Confessing History: Introduction

This semester students in our capstone course, Senior Seminar, are joining me in reading through Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press), edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. As we work through it, I’ll plan to share a few observations, starting today with Miller’s introduction and how it resonates with some of my own intellectual autobiography (a key theme for several of the contributors).

Casting his eye over the academy, Miller observes how almost all whose lives it touches learn to keep “their religious beliefs properly closeted, their gaze steady on the job at hand.” Quite self-consciously, professionals of all sorts cultivate “secularity—not a mandated absence of religious devotion so much as the required presence of procedural norms that make religious language problematic” (1-2).

Portrait of John Henry Newman
John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) – Wikimedia

In the face of this “linguistically straitened circumstance,” Miller and his editors seek to articulate a distinctively Christian vision of what it means to practice one profession: historian. They aspire “humbly but spiritedly” to join “a long tradition of writings in which Christian scholars [e.g., John Henry Cardinal Newman] have in diverging eras sought to probe and articulate the ways in which life on earth might be playing out beneath the eye and at the hand of the God of Christian faith” (2).

Miller then describes one especially popular way in which evangelical and other Christians have sought “to go about this holy work in a manner consonant with both their creedal confession and their academic professions” (2-3): namely, that proposed by George Marsden (most famously in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship — a book I’ve assigned in the past in Senior Seminar).

What Miller and several other authors in this collection call the “Marsden settlement” is summed up later in the book by Catholic historian Christopher Shannon:

Christian scholarship consists in Christian scholars infusing the relatively neutral, technical, procedural norms of the various academic professions with their distinctly Christian background faith commitments. These spiritual commitments inspire distinctly Christian questions and nurture a sensibility capable of producing distinctly Christian interpretive insights that may enrich the historical understanding of Christian and non-Christian alike—provided the Christian scholar achieves these insights with all due respect to secular professional standards of evidence and argument. (p. 168)

George Marsden
George Marsden

While this approach has born remarkable fruit — a veritable renaissance of evangelical participation and influence in history and other disciplines, it was criticized by Shannon in his address to the 2002 biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. In Miller’s reporting, Shannon “used the opportunity to decry the existing consensus on the Christian practice of history and press for what he conceived of as a more radically Christian approach to history” (5).

Miller places himself and his co-editors in a new generation of Christian historians (he, Green, and Fea studied church history together at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School before entering different doctoral programs), whose “deepening immersion into varying Christian intellectual traditions… was leading an increasing number of them not only to re-examine their own evangelical heritage but also to call into question the soundness of the modern university itself,” to question whether they ought (in Marsden’s memorable phrase) “to play by the rules” of the modern university and measure themselves by the standards of the secular academy. Reflecting on a listserv conversation among such scholars following a 1997 conference inspired by Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Miller recalled that “Above all, a longing for something more, something beyond the mainstream status quo, whether the Christian or the secular version, seemed to fuel the reflections” (8).

He concludes:

This book, emerging from experiences such as these (and reflected upon autobiographically in many of the essays that follow), is charged, sometimes dramatically, other times subtly, with the hope, the frustration, the fear, and the yearning that have so freighted this movement and this moment. It is fair to say that the questions that lurk behind most of the essays boil down to these: Is something beyond the current consensus, as represented, for instance, 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? Have our lives as professional historians—and as middle-class professionals—become so straitjacketed that resistance to the status quo is futile? And what within the present moment holds most promise for the advance of a deeply Christian practice of history, whether through writing or teaching? (p. 9)

Even here, Miller stops short of promising a consensus that this would-be “generational renewal” is unlikely to deliver: “The responses that follow are as varied, heated, and earnest as the times and places from which they emerge.” But as he wraps up the introduction (entitled, I should belatedly add, “A Tradition Renewed? The Challenge of a Generation”), he boldly claims “if not a new consensus, at least a common inclination…,” one that is both philosophical and concerned with “altering actual practice at many levels.”

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. We seek instead to clothe history in rumination, conjecture, meditation, 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. Moreover, rather than turning to leading theorists of the modern academic disciplines alone for guidance, we find ourselves in consequential and intimate conversation with the work of theologians and philosophers, joining a tradition of reflection with ancient roots and one that continues strongly to this day, with or without the historical profession. (pp. 15-16)

Fea, Green & Miller, eds., Confessing HistoryDoes Confessing History succeed? I’ll admit off the bat: I assigned the book almost sight unseen (based in part on having read many of the contributors reflect on similar issues in other places, and on my awareness that it’s received both acclaim and mixed reviews) and have tried to restrain myself, reading along at the pace of my students. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I approach the text with substantial sympathy, but also something of an outsider’s status.

