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”), 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. 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.
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.’” 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.
 Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson, with an Introduction by John O’Meara (New York: Penguin, 1984), 196.
 Augustine, City of God, 197.
 Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 85.
 John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 62-63.
 Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson, 63.
 Langdon B. Gilkey, Introduction to Moral Man & Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xvi-xvii.
 Jon H. Roberts, “In Defense of Methodological Naturalism,” Fides et Historia 44, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012), 62.
 Roberts, “In Defense of Methodological Naturalism,” 64.
 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.
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