Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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."

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:

For the narcissist sees the world—both the past and the present—in his own image. Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates ("leads outward" in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology—humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

I regularly ask my students if we are willing to let history "educate" us—to lead us outward.

Wineburg's reference to theology is worth further exploration. In A Theology of Public Life, Charles Mathewes argues that Christians today are afflicted by the sin of escapism—the desire to flee from God and each other. God wants us to turn toward him, but he also wants us to turn toward each other. In the process of loving our neighbor—for Mathewes such a practice goes to the heart of civic life—we grow as Christians.

What if we viewed the study of the past as a form of public engagement? Even if the person we engage is dead, we can still enter into a conversation with the sources that he or she has left behind. If we take the Imago Dei—the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God—seriously, then we should also take seriously the idea that those who lived in the past were also created in God's image. The very act of studying humanity—past or present—can be what Mathewes calls an "exploration into God." A genuine encounter with history "provides more than enough opportunities for humility and penance, recognition of one's sin and the sins of other, and a deepening appreciation of the terrible awefulness of God's providential governing of the world. Indeed, involvement in public life today may itself increasingly need some such ascetical discipline."

In other words, history is not only a discipline, in the sense that philosophy or sociology are disciplines. It is also a discipline in the sense that it requires patterns of behavior, such as the denial of the self, that are necessary in order to meet the "other" in a hospitable way. Doing history is not unlike the kind of "disciplines" we employ in our spiritual lives—disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others. If this is true, then prayer, a reliance on the Holy Spirit's power, and other spiritual practices should provide help in the pursuit of the kind of self-denial, hospitality, charity, and humility needed to engage the past in this way and allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of it transforming us.

Like any type of public engagement, an encounter with the strangeness of the past "inevitably leads to contemplation of the mysteries of providence, the sovereignty of God, and the cultivation of the holy terror that is integral to true piety." It forces us to love others when they at first glance seem to be unlovable. Failure to respect the people in the past is ultimately a failure of love. It is a failure to recognize the common bond that we share with humanity. It is a failure to welcome the stranger. Moreover, when we uncover sinful behavior in the past it should cause us to examine our own imperfect and flawed lives. This kind of engagement, as Mathewes puts it, "brings us repeatedly against the stubborn, bare thereness of the people we meet in public life; it teaches us again and again the terrible lesson that there are other people, other ideals, other points of view that we can see and appreciate, even if we cannot inhabit them and remain ourselves."

The discipline of history requires us to apply James 1: 19 to our lives. We must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This does not mean that we have to agree with every idea we encounter in the past. Sometimes we cannot "inhabit" an idea and still "remain ourselves." But education—"to be led outward"—does require a degree of risk. Without risk, without being open to transformation, liberal education cannot happen. "Self-denial," writes historian Mark Schwehn, "is a willingness to surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion. Wisdom is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so." A Christian who studies the past must be prudent. She must be slow to speak and quick to listen to the people she meets in the past. And she must pray for wisdom.

This dimension of history is what gets me up each morning to stand before groups of students and "profess." A worthy vocation indeed.

Jay Green, Covenant College

"You may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with you." This bit of folksy wisdom is repeated throughout Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia. The film's meandering journey through the anguished lives of his brilliant ensemble cast reveals how each character's dire circumstances can be traced to a troubled, abusive past. While all of these poor souls have clearly been free to ignore, suppress, and forget their past experiences, in the end, none can escape the profoundly destructive legacy of their personal history. If they are ever again to live whole or healthy lives, they must engage in the painful, sometimes cathartic process of remembering.

Here we have a useful synopsis of the historian's vocation. Historians traffic in memory. Within a craft devoted to the recollection of past cultural expressions, social processes, technological innovations, economic catastrophes, and personal achievements, the historian's vocation is most simply understood as a project of organized remembering. Our work isn't exactly the same as the therapist's—which the Magnolia reference might suggest—but it isn't altogether different either. To the extent that contemporary societies need and benefit from honest, sober-minded connections to their own pasts, historians serve a vital public interest as custodians of social memory.

The discipline of history requires us to apply James 1:19 to our lives. We must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

For individual persons, memory involves far more than the mere retrieval of information about the past. It is the mental faculty that makes personal identity possible. The real tragedy of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia lies in an ignominious annihilation of the self, forever severing victims from the relationships, places, and communities that had always otherwise given their lives grounding and direction. The process of losing one's memory is, in the truest sense of the word, dehumanizing.

Memory functions in a similar fashion for communities, nations, and every kind of institution. These social entities might display an outward appearance of functionality and strength, but if they proceed in a state of willful amnesia or, worse, by perpetuating self-justifying myths, they will be no more capable of sustaining long-term civic health than the advanced Alzheimer's patient is of carrying on a meaningful conversation with an old friend. Social organisms must have within them historically minded individuals who will help cultivate an honest, ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable relationship with their pasts if they ever hope to develop in responsible ways.

The divine command to remember, which recurrently punctuates the biblical narrative, seems especially attentive to the link between social memory and identity preservation. God regularly pleads with his people to remember who they are, from where they have come, and by what agency they will continue to survive. "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy." "Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other." And, not least, "Do this in remembrance of me." God has endowed humankind with a capacity for collective memory that is both essential and in constant need of maintenance. Those who devote themselves to restoring and upholding such memory are doing holy work.

And so, whether they recognize it or not, historians occupy a theologically critical office when they practice their craft: when they ask refined and penetrating questions about the past; when they are compelled to comb through and carefully read archival sources; when they resist the all-too-human urge to indulge their standing presuppositions about their subjects; when they instead allow encounters with the past to chasten and revise their assumptions; when they find clear and compelling ways to communicate their results; when they open pathways that enable ordinary people to visit the strange and complex worlds of the past; and when such encounters heighten the ability of such visitors to experience a present existence filled with texture and nuance. In the seemingly simple work of allowing the dead past to inform to the living present, historians support a divinely sanctioned vocation given to all God's children: the vocation of remembering.

But some reticence is in order here. We should be careful not to exaggerate the power or potential of historical study. Although the work of reconstructing social memories may have great theological implications, the historian's task is qualitatively different from that of the theologian or the moral critic. There are questions about the human condition that the historian as historian cannot answer and depths of experience and meaning that she cannot plumb. As Harry Stout has argued, the limits that circumscribe the historian's purview require her "to settle for something less than ultimate explanations."[1] The careful historian must resist the alluring temptation to use the record of the past to advance preexisting moral, ideological, or theological convictions; rather, she should exercise restraint, saying no more and no less than the limited documentary record of the past and the profession's procedural norms allow.

Even so, the comparatively modest—but still deeply moral—demands of faithfully reconstructing the past remain vital. I have come to believe that, while the historical profession plays a vital role in the refinement of social memory, the calling to think and act in historically minded ways is a more broadly human assignment. And for the disciple of Jesus Christ, the calling to historical awareness is an indispensable category of faithfulness. Regardless of whether we enjoy reading fat histories of the American Civil War or the latest biography of Cleopatra, I believe that we're all responsible for bearing witness within our communities, our churches, and our institutions to the ways current patterns and practices can only make sense when they are viewed as part of a longer, deeper story. Though we may never feel any special attraction to formal historical study, the demands of active remembrance should be borne by us all.

1. Harry S. Stout, "The Reviewers Reviewed," Banner of Truth (March 1995), p. 8.

Most ReadMost Shared