While I was in graduate school close to the same time as the editors, I was far removed from the debates they describe. First, while I attended (and even led worship in) Baptist churches throughout my years of doctoral study at a major research university, I engaged in nothing remotely like the intentional faith-learning integration promoted by Marsden, Noll, and the mentors of these editors and their colleagues. I hadn’t heard of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities until my second time through the job market, and I didn’t join the Conference on Faith and History until after arriving at Bethel.

(I also happened to study diplomatic and European history in graduate school, while this volume is dominated by those whose scholarly focus is American intellectual or religious history.)

So I did not begin to wrestle with anything like the “Marsden settlement” until I had already entered the ranks of those middle-class professionals known as college professors. Which means that I asked such questions not as a graduate student in the company of other graduate students, but as a young professor teaching undergraduates like my Senior Seminar students. (A class that I’ve taught almost every spring since coming to Bethel nine years ago.) I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to affect my reading of the book, except to say that I probably approach all of this from a rather pragmatic perspective: how can I talk about it with 21-year olds? It also means that I’m still at a point in my career when Marsden’s insights are new enough that I haven’t entirely wearied of them.

At the same time, because I happened to end up teaching at a school in the Pietist tradition and rejoined the avowedly pietistic denomination in which I’d been raised, I also soon found myself moving in a different direction from the decidedly Reformed emphases of much of the “faith-learning integration” literature — dominated in my field by the same historians Miller critiques in his introduction. After I gave my first talk hesitantly inquiring after something like a Pietist model of scholarship and education, one of my Reformed colleagues at Bethel suggested a hypothesis that’s stuck with me, and seems to fit Miller’s critique: Reformed evangelicals like Marsden and Noll (and Reformed institutions like Calvin College) have achieved success in part because the “life of the mind” that they encourage fits so easily with the priorities of the secular academy. (In greater part, I think, it’s because they’re gifted, hard-working historians.) In striving to meet the benchmarks of mainstream scholarly success, one might well nourish such a head-centered Christianity.

But what if one tries to root higher education in, say, the Pietist tradition, which prizes experience, feeling, and praxis over belief and seeks the conversion of the whole person — heart and hands, as well as head? What if you come to conclude that the vocation of professor has much in common with that of pastor? What if your vision of the ideal Christian learning community is more like the ecclesiola in ecclesia than Henry James’ image of pluralistic intellectual discourse as being like a hotel, with disciplines and perspectives occupying separate rooms but sharing a corridor (invoked by Marsden — Outrageous Idea, pp. 45-46 — as a “congenial” image for the kind of Christian scholarship he has in mind)?

And as I near the end of my first decade as a college professor — and come up for tenure renewal and begin to contemplate seeking promotion to full professor — I have to confess that I find myself less and less concerned about the larger academy and its expectations and more interested in how education can serve the purposes of Christ and help to renew his disciples and his Church. I suspect that echoes of Confessing History will show up in several of my tenure and promotion essays, as I try to work through how teaching, service, and scholarship play out “beneath the eye and at the hand of the God of Christian faith.”

2 thoughts on “Confessing History: Introduction

  1. I wonder if your claim about the Pietist tradition (do Pietists tolerate the notion that they have a tradition?) “the Pietist tradition, which prizes experience, feeling, and praxis over belief and seeks the conversion of the whole person — heart and hands, as well as head” gives a mistaken impression of its intended opponent, the Reformed tradition. Abraham Kuyper’s famous claim that there is not one square inch of the entire creation over which God does not declare “Mine!” together with his understanding of the cultural mandate strongly suggest that conversion extends to heart and hands and, in a way that the Pietist tradition might not address, every part of the good creation that has been infected by sin. Given that, there are good grounds for thinking the Reformed-Kuyperian tradition has a more expansive understanding of conversion, of reconciling or restoring or redeeming broken things for good to God. So if you want to get into a watermelon seed spitting contest (your Pietist seed, others R-K seed), I think you wouldn’t win. At best you might tie.

    1. First, I don’t mean to suggest that the Reformed tradition cares nothing for conversion — as Marsden himself writes in Outrageous, there’s a difference between something being “distinctive” and “unique.” I’d argue that a distinctive emphasis of Pietism is its concern for convertive piety as something apart from (not necessarily opposed to) intellectual affirmation. That doesn’t mean the Reformed tradition can’t also support conversionism, since many within it clearly do. No doubt we Pietists have our own shortcomings that would keep our seed from flying as far as it should. That said, I don’t think I’m suggesting anything about the Reformed-Kuyperian tradition that some of those raised within it (and in a better position to judge) haven’t already argued — cf. J.K.A. Smith.

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