Book Review

“The City of Supernaturalism and the City of Naturalism: Never the Twain Shall Meet?”

Confessing History

a review by Mark Thompson

Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation
edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller
384 pages. University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

I want to thank Lora Burnett for inviting me to read, digest, and respond to this collection of essays.   

Confessing History, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, is subtitled Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  It is an apt label,

as the contributors are exploring how best to navigate through higher education’s institutional culture as a profession, while simultaneously professing their Christian worldview.  As with any group of essays written with intellectual verve and rigor, there is no airtight consensus as to what final goal its authors specifically advocate for.  However, there are a few topics that address some of the interests I have as a young, doctoral student.

Confessing History is divided into three sections: “Identity,” “Theory and Method,” and “Communities.” “Vocation” or “calling” is a key term employed by the writers, urging readers to “consider the possibility that explorations of faith and scholarship have something meaningful to contribute to the wider academic conversation” (xii). “[T]he broader appeal of vocation,” explain the editors in their preface, “enables authors to focus also on the different way historians connect their faith to their callings as in the varied roles they play: as teachers, church members, cultural critics, public citizens, and professional members of the academy.”  One goal is to foster “an uncommonly fertile gathering place for thinking about the implications of Christianity for a faith-oriented life in history” (xiii).  Some of the contributors participated in the 2004 Conference on Faith and History (CFH), and originally published their articles via its journal, Fides et Historia.  Taking inspiration from John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University, Miller argues in the introduction that Newman’s ideas “captured with timely brilliance the impulse to secure and advance a distinctively Christian approach to the modern academic disciplines.”  Miller suggests further that, looking back, “Christian scholars have granted Newman’s theological premise and embraced his institutional vision,” but have not ultimately succeeded in understanding “how to go about this holy work in a manner consonant with both their creedal confession and their academic professions” (2-3).

If some of the responses featured in Confessing History are potential answers, what is the dilemma voiced by these scholars?  Miller provides a useful starting point: “The modern search for explications of causality and agency through the analysis of ‘observable cultural forces’ has proven to be an inadequate approach to the past for many in this generation of Christian historians, and, accordingly, an unsatisfying means to the fulfillment of our vocations.”  What, then, is the answer? “We seek instead,” explains Miller, “to cloth history in rumination, conjecture, mediations, and judgment, all rooted in Christian visions of reality and all in the service of fostering moral intelligence and spiritual vigor in the communities we serve” (15).  Miller raises an additional unifying thread when he asks: “Is something beyond the current consensus, as represented . . . in the work of George Marsden, possible?  Is the mainstream historical profession truly the locus of the deepest wisdom and brightest hope for the practice of history?” (9).

James LaGrand’s “The Problems of Preaching through History” intelligently pinpoints why confessing historians sometimes encounter resistance from practitioners of methodological naturalism in higher education. LaGrand mentions “anti-anti-providential history” practiced by Charles Marsh, who seeks to allow some inclusion of theistic explanations of events into the historical record.  LaGrand persuasively highlights, in my opinion, the dangers of “preaching through history.” One such pitfall is the “inclination toward providential, or God’s-eye, history” (195).  He also makes a useful application of Augustine’s historical outlook derived from his City of God by discussing how Augustine was certain in some things, while less sure in others.  Still, says LaGrand, this should not preclude the possibility that some type of meaning and order is possible from historical readings: “While Augustine acknowledged that the judgment of God was difficult to figure out in his time and in human history generally, it didn’t follow that we should question or downplay the idea of God’s judgment in the human experience altogether” (197).

In “The Christian Historian and the Idea of Progress,” Wilfred McClay thoughtfully addresses this subject when discussing Herbert Butterfield’s “Whig interpretation” of historical events.  The notable British historian, states McClay,

sought a historiography that would take losers just as serious as winners. . . .  The historian played a different kind of role, trying to study the past without insisting upon its reference to the present and without playing the arbiter, the “avenging judge” who is engaged in dispensing “verdicts.”  Instead, the historian had a broader civilizing task.  He should be trying to cultivate the intellectual and moral discipline required to “enter into minds that are unlike our own,” to make sympathetic contact with the full range of human experience and cognition . . . “into a world where everything is understood and all sins are forgiven” (322).

So, for McClay, the answer to the inquiry in the review title above is: sometimes.  Butterfield’s approach to history is not entirely satisfactory to McClay.  What McClay calls the “exclusionary stance” of Butterfield omits “one of the chief culture-forming distinctives of Judeo-Christianity: its understanding of divine history and humans history as intersecting stories, and not merely parallel or disparate ones” (bold added).  However, whenever the infinite crosses the finite sphere, is it always possible to discern the divine from the mundane?  “This Deity,” confesses McClay, “is also a God that delights in reversals and overturnings . . . in ways that often entirely subvert the world’s paradigms.  But He does not always or invariably do these things.  Sometimes He does the opposite.”  If this is true, then what should confessing historians “do with such a quirky, unpredictable, uncategorizable Providence?”  McClay contends that Butterfield’s response was “similar to what the analytic philosophers of this day were doing: asserting that because nothing can be said with clarity and precision about God’s activity in history, nothing should be said at all.  It was a perfectly reasonable move for any secular academic to make” (324).  Yet, because Butterfield was a Christian, this position might seem incongruous with belief in an active deity.

The earlier discussion by LaGrand of Augustine initiates a fruitful dialogue about theistic versus atheistic interpretations of history.  In my reading of Augustine, he did allow for intersections between providence and naturalism when discussing why the Roman Empire collapsed.  Although the famous Bishop of Hippo ultimately saw God as in control over all creation (“in his control are all the kingdoms of the earth”[1]), he attributes the success of the Roman Empire partially to their “passion for glory” and “greed for praise,” which might be considered vices for some and virtues for others, in the spirit of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith.[2] These insertions of naturalistic analysis by Augustine for explaining why Rome became a powerful republic and empire is helpful for showing that, at times, both supernatural and natural causes are discerned by theists.  Ernst Breisach summarized Augustine’s formula for understanding how the “mundane and the sacred” coexisted:

