"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, September 20, 2013

Why Study History--and How?

I have, since I was a child, been fascinated by history, particularly military and political history. I have read a great deal of such histories, and numerous others besides. During the five years I was working on my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, I read a great deal of papal history and ecclesiological history.

And of course I have read, long admired, and been influenced by, the greatest Byzantine liturgical historian of our time, Robert Taft. More recently, I have been working in the area of the history of relations between Muslims and Eastern Christians, about which my next book is coming out late next year (D.v.). And all along the way, I have been haunted, as I briefly alluded here, to the problems of history, that is, to historiographical problems: how do we access history? what do we make of it? how do we tell it in a way free, so far as possible, from present political purposes? what are the "ground rules" for historical research? what are the hermeneutical problems of historiography and can we surmount them?

These are far from arcane academic questions. The failure to tell history faithfully and truthfully has wrought untold damage to numerous groups, causes, nations, peoples, and Christians in their search for unity. The abuses of history are exceedingly damaging and dangerous.

I was asked to give a lecture this December, and for my topic I chose "Rules for Thinking about the Past," coming up with sixteen such rules. That list was generated in part by an article I recently published in the area, which was itself based upon Taft's article "Ecumenical Scholarship and the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis Dispute," Ostkirchlische Studien 45 (1996): 201-226.

My research and writing in this area is increasingly motivated by something I've come to see more and more since finishing my first book: relations between Catholics and Orthodox turn, in many places, not so much on doctrinal disputes as on misconceptions about each other grounded in faulty history. It would be nice to think that this faulty history was merely the result of a  few ignorant souls gently laboring under a few factually incorrect premises the removal of which will immediately bring us all into the light of truth, harmony, and unity. But that is far from the case. Too often history is nothing more or other than a weapon with which, simultaneously, I protect my ecclesial identity and smite you, fiendish heretic.

In the Orthodox-Catholic context, there is no easier or more common way to prove this than to trot out those whom I refer to as the three theologians of the apocalypse: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas. How many times have these three, singly or collectively, been trotted out by Orthodox as proof that the West is not only hopelessly lost in "heresy" but is indeed "ontologically" deformed by them.Of course if you press these hyperventilating "traditionalists" to specify which works from the vast canons of these three they have read, or, better yet, whether they have the Latin sufficient to understand them (since, as the Italians always say, traduttore, traditore), and whether they have fairly represented each on his own terms, you are greeted with answers that could only charitably be called risible. Such people are fundamentally unserious, and their stories are not history but what Taft rightly derides as "confessional propaganda."

Orthodox, of course, are not alone in doing this: you will also find Catholic "traditionalists" plundering the past for present felt purposes, particularly on questions of liturgy, or "ultramontane" Catholics doing this about the pope, as we depressingly witnessed during the papal transition earlier this year. Such sentiments can be found elsewhere, too--not least among Muslims and, of course, in the wretched abuses to which the Crusades are subject.

We have, thankfully, begun to see real Orthodox scholars try to counter some of this gross abuse, first about Augustine, and then more recently, thanks to Marcus Plested's splendid work, about Aquinas. All that remains is for someone to do the same thing for Anselm, though David Bentley Hart has begun that task in a very commendable article which very much merits close reading: "A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo," Pro Ecclesia 7 (1998): 333-348.

All this is but preface to notice of a new book just published this month, which I am greatly looking forward to reading and which strikes me as just the sort of book Christians have long needed in these debates: John Fea, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013), 192pp,

About this book the publisher tells us:
The interpretation of the past is at the core of many of today's divisive political and cultural debates. In this introductory textbook, accomplished historian John Fea shows how studying the past can help us understand the present world in which we live. Deep historical thinking has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and society, because it enables us to understand those with whom we differ on important issues. Studying history can relieve us of our narcissism; cultivate humility, hospitality, and love; and transform our lives more fully into the image of Jesus Christ.

Why Study History? explains why Christians should study history, how faith is brought to bear on our understanding of the past, and how studying the past can help us more effectively love God and others. Professors and students of history will value this unique, accessible introduction to the study of history and the historian's vocation.
We are also given the table of contents and an excerpt here.  
1. What Do Historians Do?
2. In Search of a Usable Past
3. The Past Is a Foreign Country
4. Providence and History
5. Christian Resources for the Study of the Past
6. History for a Civil Society
7. The Power to Transform
8. So What Can You Do with a History Major?
Epilogue: History and the Church
Appendix: A Proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society

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