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May 2, 2004 8:20 am


Doing History as an Act of Faith and a Faithless Act ...



Our colleague, Hugo Schwyzer, stirred the waters at Cliopatria last week with his post,"Christian Historians." It was not the first time his subject was discussed here. Reflecting on an essay by Penn's Bruce Kuklick over a month ago, I asked"Can One Be Both a Historian and a Person of Faith?" For whatever reason, the Cliopatriarch of Los Angeles provoked a more dramatic reaction. It led to fairly tough exchanges over at ButterfliesandWheels and, ultimately, to the resignation of our former colleague, Ophelia Benson.

We regret that development. Ophelia Benson brought a keen wit and wide-ranging interest in historical matters to Cliopatria. We will miss her. Her resignation came, however, as no great surprise. Repeatedly, she foreshadowed it with references to its possibility. I interpreted them as threats and urged her not to leave. She said she was merely thinking about it. In the end, however, she was unwilling to participate in discussions in which certain kinds of questions were asked and certain kinds of statements were made. Repeatedly, several of us urged her to stand her ground, remain among us, and make her case for the kind of empiricist inquiry she believes history to be. In the end, she decided that she would not. She has resigned from Cliopatria. Several Cliopatriarchs are now unwelcome to discussions at Butterflies and Wheels and Cliopatria has been deleted from its blogroll. Still, we welcome Ophelia Benson to comments here and Butterflies and Wheels remains on our blogroll.

I disagree with both Ophelia Benson's sense of what historical inquiry is and ought to be and with some of the claims made by Hugo Schwyzer. More important than her departure from us, however, are other responses on the net to his claims. Jonathan Dresner pointed to the responses by Brian Ulrich at Brian's Study Breaks and Anne Zook at Peevish. There is, yet, a third response by The Little Professor. My colleague, Hugo Schwyzer, ought to ponder all three of those critiques of his claims and to keep in mind that the Little One is especially well qualified to speak to these issues because she is a student of earlier efforts at writing providential history or, as the Germans call it, heilsgeschichte.

Let me be clear: it is not the business of historians to write heilsgeschichte. As one of my seminary professors irreverently put it: heilsgeschichte/horsegeschichte. Providential history is horsegeschichte because, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out, it is not subject to falsification. History as we know it must be subject to proof and disproof. Providential history is not. Having said that, I do think that the writing of history relies on a meta-historical frame of reference which is clearly biblical in origin. Beyond that, it is one largely shared by historians of whatever persuasion, even if they are overtly hostile to religious belief. We are indebted to the Hebrews, Mark Noll and Hugo Schwyzer, -- not to the Christians -- for a linear view of history. It essentially assumes that history had a beginning somewhere in the distant past and that it moves toward some end. Its linearity means that individuals and events are unique and distinct. They are not repetitions of the same; nor are they interchangeable parts. It often assumes that something drastically changed a right beginning and anticipates the hope of a restoration at history's end. Whether done by Marxists, conservatives, progressives, feminists, or liberal humanists, virtually all history -- including that respected by our friends at Butterflies and Wheels -- is done with these meta-historical faith assumptions. Without them, it is a vanity.

Finally, our pluralism at Cliopatria will assure our readers that we are not and will not become a"religious site" and that our hard-nosed colleagues will scrub the"woolly thinking" of the rest of us. And if they fail to do so, three new Cliopatriarchs will join us shortly. If they do not part the waters, they will surely stir them even further.

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Anne Zook - 5/6/2004

Where are my manners? I should have said this before. Clearly I need to do some reading, and thank you, Jonathan, for the explanation.

This clarifies the meaning of the entire original post, and explains a lot of the things that were confusing me. (This is the problem with hanging around with experts...you can't necessarily understand what they're saying just because you recognize all the words.)


Lonely Undergrad - 5/5/2004

...is everything.

"Finally, our pluralism at Cliopatria will assure our readers that we are not and will not become a "religious site"..."

As someone who has only recently found this site and the various discussions within it, the perception immediately given by a random sampling of articles is that this is indeed a "religious site". Your presumption that all history, done by anyone, must be informed by some religious conviction lest it be tainted as "vanity" serves only to reinforce this view - as does this rather condescending portion of one of your replies:

"Finally, as for the meta-historical assumptions, no one claimed that they were self-conscious ones. If you are not aware of their lurk within you, it may be because a) you are no historian or b) because you haven't looked."

This brings to mind some of the most pompous professors I've ever encountered, inasmuch as there is no possible way for you to know what lurks beneath the mind of someone, and the casual dismissal of someone who disagrees as being "no historian" is a distinct muter of any other type of discussion, as it's clear you've already determined for the sake of everyone else what is "proper".

