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. In short, historians tell contested stories.
Over eighty years ago, in The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield asked whether Clio was on the side of the whigs. That is, do the winners write history? And if so, should they? Butterfield was addressing what he saw as a tendency amongst historians of his day to tell the story of the past in terms of its outcome. Consider a simplistic but characteristic example: is the history of England a story of the triumph of liberty? A tale of progressive steps that lead from the Magna Carta to the Revolution of 1688 to the Reform Act of 1832 to democratic liberalism?
Butterfield the historian was simultaneously Butterfield the lay Methodist preacher. As he put it in Christianity and History, to be a Christian meant participating in the cosmic story told in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. A similar view has been powerfully championed by a whole range of narrative theologians in recent years, perhaps most famously by N. T. Wright. But Butterfield was not a theologian. He did not think a historian could endorse the Bible as history in the modern sense. Again, he thought the Bible, as Christians read it, is a story about time framed cosmologically. This lay outside the modern historian’s purview. Butterfield did not think a historian could imitate Augustine and identify the finger of God at work in secular history. The modern professional historian could not play the role of sacred historiographer.
Of course Christian communities aren’t alone in confronting the claims of sacred history today. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, is a decidedly non-whig interpretation of Hindu history which focuses on non-Brahmin castes, women, and animals. The work has excited controversy in India and has been officially condemned. It reminds us that the relationship between scholarly history and lived traditions can be difficult, to say the least. National histories face challenges too. Intense debates among politicians and professional historians have been ongoing in Britain as changes to the history curriculum are considered. Familiar questions resurface: what are the essential elements to Britain’s story? How should that story be told?
A recent collection of essays by Christians who are professional historians addresses some of these themes. The introduction to Confessing History traces its lineage back to the founding of the “Conference on Faith and History,” which started in 1968, and its journal Fides et Historia. Although there is no official consensus among the essays collected in this volume, there is a shared sense of enthusiasm for the vitality mutually instilled by Christian faith in the historical profession, and the historical vocation in the Christian community. Overall this is an interesting and generous book. Both scholarly and lay readers will be quickly acquainted with the central questions faced by professional historians generally and historians with Christian commitments in particular. Many thoughtful responses to the tensions between history and religious faith are on offer in these essays. However, it should be noted that these perspectives are overwhelmingly those of Americanists (i.e. historians of colonial America and the United States of America), with no contributions from historians of the ancient, medieval, or non-Western world.
In the first part of Confessing History several contributors emphasize the ethical and dispositional motivation that Christian historians bring to their work. Generally speaking, these contributions suggest that Christian historians can approach the past with an attitude derived from Jesus’ recorded summation of the Decalogue: love God, love your neighbours. Given that historians engage with a past peopled by others, “neighbours” of another kind, there is a sense in which the Christian historian can extend their religious orientation to the past in an analogous way. As several of the essays in this volume insist, if an integral part of Christian community is listening to and working with others, then the Christian historian can extend this disposition to past subjects.
Yet the Christian historian has to negotiate membership in multiple communities, each with different demands and potentially rival standards of practice. In part two of Confessing History several contributors draw on the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s conception of community and tradition to assist in such negotiation. MacIntyre has famously argued that the way in which communities and traditions enrich their philosophical understandings is through a process whereby their paradigmatic standards are dramatically challenged, to be vindicated or revised. Such challenges can come from rival paradigms embodied in other traditions and communities, whether past or present. As several contributors point out, the historian’s role can be thought of as presenting the voices of the past as a means of revising present understandings. If, as MacIntyre contends, traditions progress by being exposed to and transformed by new philosophical insights, by learning how to translate the problems and truths embodied in other communities into their own terms, such traditions stand to gain if they embrace an open, reflexively self-conscious stance to the voices of the past.
Confessing History doesn’t really address the subject of sacred history head-on despite its prominent place in the history of Christian thought. And although several contributors engage with Butterfield, their interaction with his work is characterized by rather more pragmatic concerns, such as how a historian can communicate their skills and knowledge effectively to Christians and why those skills and that knowledge is relevant for Christians. For the most part the essays in this volume tend to endorse a view in which the historian’s critical thinking skills can be used as a set of “tools” by which Christians can learn to how understand the history of their religion, its place in their national community, and the history of others religions and communities.
Even this fairly “accomodationist” stance between modern history and religious faith entails some fairly major restrictions, though, at least when put in the perspective of the history of Christian historical thought. In their respective essays, James Lagrand condemns preaching through history, Jay Green offers careful advice on how to reason publicly based on historical analogies, and Wilfred Mcclay warns Christians of the pitfalls of progressivist stories. Although the contributors to this volume frame their historical vocation within a wider Christian narrative, no attempt is made to link the cosmic and earthly story together as scholarly history.
The early church Father Augustine interpreted history through a Christian lens, and he did so by grounding it in the New Testament command to love God and neighbour (see De doctrina Christiana III.xii-xiv). But the difference is that Augustine, in spite of several caveats, thought it was possible and necessary to connect sacred and secular history. De civitas Dei would become an authoritative text in European Christian thought in this respect (and many others).
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that sacred history’s universal aim was powerfully challenged by rival histories which sought to tell alternate providential stories. Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des Nations was a secular displacement of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle. Where Bossuet’s chronology started with Creation, Voltaire’s started with China and India. The stadial theories of the Scottish Enlightenment are probably more familiar to most readers than Voltaire’s history, including Adam Smith’s in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Both Voltaire and Smith (and certainly David Hume) were animated by a conception of human nature and a corresponding plot of human history at significant odds with Augustine’s. It was not by accident that Voltaire attacked and ridiculed one of Augustine’s most famous disciples, Blaise Pascal, as a “sublime misanthrope.” With the establishment of the social sciences and the professionalization of history in the nineteenth century, the gap between secular and sacred history widened immensely.
This isn’t to say Augustine’s vision has been eclipsed altogether. In Theology and Social Theory, for instance, John Milbank describes his theological metanarrative of “radical orthodoxy” in explicitly Augustinian terms, hoping to move “beyond secular reason” by tracing its route from medieval nominalism to postmodern nihilism. It would appear, then, that Augustine’s mantle remains the heritage of Christian theologians, not Christian historians.
Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Notre Dame, 2010, 384pp.
Note: this review originally appeared elsewhere, on a now-defunct website, and has been slightly revised.