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Mar 25, 2004 11:11 pm

Can One Be Both A Historian and A Person of Faith? ...

Recently, the Bancroft Prize was awarded to George Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards. Widely acclaimed with two other books, Mark Noll's America's God and Brooks' Holifield's Theology in America, it is among recent books which find religion at the heart of the American experience -- a finding, by the way, which Michael Kazin found distinctly lacking in Zinn's A People's History .... Marsden's and Noll's books, at least, are among the best work of an"evangelical mafia" which has been enormously productive in the last two decades.

In a review of Holifield's work for Books and Culture, however, Penn's Bruce Kuklick puts a challenge to the whole enterprise. He notes that these Protestant historians have dodged the revolution brought on by Darwin and Higher Criticism."For committed Christian historians to give anything like what they believe to be an adequate analysis of Darwin and the Higher Criticism requires that the scholars draw on their living faith," he writes;

this is not permitted in the secular academy. Readers of Books & Culture may have noted the same fearfulness if they have read George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards (2003) or Mark Noll's America's God (2002). These two outstanding volumes similarly dodge around without tackling secular presuppositions that pervade the writing of professional history but that might be appropriately examined in their books.
The principles of Christian, and more specifically, Protestant scholarship, especially in the field of history, fit uncomfortably with the premises of the academy today. We are not consciously allowed to display bias as professional historians, but when work is analyzed and bias turns up, it is conceded that it may be inevitable, and in any event the assumption is that ongoing inquiry will uncover it—if not immediately then in the future. But the display of faith as a mechanism of explanation is not allowed at all. It is mistaken (and degrading), however, for the faithful to argue that faith is a form of bias, and that mainstream historians only exhibit their hegemonic blinders when they rule it out. Faith is different from bias. For one thing it concerns the supernatural world, and not the natural. And just because it is faith, ongoing inquiry will not falsify it—that is the whole idea of faith. Reflective historians began to recognize this more than 150 years ago; that is what the Higher Criticism—to which Holifield does not attend—is about. But he also ignores that the victory of the Higher Critics left many problems about the nature of the past and of history unresolved. It is by no means clear that the axioms of secular," critical," history are coherent.
With the rise of committed history over the last generation, the response of Protestant thinkers has been awkwardly and nervously to adopt many of the secular conventions on offer. Yet the kind of history they have written—they must know in their heart of hearts—avoids confronting the deepest issues of their faith, indeed denies that these issues are relevant to history. It may be that the contemporary collegiate world is not the place for robustly Protestant historians. But if it is, it may be that they need to rethink their connection to what happened in the intellectual history of the United States in the last part of the 19th century.
Kuklick's challenge puts the issues quite fairly. The"axioms of secular, ‘critical,' history" may not be altogether coherent. In the last generation, history as a discipline has grown more tolerant of biases of various kinds. But faith is no mere bias. It moves from premises beyond mere bias and it is by no means obvious that one can write history faithfully any more than one can write history objectively.

Update: Bruce Kuklick writes in (Kuklick to Luker, 03/23/04) to accept"honorary" or"associate" membership in the"evangelical mafia" and notes that, prior to Kazin's critique, he was highly critical of Zinn's text for ignoring religion in a piece in The Nation, 24 May 1980, 634 ff. The Little Professor offers an extended gloss on this discussion here.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/24/2004

Interesting question that!

"Character" to me implies attribution of motives and discussion of personality. (That may be my lit background comimg out.) I think it would be hard to do because each inquiry into God's motives or personality would add another element outside the bounds of historical testing.

However, if "character" simple means assuming an action by God that goes outside the bounds of the natural order, then yes.

I think it is possible for Mormon who believes that Smith saw the Gold Tablets can write a history of the Mormon Church that deserves to be part of our historiography. Likewise I think that a Christian who believes in the Resurrection can write a solid history of the early Church.

You suggested in an earlier post that the assumption of a centuries old miracle as opposed to a recent one did not (or at least might not) raise the same problems.

That is not true. Even if the nature of the resurrection is not discussed directly, a devout Christian is going to make different assumptions about the motivation of the Apostles than a non-Christian does. That devout historian will also approach later events such as the Reformation than the secular historian will.

And so long as those differences are duly noted, that is how it should be. We can learn from profound differences.

Disallowing the truth of a faith as a motivation historians can consider might make for a more perfect profession from a secular perspective. And, for what it's worth, my perspective is secular. I do not assume miracles. And there is a slippery slope to danger whenever one does.

But to demand that the devoutly religious historian eschew faith in his or her work puts us on a more slippery slope. It would lead us to inquire about a historian's religion not as a basis for careful reading but as a basis for shunning that historian's work.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/24/2004

So, are you saying that a credible historian can write a text in which G_d is one of the characters?

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/24/2004

My disagreement is more with you.

Kuklick problem with Holifield is that he "sneaks around these concerns." My assertion is that one can have good history from a religious basis if one does not sneak around these concerns.

You are stating that this is simply impossible, whether or not the religious historian sneaks around those concerns. That position is your right. And I have no doubt that you do speak for the majority.

