On the failure of history—and historians—without Christ
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By Dr. Jeff Mirus, Jan 29, 2015
Your Editor’s note: Our country’s beginning was framed with God and His Son in mind.
When I was a brash young graduate student in the very early 1970s, Professor Lawrence Stone tried to teach me that the English Revolution and civil war were essentially caused by social and demographic factors, and that the previous emphasis on religious differences was essentially laughable. I remember telling him, with my classic humility, that he had the cart before the horse. (Extaordinarly witty, no? But it is deceptively easy to draw down on a professor when you’re 22, you’ve been admitted to the Ivy League, and you already know everything.)
It so happened that Professor Stone did not like my attention to religious beliefs as historical motivators, and so he did what any open-minded sceptic would do: He tried to get my fellowship revoked so I could not continue to study at Princeton. Amazingly, this turned out to be a violation of the rules as long as my grades were good. But it also taught me a significant lesson about how academic reputations are made (usually by attacking someone else’s theory) and retained (usually by advancing students who have become your clones).
In fairness, I did not have a scholarly temperament. I know CatholicCulture.org readers are sometimes frustrated by the abstruseness of my presentations (the rule here is to call this “intellectual depth”). But just imagine what my writing would be like if I were still a professor, with frightened graduate students hanging on my every word!
A few days ago, Thomas Van forwarded me a link to a recent article by Samuel Moyn in The Nation. Entitled Bonfire of the Humanities, Moyn’s essay reports the fear among contemporary historians that their audience is shrinking, and the concern many of them feel to find a new wave of interpretation that will boost the audience once again. He points out, quite rightly, that academics have relied for decades on a string of ever-changing theories of human behavior to keep their work fresh in the hope that it will therefore be compelling.
Historians have been no exception. I can remember being asked as a college senior, in at least one interview assessing my potential academic competence, what I thought of “quantum history”—which was then Just the Latest Thing. I was sorely tempted to burp and excuse myself. But I knew that quantum history involved the use of computers to analyze measurable data drawn from particular historical settings. And I cleverly allowed that this has some value for periods with too much data, as it enables an intelligent operator to ask the computer certain kinds of questions. But quantum history is hard on those who prefer to study the more distant past, where social, demographic and economic data are rather thin on the ground.
I carefully failed to note that the whole theory reveals itself as absurd when you understand its definition of an event to be an “irruption of the data”. (Remember, it was my academic competence that was being assessed. In such cases, a genuflection to jargon covers a multitude of sins.)
In fact quantum history did become absurd because it takes human insight to grasp human history. It takes human insight just to recognize an event when you see one. The whole point of human history is that a human event is never reducible to a data explosion. Of course, this emphasis on insight has stopped nobody from transforming particular insights into ideologies, which is just as bad. The “Meaning of History” has been rewritten in waves by Marxists, secularists, feminists, gays, those who believe in nothing but power, and many others who demand fresh interpretations because they think the human person is either (1) a product of other forces or (2) an artifact to be remade in the historian’s image. Nor does it hurt that rapid adoption of the latest fevered fashions tends strongly toward padding the paycheck.
Understanding the Person
It is true that historical writing can be as varied as the people it describes and the purposes it serves. Sometimes we may be interested in a grand narrative, sometimes in cultural influences, sometimes in social life, sometimes in economic developments, sometimes in political power, and sometimes only in wars or, on the other hand, only in the particular stories of particular people. In just the same way, we may genuinely wish to explore prior times and places for strengths and weaknesses in some particular area—whether in racial matters, relations between the sexes, or the relationship between the dominant and the dispossessed at any given time. There are as many ways to look into history as there are human interests.
But history can be written neither truthfully nor beneficially without a significant understanding of the human person—his nature, his powers, his characteristic weaknesses, his desires and motivations, and how these things gain influence across cultures and within political institutions. Those who no longer understand the human person—who generally deny, in fact, that human beings are persons, or who do not even know what it means to be a person—really cannot write history. (Nor can such persons do many other things that require coherent thought.)
And yet there remains the historian’s guild, the historian’s little circle in academe. The guild can at least try to keep the pot boiling by utilizing the squishy academic process to float ever-more astounding theories. Perhaps one or another of them might coincide with the latest thoughtless trend, and so hit the jackpot of prestige, payment, and (if we must admit it) popularity. The three Ps.
At the human level, the next most important point after understanding human nature as operative in human persons is taking human motivation seriously. While people often deceive themselves and others about their motivations (and certainly the historian must be on guard against self-serving sources), it is critical that the historian not dismiss particular motivations simply because he or she cannot imagine being motivated by them. To take a common example, for the secular historian to dismiss religion as a motivation in all situations, just because he and his contemporaries find it incomprehensible, is a serious historical error. More broadly, if your soul is essentially dead to the full range of human motivation, you cannot be sensitive to what makes other people—or other cultures—tick.
