The Two (or Three) Why’s of History

Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett – Minnesota Public Radio

I’m afraid this post started off taking me in directions I hadn’t expected. Part of me would like to polish it further, but in the spirit of blogging as “thinking aloud,” I’ll hope that it hangs together enough to make some sense…

Last Friday I enjoyed hearing a convocation talk at Bethel by journalist Krista Tippett, host of the acclaimed public radio program On Being. Her talk drew on her recent book, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, and while I’m not one of those historians who considers our discipline a science, what she had to say did spark a couple of thoughts about the nature of what historians do.

In a follow-up post I’ll reflect on history as listening; today, I’ll start with Tippett’s conversation with Hindu physicist Varadaraja V. Raman, in which the centrality of art to his religion prompted this observation from her:

This overarching regard for beauty is not unrelated to the fact that Hinduism has historically avoided a point-counterpoint between science and religion. It is a reflection of a core Hindu insight that multiple forms of knowledge have a place in human life. In V. V. Raman’s mother tongue of Tamil, language itself distinguishes between the word “why” as a causative question—the way science approaches a problem—and “why” as an investigation of purpose—the way religion might approach the same problem, with very different results. (Einstein’s God, pp. 121-22)

Here’s how Raman explained the two “Why?”‘s in his conversation with Tippett:

V. V. Raman
Varadaraja V. Raman – Rochester Institute of Technology

I sometimes ask my students, “Why are you taking this course?” Some students may say, “Because it is required in my curriculum.” Others may say, “Because I want to learn what you are going to talk about.” Now these two answers are legitimate answers to the same question. The first answer implies a framework in which the student is operating. But the second is purpose and teleological: “Because I want to learn.” It’s in the future, whereas the first one is because that’s how the rules are set up. So both questions are relevant and interesting. Except that as I see it, the question about “why” in the deeper sense of what is the purpose of this universe—Why am I here? Why was the world created at all? Why are the laws such as they are?—those are very fundamental questions for which we may never be able to find answers which are unanimously acceptable. (pp. 125-26)

So, I wondered, do historians ask both “why?” questions: why-as-cause and why-as-purpose?

* * * * *

Certainly the first. In my links post on Saturday, I alluded to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke’s notion of the “five C’s of historical thinking,” one of which is causality. John Fea explains it well in his book, Why Study History?:

Historians also realize that specific events in the past are best understood in relation to other events; in other words, historians are concerned with causality—the examination of cause and effect. In this sense, the historian moves beyond the mere recitation of facts and tries to explain why particular events happened in the way they did or how events have been shaped by previous events. What were the social, cultural, economic, or political factors that “caused” the American Civil War? How does the long history of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws explain why the civil rights movement emerged when it did? What role did the immediate aftermath of World War I play in motivating Adolf Hitler to form [sic] the Nazi party? The historian uses the sequence of events in an attempt to determine causality. (p. 10)

Another part of Tippett’s talk — on Albert Einstein’s insights into the non-linearity of time — suggests that perhaps using “the sequence of events” has less explanatory power than historians assume. But if history is a science, it’s a Newtonian one: concerned with actions and reactions.

Not to say that this is easy. Andrews and Burke point out that history is a non-experimental science; we have no laboratory in which to test hypotheses, only fragmentary evidence: “…historians cannot alter past conditions to produce new information. Rather, they must base their arguments upon the interpretation of partial primary sources that frequently offer multiple explanations for a single event.” And Fea warns that

Fea, Why Study Historythere are an infinite number of explanations or potential causes for any historical event, even some that are so weird or strange that they are virtually impossible to identify. So while historians should certainly try to explain the causes of historical events, they can never be entirely sure how one event may or may not have influenced another. Sometimes the actions of humans in the past do not conform to what we deem to be common or ordinary patterns of behavior. Sometimes we simply don’t know. (p. 11)

But the problems of limited evidence and seemingly irreducible complexity rarely stop historians from asking Raman’s first “why?” question. It’s the second that’s trickier.


I’m pretty sure it’s that “why?” that one of my graduate school professors had in mind when she insisted that “historians ask who, what, where, when, and how, but not why.” Having read her books and seen her teach, I know that she asks the why of causation. I think she meant to say that historians don’t ask the why that Raman says is “purpose and teleological.”

I didn’t follow up to ask why she wouldn’t ask this “why?” But I suspect she would have told me that questions of purpose like Raman’s (“Why am I here? Why was the world created at all? Why are the laws such as they are?”) are beyond the ken of the historical method: whatever answers might come to our minds can’t be verified or falsified using evidence available within time and space. (And consider that Raman says that the teleological — or perhaps it’s eschatological — “why?” is “in the future.”)