The world knew the [City of God and the Earthly City] only in their intermixed states, not in their pure forms.  Even the chiliastic expectations of a kingdom of God on earth would . . . involve a fusing of the mundane and the sacred.  The City of God could not exist in pure form in the saeculum.  Because of this intermixture, Christians, who studied the past, must always sort out and try to understand those events which had a direct bearing on the status of the City of God.  The struggle for power between Sulla and Marius, for example, was empty of meaning to Christians, whereas the fight between Emperor Constantine and his opponents, with Christianity’s recognition at stake, was vital to the advancement of the City of God in the world.  Neither meaning nor stability could be found in the Earthly City, a sphere of incessant change.[3]

This issue of causation and providence is discussed by multiple contributors to Confessing History.  In preparing for an upcoming class on “Liberalism in the United States” in the fall, I decided to spend part of my summer mulling over John Milton Cooper’s recent (and much heralded) biography of Woodrow Wilson.  Two incidents narrated by Cooper stood out as I was chewing on how to address this series of essays.  One involved Wilson’s appointment as a professor at the College of New Jersey/Princeton in the 1890s.  Cooper relates some of the tentativeness displayed by Princeton’s then-current President, the conservative-leaning Francis Patton, to Wilson’s selection by the school: “The president also took the new recruit down a peg by telling him that some at Princeton had objected to the way ‘you minimize the supernatural, & make such unqualified application of the doctrine of naturalistic evolution.’ Patton reminded him that the trustees ‘mean to keep this College on the old ground of loyalty to the Christian    religion . . . & they would not regard with favour such a conception of academic freedom or teaching as would leave in doubt the very direct bearing of historical Christianity as a revealed religion upon the great problems of civilization.’”[4]        The second episode I reflected upon revolved around Wilson’s reputation, before arriving at Princeton, while lecturing at Johns Hopkins.  Again, Cooper gracefully recounts the discomfort felt by Patton: “Patton’s criticism accurately reflected what Wilson had been saying in his lectures at Hopkins and what he had written in The State.  ‘It is now plain that [democracy’s] inspiration is of man, and not of God,’ he also declared.  ‘The constitution of govt. is not a matter of inspiration.”[5]

In an introduction to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, theologian Langdon Gilkey also broaches this subject.  Gilkey finds Niebuhr instructive in showing why we should be cautious of attributing the contingencies of historical events with divine origins.  While we, as humans, possess the imaginative ability to transcend our physical environment and conjure up numerous scenarios that are not grounded in verifiable facts (I am thinking here specifically of “fiction” writers who knowingly create “made-up” stories), we also share limitations based on our empirical encounters: “[T]his human self-transcendence is, says Niebuhr, creaturely and not divine.  It never loses its finite seat in a particular self, community, culture, nationality, race, or gender.  However lofty its imaginations, thoughts and projects, these latter are never absolute but relative; they invariably reflect their particular locus.  The human spirit is capable of the universal, of transcending its time, place, and culture; but it always shares the particular and finite perspective of its origin.  My theology remains basically American, male, white, mid-twentieth century—and I had best remember this.”[6]

A recent issue of Fides et Historia featured a roundtable discussion with prominent historians offering perspectives on these matters.  Jon Roberts offered, in my opinion, a cogently argued defense of “methodological naturalism” for academic historians.  Roberts is the Tomorrow Foundation Professor of Intellectual History at Boston University, and received accolades for his Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859-1900 (1988).  Roberts finds it difficult to “look with favor on the idea of historians invoking their faith commitments” while practicing the writing of scholarly history.  He also refuses to necessarily conflate “methodological naturalism” with “methodological atheism.”   For practicing historians, the now-century-old decision to interpret events without invoking supernaturalism “is simply a principle that is designed to establish the appropriate province of scholarly historical explanation.”[7]  Roberts concludes with a plea for historians not to “take the easy interpretive road” by “ascribing complex, hard-to-explain events to direct divine intervention,” but, instead, to “look harder for elements that are more empirically accessible in accounting for those events.”[8]

In “Don’t Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimension of our Dual Calling,” Robert Tracy McKenzie returns to the theme of vocation when he discusses how an “invisible curriculum” forces scholars to address a constrained set of topics.  McKenzie echoes other historians (both religious and secular) regarding the “tyranny of the monograph” when he confesses, “I owed the perpetuation of my career to a slender volume to which I had devoted more than eight years of my life.  Deeply researched but narrowly focused, it was of keen interest to a handful of specialists and of little interest to anyone else.”  Yet, McKenzie is not done: “Worse, there were no eternal issues therein, no ‘permanent things,’ no questions of importance to my local church or to the broader community of faith” (289).

The conversation that McKenzie thoughtfully articulates concerning the interaction between the ivory tower and the public provides food for thought. I would submit that these “slender volumes” produced by academics have assisted scholars and are still valuable.  Nearly all of the authors herein cite approvingly non-confessing sources in historiographical theory and method.  Augustine similarly believed that Neo-Platonists unwittingly helped people down the road to the City of God.  In my own career, scholars such as David Brion Davis, Thomas Haskell, and John Ashcroft, through their “debate” over humanitarianism and antislavery sentiment, and the “history of sensibilities” model advanced by Sarah Knott and Daniel Wickberg, have enriched my understanding of explaining history without inserting a supernatural element.  To his credit, McKenzie acknowledges how, in retrospect, he is now able to “see plainly the perniciousness of this simplistic view” concerning academic scholarship that is produced mainly for colleagues (289).

Other essays also discuss this popular/academic divide and how Christian scholars might contribute to refining, what Jay Green calls, “half-truths generated in common discourse” that “have played a definitive role in crafting the narrative plotlines of modern social memory” and are responsible for “supplying countless blunt weapons for use in cultural warfare” (262).  Christopher Shannon advises confessing historians to imagine life “After Monographs,” as his essay is titled.   Shannon is concerned that scholars have not self-reflexively critiqued the “basic moral and intellectual necessity of the standard academic history monograph.”  It is always fruitful to perform a metacritical checkup when grappling with important historiographical issues.  For him, the academically published monograph is a “practical manifestation of a theoretical consensus on empiricism that unites historians across the range of background faith commitments” (169).  For Christians, what this type of historical analysis induces is the negation of “a Christian telos to history” (171).  Shannon elaborates:

Christian historians may think that the Holy Spirit caused the Great Awakening, but they cannot make that argument in their capacity as professional historians.  This would be to raise the specter of the dreaded providentialism, surely the ghost that haunts much of the current debate on Christian history writing.  Those who place themselves within the Marsden settlement insist there is no going back to providential history.  Attributions of divine causality are empirically unverifiable and politically dangerous. . . . Responsible Christian historians must confine themselves to purely naturalistic causality.

