Truthful, Hopeful: A Christian Reflection on History

I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to convince Christians to live “not as a people of fear, but as a people of hope.” Just last Thursday, in the midst of my grief at losing a dear friend, I concluded that “Contemplating the possibility of Stacey’s death had deepened my conviction that the Apostle Paul was right, that those who follow Jesus Christ ‘may not grieve as others do who have no hope’ (1 Thess 4:13).”

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates earlier this year, at the University of Virginia’s MLK celebration — Creative Commons (Eduardo Montes-Bradley)

So it was bracing to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent essay on “Hope and the Historian,” since he’s so committed to studying the past as one who has no hope.

I’m less concerned about his claim that “writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself.” Like John Fea, I’m pretty sure that description doesn’t match any historian I know. But the argument that precedes it in Coates’ essay goes much farther:

I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there.

John tentatively declines to describe hopefulness as a “category of historical analysis” and instead concludes that “Coates is making a theological statement here.” I’m not so sure it’s that easy, at least for historians who adhere to a religion that holds hope to be one of its three cardinal virtues.

(If you didn’t want to read the rest of this, you could simply argue that historians, focused as they are on the past, have nothing useful to say about the future. Fair enough — but that’s not where Coates is coming from. On the contrary, his essay begins with the historian Nell Painter asserting that white supremacy will — future tense — never go away. “The point,” concludes Coates, “is that it will always be with us in some form, and the the best one can reasonably hope for is that it will shrink in impact.” But he doesn’t find it reasonable to hope in this way. Back to my response…)

But let’s first think about what we mean by “truth” before we get to what we mean by “hope.” Surely Coates doesn’t think that history is a purely objective discipline in which “the facts speak for themselves” — if only hope would get out of the way. As John has argued, in Why Study History?

it is nearly impossible for a historian to provide an explanation of what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation. The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. (p. 95)

“The facts,” agrees our Conference on Faith and History colleague Tracy McKenzie, “lie silent and inert until the historian breathes life into them and literally resurrects them by fashioning them into a persuasive interpretation.” (I want to do something with Tracy’s use of the verb “resurrects,” but we’re not yet talking about the nature of hope…) Now, “the range of interpretations is not limitless,” for historians. “The historical evidence that survives constitutes a boundary that the historian can’t cross without leaving the domain of history for the realm of historical fiction” (The First Thanksgiving, pp. 26-27). But assuming that we stay within that domain, that we aren’t just talking about some kind of hagiographic straw man…

Something needs to give shape to our interpretation of that evidence, no? The facts don’t interpret themselves. There must be deeper beliefs that mold the meaning we make of the past.

For example, the historian might hold the conviction that the universe operates according to a purpose more profound than random chance. There is, in this view, some kind of direction to the movement of time: not uncomplicated or perfectly accessible to human understanding, not without fits and starts and twists and turns, but direction nonetheless.

Tony Judt, PostwarOne version of this is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous claim that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” Is this not a hopeful interpretation of history? Is it necessarily opposed to truth?

Of course, we need to remember here that Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t share King’s belief — in the arc of history, or in the deity towards whose justice which it is bending.

In “Hope and the Historian,” Coates mentioned reading Tony Judt’s devastating history of the aftermath of World War II. Postwar is ruthlessly truthful and does little to inspire hope. Indeed, when he finished Judt’s book (and Timothy Snyder’s equally dire Bloodlands) in 2013, Coates came away a convinced atheist:

I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

If someone as persuasive as Martin Luther King, Jr. can’t change Coates’ mind here, I probably stand little chance. (Indeed, King simply exemplifies Coates’ claim that “The black political tradition is essentially hopeful” — while Coates admits that “‘Hope’ struck me an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.”)

But I would try this gambit… Couldn’t one turn Coates’ words back on him, with the italicized changes?

I think that a writer wedded to the absence of hope is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must not be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise.

If you’re determined to believe that the universe doesn’t bend toward justice, that there’s no direction and only chaos, aren’t you as likely as the hopeful to want to deny evidence that points towards a more complicated truth?

I haven’t yet read Coates’ National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, but perhaps someone who has can tell me if Michiko Kakutani was on to anything in his review:

Coates, Between the World and MeSometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that “you and I” belong to “that ‘below’ ” in the racial hierarchy of American society: “That was true in 1776. It is true today.” He writes that “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.

He points out that his son has expectations, hopes — “your dreams, if you will” — that he did not have at his age, and that he, himself, does not know “what it means to grow up with a black president, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair.”

“The grandness of the world,” he tells Samori, sounding a more optimistic note, “the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”

Precisely because Coates is so close to certain of the “tenacity of injustice” in history — specifically, of the unshakeable power of white supremacy in the face of the hopeful actions of people like King — is he tempted to be less than truthful in his evaluation of “the very real… progress that has been made”?

