Confessing History: Theory and Method

Fea, Green & Miller, eds., Confessing HistoryToday I’ll come back to 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). I should reiterate that I read the book alongside my students in HIS499 Senior Seminar, the capstone course for History majors at Bethel University. The course is primarily about completing a significant work of original research, but once those projects are well underway we dedicate some seminar discussion time to the methodology and philosophy of history, with significant attention to what it means for Christians to practice that academic discipline. We spent four Monday nights taking turns presenting different chapters in Confessing History, and students wrote reflections on the book at various points in their ongoing “seminar journal” assignment.

I’ve posted a few of those entries over at our department blog, and will also share some student reactions in this post on the book’s second part, “Theory and Method.” We’ll focus on two of the chapters that my students chose to present (plus the one that I picked). Which means, unfortunately, that we’ll hear neither Will Katerberg nor Michael Kugler reflect on objectivity — though, knowing each scholar a bit, I’m sure those are excellent pieces in their own right. And while many of my students enjoyed Bradley Gundlach’s reflection “On Assimilating the Moral Insights of the Secular Academy,” I’m going to skip over it for space and simply recommend you read this journal entry, by a student inspired by Gundlach to reflect on what he had learned from non-Christians while studying in Ghana.

(I will add that, for all its virtues, it would have been well for this book had more of its authors assimilated one particular insight from one of the secular thinkers admired by Gundlach: Christopher Lasch, who “advocates what he calls ‘plain style’ in academic writing, so that no highbrow/lowbrow distinction might intrude to sever the public from the intellectual,” p. 159. The many intellectual and religious historians featured in this volume rarely take this advice, which may be fine for the professional historians who make up the primary audience of the book, but made sections of it very tough going for undergraduate history majors, most of whom will never attend graduate school in that field. As we’ll see in the next post, students got the most out of the book’s third section in no small part because much of it was written in something more like Lasch’s “plain style.”)

Regrettably setting Gundlach, Katerberg, and Kugler to the side, we’ll start with the chapter that provoked the most loathing among my students (and me, to be candid): Christopher Shannon’s “After Monographs: A Critique of Christian Scholarship as Professional Practice.” A modified version of the plenary talk he presented at the 2002 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, Shannon’s contribution admittedly fits with the editors’ stated desire to find “something beyond the current consensus” represented by George Marsden’s call for Christian scholars to both “play by the rules” of the secular academy and intentionally reflect on the significance of their Christian beliefs in the process. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a model any less like Marsden’s…

Shannon starts innocently enough by critiquing (as so many others have) the fact that historians are often expected to “publish or perish” by churning out scholarly monographs to be read by tiny audiences, mostly fellow professors:

The “big table” at which Marsden wishes to secure for Christians a seat is less a forum for discussion than a factory for production. The price of admission is a deep commitment to the moral necessity of feeding the monograph machine. (p. 169)

No argument with that: I’m ten years into my career and have ever-decreasing interest in producing this type of literature. (The most liberating moment in that career came when I decided to simply shelve my dissertation — already available to those who want it — rather than try to turn a project in which I had little remaining interest into a manuscript just different enough to get published by a university press.)

Christopher Shannon
Christopher Shannon – Christendom College

But it soon becomes clear that Shannon’s problem is not so much with the idea that historians write monographs, but that (in his opinion) they write monographs dedicated to promoting (via increasingly trivial topics) one liberal idea: that human beings are — or ought to be — autonomous. Even “stories of failure confirm autonomy as a value.” Trouble is, according to Shannon, autonomy is not a Christian value (that claim, and the quotation preceding it, from p. 175).

I’m not going to try to reproduce Shannon’s argument, which is sophisticated if fundamentally wrongheaded. Let me just skip ahead to his conclusion that “Christian historians ought to read and teach the best of these monographs as reflections on the irony of human agency, but human agency cannot be at the center of Christian history. That privileged place belongs to God” (p. 180).

As a consequence of this unabashedly providentialist approach to history (really, theology), Shannon moves from a critique of the monograph into a call for an overhaul of the undergraduate history curriculum: abandoning any pretense of objectivity and emphasizing rote memorization of “the Christian story, a very partisan story whose telling would vary with the denominational context in which it is taught” (pp. 180-81).

Rather than have me respond to all this, let me first share my students’ reactions when I pulled up the YouTube video introducing Shannon’s own department: at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.

I’m not sure to what extent Christopher Shannon constructed or shaped this curriculum, or how much it has shaped his thinking (he’s mentioned but not featured in the video), but it certainly fits with the notion of “a very partisan history.” On that basis, I guess one should expect a Roman Catholic school of a particularly conservative stripe (“Christendom” College, remember) to offer a Renaissance-Reformation course that includes as a primary theme “Catholic responses to the heresy of salvation by faith alone,” and a John Paul II course (one of several just on papal history) that uses George Weigel’s biography as its text. But as my students immediately complained, there’s nothing offered from the Global South past the experience of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Western Hemisphere. Which is passing strange given the current make-up of the Roman Catholic Church, about 60% of whose adherents live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

But perhaps I digress… The best way to respond to such provocations is simply to turn to the next chapter, in which Messiah College professor Jim LaGrand calmly rejects virtually every element of Shannon’s proposal. The chapter is entitled “The Problems of Preaching through History,” so you can imagine how LaGrand would respond to a call for undergraduate curricula to tell a “very partisan story” that takes the study of God’s actions in the world as its center. Like Shannon, LaGrand appeals to Augustine: not in search of a pre-Reformation, pre-modern interpretive tradition, but for the reminder “to resist conflating the ‘things of God’ with the ‘things of humans.’ We know that God acts, and we see examples of God’s providence around us. But in looking at the sweep of human history wearing the lenses we have on this side of the final day of judgment, we should not try to do providential history” (p. 197).

