The Vocation of a Christian Historian: Seeking and Telling Truth

Perhaps no book has done more to make me think anew about my vocation as a Christian historian than Confessing History (Univ. of Notre Dame Press). So as I sought points of entry for discussing that topic in my promotion essay, I took some inspiration from a piece in the January/February 2012 issue of Books and Culture that featured each of that book’s three editors attempting a concise answer to the question, “So What Is the Historian’s Vocation?

Eric MillerEric Miller’s response seemed like the right place to start:

I take the historian’s vocation to center on telling the deepest truth possible about the past.

As Miller instantly added, such a claim is at once “self-evident and fraught,” and I spent a few lines explaining to readers from other disciplines why the second adjective is there: the fragmentary quality of historical evidence; our endless debates of the reliability of what little we do have; our distrust of grand theories; our inability to conduct experiments within time and space like biologists do within petri dishes… To say nothing of our ancient debate about the possibility of objectively knowing anything. And yet, world historian Peter Stearns can still claim that history

offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives…. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.

“For most historians,” I concluded, “this is the ‘deepest,’ and hardest, truth we tell: the difference between humanity as it perceives itself and humanity as it actually was (and is). And often we accomplish this best on a small scale: telling the truth one story at a time….”

Except that, for historians who are Christian, seeking and telling truth is not a purely humanistic enterprise. I wrote in the essay:

We affirm that the Creator reveals himself in the work of creation — space, but also time — and that He through whom all that we study came into being broke into history as the Word made flesh, remains active in finite time as resurrected Lord, and will come again, at the end of time, as Judge. So there is (as Aslan might say) a still deeper truth for Christian historians: if we study the past, we are ultimately seeking God; and if we experience that deep gladness of which [Frederick] Buechner spoke, then we have found Him.

(I might also have added that even to the extent that, to paraphrase Alexander Pope, humanity’s proper study is humanity, Christian historians believe that people are both physical and spiritual creatures, and the latter quality of humanity might both affect “how societies function” and lie beyond the scope of historians’ time/space-bound inquiries. I’m enough of a Platonist to believe that there is truth not to be found in this realm; alas, I fear we need theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, inter alia, to supplement that “extensive evidential base” provided by history.)

So as I reflected on the vocation of seeking truth in the past (the telling of it will be the feature of my final post in this series), it seemed that there were at least five distinctive implications of that vocation as a Christian calling.

The first and fifth bookended the discussion, and I’ve written enough on them elsewhere that I won’t dwell much longer here. First, that seeking truth in the past is a form of piety, a religious act of devotion (I suggested analogies to the spiritual discipline of study as practiced by desert monastics, or to the medieval scholastic notion of learning as an act of worship, or Thomas Aquinas’ quest for the “beatific vision”). If so, not just the second, but the first verse of Romans 12 are crucial for any Christian academic:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2, NRSV)

Then I came back to this theme by closing with a thesis that I explored again just yesterday: that when Christians seek truth, they are not seeking a rational abstraction, but the living, triune person of the God that Pascal described in no. 555 of the Pensées:

Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) – Wikimedia

…not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements; that is the view of heathens and Epicureans…. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Christians, is a God of love and of comfort, a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom He possesses, a God who makes them conscious of their inward wretchedness, and His infinite mercy, who unites Himself to their inmost soul, who fills it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, who renders them incapable of any other end than Himself.

So, I concluded, “The call to seek truth is ultimately the call to love God with all one’s mind (Mark 12:30).”

It’s a completely non-original observation, but I’m okay with that, since I’m less and less sure that innovation is really the calling of a scholar. The second theme I discussed was that Christian historians are engaged less in the discovery of truth than its recovery. (Which then implies, as I’ll discuss in the final post, that historians might concern themselves less with the production of knowledge than its transmission.) Not that “original research” is not valuable — it can answer both the gladness and need voices of Buechner’s definition of vocation — but I fear that the value can be overwhelmed by a kind of scholarly delusion produced by the modern fascination with “originality” and “discovery.” It comes across well in former AHA president William Cronon’s description of the crucial turn in most any conversation between historians feeling each other out:

“What are you working on now?” signals an eagerness on the part of the would-be conversationalists to turn to the subjects they really care about—the findings and arguments and insights that they regard as the heart of their shared profession.

