Providence, Irony, and Moral Reflection: Historians Confront Evil

Even two weeks later, I don’t think I have much to say about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that hasn’t been said already, and better than I could say it. But such tragedies are on my mind today for another reason: this fourth day of Christmas is the same day that Western Christians have traditionally remembered the horrific event that follows the apostle Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Jay Case has a nice reflection today on the value of such liturgical commemoration.)

The so-called “Massacre of the Innocents” follows from the ruler Herod learning — via the visit of the Magi — that the birth of a boy in Bethlehem may have fulfilled a messianic prophecy from Micah. He responds with a decree of breathtaking cruelty. It fails in its intended purpose, but succeeds in killing untold numbers of children:

Scream from Ramah stamp
Stamp issued in 2001 by the Faroe Islands depicting the “Scream from Ramah” – Wikimedia

Now after [the Magi] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.” (Matt 2:13-18)

In the most general sense, such massacres (or the action by the Egyptian pharaoh that prefigured Herod’s murders) are well within my professional sphere. They took place within history and left historical evidence (however fragmentary and ephemeral, even for recent events like Newtown). So at some point in the future (however near or distant), questions of what happened, why, and perhaps what a massacre of innocents like Newtown meant can and should be answered by historians, humbly and prudently.

Sandy Hook memorial
Sandy Hook memorial in Newtown – Voice of America

Fortunately, I’m not a specialist in the histories of school shootings, Connecticut, or even the United States, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be obliged to write or teach about December 14, 2012 all that often. (Let alone events recorded in the Old or New Testament.) But I do teach the methods and philosophy of history to upper-level students, once or twice using these words from Peter Charles Hoffer:

Historians know all about evil. Our subject is a primer of it. The evil that individuals, groups, and nations do to one another, and to themselves, the casual evil of neglect, the fierce evil of discrimination, the almost incomprehensible evil of genocide are the stuff of history….

Setting aside for a moment the arguments for and against providential history, immoral evil choices are the historical acts of real people in real time. Whatever the historian’s own religious beliefs, evil is not just a problem for the religiously observant historian. It must be addressed in any modern philosophy of history, for too much is at stake today in the way history is used to make and defend far-reaching policies for any of us to ignore the problem of evil. (The Historian’s Paradox, p. 163)

Hoffer, The Historian's ParadoxHoffer is reacting against David Hackett Fischer’s claim that introducing moral opinions (the “moralistic fallacy”) into what’s meant to be “serious and disciplined empirical inquiry into what actually happened” would reduce history to “a handmaid of moral philosophy” (Historians’ Fallacies, p. 78). And Hoffer acknowledges the reasons for such reticence. Reading imperious exhortations from the likes of Lord Acton — “suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong” — is enough to make any postmodern historian run screaming. At the very least, Hoffer muses (following Marc Bloch) that we might have enough awareness and empathy to admit that “what may appear evil to us did not necessarily appear evil to our predecessors” (p. 165).

Yet Hoffer also warns that if the quest for objectivity led to moral relativism, it risked “a form of historical amnesia, or worse, delusion” (p. 167 — for example, he writes at some length about Holocaust denier David Irving and his lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt). And if “seeing no evil” is an unacceptable response to the existence of evil within history, so too is “finding silver linings,” such as the way that the Crusades indirectly promoted commerce and the exchange of ideas between Orient and Occident: “Recasting events in this way, jiggling time frames, ignoring immediate human costs, and evading ‘what might have been’ make it easier to swallow the bitter pill of our inhumanity to one another” (p. 169).

Hoffer thinks that any historian should, at some level, grapple with the problem of evil, but suspects that it is “particularly vexing” for the “dwindling [sic?] number of genuinely devout historians” who must ask themselves: if the God in whom they believe is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, and he loves humanity and wants good for it, why does evil have existence? Hoffer briefly sketches the history of Christian theodicy — Augustine’s doctrine of original sin (Hoffer doesn’t deal with Augustine’s embrace of the neo-Platonists’ redefinition of evil as the “absence of good”) and Calvinist belief in predestination — but acknowledges that those religious historians who are themselves religious tend to reject providentialist explanations (e.g., George Marsden).

