U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Theological Turn in Intellectual History (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in our series of guest post reporting on the Sixth Annual U. S. Intellectual History Conference that took place last month in Indianapolis. It concerns the roundtable on The Theological Turn in Intellectual History. It comes to us from Dan Hummel, who is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying American religious and diplomatic history.  His dissertation examines Jewish-Evangelical relations in the mid-twentieth century, with special emphasis on the state of Israel as both a theological idea and a historical actor.  Be on the lookout for his essay to appear in Religion and American Culture in 2015!   

At the recent annual conference for U.S. intellectual history (October 9-12) in Indianapolis, religious themes made a major showing. There were a number of panel papers on religion and religious thought, and Kathryn Lofton (Yale University) delivered the keynote address on Bob Dylan. Historians of American religion seem to have found another home in the field of US intellectual history. In one of the most methodologically explicit discussions of the new interest in religion, an impressive group of scholars met on Saturday morning to reflect on the place of theology in intellectual history. Titled “The Theological Turn in Intellectual History,” the roundtable featured Andrew Finstuen (Boise State University), Matthew Hedstrom (University of Virginia), Andrew Jewett (Harvard University, presenting the written comments of K. Healon Gaston, who was absent), and Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill). The panel was chaired by Lilian Calles Barger, who recently completed her doctorate on liberation theology at the University of Texas-Dallas.

The discussion was wide-ranging, especially in the long question and answer time after panelists delivered their thought. Audience members asked questions about over George Marsden’s longstanding position on academic pluralism and the confessing historian’s theological commitments; the Protestant-centric tendencies of a term such as “theology” to describe religious thought; the extent to which historians can responsibly identify theological underpinnings or themes in avowedly secular or non-religious writers; and ways to access the role of theology in lived experience. For the sake of space and time, I will limit my summary to the panel presentations, which overall provided much food for thought. There were at least three overarching insights worth conveying to readers of RiAH.

First, the panelists agreed a theological turn in US intellectual history had indeed occurred, especially in studies of the twentieth century where scholars, intellectuals and theologians themselves witnessed a secularization of thought. Jewett/Gaston, in grappling with how we could identify the new interest in theology, pointed to the wave of new scholarship (panelists’ own monographs providing some good examples) in the last five years. Furthermore, theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich have received new attention by historians, journalists, public intellectuals, and even U.S. presidents. Barger, taking a wide view, observed a theological turn throughout the humanities as the line between sacred and secular was also blurring, in her estimation, outside of the academy. While none of the panelists argued for the primacy of theology in U.S. intellectual history, they were uniform in their call that intellectual historians recognize the importance of theology as an integral dimension to the field.

Second, panelists beginning with Barger’s opening remarks emphasized the opportunities for finding the influence of theology in intellectual history beyond the usual suspects of theologians, philosophers, and overtly religious figures. Hedstrom framed his comments around the observation that conservative Protestants and Catholics, who are often explicitly systematic and propositional in their theology, have received much scholarly attention in recent years and provide an easier subject for study. More difficult are those historical actors who have understood theology in affective or even anti-intellectual modes, such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, who sought God in the beautiful, less so in doctrines and confessions. Though more elusive for the historian, tracing the genealogies of these ideas about theology (which may often be couched in anti-theological language) is an important next step for historians of theology and religious thought. Other panelists echoed Hedstrom’s call for work that examines the assumed, unexpressed, and sometimes contradictory ways theology has animated a wider array religious actors.

Third, panelists issued a call for intellectual historians to become more literate in the field of theology and the language theologians employ. Finstuen called for intellectual historians to familiarize themselves with the “theological canon,” much as U.S. intellectual historians are familiar with their own canon of thinkers. How many intellectual historians, Finstuen asked, are familiar with the writings of Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, or important contemporary theologians such as John Milbank and N.T. Wright? Worthen, also identifying a field-wide ignorance of the classics in theology, called for historians to realize theology can be expressed in both formal and idiomatic language. We may find more broad ranging influence of theological language and concepts created by professional theologians among the laity if we better understand the theologians and their works.

It may do well to end on Worthen’s claim that including theology in intellectual history will more explicitly and reflectively help historians examine some unarticulated biases against theology that have hindered past approaches in the field. If we treat theological motivations as foundational, on par with social, economic, and political commitments, we may be forced to reexamine the role theology has played in the lives of Americans in the twentieth century. In both their propositional, formal manifestations, as well as in sentimental and affective modes, theological ideas help improve the field of U.S. intellectual history as a whole by highlighting the Humean and Burkean – not simply Cartesian – understandings of human thought and motivation.