We all know what is expected for the answer: a report on our latest research. What new documents have we been discovering? What new methods are we using? What new questions are we asking? What new article are we about to publish? What new book are we working on? The recurrence of the adjective “new” in these questions is an obvious reason we’re drawn to this topic, since we all feel a thrill of excitement at the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unexpected. We like to think about things we haven’t thought about before, and we like even more to think that things we have thought about before may not quite be what we imagined. We like also to be at the cutting edge, to be among the first to know new things so that we ourselves can talk about them in subsequent conversations when colleagues and students ask what’s going on in our field.

I don’t know if there’s truly nothing new under the sun, but I do know, as I wrote in my essay, that “we historians are no more discovering the past than Columbus ‘discovered’ Hispaniola. At most, we are recovering the forgotten, incomplete remains produced by historical processes. When we come across a new source, we should imagine ourselves blowing dust off of something that is new to us, but was once intimately familiar to someone else.” Or perhaps we are adding a layer of reinterpretation, but even there we’re most likely standing on the shoulders of others.

Columbus "discovers" the Americas
1893 image of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Americas – Wikimedia

Here I shared Tracy McKenzie’s concern (expressed in his 2012 presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History) that a preoccupation with newness can have a disintegrative effect on knowledge:

As we all know, the “publish or perish” climate—now even creeping into CCCU institutions—places a premium on innovation and propels us, especially at the beginning of our careers, toward ever more esoteric and inconsequential projects as we search for that elusive “original contribution to the literature.”

Rather than abetting modern tendencies (here too, I found Mark Schwehn’s critique of Max Weber helpful) to seek mastery of ever smaller, more balkanized fields of knowledge, I’d hope that Christian historians would instead incline towards the older Christian belief in the unity of all truth (it all being God’s truth) and emphasize what Ernest Boyer called the “scholarship of integration” (“making connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in larger context, illuminating data in a revealing way, often educating nonspecialists, too” — Scholarship Reconsidered, p. 18).

Finally — and here I suspect I’ll lose at least some of you — I argued that Christian historians recognize a moral dimension to truth-seeking. Here let me reproduce a chunk of my essay:

On the one hand, the “rules of the game” push Christian historians to confine themselves to what is empirically verifiable or falsifiable. But at some point we must acknowledge that we are called to seek the past not only (as in the classic formulation of the 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke) “as it actually was,” but “as it could have been” — or even, “as it should have been.” I do not mean to suggest that Christian historians ought to spin their mental wheels on untestable counterfactuals, but that they recognize that the historic reality they seek to recover took place within sin-ravaged time and space and fell short of God’s good intentions. Existentially, we all know this: we cannot hear the stones crunch beneath our feet on a cold morning at Dachau or darken the door of the slaves’ quarters at Williamsburg without knowing that this was not as it should have been.

Browning, Ordinary MenAt the same time, historians know that the past “as it should have been” is even more elusive than the past “as it actually was.” While the resources of Scripture and centuries of Christian ethical reflection can shape a moral imagination that has some capacity to fill in the gaps between “was” and “ought,” moral truth is as likely to lead to paradox as clarity. Few doubt, for example, the evil of the Holocaust, but as the students in my upper-division survey of modern European history have learned reading Christopher Browning’s study of German participants in the Final Solution, casting moral judgments of guilt and responsibility raises uncomfortable questions: When these “ordinary men” killed Jews, was it because of particular factors like the anti-Semitism embedded in German culture or the dehumanizing effects of Nazi indoctrination? Or was it because of more universal human impulses like deference to authority, desire for approval, or our sheer insensitivity to the pain of others? And so, would we have acted differently?

Hard as they are, it would seem impossible to expect historians not to ask such questions. As Gordon College’s Tal Howard writes [in the aforementioned Confessing History collection], “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.” [p. 92]

For an exploration of what this might look like for historians, see my late December 2012 post on the “problem of evil,” where I borrowed McKenzie’s notion of “moral reflection” (as opposed to “moral judgment”).

I think the moral and integrative implications of a Christian vocation of seeking truth in the past have the added benefit of pushing historians away from what McKenzie called “scholarship for scholars,” and towards a kind of truth-telling that serves a much wider audience. I’ll explore that connection when I conclude this series next week.

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