Refusing to attempt to read the mind of God as they encounter historic evil, they are left (as Hoffer casts it) with this response to the problem of evil:

Historians face evil in its plainest garb. But taking providence out of the story of our past reduces evil to more recognizable dimensions. It is us. History, free of the brooding omnipresence of a superhuman evil, shows that evil is our own doing. History also demonstrates that we are capable of mastering our aggressive and hurtful urges. Standing naked like this, without the garments of divine origin and the promise of heavenly afterlife, human history is an even grander subject—and a more frightening one to many. (p. 175)

On one level, this response is utterly unhelpful for the “genuinely devout historian.” As one (or so I like to think), I would instead affirm that it is precisely our divine origins as children of God made in His image that makes humanity and its history worthy of study — and that makes evils like Newtown so heartbreaking. And it is the promise of resurrection (though I believe in the hope of “a new heaven and a new earth,” not just escaping to an other-worldly afterlife) that makes it possible for historians to have hope — not the supposed capacity of humans to master their sin.

But Hoffer’s replacement for providence — irony — does point to some important insights about the limitations and strengths of history. Recounting a scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life in which the Grim Reaper comes to claim the members of a dinner party, via some mousse made with bad canned salmon, Hoffer closes with the punchline, from a guest named Debbie: “Hey, I didn’t even eat the mousse.”

And so he concludes:

The lesson is plain—not everything is going to be explained. It is in that gap between our partial knowledge, no matter how diligently we pursue our researches, and the vast detail of the historical past, the gap into which Debbie’s death falls, that we find the problem of evil. If we knew more, perhaps we would understand why certain people and certain groups came to decide to do evil. Such knowledge would not cure the past harm and might not even palliate it, but it would explain. And that, for us, would be enough.

Such universal and detailed knowledge is beyond the historian’s ken. It may be in God’s mind, but it will never be in ours. We must content ourselves with the recognition that we have chosen a field of study that will sometimes make us almost unutterably sad and other times shaking with fury. The recognition of the irony of history will remind us of our own limitations and will make us humble. We will celebrate justice when we see it in our researches and welcome charitable acts when we can chronicle them. (p. 177)


It’s not a bad answer, as these things go — and perhaps the one most likely to achieve a satisfactory consensus within the pluralistic academy. If nothing else, any philosophy of history that recognizes the gap between the past “as it actually was” and the past that we can actually know can’t be all that bad.

Tracy McKenzie
Robert Tracy McKenzie – Wheaton College

But I think there is a way to take a step further that doesn’t simply sigh “Ah, irony” or require the hubris of claiming to know the mind of God. It was suggested by Robert Tracy McKenzie this past October in his remarkable presidential address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (a gathering of Hoffer’s “dwindling number of genuinely devout historians” going strong after nearly half a century).

Observing that Christian historians seem to have embraced the discipline’s preoccupation with causation, McKenzie sketched a dilemma: “We must either claim to see God’s precise purposes in history—something most of us view as theologically problematic—or else see pretty much what our unbelieving colleagues see. Our options, in other words, are between the theologically indefensible on the one hand and the substantively indistinguishable on the other.” (Dr. McKenzie was kind enough to provide me a copy of his text, which I found myself quoting extensively as I wrote my own essay on vocation over break. I’m sure it — McKenzie’s address, not my essay — will appear soon in an issue of Fides et Historia.) As a way out of this impasse (and as a way to better reach the church — the main point of his speech), McKenzie suggested that we shift focus somewhat from causative to evaluative questions: “It is in providing a perspective on meaning, not on causation, that our Christian faith can contribute most concretely, substantively, and distinctively.”

What this looks like will vary by historian, but McKenzie professed himself “most excited by the possibilities for explicit moral inquiry.  Academic historians have been quick to condemn moral judgment while ignoring the possibilities for moral reflection.” And lest we find ourselves back in the grip of the “moralistic fallacy” of Fischer’s, McKenzie carefully distinguished between “moral judgment” and “moral reflection”:

Moral judgment, as I define it, is directed outward, as we strive to understand the world around us, while moral reflection is directed inward, as we attempt to understand ourselves.  As applied to history, we engage in moral judgment when we use our critical faculties to determine the guilt or rectitude of people from the past.  In contrast, we approach history as a medium for moral reflection when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, when we figuratively resurrect the dead and allow their words and actions “to put our own lives to the test.”  Moral reflection examines the heart, requires both ourselves and our audiences to do “inner work,” and provides a framework for conversation “about what we should value and how we should live.”

More than Puritan providentialism, the high-handed moralism of an Acton, the moderns’ quixotic quest for pure objectivity, or Hoffer’s embrace of irony, I find McKenzie’s avenue of “moral reflection” most promising as a response to encountering evil in history. I can’t explain what caused Newtown, and I’m not Adam Lanza’s eternal judge. But I can certainly draw on the past to ask myself, my students, and my readers what we value and how we should live.

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