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Mark Noll


A Peace of God?

Within 150 years from the death of Charlemagne in A.D. 814, much of Western Europe had fallen into anarchy created by the private wars of feudal outlaws. From about the year 1000, representatives of the church joined with a few secular lords to see what they could do about this parlous situation. Their response was to seek a "Peace of God" by excommunicating bandits who violated churches, beat up unarmed clergy, or stole the livestock of the poor, and by forcing warring subjects to accept formal terms of peace with each other. Although the "Peace of God" did not bring the fractious warfare of the middle ages to a halt, the initiatives did make a difference. Guided both by self-interest in protecting its own property and by altruism in seeking to protect the powerless, the Western church applied the gospel practically in a destructive, unruly environment.

Because institutional churches do not today have much purchase in the academy, the chances for a Peace of God being imposed on disputes concerning the nature and practice of historical knowledge are slim. Moreover, considering just how counterproductive efforts by churches to speak authoritatively about intellectual questions often turn out to be, it is probably the course of wisdom for modern ecclesiastical organizations to seek subtle rather than overt forms of intellectual influence. Still, the laudable record of the medieval church in providing at least some relief from bitter strife does offer encouragement to think about how classical Christian faith might mediate battles over the practice of history—even if warring factions of objectivists, multiculturalists, traditionalists, postmodernists, patriots, pragmatists, along with all those who employ history to defend the special claims of special populations, do not seem eager for a Peace of God.

One can imagine two kinds of reasoning leading toward such a goal—an indirect means appealing to the moral common sense of those who pursue historical knowledge, and a direct means applying biblical and classically Christian norms straightforwardly.

Most contemporary writing on historical knowledge does not have much time for God, but some of it is unusually helpful nonetheless. From the bountiful harvest represented in recent books, one recurring theme can be related to the conclusions of Scottish philosophers in the second half of the eighteenth century who were deeply shaken by the skeptical conclusions of David Hume. Working from John Locke's depiction of knowledge as human reflection on ideas of sense or memory, Hume concluded that if all human knowledge is thus based on ideas, we must admit that we have no means of telling whether or not our ideas correspond with actual states of being. We may need to continue living by conventions that postulate the existence of an external world—as well as by conventions concerning regular connections between causes and effects, and also by reasoning about causes and effects leading to the postulation of a First Cause who got things going. But we certainly have no way of demonstrating that these postulations are in any traditional sense "true."

The response of Hume's Scottish interlocutors, especially Thomas Reid, was to suggest that Hume might be right about our inability to demonstrate mathematically the reality of much that humans take for granted. Nonetheless, they went on to say, since it is impossible to live—since, in fact, it is impossible even to raise Hume's kind of skeptical questions—without assuming that the sensations common to all humanity actually do reflect a real world corresponding approximately to those sensations, then we possess a strong, prima facie case for the truthfulness of those conventions. This "common sense" case may not be theoretically airtight, but it is conclusive nonetheless since it would be impossible for us even to function as human beings if it were not true. For common-sense realists like Thomas Reid, and even more for those who evoked his name in the United States and Canada, such arguments were also used for shoring up threatened proofs for the existence of God.

Like Hume, many contemporary theorists of history promote varieties of radical skepticism about the reality of an external world, the correspondence between our ideas (or language) and such a world, and traditional understandings of the existence of God and Christian revelation. In turn, these postmodernist arguments open up room for modern-day common-sense rebuttals that can serve as a prelude to more explicitly theological responses.

In particular, the deceptively slight book by Alan Spitzer, a historian of French intellectual life, goes a long way toward elucidating what a common-sense defense of the possibility of reliable historical knowledge might look like. Spitzer's Historical Truth and Lies About the Past should be read soberly by all who yearn for contemporary cultural combat, because his critique of prevarication in the Reagan White House is as astringent as his critique of prevarication in defense of the postmodernist Paul de Man.

Spitzer's critical conclusion rests on his success at documenting one particular fact—that, whatever people may say about the possibility of historical knowledge, when they want to argue persuasively about urgent questions in real life, they invariably assume that it is possible to find and use reliable knowledge about the past. Most tellingly, when postmodernist defenders of de Man sought to exonerate him for his anti-Semitic writings during World War II, they instinctively appealed to the historical record as if they "shared assumptions as to relevant evidence, legitimate inference, and coherent logic." Spitzer concedes that no one can validate such standards by appealing to them directly. Yet the need to validate such standards is unnecessary if, when push comes to shove, people cannot act without making use of them.

For both postmodernists and their critics, the Holocaust has been the great spur to this kind of instinctive historical realism. Critics of postmodernism, who usually do not employ theistic arguments, nonetheless find it quite natural to speak of something like universal moral absolutes when addressing the extreme cases of twentieth-century history. For example, Georg Iggers, a veteran observer of modern historiography, provided Ewa Domanska in her book of interviews with an eloquent expression of an ethically based kind of historical realism: "[I]f we dismantle the border between fact and fiction, and equate history with fictions, how can we defend ourselves against the assertion that the Holocaust never happened? As a Jew who barely escaped the Holocaust, I'm very much aware of what this means."