I have no Ph.D, nor do I have a Master's. I am a student of history, and eventually I may add those particular abbreviations to my collection - I plan to. However, I am disturbed by the ready dismissal of those who disagree with you and the claims that this site is open to all viewpoints, because in passing, it certainly does not appear to be.

--Undergrad


Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

Read what I said. I didn't say that one must have religious assumptions in order to write history.
Ophelia Benson made the issue of her not being a historian and not having an advanced degree. I didn't. They had nothing to do with why she was asked to join us or why she left.
I didn't dismiss anyone. I do reserve the right to reply to statements made to and about me.
As for my pomposity, it's unselfconscious. I hadn't looked for it.


Anne Zook - 5/4/2004

That's okay then. I'd rather grade myself. :) I tend to have higher standards than others do.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2004

I teach for free. I get paid for grading.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/4/2004

Anne, You are right. I continue to be impressed by the generosity of my colleagues at Cliopatria. That generosity, characteristic of a natural love of teaching and learning, is also evident on many of the other fine academic blogs on the net.


Anne Zook - 5/4/2004

I'm just saying.

Do you guys realize what I'd have to pay to get this education in a classroom? :)


Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2004

The unspoken understanding Ralph Luker is pointing to when he says that the linear understanding of history in the Torah, etc., is an important turning point is this: before the idea of teleological (rough definition: goal-oriented; moving towards a known end; purposeful) history, most obviously the millenarian (roughly: radical reform) eschatology (roughly: endtimes, a climactic struggle, etc.) of the Jewish messianic ideal (which the Jews may have gotten, at least in part, from the Zoroastrians in Persia), every other history-writing society had a cyclic and repetitious view of history. (Now you can see why he left it unsaid, by the way: we can't talk about it in anything resembling normal language, apparently)

A few examples: the epic cycles of Sumeria; the Egyptian Nile cycle (and general sense of timelessness); the Confucian Dynastic Cycle; the Hindu/Buddhist cycles of birth and rebirth, both of individuals and the universe as a whole.

I think the switch from teleological narrative to historical analysis which comes with the Greek historians is the true starting point of history writing in the Western tradition, though there is some argument about whether the Greeks are building on the Jewish foundation. The Chinese also managed to create analytical history, within their cyclic Confucian framework, one which Hugo would probably find quite intriguing for its explicit connections between proper study, personal morality, good governance and social harmony. But there are real limits to the analysis created within that framework which the Chinese don't really begin to break out of until the Qing (17c-19c) era.


Anne Zook - 5/4/2004

Having said that, I do think that the writing of history relies on a meta-historical frame of reference which is clearly biblical in origin. Beyond that, it is one largely shared by historians of whatever persuasion, even if they are overtly hostile to religious belief.

Pardon my uneducated ignorance :) but I don't see that the first is true and I don't see that the second necessarily follows from the first. I'd suggest that there are thousands of years of history from perspectives that have nothing to do with the Western biblical mythology.

We are indebted to the Hebrews, Mark Noll and Hugo Schwyzer, -- not to the Christians -- for a linear view of history.

Here's another place where my lack of familiarity with "academic" phrasing seems to be tripping me up. This statement says to me that Hebrews, and only Hebrews, were capable of interpreting history in a linear fashion.

I doubt that and, further, I can't see that it makes any difference if it was Hebrews, Christians, or Moors. I think there's some kind of unspoken assumption here that your fellow historians understand but that I'm missing.

It essentially assumes that history had a beginning somewhere in the distant past and that it moves toward some end. Its linearity means that individuals and events are unique and distinct. They are not repetitions of the same; nor are they interchangeable parts.

Granted, granted, granted.

It often assumes that something drastically changed a right beginning and anticipates the hope of a restoration at history's end.

Only if you're viewing through a christian religious bias. My own interpretation (not valid in this context, I know because I'm not "a historian" but....) doesn't agree with that at all.

Whether done by Marxists, conservatives, progressives, feminists, or liberal humanists, virtually all history -- including that respected by our friends at Butterflies and Wheels -- is done with these meta-historical faith assumptions. Without them, it is a vanity.

I not only doubt that, I'd ask you to expand upon it. Aside from Marxist texts specifically written to counter theological assumptions, I doubt that Marxism bases its entire view of history on "meta-historical faith assumptions."

I'd also like to protest the "vanity" remark. Mostly because I don't understand what you mean by it.

I might suggest, in my amateur way, that there's a significant difference between making use of theology-based texts from the distant past and personally basing one's world-view, or history-world-view on the mythology within them.

