U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Please Change the Subject

Yesterday I received an unexpected boon in the mail:  a hacked off, hilarious David Hollinger.

Since I will be reviewing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, editors) for this blog some time in the next few months, I ordered the latest volume of Fides et Historia: the journal of the Conference on Faith and History, which features a roundtable on the book. 

I won’t be looking at that roundtable for a while.  When I review a book, I never look at other reviews or author comments first.  Chalk it up to the anxiety of influence, or the fear of inadvertent unoriginality of expression.  It just seems best to arrive at my own sense of the book, based on my own reading alone, and write .  But once I’m done writing my review, I like to “check my math” and see where (or whether) my take on the book fits in with other scholars’ views.

Instead, when my copy of Fides et Historia 43:2 arrived in the mail yesterday, I turned to David Hollinger’s piece (pp. 34-37), part of this volume’s featured forum, “Reconciling the Historian’s Craft and Religious Belief.”

Readers, I encourage you to beg, borrow or steal a copy of this journal and read Hollinger’s brief, brilliant scold of an essay.

I do not associate David Hollinger’s writing with the overuse of the exclamation point, but there are two in his title:  “The Wrong Question! Please Change the Subject!” And the piece just gets better from there.  Hollinger’s exasperation sounds by turns parental and prophetic, as he takes “confessing historians” to task for irresponsibly jeopardizing the fairly recently acquired “mainstream” status of American religious history within the secular academy.

“American academia now has, at long last, a robust, admirably interactive community of scholars working in the field of religious history,” Hollinger writes.  “The members of this community can generally take each other’s books and articles for the knowledge they offer without getting distracted by what another scholar’s religious identity happens to be” (34).  Calls from confessing historians to make space in the secular academy for “confessional” history are like so many snakes in this garden, and Hollinger proceeds to chase them into the sea.

He is responding primarily to Brad Gregory’s essay, “Historians’ Metaphysical Beliefs and the Writing of Confessional Histories” (9-17).  Hollinger finds fault with Gregory’s piece for its (implicit) apologetic for the idea of supernatural causation as a valid explanatory framework for professional historians.  “Religious history,” Hollinger scolds, “finally became open to all professional historians largely because we stopped thinking in just this way” (34).

What animates Hollinger’s animus toward this Bad Idea is in part the fact that he himself has had to struggle mightily within the discipline to define and defend the legitimacy and importance of American religious history for the secular academy.  He and others have had to work against the notion that “the study of religion is only for those who believe in it.” Hollinger has spent a great deal of time and intellectual capital arguing “in forum after forum that historians will not understand the United States in the twentieth century until they confront religion head on” (35).

The biggest obstacle Hollinger has encountered in his project of encouraging the secular academy to take the history of religion seriously “is the perception that religious believers have fatally skewed the field with their apologetics” (35).  Calls to “bring God into history” (37), however subtly articulated, do not help overcome that perception.

This is a fierce, funny essay, but the stakes are quite serious.  History is hampered as a discipline if historians feel like they have to take the long way around to avoid talking about the place of religion in Americans’ lives. That’s a long detour, and there’s a lot of crucial insights that you’re going to miss if you don’t have a way of approaching the subject that is faithful to the canons of professional, secular history.

Now that historians seem to be headed down a more promising path, the last thing we need is to come face to face with an angel waving the flaming sword of providential appeals, blocking the way to the garden.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. My two cents—as a confessed Catholic who practices intellectual history:

    Though I come at it from a different angle, I’m with Professor Hollinger. There are theoretical/philosophical and practical considerations on which I’d like to elaborate.

    First, theory and philosophy (and a little theology). To me, the application of reason in the realm of history, whether the object is religion, intellectual life, education, pop culture, or print culture, is in no way in conflict with or different from my faith. To me, as a Catholic, applying reason to history is my grace-infused human attempt to understand the ever-mysterious and infinitely complex ways of God. Indeed, were I to submit to some appeal to Providence, it would be me _giving up_ on my God-given reason. Therefore appeals to Providence/supernatural causation are, well, chicken-little to me. They’re just an exasperation of “uncle!” by the historian who does it.

    In this way, I see my reason-based “historical thinking”—which is and should be in no way indistinguishable from rightly-done “secular” explorations of history—as perfectly in tune with my faith’s demand to be integrated with the world.

    So much for theory (and a little theology).

    It’s the practice where I see differences and problems—but only if I were working in the history of theology and church history. It’s in this realm where reason takes a back seat to the emotions, feelings, intuitions, and faith statements/beliefs of historical church figures. In this context, appeals to Providence might follow because those were the appeals made by the faithful historical figures. And if the historian confesses the same faith as the historical figure, then the historian would be strongly tempted to let those appeals lie. It depends on the research question/thesis being explored by the historian, and her/his willingness to hold to reason rather than faith. I’m guessing this the kind of thing discussed in confessing history.

    I suppose it also depends on the role the historian wants to play and the audience to which he’s writing. I could see a professional historian saying one thing to members of her/his faith, and another to the historical profession. It wouldn’t be inconsistent so much as being attuned to audience.

    BTW: How did I miss Andrew’s post from 2010? – TL

  2. @Tim,

    Excellent comment. Thanks for weighing in.


    Nicely done. But did Kuklick discuss email spam filters designed to catch pornbots, and friends who cuss too often?