Instead, we should draw on the tradition of Christian humanism

as a way also to support and defend the idea that Christians can confidently and faithfully do history as history. For Christian humanism rejects the idea that human history—or any other sphere of human culture—is inherently and strictly worldly. This conviction stems from the implications of human beings made in the image of God and of God taking human form, the imago dei and the Incarnation. (p. 209)

Jim LaGrand
James B. LaGrand – Messiah College

LaGrand, then, finds a great deal of value in placing the study of humans in time at the center of Christian history. And while he is critical of “preaching” historians like Charles Marsh who construct heroic, moralistic narratives of expanding human autonomy, LaGrand would reject Shannon’s rejection of human agency as an appropriate field for study: it is human choices (not all of which are to be celebrated, or lamented) that make history as complex, and in need of careful study, as it is.

My students were far more taken with LaGrand’s approach, since they shuddered at the idea of a professor “focusing first and foremost on a political agenda” (p. 191) rather than letting students arrive at their own conclusions through reading, discussion, and research. Here’s a journal entry by one student who was fully on board with LaGrand’s critique of preaching.

At the same time, most students expected some degree of “preaching” in the classroom; they wanted their teachers neither to force an interpretation down their throats nor to leave their own convictions completely hidden. (I wonder here what LaGrand would say if “preaching” were defined in a different fashion: not so much as the pushing of a political agenda, but as the proclamation — in some fashion — of the Gospel…)

That squares with my own approach… Perhaps my favorite moment in my tenure interview was when our provost read an alumna’s comment that she took several courses from me and still wasn’t entirely sure if I was a Democrat or Republican. (I hope that’s true for readers of this blog as well; it’s one reason that I include stories from sources as diverse as First Things and Sojourners in my Saturday links posts.) I tend to emphasize empathy as one of the most significant skills for historians to cultivate, and even encourage my Modern Europe students to ask if Hitler and Stalin and those who carried out their murderous plans were worse sinners than they.

At the same time, I’ve also been told that I play the “preacher” role on our Western Civ/church history teaching team. And I think that’s because, at the end of the day, I fundamentally agree with this statement from Thomas Albert Howard’s chapter, entitled “Virtue Ethics and Historical Inquiry: The Case of Prudence”:

We are not, and can never be, in Nietzsche’s felicitous phrase, “spoiled idlers in the garden of knowledge” but are always already participants in “life”— a wonderful, tragic, complex, hopeful moral life.

Tal Howard
Thomas Albert Howard – Gordon College

For this reason, I am persuaded that one commonplace approach to historical instruction is especially problematic. It goes something like this: we should present students with all sides of a particular issue and then let students decide for themselves. If one were to define this as the penultimate goal of historical learning, I might agree. But it cannot stand as the ultimate. Instead, I think it’s our obligation to press students even further, to engage and not trivialize their moral imaginations, to kindle their capacities of moral reasoning, to escort ethical reflection, with lavish pomp and circumstance, from its post-Rankean exile right back into the heart of the history classroom. What moral options would a Polish Catholic bishop have vis-à-vis secret police agents during the Cold War? Did Dietrich Bonhoeffer obey a moral injunction in supporting Hitler’s assassination? Do reenactors of historical battles unwittingly glorify war? Why is there a Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., and not one dedicated to the institution of American slavery? Does the conservatism of Edmund Burke provide cover for the persistence of unjust institutions and practices? Can progressive mantras like toleration and equality often mask a ruthless quest for institutional and political power? What are the right, the most compelling, the most searchingly honest, answers to these questions? We are not “trespassing” into philosophy, but treating our students (and ourselves) as moral agents, when we ask them at least to broach and wrestle with the normative questions that historical inquiry inevitably raises. (pp. 92-93, italics original)

I think this is exactly what I do that earns me the “preaching” label: I tend (even in that 100-level Western Civ course) to spend relatively little time dispensing information, and focus more on framing interpretive problems and complex questions that treat students as “moral agents.” I suggest answers, but never just one and never under the heading of “This is my answer.” I think the important thing is to be transparent enough to model for students the importance (and agony) of wrestling with such questions while keeping one’s own opinions hidden enough to permit students to feel safe in advancing their own ideas.

So, not surprisingly, I bought into Howard’s larger point: that historians ought to pursue the virtue of prudence (and the other cardinal and theological virtues). Prudence he defines, by way of Josef Pieper, as seeking to “transform… knowledge of reality into the accomplishment of the good. It encompasses the humility of silence, i.e., unbiased understanding, memory’s faithfulness to being, the art of letting things speak for themselves, the alert composure before the unexpected. Prudence means hesitant seriousness…, the filter of reflection, and yet also the daring courage for definitive resolution” (p. 91, italics original). Neither thoughtlessness nor irresolution, prudence requires historians, first, to “[strive] to constrain one’s own assumptions and prejudices from distorting the truth” and to leave oneself open to new evidence and conclusions, but second, to recognize “that we live in a moral universe and there are no sidelines” (pp. 91-92). Prudent historians ought neither to “[tumble] uselessly into futility, into moral paralysis or jaded amoral sophistication” nor to refuse “to acknowledge the full complexity of the past” or “to construct narratives of history that promote one’s own desired future” (p. 93).

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