I agree that, in order to study a society where a faith in some mythology is deeply ingrained into the near-universal psyche, it's legitimate and necessary to accept that those myths held true for those people but that's far from what you seem to be saying...that the historian personally accepts some greater "truth inherent in that mythology.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

"them" certainly could have been clearer.


Anne Zook - 5/3/2004

Jonathan, for the record, I didn't correctly interpret the "let them speak to the issue" remark. I don't believe I've ever run across that particular phrasing before but I should have understood your meaning from the context. My apologies.


chris l pettit - 5/3/2004

Can't we all just get along?

I know I am a relative newcomer to the site and to posting at the blog, but it seems that there needs to be someone to step in and protest when scholars act like four year olds. I know that might sting, but look at your comments!

Ophelia...I am prone to agree with much of what you say, and am with you that I have no Phd in history...my doctorate and advanced degrees are in law. That does not mean that I have nothing to bring to the discussion. i am versed in history and religion and think I have a pretty good handle on things. I don't think you should shut yourself off from others just because they are human, fallible, and can act a bit self righteous at times.

Ralph...while I respect your positions I cannot totally agree with most of them. And once in a while you have had the occasion to act a bit self righteous...or at least come off that way.

I think this discussion and those that have taken place over the past couple weeks illustrate the difference between a religious view of history...especially the beginning and end of it...and a secular/rational view...and why religion is best left on the sidelines in politics and mainstream historical analysis.

Funny thing...I have to return to Karen Armstrong here...throughout history there have been struggles between the mysticists and the rationalists...from Averroes to Al Ghazzalli (I can never spell it right) in Islam to the struggles of Thomas Aquinas and others in Christianity (influenced by the introduction of Aristotle into the West by Islam I should add) to the controversy between orthodoxy in the East and personal Christianity in the West, to struggles between the parties in Judaism. The fact is...there are problems with getting too far in either direction. I personally swing towards rationalism and human reason except to acknowledge there is a higher power (who cares what you call it) and that it is unfathomable. besides that, i think the Western idea of a personal god is a terrible misinterpretation of Scripture and a direct result of the closemindedness of the church community during the Dark Ages. but that is my opinion and it should not affect my political decisions or historical analysis. If it makes me unwelcome, so be it.

Oh by the way...Ralph...it was Augustine who was the dolt who misinterpreted the Pentateuch to discriminate against women...I forgot that last week. And there was Jewish discrimination against the Muslims in Medina by the Jews...as well as persecution...after Muhammed introduced strict monotheism...the Jews in Medina still worshiped traditional deities as well as a Supreme God (much the way Abraham did).

Anyway...I just am sad to see smart individuals find a topic in which they can't discuss as though they can reach a common understanding of each others positions. It is a shame that we interpret each others comments as trying to impose our beliefs on one another (I am very suspicious of any missionary work). I would hope that since we speak of not imposing our beliefs on one another in politics we would not do so in the blogosphere as well. I have a wonderful friend who is an attorney who spent several years in seminary and we always seem to be able to love another for who we are. he still ribs me about finding Christ every once in a while to keep me thinking...and I can get pretty frustrated that his answers to some questions is to return to the maker, but we try and reach a common understanding and broaden each others minds...and our own in the process.

One reason i was so keen on engaging in discussions here instead of on the main site is because on the main site you find individuals who are closeminded and talking to them is like bouncing a rubber ball off a brick wall. I would be dismayed to find that is the case here as well.

if I have overstepped my bounds I sincerely apologise and ask forgiveness. I just was hurt seeing others bicker and speak past one another...by the way...I go with a Buddhist philosophy (which means I feel empathy when people hurt one another and forceful compassion when i see law and human rights walked all over), so all this talk about gods and what they think seems really silly to me...i have to go back to my altar boy days when I was Roman Catholic growing up to remember some of this stuff.

not to add to the sausage fest, but if you are looking for another member and could tolerate a slimey human rights lawyer (who cares about those anymore...supposed to be funny, but really kinda sad now that I think about it) let me know

CP


Ophelia Benson - 5/3/2004

Of course it was my choice! What's to admit? Indeed it was my choice, and a very good one. After reading the extraordinary comments you've posted today I'm only sorry I ever joined - now that I do regret. That was a big mistake.

Still, it's been educational, in a way.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

That's what I meant by "We'll have to let them speak to the issue."


Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2004

The discussion with you, at least, does seem to continue. As you know, you chose to resign, so you might admit that it was your choice. As you know, all Cliopatriarchs have an opportunity to comment on the admission of new ones. Your note tipped the balance against one person. As you know, you endorsed the admission of one you subsequently found objectionable. As you know but discount here, one of the problems in recruiting strong female voices is the inclination of academic women on the net to pseudonymity/anonymity on the net. Why not be real clever and go tell Liberty & Power, The Volokh Conspiracy, or Crooked Timber that they've also got gender balance problems? Always good to have your advice, though, even when it later turns out that you think that you were wrong.


