Confessing History: Identity

Fea, Green & Miller, eds., Confessing HistoryToday I’ll continue my series on Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, eds. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (University of Notre Dame Press) with a look at the book’s first part: a set of three chapters on what Miller (in his introduction) calls “that preeminently postmodern category and concern, identity.” Mark Schwehn’s reflection on the path that led him to study American intellectual history, Una Cadegan’s reexamination of the old cliche that “all scholarship is autobiography,” and Beth Barton Schweiger’s meditation on what love of neighbor means for Christian historians studying people who are deceased all “[center] on deeply personal reckonings with the standards, practices, and ideals of the historical profession, and with the broad historical circumstance of American intellectual life itself” (p. 10).

They also introduce several themes that will recur throughout the book, themes around which I’ll organize this post (less a summary than a selective reflection):

A “big tent” approach to Christian scholarship

As I glancingly addressed in my first post, much of the recent scholarly reflection on Christian faith and learning has come from those in the Reformed tradition of Protestantism. I fear that a former colleague was right in suggesting that I was too dismissive of that perspective, which has been such a force for good in American religious, intellectual, and cultural history. I was reminded of that this afternoon, when I opened the new issue of Books & Culture to read Joel Carpenter’s appreciation of The Reformed Journal. That periodical closed its run over twenty years ago, but — as Carpenter tells it — the wonderful B&C was created in large part to continue the rich, witty, winsome, even playful “conversation on paper” that RJ sustained for forty years.

Still, I appreciated that Confessing History is written with us non-Reformed Christians in mind (as one of its editors acknowledged in kindly mentioning my series on his own blog). While Reformed scholars like the estimable former editor of Fides et Historia, William Katerberg (Calvin College), are part of the conversation, it’s telling that the section on “identity” features, respectively, the provost of a Lutheran university, a Catholic historian reflecting on how American Protestant elites marginalized her own tradition, and an Anglican who, in her choice of supporting quotations, reminds us that we should welcome Rowan Williams’ return to the academy.

Christian scholars’ complex relationship with the secular academy

These authors remind us that — as George Marsden noted in the same book against whose model for Christian scholarship much of this collection is pushing back — there are many in the academy who would find the idea of Christian (or most any religiously motivated or shaped) scholarship to be “outrageous.” Una Cadegan (U. Dayton) tells of her early years in graduate school, her “first experience outside Catholic education since kindergarten.

Una Cadegan
Una M. Cadegan – University of Dayton

I probably should have expected some significant challenge to my worldview, but I was taken almost entirely by surprise. In particular, I found exceedingly strange how exceedingly strange the people around me found the continued practice of religion. It was my first encounter with one of the foundational assumptions of the modern academy—the disenchantment of the world. (p. 40)

Struggling with a second-year course on postmodernist literary theory that seemed shot through with “the rejection of traditional religious belief and practice in any form,” Cadegan approached the professor — “Hoping for some advice on… how to make my way into a conversation that interested me but didn’t seem to have any room for me…” But instead of “generic reassurance,” she was told that the course “was moving in the direction that it was moving, and if I wasn’t interested in that direction I was free to drop it.” That and a suggestion to read Walter Ong, “the only person [the professor] was aware of in the field of literary studies who had maintained a religious perspective and yet earned wide respect as a scholar….”

Ultimately then, Cadegan appreciated the bracing honesty of the professor and the “new clarity” it yielded:

If I was going to be a scholar in the company of these people who so dazzled me even as they were shaking the foundation of my beliefs, and the same time maintain the religious identity that was too central to who I am to imagine relinquishing it, it was up to me to take responsibility for working out how they could fit together. Clarity about a task does not automatically provide skill or peace of mind in performing it, and I had little of either for the rest of that year. But what I did  and do have was an intellectual project that is still preoccupying me, both explicitly and in the background of almost everything else I do as an historian. It is at once the most abstract and dense theological problem—the implications of the Incarnation for understanding human life on earth—and the most pragmatic evidentiary and methodological task. (pp. 43-44)

Meanwhile, Mark Schwehn (Valparaiso) recalled that he discerned his calling as an intellectual historian partly by his undergraduate experience in the classroom of a former seminarian-turned-philosophy professor who “became a resolute logical positivist” studying with A.J. Ayer at Oxford. Schwehn ended up spending half his undergraduate education “studying with a man who longed to believe with every fiber of his being but who could not bring himself to do so any longer because he believed that the logical positivists had shown conclusively that religious language was meaningless.” With the result that, for the first time in Schwehn’s life,

Mark Schwehn
Mark R. Schwehn – Valparaiso University

the life of the mind was not an exercise in puzzle solving. It had taken on a real existential edge. Ideas really mattered in a profoundly personal sense. And I found myself on a crusade of sorts. I was determined to refute positivism for myself, because it had begun to erode what I then took to be the foundations of my own faith, and for my teacher, because I sensed that if I could prove A.J. Ayer wrong, I might save my teacher’s soul! (pp. 28-29)

As a graduate student, Schwehn ended up continuing the argument “by means of history rather than by means of philosophy,” studying Henry Adams, William James, and other American intellectuals both seduced and repulsed by scientism.

