Is all history political? In at least one sense, yes. If we take this statement to mean that all history-writing is political, then it is so because historians write from a particular perspective and so their arguments, however critical and objective, still belie a political orientation of some kind. Some scholars think objectivity is possible, others do not, and much depends on how we understand the historian’s methodological process. To me there is no “ideology free” approach to the past, but there is a distinctive set of practices and a community which constitutes critical history, and which distinguishes it from things like communal memory. But I think both critical history and communal memory are political, in a broad Aristotelian sense. When I approach the topic of atheism in early modern Europe, I’ve done so governed by the norms and practices of critical history, but I still do so in ways shaped by an ideological framework that is itself informed by my personal history, by my beliefs, and by my own social, cultural, and political context. Continue reading “NEOLIBERAL JESUS: READING JAMES CROSSLEY”
Nick Spencer begins Atheists: The Origin of the Species with a fairy tale. The story he recounts is an abbreviated version of the tale championed in nineteenth-century Europe whereby progress in scientific understanding banishes ignorance and with it the pseudo-knowledge peddled by priests. In other words: progress followed science, and science displaced religion. The trouble with this story is that it contains, at best, a merely partial truth. Any airtight or global connection between scientific progress and secularization has been massively challenged in recent years by a wide range of scholars in many different fields. Continue reading “ATHEISM’S ORIGINS: READING NICK SPENCER”
American evangelicalism is anti-intellectual. Such a view has enjoyed fairly wide currency since Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen attempts to correct this view, but not by rejecting it outright. She shows how American evangelicals have been engaged in a range of intellectual projects—institutions, magazines, bible schools, etc.—albeit ones often at odds with the prevailing norms of secular academies. Even anti-intellectualism is an intellectual project, then, and Worthen roots this loose program in what she calls the “evangelical imagination.” Three elemental concerns unite evangelicals: how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge, how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God, and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square. Continue reading “THE EVANGELICAL IMAGINATION: READING MOLLY WORTHEN”
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”
Has triumphalism been defeated? That’s a purposefully ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory question. It may be safe to say that it has been seriously challenged, but you don’t have to listen to the news for very long before you hear narratives of political, cultural, or religious triumph aired from New Delhi to New York.
In his magnum opus sociologist Robert Bellah offers a playful yet powerful response to triumphalism. Religion in Human Evolution ends with a consideration of the biological and cultural capacities acquired in human societies up to the Axial Age. These capacities were the result of extended cultural elaboration and accumulation. As stated in the book several times, “Nothing is ever lost.” Continue reading “FIELD OF PLAY: READING ROBERT BELLAH”
Since Sources of the Self Charles Taylor has contended that ours is a fractured world. The world in question is that of the North Atlantic, including Europe and North America. The world in question is also a worldview in that Taylor has examined what he takes to be the trajectory of the moral and mental background of North Atlantic culture over the past 500 years. Varieties of Religion Today suggests that the history of this world can be characterized by a “reform master narrative” and uses William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to flesh this out Continue reading “OUR FRACTURED AGE: READING CHARLES TAYLOR”
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”
Consider the brief “history” of atheism as outlined in a recent post by a member of an atheist group in Tucson, Arizona (update: the link is now broken). Here history is construed as the presentation of facts across time; to tell the history of atheism quickly all that is required are the names, dates, and arguments of various figures presented in chronological form. Although the post raises questions about the certainty with which we can establish certain historical facts, what we get is a straightforward chronology and a series of minimally interpretive bullet-points. The purpose of the sketch seems to be to trace doubts about the divine throughout the whole of human history. Continue reading “HISTORY, ATHEISM, COMMUNITY”
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”
A younger, bushy-browed Charles Taylor stands holding a pin—how many angels are dancing on it? A cartoon depiction of this scene accompanied the review of Taylor’s Sources of the Self by Bernard Williams in the New York Review of Books. It is both cheeky and telling. In the review Williams makes clear his appreciation for Taylor’s learning, and for the scope of his narrative, but, in keeping with his usual style, Williams isn’t buying it (see: the “Feuerbach principle”). I don’t really want to comment on Williams’ review of Taylor so much as the image which accompanied it. Continue reading “CARICATURES AND THUMBNAILS: STEPHEN GREENBLAT AND CHARLES TAYLOR”