It is my contention that in embracing naturalistic causality and the procedural norms of the historical profession, Christian historians merely trade one providentialism for another.  Where Christian historians of old once looked for the hand of the Holy Spirit, the new model Christian history follows the naturalist quest for historical agency (172).

Shannon labels this secular brand of causative thinking, “providential professionalism,” and contends that it is “no more empirically verifiable than Christian providentialism” (173).  It may be commonplace in non-religious associated universities to discourage explanations involving supernatural agents.  Yet, does this indicate that individual students themselves do not possess agency in interpreting (or rejecting) the best naturalistic arguments that historians have to offer?  Furthermore, if the historical community at secular colleges and universities chose to engage in supernaturally based, causative discussions in the context of historical events, would this not lead to the type of work promoted by the American and British Societies for Psychical Research in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as they searched for empirical signs of non-corporeal entities?  How would one persuade fellow colleagues during conferences that demons, angels, or deities are the cause of this or that event?  Reading various surveys on historiography, one finds that older (yet, not, for that reason, necessarily useless) explanatory narratives for explaining the past lost their effectiveness because they lost their explanatory capacity to adequately explain the phenomenon in question.  It seems that some progress has been demonstrated in this area.

I hope my review and comments do not seem dismissive of the complex questions raised by Green, LaGrand, McClay, Miller, Shannon, and Confessing History‘s remaining authors that I have neither the space nor the background to discuss adequately.  Praise should be given to these distinguished scholars for probing deep, metahistorical questions.   Confessing History is filled with thoughtful and reflective essays about how believing in metaphysical concepts that become all-encompassing in terms of worldviews can or cannot be reconciled with different (or, in some cases, competing) views found in higher education.  As a graduate student working towards my doctorate, I stand on the shoulders of these contributors who have already established themselves in the academic sphere.  My review, I told myself, would be respectful, professional, and acknowledge the merits of even raising this type of religious dialogue.

Yet, as someone who was raised in an evangelical background and became disenchanted with approaches taken by religious thinkers concerning historical causation, I also needed to point out where I respectfully disagree.  While one can appreciate the desire by these Christian scholars to grapple with their life’s vocation, one underlying theme seems to echo Wilson’s dilemma while teaching in higher education: if one is a theist, when does one invoke God (or spirits) to explain events?  If  Confessing History is a tocsin for Christian-founded and –affiliated colleges, then it should have a positive impact on introducing faith-based institutions of higher education to a more rigorous analysis of history and causation.  However, when the goal is to attempt to bridge the gap between confessing and secular institutions, one wonders how the City of Supernaturalism and the City of Naturalism can ultimately merge into one city, although, that does not seem to be the objective for some of the authors.  To this reviewer, the complications involved by allowing supernatural evidence to guide (or even supplement) the professional community of inquirers are centered around how to identify which parts of past events were caused by supernatural intervention vs. human intervention.   If God, as Charles Guiteau had thought, took possession of him while he assassinated Garfield, historians should chronicle what individual persons (like Guiteau) thought was the immediate cause of the event they were involved with.  For intellectual historians in particular, they excel at understanding and explaining why a particular person believed in certain ideas, no matter how irrational or abnormal they seem.

In the final analysis, students who leave the classroom may continue to do what individuals with agency have been doing for a long time now: interpreting the narratives they hear for their own lives, in their own way.  Should this not be a goal of educators living in a pluralistic society?  This seems to be a perennial dilemma for humanities-based educators: Should one pursue one’s vocation as a professor strictly to help their audiences understand what a particular group, institution, or individual believed or advocated—leaving it up to them to make whatever use they deem appropriate?  Or, do scholars have a normative mandate to offer judgments when asked by students or the public what conclusions they should leave class with?  Do we need to fill in the gaps in terms of interpretation and application for society?  This is not to suggest a spurious either/or formula, but somehow these essays as a totality leave one grappling with this question.

To conclude, I’d like to mention D. G. Hart’s The University Gets Religion (1999), a study focusing on the introduction of “religious studies” into American colleges and universities during the late nineteenth century.  Hart contends that “[m]ainstream Protestants, by and large, initiated religious studies, but did so under a distinct disadvantage, namely that American universities were highly ambivalent about religion.”  Competing worldviews on a collision course for rhetorical intolerance?  According to Hart, the concern was “not so much that American higher education was secular, and thus, hostile to religion.  Rather, the issue was that religion did not deliver the goods that research universities promised—the unfettered pursuits of truths that would benefit society.”[9] So, what are the “goods” that these authors hope to deliver?  More significantly, are they directed towards fellow Christian scholars, or, as some contributors to this volume have indicated, do these offerings expect to penetrate and influence higher education’s causative discourse?  If the former, then confession-minded historians will profit from chewing on these well-crafted ruminations.  As for the latter goal, this reviewer’s short-term prognosis finds the two cities firmly separated, albeit, not entirely impermeable.

[1] Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson, with an Introduction by John O’Meara (New York: Penguin, 1984), 196.

[2] Augustine, City of God, 197.

[3] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 85.

[4] John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 62-63.

[5] Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson, 63.

[6] Langdon B. Gilkey, Introduction to Moral Man & Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xvi-xvii.

[7] Jon H. Roberts, “In Defense of Methodological Naturalism,” Fides et Historia 44, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012), 62.

[8] Roberts, “In Defense of Methodological Naturalism,” 64.

[9] D. G. Hart, The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), xi.

Mark Thompson is a doctoral student in the History of Ideas program at the University of Texas at Dallas.  His areas of interest include American cultural and intellectual history, historiography, race relations, and transatlantic religious studies. 

37 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great review, Mark, that gets at the heart of several confessional history matters.

    So, what are the “goods” that these authors hope to deliver? More significantly, are they directed towards fellow Christian scholars, or, as some contributors to this volume have indicated, do these offerings expect to penetrate and influence higher education’s causative discourse?

