U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“This I believe”…the rest is theory

collisionThis blog has enjoyed good weeks in its past (a relatively young past or is it ‘old’ in internet years?), but few have matched the energy and intellectual verve of the one now coming to an end.  I won’t attempt to summarize all the issues raised or parse out the many arguments made, but I would like to reflect on how the nature of these exchanges seem to reflect a point I tried to make in my post last week.  I offered the observation that the relatively recent surge in scholarship about American religions–professionally recognized by major award committees as well as book sales–had something to do with the ability of many of these writers to interact as part of the Young Scholars in Religion program run by IUPUI’s Philip Goff.  That program does not confer greatness on scholars–there are many excellent books coming from scholars who did not go through that program–and the program is not final word on how to deal with religion as a field or subject of study.  But that program seems to have done something.

What it has done has a parallel to what we have witnessed over the last week here.  It matters where scholars talk to each other and what they are pushed to address.  I wondered in my earlier post whether YSR had offered a physical place in which these young scholars could explore intellectual spaces where a diversity of interpretative strategies were at play.  While these well-regarded and award-winning scholars have clearly built their studies on the shoulders of other scholars (they are assigned mentors in the program), they also had a unique chance to make the transition from graduate programs to published scholars in their fields within a cohort.  I would guess that for many of us who write for this blog and frequently contribute to it, there is a similar effect.  But I want to submit that this effect is not universally pleasant–in should hurt occasionally.

It is about pain that I wish to dwell just for a moment.  I want to know what is at stake in the conflict that seems evident between LD Burnett and Christopher Shannon.  I ask this not to call on either to account for some remark but to as them to explain further what seems to divide them. It seems to me that what is at stake is the question of authority–where does authority reside in intellectual discourse?  How do we characterize validity when scholars offer conclusions?  How do we assess the assumptions on which we base our initial questions and investigations?  And does the category of “faith” or “religion” make such discussions difficult–painful–in a substantial way?

In Cara Burnidge’s post and the comments that followed, I think we recognized that one important fault line is the role personal faith plays in scholarship.  As Michael Altman, Trevor Burrows, and Charlie McCrary suggested, if historians who do religious history have under-theorized the role of religion or faith, we need to consider what studies would look like that take a self-concsious approach to the way personal faith affects the portrayal of public faith?  Remarks on the blog over the week have shown the great interest in the need to theorize more concretely about the fields we study, yet has it also indicated that religious historians fail to to do so because there is a basic problem with the idea of intellectual authority?

Perhaps more to point, Chris Shannon writes that he “believes that some things are sacred” and does “not believe that the conventions of the [historical] profession, little over a hundred years old and constructed by people who in certain contexts were quick to deny there there is any essential human nature or timeless truth, deserve such reverence.”  To which LD Burnett responds that we can’t keep trying to out historicize each other, for we are not necessarily going to reach some agreement about whether we need to locate universal truth in order to be legitimate scholars.  In other words, while we stake claims in a set of beliefs that impose restrictions on us (belief carries authority), we also rely on theory (should it be called liberal and pluralistic?) because it too imposes restrictions on how we act as scholars and in the process of using and debating the theories we apply to our scholarship, a sense of authority emerges that helps us become discerning colleagues.  What concerns me as a discerning colleague, though, is whether we are essentially writing against each other’s positions.  Do we write to tear down the validity of what we see as opposing normative claims that underpin scholarship?

Shannon and others of the “confessing” historians do not practice faith-based scholarship and Burnett and others of the “theorizing” historians do not dismiss the significance of faith, religion, and the metaphysical.  But I wonder, again, if we have a place here at S-USIH to wrestle with the differences of these positions without essentializing them.  The posts of the past week felt like an opportunity to push each other on the boundaries of our assumptions.  And it seems to me that scholarship on religion makes this struggle more apparent because it pushes scholars to contend with belief in metaphysical norms while writing about the material manifestations and implications of such belief. It need not be just religion that provokes such debate, as Chris Shannon demonstrated in his critique of Robert Self’s history of social policy in the United States since the late 1960s.