But it is precisely understanding what makes people tick that is essential to the historian’s task. To get at this, he must pay close attention to how historical groups describe their own motivation, without failing to test his judgments against their subsequent actions. To grasp this point, all anyone needs to do is read a biography. Biographies are both uninteresting and misleading if they do not pay attention to the influences and concerns which the subject thought important. The historian is not free to reject his subject’s motivations because they are not operative in his own worldview.
Successful biography is an excellent guide to how to do particular history. If we are not to debunk the meanings and motivations which a single subject saw in his own life, then neither may we dismiss or debunk the meanings which guide whole peoples in the lives of their societies. There is complexity in this, of course. But genuine sensitivity—genuine openness to the other—is essential. This is why some non-believing historians can write well of believers (and vice versa). Consider Mark Twain’s biography of Joan of Arc. Exactly the same sensitivity is required for political, economic, social, intellectual and cultural history; and even more is required to paint the whole picture.
It is necessary to add that the entire picture goes beyond what a particular society found valuable and motivating. We cannot resist judgment; nor should we try. The meaning of history consists at least partially in assessing strengths and weaknesses in persons and societies and cultures. This is not only necessary to learn from history, but also to understand it in a more universal and complete way. Just as the aggressively secular historian who rejects God (and rejects even the nature of the person) cannot possibly write a coherent account of human history, so too does the Christian historian see an overall meaning to both particular personal histories and to History (with a capital H) as a whole.
The Christian has an understanding of both the meaning and the lessons of history which is ultimately rooted in the gift of Faith, faith in the God who personally entered into human history in order to claim it as His own. Inescapably, then, the Faith illumines the relationship of each person, each society and even all of history itself with God. This understanding must influence a Christian’s historical writing. It is a vital source of insight, significance and judgment. And yet it seems clear that most professional historians who happen to be Christian or Catholic have had this beaten out of them in graduate school.
Interestingly, Christopher Shannon and Christopher O. Blum, who are historians at Christendom College and the Augustine Institute respectively, have co-authored a book which seeks to trace a path believing historians can take to recover and appropriate the meaning of the past for new generations. The title is significant: The Past as Pilgrimage. The subtitle is “Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History”.
This is not a review of The Past as Pilgrimage. The book, I think, is one that only a Christian academic historian can love. But in fact Christian academic historians really should love it, because it suggests important ways in which they can renew their craft through their own life of faith, while actually enhancing the sensitivity and objectivity upon which modern secular historians rightly insist, but which too many of them—radically divorced from truth and highly prejudiced—honor only in the breach. So if you are an historian by trade, you must (I choose this word advisedly) read Shannon and Blum.
Lesser luminaries have already absolved themselves by reading, well, me.
The late Warren Carroll, the founder of Christendom College and a serious historian gifted with great narrative flair, once wrote: “History can be summed up in five words: Truth exists. The Incarnation happened.” Carroll’s particular approach to the Incarnational reality of history will not be for everyone. A very different approach, still rooted in the Incarnation, was exemplified a little earlier by the great Christopher Dawson. Shannon and Blum (who once also taught at Christendom College) are more in the Dawsonian mold (as, in fact, am I).
Actually, this makes Carroll far more fun to read, as his work is less concerned with cultures and trends and formative ideas, and more concerned with real people as they participate in specific events, that is, with heroes and villains and everyone caught between the two. But the great governing truths at work in Dawson, Carroll, Shannon and Blum (and I hope in myself) come from the same Source.
Again, what we must understand about the work of the historian is that the first requirement is to recognize and understand the human person, remaining always sensitive to the self-disclosures of persons and societies in the situations under study. The historian eviscerates the truth of his any particular history whenever he imposes on it a worldview which was not operative in the scrutinized time and place, or in the specific persons he seeks to describe. In doing so he insists on goals his subjects did not have, motives by which they were not moved—and mistake by which they were not ruled.
Still, it goes without saying that to get the full benefit of history, both historians and their readers must also perceive the overall plan and purpose. Outside of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, no overall plan or purpose has yet to be advanced—unless you call Fate or warfare among the gods or survival of the fittest a “plan”. But the Christian understands that history is indeed a strange, befuddled and wonderful pilgrimage into the fullness of Christ (see for example 1 Cor 15:28 and Rev 21:5).
That is why those who do not know Christ cannot write a complete history. But those who do not know the human person cannot write history at all.