    I think this is key for this particular volume. I found the strongest essays in CH (Beth Schweiger’s should be read alongside L.D.’s most recent post) were directed toward fellow confessors.

  2. Wow! As a non-believer, I have a lot of trouble with what strikes me as an incredibly arbitrary set of “meta” judgments that clearly seem to precede analysis for “confessing” historians. They seem to be giving themselves permission to privilege their own religious tradition in a way that culturally sensitive religious historians would never do.

    I have not read the book. I like John Fea, so I will probably read it. But having said that, I DO want to register — if not a grievance, at least a reaction to the idea that serious historians MUST respond to Christianity as if it is an objective category of analysis, rather than the subjective stance of a particular historian or group. I suspect the authors didn’t worry too much how atheists would respond to their approach — but what about Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus? The “Whig interpretation” seems especially relevant, so I’ll be looking forward to that part of the book.

    • Dan,

      Here is an excerpt from the preface: “In the undertow of Christian scholarship over the past twenty-five years, a number of voices have risen in protest to the ways that the Reformed paradigm has purportedly eclipsed alternate ways of thinking about the relationship between Christianity and academic life. The vocational emphasis of this volume acknowledges these concerns, and serves to open the conversation to explorations of history as conceived among a variety of Reformed and non-Reformed Christian traditions. . . . We are only moderately interested in fostering the standing criticism of Reformed strategies, but we hope that the various Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and broadly evangelical, as well as Presbyterian and Dutch Calvinist, voices in this volume will illustrate that the conversation about Christian scholarship in history is a richly divergent one.”*

      From their perspective, this is an in-house discussion about a specifically Christian way of addressing the realities of professionalism in the 21st century. As Mark Edwards mentioned before, these essays are sometimes serving various ends.

      “I DO want to register — if not a grievance, at least a reaction to the idea that serious historians MUST respond to Christianity as if it is an objective category of analysis, rather than the subjective stance of a particular historian or group.”

      Without the ability to speak for these authors, I can only rely on my own personal take on studying religion “as if it is an objective category of analysis.” For an historian, the objective content of a particular religious group (in this case, Christian) sustains that objectivity as long as the people who profess their beliefs are able to actualize their tenets in the natural (and thus, to the historian, recoverable) world. As an intellectual historian, I strive for fidelity to the mental framework with which these people adhered to.

      My impression was that this set of essays was looking back on what has transpired since the rise of evangelical history (e.g., George Marsden and Mark Noll). Again, I’ll cite a passage from Eric Miller’s introduction: “But when trying to explore or explain the past, be it the development of the Western university or the Third Reich, all historians, regardless of creed, are left with the same epistemological limitations: the ability to make judgments based only upon ‘observable cultural forces’ and the need to translate whatever theological assumptions the historian might have into suitably secular modes of narrative and analysis. Not surprisingly, Marsden’s scholarship . . . has met little significant resistance within the world of academic history. . . .
      “The general circumstance of Christian scholarship had been altered substantially by the late 1990s. The historian James Turner and sociologist Alan Wolfe each published essays that took stock of the enlarging evangelical presence within the academy in the previous two decades. Turner, a colleague of Marsden at the University of Notre Dame and a Roman Catholic, noted in a 1999 Commonweal essay the theological dimensions of what he describe as ‘an intellectual renaissance within American evangelicalism,’ one that had ‘gone far beyond theology to establish a visible evangelical presence in literary scholarship, psychology, history, philosophy, and other fields.’ For Turner, the intellectual roots of this renaissance extended deeply into the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and, above all, Dutch Calvinist traditions, which for him seemed to explain both its promise and its limitations: ‘the new evangelical intellectuals pray as evangelicals,’ he observed, ‘but think as Calvinists, or Anglicans, or sometimes even Catholics.’”**

      Does that help at all? Am I misunderstanding your arguments about the “objective” and “subjective” aspects of religious history?

      *John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, Confessing History, xiii.
      **Miller, 4-5.

  3. Mark,

    Thanks for the kind words. Thanks also for reminding me of the relevance of Beth Schweiger’s contribution for Lora’s recent project.

    Since this was a collection of essays rather than a tightly argued monograph, I was hesitant to produce any grand thesis that subsumed all of the points/observations made by these historians. As you said, pieces of this conversation are directed towards fellow confessing historians and other parts seem to pinpoint methodological issues in the profession as a whole; issues that, possibly, could use some constructive tweaking from the religious sphere.

  4. Mark Thompson — thank you for reviewing this book so wisely and so well. You have been fairer than I could have been, that’s for sure — one of a few reasons that I gladly handed over my reviewer’s copy. (On another reason, see below.)

    Dan, I’m with you on the reaction to this whole project, at least in its more militant/missiological guise. Chris Shannon’s essay in Historically Speaking (Jan. 2011, I think) put this mess on my radar screen, and I have been keeping a weather eye on it, for sure.

    Mark Edwards, funny you should mention the Schweiger essay. I only got as far as the intro to Confessing History — and not because the whole project chapped my hide (which it does). It’s because I got to the summary of her essay and realized how close her interests were to what I was working on. So I just stopped reading the whole thing right there!

    Now, I have been advised that one can’t proceed this way in the world of academe, that there is always somebody working on something that sounds like what you’re working on, etc. Heck, two of my colleagues on this blog will go to press with their interpretations of (among other things) the “canon wars” at Stanford before I’m one chapter into my dissertation. I think today I’d probably just note the affinity and keep reading. But it was so important to me that this particular essay, written at this particular time, be all “mine,” that I didn’t dare read the Schweiger piece, or anything beyond the intro. So now I have to read it.

    But I can’t say enough about what a good turn Mark Thompson has done all of us to read and frame the whole collection. And to bracket it all within the thinking of Augustine, no less. Well done!

  5. Thanks, Mark & LDB. I’m not sure it would be wise to comment farther — as I said, I haven’t read it yet — but I got the impression from some of the passages quoted in the review that the point was more than just an internal discussion among the faithful of minor differences in their approaches. I got the sense they were about some type of reintroduction of divinity (and specifically, of course, THEIR tradition’s divinity) into the analysis and writing of history by professional historians. I’ll have more to say about this once I’ve read the book, but if that’s the case, then I’d ask the same question secularists always ask: Why, aside from the contingencies of the present historical moment, should their ideas about divine agency become TOOLS of history, rather than the subjects of history we strive to understand with fidelity as historians — but not necessarily to emulate?