Let me conclude with my own dilemma.  As I continue to write about Richard John Neuhaus, I am struck with the problem that came up at the 2011 S-USIH conference when I presented on Neuhaus’s changing views on war.  I think Bruce Kuklick took exception to my analysis of Neuhaus because Bruce thought I had created and imposed a normative understanding of morality on my subject.  I contended that I had assessed Neuhaus’s argument by applying his own normative understanding of morality and tried to illustrate this by using an ongoing debate RJN had had with theologian Stanley Hauerwas. The upshot was, I argued, that Neuhaus had helped give credence to an American civil religion forged through experience with war and that this move seemed to contradict what Neuhaus professed in his conservative reading of a Catholic doctrine of just war.

In presenting this argument, I  saw Neuhaus as a character in the culture wars, but one based in Christian thought, rather than one in the secular academy.  And because of that, Stan Hauerwas, for example, thought I had gotten Neuhaus right, since he thought Neuhaus had strayed far from the church, and RR Reno thought I had gotten him wrong, since, as Neuhaus’s friend and his successor as editor at First Things, he saw Neuhaus fighting a battle against those who (like Stan) see the church as having a singular and pacifistic position on war.

I am in a debate over how to understand Neuhaus’s proper relationship with the Christian church.  It is a relationship I need to contend with but feel inadequate to address because I find it hard to theorize something that seems more theological than theoretical.  If I stake a claim, as scholars such as William Cavanaugh or (maybe) Eugene McCarraher do, that neo-conservativism is not compatible with Christianity, then I can conclude that defense of war in the name of a nation is ironic, at best.  But if I do not wade into an assessment of Neuhaus’s theology and instead place him within political theory (with the likes of Carl Schmidt), I might mis-characterize the debate that lies at the heart of Neuhaus’s career with his fellow public theologians.

S-USIH seems to be a place that can help someone like me work through problems that are theological but must also be theoretical.  I might be creating a problem that need not exist, but I wrestle with having the authority to argue that while it doesn’t much matter if I think Neuhaus was a “bad” Christian, I still need to figure out whether his Christianity was problematic in any way.  While clearly Neuhaus entered into debates far from the confines of a particular church–war, social policy, education–it is the theology at the core of his story that made the greatest difference in his narrative.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray, I have a post queued up to publish tomorrow that is, I believe, especially pertinent to the problems you outline here about how historians write about religious belief. Since it’s already set to publish, I’m not going to change the text in light of what you’ve written — I honestly don’t think I’d need to. However, I am going to add this new label you’ve created, “faith and theory.” That’s a very interesting way of framing — or, I guess, naming — the problem.

  2. Ray: I think you nicely sum up what’s at stake in the divide between “confessing” historians and “theorizing” historians. Thanks for that. Until the past few weeks, I’ve never given much thought to this division, much less about whether I should take a side. In light of the debate, I recognize that I fall, perhaps unconsciously, on the “theory” side of the debate. Until now, I haven’t been compelled to examine my own assumptions about what this means. So, for instance, in your concluding question about how to analyze Neuhaus, I can’t help but think that analyzing Neuhaus’s theology relative to a normative Christian theology is NOT a proper historical question. It might be a theological question, or a political question, but it’s not a historical question, because there’s no such thing as a normative Christianity. I write a lot about normative Americanism, but as something to be understood as a political construction, not as something transcendent or, in fact, normative.

    All that said, I think this divide can be historicized further relative to historiography. It seems to me that the “confessing” historians might be akin to either pre-social turn political/intellectual historians, or to social historians, in their focus on explicitly religious ideas, institutions, and people. In contrast, the religious studies approach, as outlined by Cara Burnidge and other interlocutors, seems to align with the cultural turn. Just as cultural historians went beyond social historians to study not just minorities and women but the ways in which race and gender shaped everything else human, religious studies scholars seem to want to go beyond studying religious people to studying how religious expressions or sensibilities infuse every other bracket of history. Like cultural history, religious studies seems to smooth out the cultural field into battles over competing meanings. There are gains and losses with such a historiographical move. Kerwin Lee Klein seems to highlight the losses with such a move, in the form of the sacralization of historical discourse.