Similarly, Thomas Haskell has probed respectfully—but also relentlessly—the dilemma encountered by Hayden White, the important promoter of a postmodern history. In Haskell's telling phrases,

White is as horrified by the Holocaust as anyone, but he is also unwilling to duck the implications of his own epistemological commitments. Those commitments he has spelled out in Metahistory and other writings, and they define him as a thoroughgoing ironist and antirealist, one for whom the writing of history and the construction of political ideologies necessarily blur into a single enterprise.

It is striking how frequently others also take up this issue.1 Various authors draw different conclusions about White's awkwardness as he backs and fills in the effort both to preserve a structuralist account of history as fictive trope and to condemn the Holocaust. But several of them agree substantially with Haskell's judgment concerning White's re course to "effectiveness" as a criterion for judging validity in historical interpretation:

By assuming that the only truth a historical interpretation can ever have is relative to the ideology it serves (one more instantiation of the assumption that power and knowledge are two sides of a coin) [White] gives up any defensible basis for passing moral judgment on historical developments and makes "right" the passive reflex of "might."

In response to Haskell's judgment of White, it is only natural to ask if Haskell's own version of pragmatic truth as a product of expert competence is sufficient for grounding an appropriate response to White's constructivist tangles. In fact, the arguments that Haskell makes against White and that other historians raise from different points across the ideological spectrum seem to assume a stronger realism than pragmatic confrontation can generate. The extra dimension arising from assessing postmodernist, constructivist history by the reality of the Holocaust seems to point rather toward the following case:

  1. The Holocaust was evil, not because everyone necessarily construed or construes it as evil, but because it was simply evil.
  2. Even our restricted capacities to understand the truth about the past are enough to demonstrate that the Holocaust occurred.
  3. Moreover, scholarly efforts to show that it did not occur, which offer an extreme example of ideology dictating to knowledge, can be shown by over whelming evidence to be false.
  4. Therefore, realistic moral standards that are more than simple constructs by humans responding to the flux of events call forth instinctively realistic assumptions about the possibility of historical knowledge.

If this chain of reasoning holds, it might offer an opening for theists to suggest—but with all gentleness and great deference—that God can be postulated as the source of instinctive moral and as well as instinctive historical realism. (The reason for great deference is, of course, that if the Holocaust is the twentieth century's most obvious challenge to postmodernist history, it is also the twentieth century's most obvious challenge to traditional theistic claims for the sovereign goodness of God. Christians are not clueless in reflecting on that second challenge, primarily because they worship a Savior who "descended into hell." But it is the very reality of the Holocaust, along with many other unspeakable atrocities of this century, that makes it necessary for theistic answers to be spoken in respectful whispers rather than in tones of lordly triumph.)

Worry that relativizing the possibility of genuine historical knowledge will open up room for those who deny the Holocaust to do their dirty work—or for those whose postmodernist views trivialize other accounts of the dread human disasters of our century—are powerful testimonies about a universal human ability to gain true knowledge leading to real truth about the past. But might it be possible to go even further than the examination of historical common sense in grounding a Christian view of historical knowledge? An answer is found in Christianity's own resources.

The place to begin this line of reasoning is with an awareness that scriptural religion defines its own moral and epistemological universe. Traditional Christian faith, in other words, does not articulate well with the basic coordinates of contemporary intellectual disputes. Unlike postmodernism—exemplified at its extreme in radical forms of multiculturalism—biblical religion holds forthrightly to the ideal of truth. Unlike modernism—exemplified at its extreme in the overweening objectivism of Enlightenment rationality—biblical religion de scribes truth as a function of personal relationships. In a recent survey of the Western historical ca non, Donald Kelley of Rutgers University succinctly summarizes the basic biblical preoccupations:

The term, and perhaps the concept, history in a Herodotean sense is not used in the Bible, and philosophy only once, pejoratively at that, but … the term truth appears over a hundred times in both the Old and the New Testament … and wisdom … over two hundred times. Classical tradition … conceived of truth as conformity to fact and proper meaning, which occasionally corresponds to biblical usage. … But most often truth is the word and law of God, which must be obeyed on the grounds of authority. So it was also in the New Testament, especially in the preachings of Paul, where the truth resides in Christ and, in contrast to human "fables," "traditions," and "philosophy," would set men free.

Kelley goes on to note that later Christian authors moved closer to classical understandings of historical truth as simple conformity of statement to fact. It is also certainly the case that in the last several centuries, which have been dominated by ideals of scientific Enlightenment, Western Christians have committed themselves extensively, with varying degrees of success, to notions of history as simple fact. Christian efforts both to appropriate Enlightenment standards and to take the measure of postmodernist challenges are worthy in themselves. But they will come closer to biblical norms if they remember two overarching realities: that in Scripture God is pictured as both personal and the source of all truth; and that in a scriptural view, because God truly exists and is always more than the construction of any individual person (or aggrieved group, or ethnic community, or political interest), the personality of truth does not undermine the reality of truth.