    I don’t often laugh out loud when I read intellectual historians reflecting upon the practices of our own profession, but Hollinger had me howling.

    I know: I need to get out more.

  3. I haven’t read either Hollinger’s essay or the piece he’s responding to (confession: I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything from Fides et Historia), but I went to grad school with Brad Gregory and this all sounds very familiar. Brad is a fine historian of the Reformation (he’s a particularly dogged and excellent researcher). But the problem with his work was always its metahistorical / theoretical side, which was an odd combination of the trivially true and wildly tendentious. Opposing his work to a kind of rigid functionalist account of religion which, by the early 1990s, had already become something of a strawman, Brad would (entirely reasonably IMO) demand that we take the views of religious actors in the past seriously. But this claim would quickly morph into giving these views a sort of special status that put them beyond any criticism.

    I remember thinking at the time that he should just put all of these theoretically oriented musings aside, as they at best amounted to treading water and put off getting to the actual substance of his work which always seemed pretty excellent to me (as an admittedly distant outsider to the his subfield). But at the time, his musings were very much of the moment. The confessional (in the non-religious sense) mode of scholarly self-presentation was just then migrating to history from the literary fields. And many secular scholars who were belatedly rediscovering the importance of religion seemed willing, in the name of this rediscovery, to take seriously anything said in the name of faith by a person of faith (see the rise of Stephen Carter as a public intellectual during these years). I think Brad’s theoretical musings appealed to a kind of guilty conscience that many secular scholars had.*

    But if I found this aspect of Brad Gregory’s work tiresome twenty years ago, it would be even more frustrating to see it reproduced today.


    * I should say that Brad’s ideas about how to study religious actors in the past also resonated with a much more positive development of 1990s historiography: a willingness to take the self-understandings of actors whom one finds objectionable seriously. I’m thinking, for example, Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust (1999). The difference between Clendinnen on the perpetrators of the Holocaust and Gregory on Protestants and Catholics martyring each other (at back when I knew Brad), is that Clendinnen makes very clear that she is not saying that taking Nazi racial views seriously does not entail rendering them beyond criticism or somehow staying neutral as to their truth value.

    • Whoops….I just wanted to correct the writing of that footnote in my comment above. Here’s what it should say (corrections in italics):

      I should say that Brad’s ideas about how to study religious actors in the past also resonated with a much more positive development of 1990s historiography: a willingness to take the self-understandings of actors whom one finds objectionable seriously. I’m thinking, for example, Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust (1999). The difference between Clendinnen on the perpetrators of the Holocaust and Gregory on Protestants and Catholics martyring each other (at least back when I knew Brad), is that Clendinnen makes very clear that she is not saying that taking Nazi racial views seriously entails rendering them beyond criticism or somehow staying neutral as to their truth value.

  4. Hollinger’s title reminds of of the title John Pocock gave one of his essays: “British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” Journal of Modern History 47 (1975): 601-21.

    It also reminds me of something that bugged me about the treatment of religion in medieval and early modern history in some of the books I read on those subjects back when I read books on those subjects. For example, based on some of what I read, you’d never have guessed that the medieval heresies had anything to do with religion, or that anyone believed in God. Whatever explanation you want to name, be it social, political, economic, was trotted out. But heaven forfend anyone mention anything do do with theology. That tendency was also quite pronounced in the historiography of the Reformation. Whether it still is I have no idea. But it was there, either because modern secular historians can’t imagine anyone having religious beliefs, or because being modern secular historians they are loath to entangle themselves in doctrinal disputes. Either way, surely that diminishes the capacity to understand one’s subject.

    At any rate, for those who haven’t read it, I recommend the chapter on the relationship between religion, secularization, and history in Owen Chadwick’s* marvelous The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century. Chadwick’s focus in that chapter is on Michelet and Renan, but his insights are generally applicable, I think.

  5. After thinking about the post, as well as my comment, a bit more over the weekend, I want to offer a bit more.

    I’m guessing that some appeals to Providence are conducted at points of contingency or when the historian introduces a counterfactual. Though this might seem harmless (e.g. God willed that Americans/humans/women/etc. went in ____ fill-in-the-blank___ direction instead), I think two dangers lie in the move.

    First, depending on the wording of the historian, she/he might be pretending to _know_ the ways of Providence (i.e. God willed X or Y or Z). Not only is this locution pretentious, it also underestimates human will and freedom. And that’s my second point. By placing a course of events as fore-ordained or directed by the hand of God, we retrospectively reduce our power to change circumstances. What’s the point of our efforts, then, to learn from history? In Christian theology, then, either move can be egregious.

    How can the historian know God’s will, other than via natural theology or a faith’s revealed truths? In either case, one normally only knows God’s precepts and imperatives. Excluding prophetic pronouncements, it’s difficult or impossible, however, to know how God might effect change with a variety of moving parts. This same difficulty arises in attempting to know how God and humans work together to effect change.

    This leaves human reason, or “secular history,” as our only recourse when one hopes to speak to people across faiths. Historians can only effectively talk about human actions and inaction—each in all its glory and otherwise. Humility requires us to stick with empirical evidence.

    My musings might fit into Ben’s discussion about Brad Gregory, but I know nothing of Gregory’s work. But it seems I agree with Gregory on the role of self-understanding and Providence in history. – TL

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