But I don’t mean to point to a mote and ignore the beam in my own eye: those of us who interpret history out of hope are also tempted — to overstate progress in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, I agree with Coates that “much of our history is the story of things just not working out.”

But not all of our history.

For a Christian, hope is not Pangloss’ assertion that we inhabit — or are moving inevitably closer to inhabiting — “the best of all possible worlds.” It is not a Whiggish certainty that humans are making inexorable progress, measured by the yardstick of increasing individual agency. (John is right that “Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.”)

6th century image of Augustine
Even if we could, like John, describe an atheist’s pessimistic view of human nature as “Augustinian,” we should also remember that that African saint believed that “all knowledge and all prophecy are subservient” to hope, as well as faith and love. (Image: Wikimedia)

Christian hope has meaning precisely because it requires us to be honest about the need of sinners for redemption and restoration. But hope both reaches back before the Fall, to God’s good intentions for Creation, and reaches out past the Cross, to the impossible reality of the Resurrection. It “[keeps] taut,” says Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Apostle Paul, “[t]he lines of purpose in your life…” (Col 1:5The Message).

So what does this mean for the Christian historian? If, to paraphrase the same apostle, we may not interpret the past as others do who have no hope, what would that look like?

Even if I could convince Coates that my theological conviction does not preclude professional integrity, he might just retreat to an earlier line in his essay: “Hope may well be relevant to their personal lives, but it is largely irrelevant to their study.” In short, he’d suggest that I can do no more than keep private belief in a separate compartment, out of the way of public practice.

Since we don’t even share a belief in God, I’m not sure I could make any further progress with Coates. (Whom I really do admire, this important disagreement notwithstanding.) But for fellow Christians, let me suggest that we not abandon “hope-learning integration.”

Consider how we read the birth accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. To a significant degree, they provide evidence undergirding a Coatesian interpretation of history: the bureaucratic caprices of a distant emperor whose local client engaged in mass murder with no apparent repercussions suggest the tenacity of injustice. But in the seemingly irrelevant story of a poor young woman, her carpenter husband, and their newborn son, those sources also support a very different interpretation of the movement of history.

Benjamin CoreyOf that child’s “kingdom there will be no end,” his mother was promised. But it’s not like the kingdoms of Caesar and Hitler, writes Ben Corey: “It’s an upside-down kingdom that grows in upside-down ways.” In a blog post reprinted by Mennonite World Review the same day that The Atlantic published Coates’ essay, Corey found hope in the decline of an American Christianity wedded to political power and nationalist ideology.

Time will tell if Corey is right that “we are at an interesting point in history and are standing right in the middle of a death/growth cycle,” but isn’t it possible that his principle might work in retrospect as well as prospect? If so, then Christian historians ought to be attentive to the past signs of growth for a kingdom that “operates on principles that are contrary to anything else we find in the world.” Such a truthful-hopeful interpretation will likely make much of evidence that may seem to be beneath our notice — evidence the size and significance of a mustard seed, or a bit of yeast.

Even as I write this, I start to think of objections. (I really don’t want us to practice providential history.) But for the sake of continuing the conversation, I’ll give up trying to tie up loose ends and instead hope to be corrected (or perhaps confirmed) in the comments section by historians and others wiser than I.

2 thoughts on “Truthful, Hopeful: A Christian Reflection on History

  1. One of the most important assertions of Coates’ atheism — and reflected in his explanation of it in response to Postwar and Bloodlands — is that hope in social, teleological, and eschatological form has been co-opted as a self-congratulatory panacea for those who do nothing (or worse yet those who actively further injustice). His assertion of the absence of a moral arc toward any good and the absence of an afterlife means that any attempt to address what we identify as injustice can only be accomplished within this life and by us. We cannot leave it to others. We have no recourse. We must understand history, particularly in the face of persistent congratulatory self-satisfaction dressed up as hope. As such, history is not about truth but our response to the truth of our past and our inevitable desire to avoid the work of real and thorough change.

    While this is my admittedly naive understanding of the argument Coates forwards in Between the World and Me and several of his other essays, I find this call to investigate, understand, and address institutional injustice invigorating. His atheism appears to be a throwing off of the usual political encumbrances that inhibit the religious from doing good in the world (read: pharisaical loyalties and Straussian intellectual chaos). But by throwing off these worldly impediments to good and the excuses we so often employ, Coates moves closer to a realized intellectual faith than many of those who would call themselves faithful followers of Jesus. As a professor at a Christian college, it’s strange to say that I’ve probably learned more about faith from Coates’ well-articulated atheism than I have from the intellectually and theologically incoherent responses of so many Christians to the events of the past year (this blog excluded – keep up the good work, Chris!).

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