More specifically, biblical religion would seem to dictate an attitude of intellectual lese majeste toward recent debates about historical knowledge. On the one side, this view would affirm that of course the Enlightenment rationalists are correct. Humans may certainly come to learn true things, and to make valid moral judgments, about events or circumstances in the past. The reasons for this confidence, however, rest not on notions of human competence but on an understanding of divine action. Through Christ, "all things came into being … , and without him not one thing came into being" (John 1:3). Not only does everything humans might possibly want to study have existence because of the creative activity of the Son of God, but in that same Son of God "all things hold together" (Col. 1:17), or, we might say, sustain their coherence as part of an integrated universe. Moreover, believers concerned about historical knowledge can take heart from the assurance that all the human possibilities created by God are "good, and nothing is to be rejected," if they are regarded thankfully as manifestations of God's creating power (1 Tim. 4:4). One of the implications from realizing that we humans may appreciate the creation as good must certainly be that we may know it to be good, and, even more basically, that we may know it.

Biblical revelation also contains multitudinous statements about the epistemic capacities of humanity that lead to a similar confidence in the possibility of historical knowledge. God created humans with the moral and intellectual capacity to "have dominion" over the physical creation (Gen. 1:26). God also is the source of human diversity, since he "from one ancestor … made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live" (Acts 17:26). But that human diversity, as the entire narrative of Scripture underscores, does not prevent all people from learning the true facts and the proper interpretation of God's ongoing historical action aimed at the redemption of his people.

So what's the problem? When looking at what Christians affirm about the nature of the created universe and the epistemological abilities of human beings, it would seem that the Christian faith fully em braces a religious version of Enlightenment confidence in the perspicacity, the security, and the objectivity of historical knowledge.

The problem is that other parts of biblical revelation sound an awful lot like a quarry for postmodernist assertions undercutting blithe confidence in historical objectivity. Humans are sinners and hence empirical recidivists who "keep hearing, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand" (Isa. 6:9). Freely chosen moral corruption "darkens" understanding (Eph. 4:18); it turns the God-given capacity for knowledge into "blindness" (Isa. 43:8; Matt. 15:14; 2 Peter 1:9; and many more). According to these strands of revelation—and they are not insubstantial strands—humans persistently abandon their capacity for finding the truth in favor of abuses that spring from idolatrous self-interest.

Another and very different strand of Scripture also seems to reinforce postmodernist conclusions. It is the biblical message of the Incarnation of the Son of God—at a particular time and place, and into a particular culture with its singular patterns. The very particularity of the Incarnation inspires the notion that the vast panoply of human cultural differences—the very differences that so often seem incompatible and, thus, the ground for nihilistic theories from the radical multiculturalists—is a gift of God. Missiologists like Andrew Walls, who study the passage of Christian faith between widely varying cultural groups, have put this matter best:

Christ took flesh and was made man in a particular time and place, family, nationality, tradition and customs and sanctified them, while still being for all men in every time and place. Wherever he is taken by the people of any day, time and place, he sanctifies that culture—he is living in it. And no other group of Christians has any right to impose in his name a set of assumptions about life determined by another time and place.2

In sum, from the perspective provided by Christian understanding of the Fall, but also Christian understanding of the Incarnation, there would seem to be considerable Christian support for the radical, postmodernist parties in contemporary historical strife.

Yet the point in beginning with an effort to view problems of historical knowledge first from a Christian angle of vision is not merely to inquire how Christian resources may be exploited by armies active on the field of contemporary historical combat. The point is rather to declare a "Peace of God."

A Peace of God for history wars might be defined as a self-consciously Christian form of chastened realism, with the chastening every bit as serious as the commitment to realism. Such a modest realism should be ready to ac knowledge that postmodernist critics have accurately described many forms of self-serving distortions of historical knowledge. At the same time, it can treat the hubris of Enlightenment rationality as a heresy rather than the Original Sin.

This stance does not, of course, solve actual controversies of historical fact, legitimate problems of historical interpretation, or contested applications of historical knowledge. What it does provide is some reassurance about the potential of grasping actual historical facts, however limited or hedged around by self-limiting qualifications. This line of directly biblical reasoning rests, finally, on the awareness, however obscured by idolatrous self-assertion, simple fallibility, or the situatedness of all human existence, that the reason we may come to know something about the past is that the past, like the present, is governed by the all-powerful, all-loving hand of God.

This article is the last in a series.

Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.

1. For example, the interviews with Arthur Danto and Jorg Rusen in Domanska's Encounters; Spitzer, Historical Truth and Lies, pp. 119–20; David Harlan, The Degradation of American History (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 124–26; and Georg Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1997), p. 117. A weakness in Domanska's otherwise probing interview with Hayden White is that she does not pose this issue to him directly.

2. Andrew Walls, "Africa and Christian Identity," in Mission Focus: Current Issues, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk (Herald Press, 1980), p. 217.


Alan B. Spitzer, Historical Truth and Lies About the Past: Reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996); 162 pp., $14.95, paper.

Ewa Domanska, Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1998); 293 pp., $19.50, paper.

Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998); 426 pp., $35.95, hardcover.

Donald R. Kelley, Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to Herder (Yale Univ. Press, 1998); 352 pp., $17, paper.

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