been a pact with the devil necessary for them to have any credit in the scholarly community, and it has brought about bad faith. … They think that their convictions lend some special insight into the study of the past. … But how are Christians to show this? How can they show how God peeps through in history? If Christian convictions lend no such insight, if they are not cashed out, they are worthless.
Quite a challenge! To be fair, Kuklick does not accurately represent the Christians he criticizes. There is hardly "bad faith," much less a "pact with the devil," because Christian academic historians do not in fact claim special insight without common evidence. Most scholars, Christian or not, readily agree that spiritual deduction is no substitute for scholarly induction.
But having said that, how can we accept Kuklick's call to cash out our Christianity historiographically, or answer Leo Ribuffo's sharp interrogative: "How do religious scholars in general and 'Christian scholars' in particular differ in their scholarship from other historians?" (the italics are his). The fact that Kuklick and Ribuffo believe there's no valid answer to these questions shouldn't thwart our reckoning with them. So I prefer Leslie Woodcock Tentler's equally intent, but gentler, prodding from the inside: "To assert that history has meaning beyond what we as ephemeral beings might generate is to place oneself, intellectually and emotionally, in a distinctive camp. Our own lives look different from this vantage point. Should not the record of our collective life look different too?" In other words, we should update the old angst-inducing youth-group poser: If they put you on trial for being a Christian historian, would the D.A. get a conviction?
Notice that it is the difference on the record and in our scholarship that these writers are asking about. I suspect many practicing historians on all rungs of the academic ladder could join Tentler in her frank confession: "I can see no obvious ways in which my written work betrays a Christian author." Our background beliefs, it's true, profoundly shape our work on every page; that should be beyond contention. And in answer to her urging a "greater willingness to speak frankly and to the profession at large about the meaning of faith for [our] understanding of the world," it's easy to point to plenty of recent bibliography wherein Christians float their colors and reflect on the meaning of Christianity for historical discourse. But the difficult question recurring here is whether we need to push ahead to speak as Christians within our historical accounts themselves, right down in amongst the data. Naturalism can be both ontological and discursive—might theism achieve such wider reach, too?
By no means do I pose such a question rhetorically, assuming a simple answer. By mastering the "rules of the game" (in Marsden's phrasing), Christian academics have made tremendous contributions in all fields that should not be gainsaid. We may be quite confident that it's no oxymoron to follow reason within the bounds of religion. And believers have practiced charitable engagement by meeting their colleagues on common ground, in terms open to all without special pleading. We should continue to do so. The "rules of the game" provide an effective metaphor that conveys not only the binding but also the voluntary, provisional, and playful nature of academic custom.
Perhaps, however, a different metaphor for the stipulations of scholarship might also be useful. Protocol, a term with a more nefarious resonance, might help us reimagine those constitutive rules with a bit more bite. Though I might be able to rationalize merely "playing along," it might instead seem worthwhile becoming a "conscientious objector" or practicing "civil disobedience." (Protocol might also remind us of the need for being "diplomatic.") The point is that the rules are powerful, and they threaten to co-opt even our best efforts. Are they, in fact, the latest double-speak funneling our minds into homogeneity? Linguistic protocol has disproportionate power to shape us and our ideas. We don't need Foucault or Lyotard to tell us that if we put bits into the mouths of horses, we guide their whole bodies (see James 3:34). As our mouths go, so go we.
So what are we to say of history? A likely option might appear to be a revival of the language of providence that flourished just before the current epoch of academic naturalism. Providentialism is not without merits, having contributed greatly to the early development of the historical profession, and having enabled a nuanced, flexible, and tradition-rich approach to understanding the past. Nevertheless, several vanguard Christian historians have gone prominently on the record in opposition to providentialism—and not just against one particular interpretation, but against providentialist interpretation in principle.1 They have good reason.
Once, the word providence efficiently communicated the idea that God loved us, ruled time to its minute details, and was himself a historical agent. That time is gone, however, and the word has rusted up through misuse beyond utility. The lamentable fact is that providence in American historiography has all too often been a shill for nationalism, whiggery, and optimism. Besides, even logically, providence makes a lousy category for analysis. If God's rule extends over all and his providence comprises all events—if the dichotomy of general versus special providence is false, as theologians both liberal and conservative argue—it makes little sense to name some events as more providential than others. There is no punctuated equilibrium in God's sovereignty.
What's worse, the old providentialism was occasionally enlisted as a direct causal agent, akin to miracle. It could explain events otherwise inexplicable, and now the aftertaste of this "God-in-the-gaps" epistemology bitterly discredits it. One especially pernicious reading scanned the "plagues" that killed off Native Americans as providential clearance for English settlement. Through no fault of their own, historians did not know that European contact itself had caused the epidemics; but they far too glibly inked providence into the lacunae of their knowledge. The ethnocentrism and sheer heartlessness here are reprehensible too, but those are sins recognized by all. It's a focused repugnance for the epistemic smokescreen of "God in the gaps," instead, that damns providence as a term viable among historians. Providentialism should never be an index of our own ignorance.