I simply think that the majority is wrong.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/24/2004

I'm not exactly sure which of my incarnations you refer to when you speak of my "enthusiasm at one point for alternatives to the OAH," -- whether it be a moment when I was a hired hand to help launch The Historical Society or a subsequent moment when I berated the JAH for its failures in peer review leading to the Bellesiles debacle. In any case, I said that it might be submitted there or to any other credible venue for historical research. I don't think I equated popularity with quality. Very often high quality is not popular.
I really am astonished that you believe that a twentieth or twenty first century historian might write as if G-d is an agent in history and be taken with _any_ seriousness in the profession. Revelation at some point in some distant past might be one thing, but agency in history, it seems to me, is quite another.
Finally, are you disagreeing with me or with Kuklick or with both of us in your PS? As I understand Kuklick, he is arguing that faith is no _mere_ bias. Unless you know a whole lot more about complicated things like predestination and biological conditioning than I do, I don't take your word for it that being a gay person is anything more than what Kuklick calls a "bias." Being a gay person writing about the history of sexuality does _not_ mean that one is writing from premises which are beyond those of "canonical history," if you will. Writing history as if G_d is an agent in it does.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/23/2004

Given your enthusiasm at one point for alternatives to the OAH, I find it fascinating that you equate acceptance to its journal with good history. For that matter it is strange to suggest that popularity can be equated with quality. That is often true, but not always.

I didn't say such a work would be popular among professional historians. I didn't say the author could find an academic press with ease. I didn't say it would not be controversial. I did not say that other historians should take the conclusions at face value.

I said that an assumption of divine revelation does not in and of itself render a work bad history--so long as that scholar is willing to address directly the consequences of that belief and how it challenges the facts and shapes the interpretation. In short I said such a work might be good and could be a valuable addition to the historiography of the subject. I stand by that.

PS I also suggested that someone within a faith might show a greater understanding of some facts and events than a person outside of that faith. That statement is neither more or less controversial that suggesting that someone gay or lesbian might have insights into topics involving gay and lesbian people that might elude a heterosexual.

Michael C Tinkler - 3/23/2004

Well, I prefer Jesus, but I'm in the middle of reading an attack on the moldboard-plow version of determinism -- "and then Human Ingenuity introduced the horse collar". Is the problem with Howard Zinn that he believes in forces beyond the ken of the average worker?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2004

Oscar, I challenge you to submit an article for publication in the _Journal of American History_ (or any other recognized vehicle of recognizable contemporary historical scholarship), which assumes divine intervention in human history at _any_ point. The snickers may not be obvious in the rejection letters but, if not, they'll be barely obscured and there won't be any acceptance letters.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/23/2004

Yes, that is his point. I differ. So long as the historian is honest about his facts and his perspective, his work can be an acceptable part of modern historiography.

That is not the same thing as saying that the conclusions should not be viewed with extreme care. They should.
But I for one would find a Mormon historian's account of the spread of that faith potentially insightful. That historian will see significant facts that I miss and understand them in ways that I might not.

Let me put it to you this way. Would the historiography of the history of Mormons be made stronger or weaker by the appearance of such a history?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2004

But, Oscar, isn't that exactly Kuklick's point: that historians who have a religious faith commitment implicitly or explicitly assume divine intervention or causation at some point (however recent or remote) and that any assumption of that kind violates the canons of all acceptable modern historiography.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/23/2004

Ralph, I concur with your observation about our debt to the Biblical perspective.

As to my other comments, I did not ask for reification as a general rule. I simply asked, and I shall try to state it more clearly here, that a historian acknowledge when his or her faith leads to conclusions that would have been unlikely without reliance on the knowledge that flows from that faith.

As an example, I see no need for a historian of Jacksonian America to discuss creationism or evolution. It is highly unlikely to alter any conclusions. If a devout Mormon is studying Jacksonian foreign policy, here again, that faith is not likely to shape conclusions.

But if that same Mormon is studying Christianiy in this period and in particular if that historian is drawing conclusions about the spreading of gospels in this period, here that faith matters. It matters because, in this view, some faiths spread with the aid of God and others do not. That will change the conclusions, because from a position of devout faith, nothing can be more important than the new Gospel, and the knowledge of that importance is based on faith alone.

Perhaps we should all do this. Perhaps we should try to spell out how our worldviews shape our work. I would have no objection. But I do think there is a critical difference between using divine internention as an explanation for events and assuming that the rules of the universe don't change.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2004

I am trying to recall, David, where I was reading lately where someone said that the problem I refer to in this post is especially pressing for Mormons because their age of transforming miracles occurs so late in human history -- almost concurrently with the era of transforming critical science to which Kuklick refers. I do not regard Mormons as Protestants; nor, I think, do they regard themselves as such. Bushman is a fine historian. I need to look at his biography of Joseph Smith.
It does seem to me, Oscar, that the problem of a beginning of all things is a rather different matter than the one to which David refers. It seems to me that a person of faith need not necessarily reify the myths which frame that faith's perspective. Having said that, I also believe that most historians vastly underestimate the deep indebtedness of all western constructions of history (including its Marxist and progressive variations) to a biblical perspective. Its legacy leads virtually all of us to assume that history is linear and that individual selves, events, and societies are unique. In order for that to be the case, we have implicitely to assume that history has a beginning (however agnostic we may be about its character) and that it moves toward an end (however agnostic we may be about its character).

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/23/2004

The text I use for World History I begins with a brief overview of human evolution. Since I assume this will be controversial, I always address it directly.
One way I've tried has been to ask students how chapter 1 would be different if it assumed a literal Biblical interpretation.

After my first attempt I discovered that most dstudents did not know the Genesis account(which I plan to do next time). Still, for the students who had some understanding of that interpretation, whether they believed it or not, the exercise helped show how a particular faith or world view could shape the telling of history.

Which brings us to Kuklick's query. I think it is possible for good history to be written from a position of faith. But it can only be good if the author makes it clear when that faith is so central to his or her work that it requires a rejection of either the facts or of an interpretation.

To not do so would be to pretend to be playing the same rules as other historians, and that would be false.

David Lion Salmanson - 3/23/2004

I don't know about all this Ralph. I do know that Dick Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith was interesting because of his trying to negotiate his Mormon faith and be true to his profession. In my opinion it was not the most successful experience. But then again, are Mormons Protestants?

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