    I see the cultural and religious studies turns as important historiographical interventions or revisions. But like most such historiographical interventions and revisions, once it’s made, it comes to seem like so much common sense. It almost comes to seem banal. The notion that religion is constructed seems like so much common sense to this “theoretical” historian. It hardly bears repeating, like everything else that historians and theoreticians have shown is constructed or invented: race, gender, tradition, etc… Once this move is made, once it becomes the new academic norm, then what? It seems like a dead end.

  3. And I agree with Andrew about the perils of declaring what’s normative. “Lumpers” often obscure more than they reveal.

    I wrestle with having the authority to argue that while it doesn’t much matter if I think Neuhaus was a “bad” Christian, I still need to figure out whether his Christianity was problematic in any way.

    I think that’s above [y]our pay grade. And especially above that of those who have a dog in the fight. Would you take a side in the intramural Sunni-Shia theology battle, let alone on whether Sufis are “real” Muslims?

    The furthest we can go is to attempt some quantitative measuring, but by what measure? Protestants are the majority of Christians in America, but 2/3 of Christians worldwide are Roman Catholic. Liberal Neuhaus and Neo-Con Neuhaus were alternately out of sync with one or the other.

    There’s an academic battle about who “owns” Christianity


    but it’s really all part of the story that continues to be written. The irony in America at this moment is that the evangelicals–whom we would read as historically the most theologically anti-Catholic–are making common cause with the Romish against the liberal Protestant Mainline in the Manhattan Declaration. In another turn, they’re also Israel’s most ardent supporters.

    Get the popcorn.

  4. Agreed, historians are not in search of the normative, but they study those who are involved in that search all the time. And while there are plenty of us writing about conflicts within and between religions, and I am not advancing the idea that I get to determine who has the last word about those conflicts. But if there are two of us writing about Neuhaus and one sees the conflict you identify Tom as foundational (as I do) and another sees his RJN’s transition as part of a reaction to a conflict he had with a culture at large, it seems to me that a substantial problem remains the way we frame–historically–RJN’s theology. So if this is the case, my question is not so much is there a proper way to do this, but can we create a place to wrestle with this question constructively? And if so what does that look like?

    • Thx, Ray. As Chou en-Lai apocryphally said of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell.

      It’s an interesting time for Thomism, as it often is. “Liberal” or “rational” Christianity, as it was used as a synonym for non-fideistic Protestantism, may be on the verge of making itself obsolete, another victim of its own success.

      But their opponents, evangelicals or “conservatives” or whathaveyou [let’s leave that to others

      for now]

      were also anti-Thomist: Karl Barth, Francis Schaeffer. However, now it appears they’re realized that “because the Bible says so” doesn’t get it done anywhere in the Western World anymore, so I make it they’ve sought refuge with the Thomists, who even if on the losing side of the match, at least can hold their own in the ring.

      A long way of saying I appreciate you opening the door to the content of Neuhaus’ theology*, rather than the one-size-fits-all box of faith vs. reason, or worse for theists and natural lawyers, superstition vs. science.

      Neuhaus was not a philosopher but the next cut below, a public intellectual. The latter need to be more timely than timeless to move the meter. [Was it you who found John Courtney Murray uncompelling? I wouldn’t blame you.]

      If there is to be a rapprochement between the fundies and the Catlicks via a coherent joint critique of modernity, in America at least it will have been partly Neuhaus’ doing, and far more historic and interesting than who wins the next handful of elections.

      As for the world at large, it may be even bigger than Neuhaus.


      Although again, it’s too soon to tell.

      [As for the other parts of conservative American Catholicism, as Steven Pinker notes, the world right now is damn peaceful by historical standards, so debating “war” is more an armchair exercise. Whether the Civil War was moral or “worth it” is the more probative question.]

      As for free-market capitalism, Thomism [or neo-Thomism] is due for an update since the circumstances at the time of Marx and Pope Leo 13’s Aeterni Patris in 1879. Natural law is open to “demonstration,” not just a priori pronouncements. We’ll see just how well the Eurostate—which is charitably only 150 years old and arguably only 70—is sustainable. Anybody can build a great lawn on borrowed money; you just can’t afford to water it. If free-market capitalism is the best engine of prosperity–tempered by making sure the poor have enough–then there’s nothing theologically objectionable to it under natural law.

