How do we recognize the hand of providence? All historians have to confront this question in some form. Considered in literary terms providence is a trope, one emplotment of structured explanation amongst many. In the attempt to understand and explain the past historians offer scholarly stories in which evidence is intentionally collected, critically evaluated, and discursively represented. Historians tell contested stories. Continue reading “AUGUSTINE’S MANTLE: CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY”


One of the standard characteristics of contemporary historiography is its object: the past. Yet, as most historians are aware, this “object” has been notoriously difficult to grasp. Consider the reflections of the historian Marc Bloch and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In The Historian’s Craft Bloch observes that “the very idea that the past as such can be the object of science is ridiculous. How, without preliminary distillation, can one make of phenomena, having no other common character than that of being not contemporary with us, the matter of rational knowledge?” In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty argues that “reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes, upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past, a past which has never been present.” Both writers, then, find a gap between the past as such and the mediation of the past in the present. To Michel de Certeau in The Writing of History, modern western historiography “begins with the differentiation between the present and the past.Continue reading “THE PAST AND HISTORY: BLOCH AND MERLEAU-PONTY”


Recently there has been some controversy over the work of historian Gordon Wood, one of the more famous of Bernard Bailyn’s students. Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution won a Pulitzer and his Creation of the American Republic exercised an important role in shaping our understandings of the Founding Fathers. A recent post over at The Junto blog, and a follow-up post (Arguing about Gordon Wood) by John Fea, will give you some sense of where things stand among historians in relation to Wood’s achievements as a whole. Continue reading “GORDON WOOD AND THE WRITING OF HISTORY”


Religion is sometimes held to be untrue today because there are so many different and often conflicting claims made about it. To even speak of “religion” in such reified and monolithic terms offends contemporary ears. In an address to the 2009 American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal, then president Mark Juergensmeyer pointed out that after 100 years of studying religion scholars were still not agreed as to what, if anything, the term “religion” meant. While scholars may not agree as to its meaning, it seems to be the case that religious diversity exerts a kind of negative pressure on those who study and practice a given religion today, as a fact which such a religion must face as mark against it. Religious diversity, in other words, is very often felt to count as an automatic blow to any and all religion whatsoever. But this wasn’t always the case. Continue reading “RELIGIOUS AND ATHEIST DIVERSITY”