So we’ll see such interaction again and again in this volume, as contributors (many of them — perhaps too heavily skewed in this direction — historians of ideas and beliefs) reflect on what it means to maintain a Christian identity in a secularized academy. Some (we’ll talk about Christopher Shannon’s radical suggestions next week) end up rejecting almost every assumption of secular academe, while others cherish the insights they glean from non-believers (and Michael Kugler, in the next section, will defend the Enlightenment itself as being more complex than an “arid” retreat from faith into rationalism).

Christian scholarship as being shaped by practice and experience at least as much as beliefs

More than any other contributor I’ve read so far, Mark Schwehn defends the Marsden “play by the rules” approach to Christian scholarship. Agreeing with historian David Hollinger that “the value, the persuasiveness, and the intellectual merit of my work should be exclusively determined by the standards of the historical profession, not with reference to my faith,” even as such standards may change with time, Schwehn argues that

…we dare not allow special pleading based on race, class, gender, national origin, or religion when it comes to assessing the quality of someone’s scholarship. And we dare not permit as warrants for historical claims allegations of special divine revelation, appeals to divine providence, or the formal approval of ecclesiastical bodies. The context of justification, the proper social location for the appraisal of my work as an historian, is the profession itself, not the church, not the church-related university, and not a band of believers who claim epistemic privilege on the basis of religious affiliation. (p. 32)

At least a couple of these claims will soon be challenged, but I credit the editors for including such a straightforward defense of a model of scholarship that they seek to challenge.

Nonetheless, Schwehn then proceeds to reflect on the implications of his faith for his scholarship not by discussing the “control beliefs” that shape his questions and interpretations (as Marsden emphasizes in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship), but by pointing out how “my work was and remains consistently strengthened by the practice of my Christian faith” (emphasis mine). Specifically: (1) as Schwehn argued in his popular book Exiles from Eden, Christian practices (“and the work of the Holy Spirit”) cultivated virtues like humility and love that spilled into his vocation as a historian (e.g., by causing him “to balance a hermeneutics of suspicion with a hermeneutics of care or caritas“); and (2) by recasting “objectivity” as an “ascetic discipline” with Christian roots, one “whereby we seek to incorporate as many different perspectives into our thinking and our writing as we can” (pp. 33-34).

In the book’s next section, Tal Howard will develop the implications of “virtue ethics” for historical scholarship more fully, but Beth Barton Schweiger (U. Arkansas) here delves deeply into one of the cardinal virtues for Christians: love. Explaining that “To write history is, for me, to make a relationship with the dead,” Schweiger ponders what it means for the Christian historian, then, to embrace “the necessity of loving” one’s dead subjects when such love seems to be rendered impossible on two counts: first, “How can I love people whom I have never met?”; second, “the stunning imbalance of power between historian and subject,” the former able to use the latter for her own “purposes… pleasures… professional gain” (pp. 61-62).

I’ll leave you to read her grapplings with those problems. But in any event, Schweiger believes that the challenging of loving one’s research subjects should push Christians

to envision history as a spiritual as well as a critical discipline, and to allow those about whom we write and the peculiar intellectual disciplines of our craft to change us. Instead of using the dead to gain leverage over the past or traction in the profession, the discipline of history can be a means of grace in the life of the historian. The writing of history, rightly done, can challenge and change the historian. (pp. 62-63)

So, and more than the first two chapters in this section, Schweiger’s proposal points to the kind of radical rethinking of professionalized history that the editors intend. One that recognizes that even history played according to the academy’s rules can fail to follow Jesus’ admonition to love others as ourselves, if it keeps the historian in a position of power rather than leaving her open to personal transformation.

Schweiger closes, then, by seeking to disentangle profession from vocation. Taught by graduate schools to be both intellectually curious and arrogant, clear-thinking and overly critical, skillful and cynical (this comes from a passage I quoted last week on our department blog), those Christians called to the life of scholarship can easily acquire a “stable [professional] identity that hinders Christian practice.” To Schweiger, professionalism promotes the notion that, as experts, historians are more intelligent and more powerful than their subjects, leaving little room for mercy or wisdom, let alone love.

Inspired by Miroslav Volf’s “theology of embrace,” Schweiger proposes that Christian historians seek an “unstable identity” that leaves them both “distant to the culture of professional history and yet [belonging] to it” (p. 75). She would have us pursue our passion for studying the past while prioritizing relationships with those dead (subjects) and living (peers, students, family).

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