Ophelia Benson - 5/3/2004

And speaking from my privileged position as one with experience - if you're planning to cut off discussions with members (it's different with ex-members) on the grounds that they're "no historians" - then don't invite non-historians to join. Is that sage advice or what!

Probably all the more so in the case of women. I've seen some unkind snickering here and there in blogoville about Cliopatria's - er - gender imbalance. So under the circumstances, bait and switch techniques might not be ideal PR.

No doubt it was the snickering that prompted the invitation to the non-historian. Always a mistake, that sort of thing. Hold out for the best, and let people snicker.


Anne Zook - 5/2/2004

Why don't you ask the new members when you invite them to join?

Deciding how women prefer to be referred to without consulting them is rather...patriarchical. ;)


Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

Actually, my understanding of both Herodotus and Thucydides (especially the latter) is that they were using history as a form of social science: examining the past to determine the rules and systems of human society. That project, present in history today as well, raises the question of whether it really views individuals as unique, distinct, non-repetitive. It seems to me that to some degree the project of history as a social science depends on the controlling and unifying aspects of social systems, which renders us less individual and repetition more likely.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

And we really should resolve the question of title: is Cliopatriarch a gender-neutral term, or should it be Cliomatriarch for our female colleages. Would that be discriminatory, or at least seem discriminatory? I think we'll have to let them speak to the issue.


Adam Kotsko - 5/2/2004

At least one of the new Cliopatriarchs had better be female -- this site is becoming a veritable sausage fest.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/2/2004

Your chronological sense of when I became "pissed off" is mistaken here. That would be considered a flaw, were you a historian. I was simply trying to explain to Anne Zook that preferences about entitlements vary fairly dramatically and contextually. You take offense at my democratic conclusion, even though no offense was intended. You were, of course, looking for an excuse.


Ophelia Benson - 5/2/2004

Good grief, of course not! No, I was shocked (not offended) by the fact that 1) you invited me to join despite blatant (and perfectly unapologetic - I don't want one) lack of doctorate, and 2) that you never mentioned blatant (unapologetic) lack of doctorate until you were pissed off, and then you suddenly felt a need to point it out - even though you were the one who invited me to join in the first place. There's something shocking in that kind of sly spitefulness in a grownup...

I feel no need to "defend" B&W, though I did make considerable effort to explain our policies in my first comment.

This has been fun. Thanks again for the welcome.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/2/2004

You took offense at a statement of fact? Empiricist that you are? Atleast you made no effort to defend the language and policies at B & W. Prudent of you.


Ophelia Benson - 5/2/2004

Beg pardon, it wasn't Friday, it was Wednesday. In a comment on Kliopatriarchs in Konclave.

"I'm largely kidding about all this, of course. Conventions vary widely and personal tastes vary, even among us. If you look at Michael Tinkler's Cranky Professor, you'll find that he's fairly formal about these things. It's Professor Burke, Professor Reynolds, etc., over there. That offends no one. Addressing someone you don't know by the first name risks unwanted familiarity. Not all of us are professors and one of us has no doctorate. Mr. Luker or Ms. Benson risks no offense, even though I hold a doctorate."

As for not urging - well you didn't use the word "urge," that's true. But you did say -

"Still, we welcome Ophelia Benson to comments here and Butterflies and Wheels remains on our blogroll."

I suppose you must understand the word "welcome" differently from the way I do. No matter. I've got it straight now.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/2/2004

Remind me, if you will, where the comment about your not having a doctorate was. As I recall, you brought it up on Cliopatria's comment boards and I couldn't imagine where that came from. I don't urge you to comment here. I urged you to remain one of us and pointed out that you continue to be free to comment here. We've both noted a lot of talking past each other and I note at B & W and in your comments here what seems to me to be a distinct determination to misread and misinterpret what I do say. I'm not sure that this discussion is likely to be productive.


Ophelia Benson - 5/2/2004

Blimey. I take it back about the nature of the comment. Whew.

Thanks for the reminder, also the one on Friday about not having a doctorate. (You forgot to mention that I don't have an MA either, so I did it for you.) Er - you knew that when you asked me to join Cliopatria, so it seems a little...um...malicious? to start suddenly dwelling on it now.

Also a little bizarre to urge me to go on commenting here and then when I do -

Ah well. I'm no historian and I never look for my own assumptions, so mine is not to reason why.