      Putatively Neuhaus’ imaginary debate with Rorty, whom I always thought was quite a good fellow.

    • Great post Ray! I’m so glad we’re taking about this on the blog. What a great forum you all have created. I appreciate that I get to be a part if this conversation.

      To your point that historians “are not in search for the normative”: I see what you’re saying here and fully support it, but my RS training leaves me wanting to point out that you may not be seeking it but you will be tacitly participating in it if you decide to write about Neuhaus’ “*proper* relationship to *THE* Christian church.” Without intending you have theorized (even theologized?) a normative view of Christianity that preferences one view over others, in this case the institutional authority when historically there is a long history of popular, anticlerical, anti institutional, and conflicting Christianities your category would sideline as outside the norm. Talking about THE Christian church in this way could inadvertently present Christianity as a monolith, which while a theological topic can be theorized to place it in its historical context beyond how historical actors would have described it themselves.

      I hope if you weigh in in this manner you highlight his relationships, proper and improper, to several Christian communities he would have been in relationship with.

      • Yes, Cara, good point and I apologize for giving that impression. My point was to suggest that there are observers who critique Neuhaus as being less-than-true as a Christian for holding certain positions and that I don’t want to underplay the great theological debates that surround Neuhaus while I try to place him in a historical context. We always encounter this problem when we deal in ideas–conflicts between the “true believers” and the “heretics.” But what I hope for here at the blog is a way to work through the theological stakes of such debates as well as the political and social. These are stakes that I am not measuring by my own idealized form of Christianity, much less democratic politics or social relations.

  5. Alot to reflect on here, Ray; thanks.

    I wonder what a religious studies scholar (anyone? anyone?) might respond to your assertion:

    While clearly Neuhaus entered into debates far from the confines of a particular church–war, social policy, education–it is the theology at the core of his story that made the greatest difference in his narrative.

    I won’t pretend to speak for religious studies, but I doubt that, say, Kathryn Lofton, would agree that “theology” in a traditional confessional sense is ever anyone’s “core,” there’s always something more messy going on under the surface. I’m just wondering, to the religious studies mind, are intellectual historians ALL confessionalists now (without a pew to sit on)?

    • Does theology, then, not play a motivational role in how Neuhaus or other religious intellectuals act? I don’t mean to simplify Neuhaus’s relationship to his God and church as the system of belief that guided all his actions. But it does play a role and I wonder how and how to measure it.

      • I think the basic question here is, “what is theology?” I’m guessing, as Andrew suggested, we all agree that theology is something made/constructed and then transported/translated and then received/remade by human beings individually and in concert. As a construction, though, does theology become a special realm of human experience-that can be analyzed apart from structures of power like race, class, gender, etc.-or is it NOT special and thus must be deconstructed like everything else? Does the difference between a historian of religion and a religious studies scholar fall on how one answers that question?

  6. Reading all these posts recently I feel as though I’m watching a movie in a foreign language. It’s a language I know, but the idiom is unfamiliar. I can follow along with the subtitles, but when I listen to the dialogue I can tell that the subtitles aren’t giving me everything.

  7. Mark asks the crucial question–to paraphrase: Is theology a special realm that demands its own kind of historical analysis? How can the answer to that question be yes? Which is not to say that theological discourse must not be understood on its own terms before attempting to analyze it. But that’s true of all realms of intellectual history.

    • While I do emply “theology” in my book as a descriptor, I funnel it unsystematically through the lens of what Geertz called “cultural ideology” (yes, I’m that much of a theoretical dinosaur!). Cultural ideologies are “maps of problemmatic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective conscience” (Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 230). Geertz gets as the constructive nature of theology while, at the same time, still allowing a creative role for for human beings (unlike “discourse,” which seems only to act on human beings). Geertz, of course, has been a great friend to intellectual historians having to adjust to the cultural turn, but has he also kept us from the degree of rigorous interrogation that now, it seems to me, is taken for granted in religious studies? Sorry to keep pressing the issue, but as Ray suggested, USIH is such a place to discuss and work out such challenges.

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