    • I forgot to mention an article I ran across after completing this review. It’s by Brad S. Gregory, entitled “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion.” The abstract for his essay reads: “The rejection of confessional commitments in the study of religion in favor of social-scientific or humanistic theories of religion has produced not unbiased accounts, but reductionist explanations of religious belief and practice with embedded secular biases that preclude the understanding of religious believer-practitioners. These biases derive from assumptions of undemonstrable, dogmatic, metaphysical naturalism or its functional equivalent, an epistemological skepticism about all truth claims of revealed religions. . . . Because such assumptions are so widespread among scholars today, they are not often explicitly articulated. . . . If scholars want to understand religious persons such that the latter would recognize themselves in what is said about them, rather than impose their own metaphysical convictions on them, then they should reject metaphysically biased reductionist theories of religion no less than confessional religious assumptions in the practice of their scholarship. Instead, a study of religion guided not by theories but by the question, ‘What did it mean to them?’ and which is particularized in metaphysically neutral ways offers a third alternative that avoids confessional history, whether religious or secular.”*

      Some of the language employed reminds me of the “Darwin on Trial” debates made famous by Philip Johnson concerning “metaphysical naturalism” and the biological community in higher education. I’m not sure where Gregory’s alternative approach will lead exactly, but I hope to look at his recent The Unintended Reformation (Harvard, 2012) due to the waves it’s been generating.

      *Brad S. Gregory, “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion,” History and Theory 45, no. 4 (December 2006), 132.

      • This bit in particular is excellent, Mark.

        The problem is that those who actually understand the particulars of Christianity also have skin in the game, and those who don’t have skin in the game know little of Christianity as it understands itself.

        The way putatively educated people misuse and misapprehend the meaning of various Bible passages is as much a scandal as that of what Mark Noll calls “the Evangelical mind.” [Thesis: There isn’t much of one.]

        We have so few honest brokers in the game, although this is not to say those in the game are dishonest–it’s just that they’re prisoners of their theologies [or antipathies to theology].

        Instead, a study of religion guided not by theories but by the question, ‘What did it mean to them?’ and which is particularized in metaphysically neutral ways offers a third alternative that avoids confessional history, whether religious or secular.”


    • Dan: There’s definitely more going on than Christians talking to Christians. Some of the pieces–like Chris Shannon’s which Mark quotes from–are talking to fellow confessors and at the historical profession at the same time. After Miller’s intro, I’d skip to Shannon and then go back to Schweiger.

  6. I can certainly sympathize, LD. My dissertation originated in the discovery that Eugene McCarraher’s Christian Critics (Cornell, 2000) embodied the main argument of my Master’s Thesis, but presented it 20,000 times better than I ever could.

  7. Mark T. — David Hollinger had some bones to pick with Brad Gregory. I wrote it up here. Hollinger was calling out Gregory for his what seemed to him to be an apologia for providential history / explanatory schemes.

    There’s a world of difference between saying something like, “The growth of the abolitionist movement was due in part to the Quakers’ deep belief that they were doing God’s work” and “The growth of the abolitionist movement was an expression of God’s Spirit working in history.” To argue the former is sound intellectual history; to argue the latter is not really history at all, is it?

    • Exactly! And if abolitionism and the Civil War are “God’s mind thinking,” then it’s a pretty exclusive god, because black people don’t even need to have agency in that scheme. They can just be elements of the “problem” the white anglo god has designed for his chosen people to solve.

    • Lora,

      Thanks for the Hollinger reference. I especially liked this segment from your previous post:

      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).

      I think Hollinger nailed it when discussing what the historical community is able to accomplish now that these religious—or maybe I should say, “supernatural”—elements are removed from the table. The religious element has, in my opinion, improved the way history has expanded its explanatory range. The inclusion or retention of the supra/er-natural, however, seems to be the culprit in simplifying historical change. This is why I thought Jon Roberts gave the best response in explaining why methodological naturalism should be the guiding principle in higher education (at non-religious-affiliated schools).

      “There’s a world of difference between saying something like, ‘The growth of the abolitionist movement was due in part to the Quakers’ deep belief that they were doing God’s work’ and ‘The growth of the abolitionist movement was an expression of God’s Spirit working in history.’ To argue the former is sound intellectual history; to argue the latter is not really history at all, is it?”

      I would change “world” to “galaxy.” I think the latter, frankly, is not necessarily even good theology at times, but that’s a discussion for another day. . . .

  8. I was wondering how the “noble dream” of objectivity plays into this book and confessing history more generally. While I think historians of all stripes are in broad agreement that true scholarly objectivity is unobtainable (due to both recognized and unrecognized biases), I think most would agree that there is value in pursuing this unobtainable goal at least to unite the profession behind a single set of standards. It seems as though confessional historians wrestle with the problem of objectivity. I wonder, ultimately, whether or not they abrogate their “duty” to their fellow scholars by pursuing their truth, instead of one more broadly agreed upon by their colleagues.

    I wonder if a compromise on confessing history can be reached that has never successfully been found by politically active historians. Is it possible to balance your personal religious beliefs with your obligation to research-towards-objectivity? Or if we decide that objectivity is not only impossible but a dream not worth being pursued, what should replace it as the glue uniting historians? Clearly, neither religion nor politics could possibly fill that void.

    • I wonder if a compromise on confessing history can be reached that has never successfully been found by politically active historians.

      Heh heh.