Mind you, you didn't answer the questions. But no doubt I wouldn't have understood if you had, on account of being so iggerant and all.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/2/2004

When a discussion at Butterflies and Wheels begins with its owner declaring the subjects of discussion to be "maniacs," somehow it seems like an unwelcoming gesture. When that is confirmed by the owner's declaration of copyright on the words of anyone foolhardy enough to post there, he appears to be within his legal rights, but it is a chilling thrust against free thought and discussion. The double effect assures B & W that several of us at Cliopatria will not darken B & W's doors.
Gently and without condescension, I remind Ophelia Benson that she makes no claim to being a historian and I remind her that, however wrongheaded may be the claims of Mark Noll and George Marsden, they are historians of distinct accomplishment. Their work remains fair game at Cliopatria, if not at B & W.
Finally, as for the meta-historical assumptions, no one claimed that they were self-conscious ones. If you are not aware of their lurk within you, it may be because a) you are no historian or b) because you haven't looked.


Ophelia Benson - 5/2/2004

That's a very interesting and even-handed comment, Ralph. I'd like to clarify a couple of points. It's not true that several Cliopatriarchs are unwelcome to discussions at Butterflies and Wheels - only that theological discussion is. So, this kind of meta-discussion is entirely welcome; it's when it develops into discussion of the nature of putative deities that it's not. My colleague had exactly the same rule at the discussion board for The Philosophers' Magazine Online, a DB that he moderated for five years, until he had to close it down because TPM was so flourishing and busy that he didn't have time to moderate it any more. Of course, it seemed like a terrible, arbitrary, free-speech-suppressing rule to some participants there, too, and they said so frequently. But my colleague was unmoved. That's just the nature of this particular DB, he always replied. It has a subject matter, and religion is not part of the subject matter. It's the same with B&W. It is an avowedly, explicitly rationalist site, so once the discussion veers into examination of unfalsifiable entities, we seem to be abandoning our own mission. Hence the rule. It is not intended to render anyone unwelcome.

And it's the same with the deletion of Cliopatria from our Links. I link to very few blogs, and they have to be on topic (on topic from our point of view, that is). I deleted Clio for the same reason I left: it seems to have become an avowedly religious site, and that's just not part of our remit. Maybe I'm wrong! Maybe it hasn't become that. But for the moment that's how it appears to me.

Now to the substance.

"We are indebted to the Hebrews, Mark Noll and Hugo Schwyzer, -- not to the Christians -- for a linear view of history. It essentially assumes that history had a beginning somewhere in the distant past and that it moves toward some end. Its linearity means that individuals and events are unique and distinct. They are not repetitions of the same; nor are they interchangeable parts."

Is that true?

There are several parts to it. Perhaps some parts are true and others not? I for one don't believe that history does move 'toward some end' - if that means some particular, specific, purposeful end. But I suppose I believe it had 'a beginning' - depending on how that's defined: whether we're talking about history the field of inquiry, or history itself, in which case it would be a bit difficult to pin down a beginning like a point. When the first hominid stood up? When the first hominid spoke? When writing was first invented and history the inquiry thus became at least possible? Tricky. I suppose we could say the Big Bang was the beginning - but then what about the history of the time before the Big Bang? At which point my head always starts to hurt.

At any rate, what of Herodotus and Thucydides? Wouldn't they agree with this - "Its linearity means that individuals and events are unique and distinct. They are not repetitions of the same; nor are they interchangeable parts"? It certainly seems to me they were both examining change over time, process, things happening - the very opposite of repetitions and interchangeables.

"It often assumes that something drastically changed a right beginning and anticipates the hope of a restoration at history's end. Whether done by Marxists, conservatives, progressives, feminists, or liberal humanists, virtually all history -- including that respected by our friends at Butterflies and Wheels -- is done with these meta-historical faith assumptions. Without them, it is a vanity."

Well I for one have zero expectation or hope of a restoration at history's end. That's exactly what I meant in one of those discussions at B&W when I said 'there is no eventually!' That's a line of thought that always exasperates me when talking to for instance free speech absolutists who say things like 'the truth will prevail eventually.' When is that? There is no eventually in that sense, there's only now. If untruth is causing everyone you know to be wiped out in a genocide because of Radio Milles Collines, for example, the notion that the truth will prevail eventually is very scant comfort indeed. In fact it's strictly meaningless. 'Eventually' just means someone else's 'now.'

So I get to plead not guilty to that one. I don't think I do share 'these meta-historical faith assumptions.' In fact I'm pretty sure I don't. As for vanity - I don't agree with that either. I think understaning is a good in itself, for one thing. Not much use when the people with machetes approach, but good all the same.

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