So if we need to forge a new tool, if we are to meet the challenge posed in this book, what qualities should our Christian historical discourse have? We must first of all shun arrogance. The faintest suggestion that Christian language dispenses infallibility would be the earliest symptom of its morbidity. Here we make no tactical retreat be- fore postmodernism's reduction of all knowledge into irony (which can be just as smug as positivism at its worst). The roots of real humility lie deep in the Scriptures, and we "premoderns" should continually recall that patent biblical fact. Not only are we supposed to remember our knowledge is limited and limiting, but even what little we do have will soon pass away (1 Cor. 13:810). Epistemic humility derives from acknowledging not only our created nature but also the "noetic effects of sin," our own dissolution of Edenic order. These two sobering facts have us by the epistemic scruff of the neck.
We should also shun any regime of uniformity under the standard of a theistic historical discourse. To take Grant Wacker's expression slightly out of context, this undertaking "is not for everyone, but then neither is professional hockey"! We'll have to experiment intelligently with our historical discourse, and by no means should we expect others, even our spiritual siblings, to look just like us. The professionalization achieved during the 1880s pushed historians down into a Procrustean bed for the swift (and oddly bloodless) removal of extremities, with the promise of creating a unanimity capable of commanding authority in the public square. But the public long since knows us for what we are: a contentious brood who squabble about everything under the sun. We can easily drop the specious show of unanimity, and Christians can be of one mind without marching in lock step.
God does not oblige us to name him with every twitch of the tongue. The Book of Esther, holy historiography it self, is saturated with divine agency without using the word God or even referring to him a single time. He doesn't depend on our gilding the past in order to honor Christ. It's roundly biblical to trust that he will bring glory to himself through the unspeaking but articulate testimony of the quotidian and even the in animate. After all, the stars sing the glory of God, and even the stones may cry hosanna. But Scripture does portray declaring his praise "at the city gates" (that is, in public discourse) with special significance. And we certainly benefit from praising God, as we would from reading histories that not only avoid chauvinism, chasten our pride, and shelter variety, but also give focus to our praise.
When turn-of-the-century labor leader Samuel Gompers was asked what it was the American working man wanted, he had a pithy answer: "More!" On another occasion he fleshed this out: "The way out of the wage system is through higher wages." Whatever you think of his strategy (or the alternatives) in hindsight, you have to admit his accommodation to the conventional outlook of bourgeois capitalism fell well short of radical reform. More! hardly rings a prophetic note. The analogy is telling for historians' current situation. We should ask ourselves whether all we want is More!—more publication, more tenure, more funding, more lines for the vita. Do we believe that the way out of naturalism is more naturalism? Do we even want out at all?
Perhaps we need a dramatic, seminal book to sow new terms of debate and new rhetorical possibilities. Or will this be a grassroots revolution renewing the landscape one acre at a time? Real answers to such questions can't be given in an essay like this one since they must be embodied in the form of history-writing—or they are not real answers. But we must start experimenting with new possibilities for historical description, narrative, and argument, ones that promise to crack the door so long locked against the divine. Every Christian historian should have a substantive answer to the question, What do you write and say professionally be cause you love God and neighbor? If it's merely, "I practice excellence"—well, whose excellence, which rationality? Our answers will differ as we handle different sources and problems and enter into constructive conversation with our professional colleagues in different ways. But we certainly would benefit from an advancing movement of historiography that intelligently, creatively, and devotedly seeks to repel the press of naturalism in classroom, monograph, and journal. We certainly have much to learn from each other. That's why books like Religious Advocacy and American History, which manifest the conversation we need to be holding, are so valuable.
We should draw courage, above all, from the very providence we can't seem to talk about. One thesis that veritably drips from biblical historiography is that God's strength lies in weakness. He deliberately speaks foolishness to the wise, loves the weakling and the misfit, favors the slingshot over the ICBM, and—what's truly scandalous—chose the cross rather than the prefecture for himself. The Bible says the last come first, and that model of providentialism not only should guide our historical interpretations, but it might also inspire us historians for the difficult task at hand. If we ever needed the Lord be fore, we sure do need him now.
Jonathan Tucker Boyd is executive editor of a new academic journal, Christian Reviews in History.
For their critical reading of this essay, I thank Kristine Boyd, Eric Carlsson, Jay Green, Brad Gundlach, Randy Heinig, Mike Kamen, Eric Miller, Ronda Oosterhoff, Lisa Sung, Alden Sunnarborg, Jeff Winkle, and the Notre Dame Colloquim on Religion in American History.
1. Mark A. Noll, "How We Remember Revivals," CHRISTIANITY TODAY, April 24, 1995, p. 31; George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), chap. 5, esp. p. 95; and Harry S. Stout, "Biography As Battleground," BOOKS & CULTURE, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July/August 1996): pp. 910.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.
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