"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, October 25, 2013

The Uses and Abuses of History by Christians

I've previously noted the lamentable tendency on the part of some Christians to use "history" as a weapon to prove the superiority of their own positions or confessions, and to smite others as "heretics." This occurs with some regularity on the part of some Eastern Christians attacking "the West" or "the Latins" but it is by no means a disease exclusive to the East. In fact, I have seen an uptick of this kind of mentality since Pope Francis was elected. Some self-appointed Roman Catholic "traditionalists" are now trying him on their blogs as they march forth "evidence" from history--in the form of quotes from previous popes--to show he is a borderline if not outright "heretic." These "charges" have all the sophistication of proof-texting, of course, and once more illustrate the need for some guidelines on how, and how not, to handle historical texts. Along comes a welcome new book to help in this endeavor: John Fea, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013), ix+182pp.

I've just finished this rather short book, and it has much to commend it. Fea writes with a commendable style that is cogent and accessible. He sets out what historians do and do not do, and why, reviewing also various historiographical schools (historicists, Whigs, Annales, etc.) and their approaches to some of the complicated tasks involved in writing good history. His first three chapters in particular are clear in setting out the discipline of history, and it is significant that that word (discipline) occurs repeatedly. Fea is not averse to drawing the connection more explicitly at the end of the book, having previously suggested that good history writing is akin to a spiritual discipline, to askesis, insofar as it involves a great deal of humility and self-effacement. The emphasis on humility is another common theme throughout, as Fea stresses the provisional nature of history writing, and the fact that while some may scorn the very idea of "revisionism," history cannot avoid it, and in itself there is nothing wrong with revising one's views as one grows, it is to be hoped, in deeper insight, stripped free of past biases and prejudices and able to see even a little less "through a glass darkly."

Fea has a handy checklist of things he tries to get his students--mostly evangelical Christians at Messiah College--to appreciate about historiography: the five Cs. Historians must always be aware of "change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity" (6). They must approach each of these with humility, aware of the limits of trying to understand the past and the strangeness of it and the difficulties of doing so. Indeed, he goes so far as to talk about the "impossibility" of doing history, the "paradox" of the historian's calling: nothing can ever be told with complete finality or objectivity, or in an absolutely comprehensive and comprehending manner, but this does not mean that nothing can ever be told. Fea steers a clear path between an impossible pan-optic, omniscient "objectivism" on the one hand, and a hopeless and useless "subjectivism" on the other.

Fea also lists some of the common problems in approaching history: anachronism, romanticism, moralism, and narcissism (whereby we see ourselves especially in the heroes of the past, or imagine that we would have made the right decision at some crucial historical juncture--resisting the Nazis, say, or not shouting "Crucify Him" before Pontius Pilate). Again and again he stresses the need to approach history with humility and also with empathy for its characters in all their complexity. (This clarion call--to humility, to empathy, and to awareness of complexity--is one I wish more "traditionalists" in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy would take to heart. It is one I stress to my students. Caricature, demonization, and reductionism--"All the West's errors stem from Augustine/Aquinas/Anselm/filioque" or "everyone since Pius XII has been a charlatan and heretic and anti-pope!"--cannot be recognized as serious history.)

What sets Fea's book apart from other similar recent texts, it seems, is not only his chapters on whether there is such a thing as "Providential History" (he thinks it's possible in theory, but so fraught with problems and dangers that in practice it's virtually impossible) but also his important discussion on something some so-called secular historians miss or fail to consider: the role of human sin in human affairs and human history. I could not agree more. Again and again I return to Chesterton's famous aphorism: original sin is the one, perhaps the only, Christian dogma capable of easy and regular empirical verification. A failure to consider it seriously can only result in heavily distorted and unreliable history--to say nothing of theological anthropology and other disciplines. You need not subscribe to a Christian soteriology to believe in the power and relevance of sin and evil in determining and distorting human affairs. (As I noted this time last year, the "atheist Jewish" psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton believes in a metaphysic of evil.)

Fea mentions a couple of trips to speak at churches across the country, addressing the question of his previous book, Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. He notes the frustration of audiences that want a clear yes/no answer to that question, and are unprepared to understand how such a question to an historian cannot get that kind of answer readily or justly. Even more interesting to me was how often he gets very large audiences at large evangelical churches to discuss the notion of "Christian history." It would be very heartening to have such robust discussions at Catholic and Orthodox churches--and very necessary, too. For, as I have noted before (following David Bentley Hart and others) too much of the cause of East-West division flows from shoddy history. For that reason, Fea's book is very much to be commended to Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and to all who are interested in understanding that the past is not just or even "a foreign country."

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