Here we’ve come to a central tension for those historians who believe in a God who both exists outside of time and space and participates in history as we experience it. (Indeed, who created the world that historians and other scholars try to understand using naturalistic methods.) As John Fea points out:

Giberson & Yerxa, Species of OriginsFor Christians who believe in divine providence, the study of history certainly presents a conundrum. As believers, we want to know God’s will for our lives. We spend time in prayer and meditation trying to discern what he is calling us to do in the circumstances of our lives. We often look back on our lives and reflect on the way the Lord has led us. So if we try to discern providence in our own spiritual lives, what is wrong with trying to do the same thing with the most important events of the past? Should our historical methods, to quote Christian scholars Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa, “ignore God”? Where is God in history? These are tough questions indeed. (Why Study History?, pp. 78-79)

So it may seem that Christian historians would be prone to asking not just what caused something to happen but for what reason it happened.

But I think Fea speaks for most of us when he questions the wisdom of engaging in “providentialist” approaches to history that inquire after God’s purposes within history. He offers many excellent reasons to avoid providentialism: e.g., “We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible…. Christian historians would do better to approach their task with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery… History is more about the study of humans than it is about the study of God.” We might add George Marsden’s warning that, if Christian historians are to have access to the pluralistic academy, they must refrain from appealing to special revelation as evidence, since it’s unavailable to those who don’t share their faith and since they wouldn’t want historians of another faith to cite their own prophecies, scriptures, etc.

Fea seems to endorse a maxim he quotes from Harry Stout: “Professional historians agree to settle for something less than ultimate explanations in the worlds that constitute our ‘field'” (pp. 72-73).

Yes, and amen. Except…

Many of the same historians who, as researchers, settle for science-like methods and sub-ultimate explanations promise, as teachers, to probe questions of purpose. I strongly suspect that most historians — certainly those who teach at liberal arts colleges — would agree to some degree with Miroslav Volf that higher education is about the meaning of life and the nature of human flourishing. Much as we all seek to articulate how the study of history can provide marketable skills like critical thinking, research, and writing, few of us would be satisfied to define the “return on investment” or “value-added” of a History degree solely in terms of what Volf calls “cognition and instrumental rationality.” We can’t keep from using words like purpose, meaning, character, and calling.

So I want to suggest that there’s enormous value in asking why something happened and not solely mean “what caused it to happen?”


Perhaps it was his publisher’s decision, but I’m struck that Fea’s book is asking a question of why-as-purpose: when he asks Why we study history, he’s not asking What Causes Us to Study History? but For What Purpose Do We Study History? In his prologue, he sets out not to “write a defense of historical knowledge against postmodern critiques,” but to explore “the pursuit of history as a vocation” — and even to “win some converts” in the process (p. ix).

McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader StateSo even as he largely rejects providentialist approaches that would make history into a “subfield of theology” (p. 69), Fea also quotes approvingly Walter McDougall’s contention that “history must do the work of theology,” since history is, “for all practical purposes, the religion of the modern curriculum.” What McDougall means here is that history, more than any other discipline, teaches humility and thence “wisdom—and if it doesn’t, then it is not history but something else” (pp. 127-28).

History can make its students more knowledgeable by asking why-as-causation questions; I’m not sure it can make its students more wise without asking why-as-purpose questions. The former might teach the humility of understanding that history is contingent and complex, but it still tempts us to think that we can (as all undergraduates seem to believe) “learn lessons” from the past and not be condemned to repeat it.

To achieve the humility that is indeed central to wisdom, history must underscore what McDougall calls the “gaping disparity between motives and consequences in all human action, and how little control human beings have over their own lives.”

As a Christian historian (particularly one teaching Christian students at a Christian college — what I’m musing about here might not apply easily beyond such a context), I can’t help but think about how this brings God back into our field of vision. Now, I don’t want to suggest that when history shows us “how little control” we have over our lives, it should then mislead us into thinking we can read the mind of the One who is in control. (Certainly not if humility is one of our goals.) But it can lead us to reflect on the nature of McDougall’s “gaping disparity,” and deepen our sense that the world is not as it is meant to be.

So I’m not sure that history has much to say about theology, the study of God. But it might have something very important to teach us about hamartiology, the study of sin.

Or think of it this way… History is not much like an Easter Sunday service: it cannot reveal with the clarity of an impossibly opened tomb how God works redemptively in space and time, triumphing over death itself. But history can resemble the Tenebrae service of Good Friday: it can remind us of the nature and effects of sin and cause us to recognize how far we’ve fallen, how much we stand in need of redemption. As I put it in an earlier post on the vocation of the Christian historian:

…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.

What we’re left with is perhaps a different kind of “why?” — if not a third version, at least a variant on why-as-purpose. It’s the “why?” of Job: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?… Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (3:11, 23) And it’s the why of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46).

We’ll answer this differently than we answer questions of causation, but this is why history is as much literature as science. The kind of moral reflection that answers this “why?” within history will deepen mystery, not produce clarity. (Like the theologian Charles Mathewes, I suspect that “The lesson of providence is not that history can be finally solved, like a cryptogram, but that it must be endured, inhabited as a mystery which we cannot fully understand from the inside, but which we cannot escape of our own powers” — quoted in Fea, Why Study History?, pp. 81-82).

But perhaps an education that only asks answerable questions is not much of an education.

2 thoughts on “The Two (or Three) Why’s of History

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