    • Matthew,

      William Katerberg’s chapter (The “Objectivity Question” and the Historian’s Vocation) addresses this topic. He argues that any identity crisis perceived by historians relating to the “objectivity question” should urge them to focus on vocational issues: “The central issues are not epistemological but vocational. Instead of appealing to the ‘purposelessness’ of history and idealizing the study of the past for its ‘own sake,’ historians should redefine their vocations in terms of history being useful for life.”*

      Katerberg then continues by reminding readers in his introduction that this move “is not a radical suggestion, but returns historiography to its roots. As Frederick Jackson Turner . . . said in 1891: ‘Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.’ Turner nodded to the fact-oriented, scientific claims of the emerging discipline, but it was not the point. Only the ‘antiquarian strives to bring back the past’ for its own sake, he said. The ‘historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origins from the past. . . . The defining goals of history should be the service of life.” Katerberg concludes with a plea to “move past the increasingly stultifying debate over objectivity.”**

      He also emphasizes that “the search for objective scientific knowledge has not provided a stable foundation on which truth claims, moral decisions, and political projects can based. Instead, whatever provisional stability there is in historical knowledge, it is dependent on the credibility of the diverse and (ideally) democratic intellectual institutions and communities that produced it.”***

      I think that last point is an interesting one. Which institutions of higher learning have “credibility” when it comes to explaining change? I guess it depends on what “goods” people are hoping to leave with after they walk off with a diploma. As far as history departments go, this is where I see the continuing divide of the “two cities.”

      Sorry for the lengthy passages, but I thought it would be better to quote them directly seeing how this was originally a book review.
      *Katerberg, 101
      ** Ibid., 102
      *** Ibid., 108-109

  9. What does a compromise between A priori reasoning and a posteriori reasoning look like without one side or the other relinquishing a fundamental tenet?

  10. Paul, I think the compromise would — or at least should — take the form of “kenosis,” a self-emptying. Since secular history must appeal only to “natural”explanations, while fideistic history can appeal to both the natural and the providential, then clearly the “confessors”would need to set aside providential reasoning. If Christ set aside his glory in exchange for the humbling limitations of mortal human life, as Paul avers in the Christological hymn at the heart of Philippians 2, then I think setting aside the special pleading of providential explanatory schemes and contenting themselves with the humble and workmanlike methods of conscientious empiricism is quite literally the very least his followers could do.

    • If Christ set aside his glory in exchange for the humbling limitations of mortal human life, as Paul avers in the Christological hymn at the heart of Philippians 2, then I think setting aside the special pleading of providential explanatory schemes and contenting themselves with the humble and workmanlike methods of conscientious empiricism is quite literally the very least his followers could do.

      “His” [Jesus’s] followers also dig the Old Testament and Mighty Jehovah, Ms. Burnett, and indeed in the historical American context, the story and image of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt was the Founding’s chosen analogy far more than Beatitude or Last Temptation Jesus.

      And if you want to argue His Truth is Marching On against the civil war that ended slavery, well, that would be a theological argument vs. American history as well.

      With all due respect for your manifest biblical literacy, Christianity has a Trinity afterall, not just Barney the Christosaur. I had it [you] explicitly in mind in a previous comment, and do find it scandalous when the Bible is contentiously used [or misused] as a cudgel against its adherents. When a non-adherent tries to hit ’em over the head with their own Bible, the results are usually far more embarrassing to the aggressor.

      Look, I share the antipathy here for “Christian” history, believe me.

      But the objection should be formal, sans any animus or intimation that the offender has somehow transgressed against his own religion. That crosses the line. Not one of us would dare argue the Qur’an against a Muslim, at least not so casually.

  11. Well, there is a lot to respond to. As one of the contributors to the volume, I would just like to focus on one issue.

    L.D. makes an important distinction:

    “There’s a world of difference between saying something like, “The growth of the abolitionist movement was due in part to the Quakers’ deep belief that they were doing God’s work” and “The growth of the abolitionist movement was an expression of God’s Spirit working in history.” To argue the former is sound intellectual history; to argue the latter is not really history at all, is it?”

    Well, there certainly is a difference between these two statements, but the fact of historical practice is that historians never stop at statement number one. There is always a number two, even if the deity is rarely invoked. For most secular historians, sentence number two reads something like: “The growth of the abolitionist movement marked a positive advance in our understanding of human freedom. The human race is better off for the abolition of slavery.” If historians did not believe the second sentence, they would not be motivated to pursue the study of abolitionism, at least not to the extent that they are in the profession today. Unless we continue to accept the conventional Enlightenment distinction between universal morality and particular religion, the verifiability of liberal humanist sentence number two is as much an act of faith as any statements about the Holy Spirit.

    Too much of the debate over Christian history has focused on causality, as if providentialism envisions some puppet master God playing with human beings. I am concerned less with causality than with meaning and significance. Slavery and abolitionism have such a central place in secular liberal historiography because these are historical topics that enable historians to reflect on values and ideals they hold dear and wish to affirm in their history. Though I have sympathy for those who have endured the sufferings of slavery, the liberal historiography of slavery makes me feel like an unbeliever; I share its opposition to slavery, but I do not share its conception of freedom. In his Catholicism and American Freedom, John McGreevy pointed out the Catholic communitarian critique of abolitionism, but overall he holds Catholicism accountable to the standard of American freedom. The book has been widely praised, and no one has accused him of violating scholarly neutrality. Would all his scholarship be discredited if he simply interpreted the relation the other way–that American freedom has consistently failed to live up to the standard of Catholic communitarianism? At one level, that is all I am proposing. Of course, at another level, I would certainly not be content with the mass production of monographs espousing Catholic communitarianism, but that gets to a different part of the argument.

    • What is stopping anyone from writing about abolitionism in the manner you propose? This seems like a complaint in search of a tort.

  12. Chris (11), McGreevy’s scholarship would not necessarily be discredited if he wrote from a Catholic communitarian position, but his relevance would probably be severely limited. However smart and thorough his scholarship, there’s a whole world of non-Catholics out there who simply don’t care. Nor should they. The sticking point in all this is the implicit claim that somehow Christian confessors have a special privilege to use the space of public scholarship to advance their own particular metaphysics — and metahistory. The confessors think they possess a higher truth, of course. But the rest of us don’t agree, so why should we welcome it into general historical discourse in such a privileged form, relative to, say, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, or (banish the thought) atheist perspectives?

  13. Chris, if you read anything on this blog besides the posts that pertain to your particular project, you would know that most of us here are concerned with meaning and significance. Some of us are even specifically concerned with the problem/project of finding “transcendent” or “enduring” meaning and significance in a post-fideistic, disenchanted landscape. And — shocker! — we even have the self-awareness to recognize the implicit metaphysics in our own explanatory schemes.

    As to my important distinction, you seem to imply that if historians make judgments about values and ends, then there’s some moral equivalent of God behind their arguments. That’s not just bad analysis on your part; it’s also bad theology. Since the Confessing Historians, overwhelmingly Protestants, with not a few fellow-travelers who are even Southern Baptists and such, seem to count on you to carry their confessional banner into the fray — an amusing but revealing arrangement indeed — you should be more careful. Or maybe they should. It’s hard to see how a confessional tradition that fundamentally repudiates the notion of the magisterium is going to find common ground for long with one that would like to see the authority — or at least the relevance — of the magisterium universally acknowledged.

    That’s the best I can do by way of reply at 3:30 in the morning. But I think my post on Saturday will probably address this week’s anticipated Supreme Court ruling(s) on gay marriage. So keep your powder dry, Chris.

  14. I think Dan’s comment speaks to the objections raised by Kurt and L.D. Kurt suggests that I have no real legitimate complaint to make, since historians are free to make Catholic communitarian arguments; Dan acknowledges that if McGreevy were to have adopted such a normative position, he would largely be ignored by the profession, and rightly so, since “there’s a whole world of non-Catholics out there who simply don’t care.” Well, there’s a whole world of non-secular humanist liberals out there who simply don’t care what the profession has to say about the past, and we see this in the declining enrollments in the humanities. I think it would be more accurate to say there is a whole world of non-Catholic historians out there who simply don’t care, but then that to me is the issue at stake in the debate about confessional history. Is the profession honoring its own stated values when it excludes interpretive traditions rooted in pre-Enlightenment world views, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc.? The profession seems to have a conflict of values. On the one hand, it claims to promote tolerance and diversity; on the other, it was born of Enlightenment rationalism and remains committed to it. Historians seem more than willing to critique Enlightenment rationalism when used by social engineers to impose modernization on Third World peasants, but insist that here at home in the profession modeled on that rationalism, everything is ok. I cannot speak for all confessional historians, but I am not claiming any privileged place for Catholicism, I am simply trying to claim a space, which has to this point been denied.

    Dan, what is the problem with acknowledging that there’s a whole world of people out there who do not think like you do and still welcoming them into the world of professional historical inquiry? I have certainly learned a lot from people with whom I share fundamental differences in world view (especially the Marxist tradition). Do you think rational discourse would collapse if you had to engage a Buddhist interpretation of some historical event?

    L.D., if you had read my post more carefully you would know that I acknowledge that liberals are searching for meaning and significance in history. I identified what I take to be the liberal understanding of the meaning and significance of abolitionism. If you can acknowledge that disenchanted liberalism has an implicit metaphysics, why exclude the explicit metaphysics of non-Enlightenment world views. Your claim that moral judgments are not disguised God-talk is simply bad history. No moral philosophy has been able to withstand the withering critique of Enlightenment skepticism short of simply putting its foot down in existential affirmation, proclaiming that critique stops here. This is the modern faith in reason that H. Stuart Hughes identified long ago in his Consciousness and Society. It is a faith currently preached by the likes of Novick, Hollinger and Haskell. I am not denying them the right to promote this in the profession nor claiming any privileged place for my world view. I am just saying that this generally neo-Kantian position would look far less convincing if historians actually had to confront alternatives on a regular basis.

  15. “Dan, what is the problem with acknowledging that there’s a whole world of people out there who do not think like you do and still welcoming them into the world of professional historical inquiry? I have certainly learned a lot from people with whom I share fundamental differences in world view (especially the Marxist tradition). Do you think rational discourse would collapse if you had to engage a Buddhist interpretation of some historical event?”

    Good point, Chris. But I DO criticize Whig history, whatever the source of the preconceived notions that precede analysis. Yes, as postmodernism suggests, we all have them. I think what LDB and others are saying is that we imagine the professional public space as a place where we try to get beyond our personal world views to whatever extent possible, and acknowledge them when we can’t. Not revel in them and tell the rest of the folks who don’t share our perspective that there’s something privileged about OUR particular sort of predispositions.

    Would I learn something by reading this book, as you say you’ve learned something from Marxist historians? Sure, which is why I plan to read it. But I HOPE when I read this type of thing that I’m going to learn something about history, and not just about historiography.

  16. As an exercise, change the focus away from Christian confession and tell me how you respond to jihadists who interpret events as the unfolding of their deity’s plan for a worldwide theocratic revolution? Are they to be “welcomed into the world of professional historical inquiry?” They’re no less convinced in the transcendent truth of their “pre-Enlightenment” world view.

    The reason we have a secular public space at all, in a mostly religious nation, isn’t (as many seem to believe) because the people with power are (or were) secularists. It’s because the only alternative is to pick a flavor of state religion, and then marginalize or banish all other points of view. Pluralism exists because of secularism. There — I’ve said it.

    • Dan,
      Thanks for your response. First, I think we disagree over the nature of public life at our current moment. Yes, it should be a meeting place for people of different, even fundamentally different, world views. You seem to imply that this difference requires us to leave behind our particular language in an effort to approximate some neutral public language. History has shown that however noble, this view of public life (political or professional) is a dream. Were feminists reveling in their personal world views when they demanded that the profession give them a seat at the table? I’m sure many a white male intellectual historian in the late 1960s thought so. Daniel Rodgers has gone so far to suggest that the opening up of public life in the late 1960s produced an age of fracture. With all the fracturing we have experienced, why draw the line at religion?

      I actually think that Rodgers overstates his case for fracture, because I see a pretty clear persistence of deep consensus beneath the surface fracture. In Rodgers’ work as with the rest of the neo-consensus historians, I see very little effort to get beyond personal world views and a lot of effort at patching up the leaky boat of liberalism, which lacks the confidence that it did have in the 1950s, and faces political and intellectual challenges that it did not.

      Public life at our particular moment requires us to speak many languages so as to communicate with people that are really different from us. This is what I tried to do in my first two books. I met the world view of secular modernist social criticism on its own terms and tried to show those terms inhibited its ability to realize some of its own stated aims. This internal critique was inspired by an alternative Catholic intellectual traditions, but does not depend totally upon it. One does not have to be a Catholic to agree or disagree with my reading of Veblen, but my overall take on this secular tradition suggests that if you are really concerned about achieving the ideal of social unity evoked by the culture concept, you better look elsewhere than the American tradition of conspicuous criticism.

      On your exercise, I suppose I would have to say yes. First, its not such an extreme example as you may have intended. All through the 70s and 80s the profession was very open to those who espoused violent Third World revolution. Old-style consensus liberals saw these generally Marxist/nationalist revolutionaries much as many today seem to see jihadists, but the profession made space for them. Advocating violence in the name of a modern secular ideology seems, historically, to have been tolerated by the profession. Those scholars who succeeded as scholars had to do more than advocate violent revolution (one, two, many Vietnams), they had to master the discourse of the profession as they found it even as they tried to reconfigure its boundaries. That is what I am trying to do as well. That is what any jihadist pursuing a career in history must do.

    • Pluralism exists because of secularism. There — I’ve said it.

      That’s the prevailing narrative. However, the rapid proliferation of sects in Protestantism obliged the concept of religious pluralism without any help from the “Enlightenment.”

      “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There thee Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word.

      At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

      If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”

      Voltaire, London c. 1727

      See also

      “The story of how Madison and a diverse band of evangelicals and civil libertarians mounted, in 1785, a successful public relations campaign against [Patrick] Henry’s bill, highlighted by Madison’s celebrated religious liberty manifesto, the Declaration and Remonstrance, is a familiar one in American church-state literature, especially since it resulted in 1786 in the passage by the Virginia Assembly of Jefferson’s landmark Statute for Religious Freedom.

      The downfall of the general assessment bill is usually depicted as a kind of slow moving Armageddon, in which Madison and his followers, representing the forces of light and progress, gradually vanquish the legions of reaction who would have dragged America back into the dark ages of religious persecution and bigotry.”

      There are several things wrong with this interpretation…”


  17. Thanks, Chris. I think you’re overplaying the noble dream hand, but I’m sufficiently fascinated by your perspective that I’ve ordered a copy of Conspicuous Criticism. I think we are probably closer than you suggest on the ways a multicultural professional space would be enhanced by challenges from outside the box. My objection throughout this discussion has been to the confessors’ particular point of view replacing the secular liberal (is it really liberal?) “Enlightenment” ground you criticize. I think I’d be more in favor of continuing to use challenges to raise our awareness of this position’s shortcomings, rather than chucking the whole “Aufklärung” project and returning to a position where our most highly-esteemed “truths” are based on authority and revelation rather than on observation and analysis.

  18. Dan,

    Fair enough. A deeper discussion might be beyond the parameters of the blog post, but let me at least clarify my position on the Enlightenment. I am sure I am to blame for giving the impression that I want to chuck the whole thing. Still, as I argue in the After Monographs piece, I do not object to the techniques of empiricism per se; the techniques (i.e., greater empirical accuracy) are good, though I argue used in ways that undermine a healthy intellectual life. ore broadly, I do not wish to chuck the achievements of the natural sciences, though I think the 20th century has more than enough evidence to the disastrous consequences of the assumption of the moral autonomy of science, or the sufficiency of dominant intellectual traditions of the Enlightenment to place moral limits on the use of technologies of mass destruction. All through the Cold War, the liberal leaders of the Free World reserved the right of nuclear first strike–that is, the right to initiate the vaporization of millions of people in the name of national security. The reactionary, authoritarian Catholic Church denied the right of any nation to do such a thing. At the same time, the Church came to accept the good that existed in both modern science and the modern nation state. It granted the relative autonomy of reason, particularly in technical matters of natural science, but refused to concede the absolute autonomy of reason (again, plenty of evidence for caution on this front). The documents of Vatican II give a far more generous reading of secular modernity than any Cold War liberal was ever willing to give to the Catholic Church. It is not a question of either/or, but, to use a metaphor from Kenneth Burke, of the container and the thing contained. Where Vatican II and Cold War liberals disagreed was on which was which: Vatican II sought to articulate some way for the Church to be the container after the demise of the union of altar and throne; Cold War liberals maintained the Lockean settlement in which the nation state was lord of all, yet tolerated and protected privatized religion.

    Thanks for being open to giving Conspicuous Criticism a read. Let me know what you think.

  19. Chris, you can be as snippy and persnickety and sophistical in the comments as you want to be today, and it’s all good.

    I am issuing an indulgence, ’cause I just passed my exams today — with spirit, I must say, though perhaps not with Geist.

    So, confess your heart out, with my blessing. But be here on Saturday, ready to rumble.

  20. Chris, you can be as snippy and persnickety and sophistical in the comments as you want to be today, and it’s all good.

    I am issuing an indulgence, ’cause I just passed my exams today — with spirit, I must say, though perhaps not with Geist.

    So, confess your heart out, with my blessing. But be here on Saturday, ready to rumble.

    Uh oh.

  21. I’m surprised at the lack of discussion of potential *audience* for historical writings of supernaturalist/theological bent—and surprised at the lack of discussion of institutional context from which confessing historians (and others) do their work. Perhaps that’s in the book? Still, don’t the expectations of audience and one’s employers matter in relation to whether one eels permission to offer up providential-theological explanations or discussions of providence/theology? I mean, it goes without saying that these discussions are not welcome in the generally secular academy. But aren’t confessing historians writing for a special audience (i.e. not intellectual historians!)*. – TL

    *Though I’m happy this book was reviewed here.

    • Tim,
      In practice, yes, most of the people who contributed to the volume teach at confessional institutions. Even more, most of them work in the field of religious history. The question is whether the approaches advocated have any standing outside of these very particular institutional and disciplinary settings. I think one reason why my approach sticks out is that my whole intellectual formation took place in secular instititutions and in the general secular field of modern intellectual history, and most of my employment has been in non-confessing institutions. In three years of fellow travelling in the field of American religious history while working at the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame, my sense was that the issue of Christian scholarship was largely a non-issue because the historians in the field were so immersed in Catholic or Christian sources, and had their own community of scholars similiarly immersed in these materials, that they didn’t see any crisis. Yes, there was the occasional, ritual lamentation of marginalization, but this generally led only to calls to make the discipline more relevant by catching up to (secular) professional standards. Approaching these issues from the field of intellectual history, and having worked largely with secular source material, I saw the issue in a very different light. I guess I am on the side of bringing it out of the ghetto. An institution does not have to be confessionally feminist in order to employ feminist scholars. The same goes for Marxism, post-colonial, etc.

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