Blogs > HNN > Update in Three Parts - Part 3

Apr 21, 2005 3:12 pm

Update in Three Parts - Part 3

3) Most important for world history, and somehow totally missed by the international media, our friend and colleague Jonathan Dresner proves once and for all on the message boards of Cliopatria that Catholicism cannot be taken seriously as God's law. He writes:
...if the Holy Spirit were an historical actor of any significance, there would only ever be one round of voting [in papal conclaves]. Maybe two, I suppose, accounting for the grevious sin to which even Cardinals as human beings are prone. I'm not trying to be flip, I'm trying to suggest that isn't an evidentiary theory that would allow us as historians to take the idea of Catholicism as God's Law seriously.

He notes elsewhere in the thread: historians we have to evaluate the causal and evidentiary claims of the religious or semi-religious no less carefully than the claims of the secular or semi-secular.

The point is made more clear later:
On the specific question [of papal conclaves], though, if I'm supposed to take the Church's claims of being sole"possessor of the keys to the gates of heaven" seriously, then I would expect the highest-ranking (and presumably holiest and closest to God, at least administratively) members of the Church to be consistently and clearly divinely aided in their deliberations on leadership. Otherwise the Church ends up sounding like a British-style constitutional monarchy: Sure, God's the head of state, but she just shows up for ceremonial ocassions (and his children get into trouble sometimes) and the actual elections, etc, are decided from below in a republican fashion. Sure, Constitutional Monarchies work OK, but that doesn't make them the pinnacle of human government or anything like that.

Professor Dresner makes some solid points about evaluating claims of historical actors that faith or divine inspiration guided them. As historians, we have to look at such claims critically, and weigh them against other more observable and tangible factors. Let me suggest, however, that when we set upon that course, we do so with a little humility. In this case, for example, I suspect there is a little more going on here than evaluating the evidence on its face. Professor Dresner offered another comment in the thread that was perhaps telling. He noted that Cardinal Ratzinger was formerly head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and added:
I did not realize, until I heard the news this morning, that the Congregation is the institution formally known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition.... I know, it's not the same thing anymore. But as an historian and as a Jew, it still seems noteworthy, a fact to"take into account" though I admit that I don't myself know how to weight it. Nobody does, yet.

Assuming that Pope Benedict is not about to dispatch an army of robot Torquemadas on an unwitting world, I think this statement by Professor Dresner, taken with all of the other statements above, indicates a pretty clear personal hostility toward the Catholic Church. Fine. As George Carlin said as Cardinal Glick in Dogma, the Catholic Church does not make mistakes, but, okay, mistakes were made. (Love the passive voice.) To those outside the church, and many within, its exclusivity and universal claims to authority on all things divine obviously chafe. Nevertheless, I'm not sure the church's mistakes or arrogant attitude somehow grant its critics the power Professor Dresner assumes in his comments.

I get it. We are talking about evaluating evidence as historians. But as Oscar Chamberlain noted in the same thread, there is an inherent difficulty for historians of the secular world in evaluating the supernatural, especially when it comes to deeply held faith. But driven by his hostility, Professor Dresner ignored that difficulty, denied it even existed, and made the claim that indeed we can weigh the influence of the supernatural in the case of papal conclaves. And the fact that it takes more than one vote to choose a pope, especially because Catholics claim to be the sole legitimate religion and because the college of cardinals are a gathering of the most senior Catholics, proves that the Holy Spirit is not a historical actor of any significance. Furthermore, that stunning evidence means that as historians we cannot take the idea of Catholicism as God's law very seriously.

More importantly, since Catholics--and many Christians--believe that Mary became pregnant with Jesus"by the power of the Holy Spirit," and that the Holy Spirit is indeed one with God, and since the Holy Spirit has been proven not to be a historical actor of any significance, as historians that means we cannot take the core ideas of Christianity seriously.

Well, that settles that. We can't keep such big news just to historians. It is only a matter or time before the word gets out. Thank goodness for the internet.

As a historian, and a Catholic, I am going to go ahead and say that I do not pretend to understand how God works. I'm going to admit that there are some things I do not understand. I am not going to let my personal feelings lead me to dismiss the faith of a billion people based on the precept that as a historian I have unlimited insight into the nature of the universe. I humbly ask my friend Professor Dresner not to qualify, but to back away from such profoundly insulting statements. After all, say what you want about the Roman Catholic Church as an organization, the church is still made up of people. People who honestly believe. People who deserve more.

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Peter Klok - 5/4/2005

I think you are now entering the field of psychology. I believe it is debatable whether the whole of anyone is all there at any one time no matter what they are up to. I believe most people qualify as schozophrenic enough to be in different parts of themselves at different times. That goes for the Popes too.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2005


Tom Bruscino - 5/2/2005


If it was a challenge, it was a poorly worded one that became offensive in its tone. But if you were being flip, then I do not have much of a problem with what you wrote.


Rich Holmes - 4/28/2005

Just didn't want you to forget about us. Appreciate the links and the spirited discussion.

Back-to-back sentence fragments, nice.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/28/2005

I forgot to cite my writing last summer on Exodus and historicity in Judaism, certainly relevant:

You want a tidbit? I was being flip -- not hostile -- and I shouldn't have said that I wasn't. But, I was really trying to create an opening for anyone else to offer an alternative metric by which a faithful (faith-full) history could be in some way reconciled with the evidentiary demands of historical epistemology. That challenge remains fundamentally unanswered and, by Dr. Bruscino's own admission, unanswerable.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/27/2005

Yes. Also working, celebrating Passover (which is part of the thinking process, actually), and entertaining visiting parents. Sleeping sometimes, if it please the court. If you're really feeling deprived, you could look up a few of my past writings on related subjects:

my earlier forays into Catholic history: and

there's some discussions at, and as well.

Ralph and Oscar's exchange at is also worth reading in this regard, as is Miriam Burstein at

Rich Holmes - 4/27/2005

Still thinking Mr. Dresner?

Ralph E. Luker - 4/23/2005

Funny that you mention the Hittites. When I was in seminary, a friend and I were having coffee one day in the student center, when one of the faculty archaeologists came over to join us. Thinking to impress him, I said "Yes, please do. We were just talking about Hittite pottery." "Very interesting," he said. "No one's ever found any Hittite pottery."

Tom Bruscino - 4/23/2005

Have you seen the Hittites?

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

Yes. Of course. But it was odd of God to choose the Jews, wasn't it? Not that I object, you understand. Just so arbitrary.

Tom Bruscino - 4/22/2005

Presuming were not joking (and Professor Dresner said he wasn't being flip), it's exactly as offensive as a quip like "How odd of God to choose the Jews."

As far as the papal conclave goes, maybe God likes to create a little suspense, maybe He wanted us to have this conversation, maybe He insists that the cardinals reach a certain honest openness in their prayers before guiding the way, maybe He was watching SportsCenter during the first few ballots. Heck, I don't know. He is God. Anything is possible, but nothing is provable for us.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

But is it really any more offensive than a quip like "How odd of God to choose the Jews"? It also presumes a sort of judgment or knowledge of how God should behave. It's odd of God to illumine 2/3's of the College of Cardinals on a fourth ballot, isn't it? (I resist all temptation to say She only took one ballot to pick GWB.)

Tom Bruscino - 4/22/2005

I agree, and let me add that I only used myself in this whole discussion as an example, because this is not about me. What Professor Dresner wrote was specifically problematic to historian Catholics, but it wasn't wrong because the target was the Catholic church.

It would be one thing as a historian to ignore God or deny the hand of God in any of man's affairs or deny the existence of God altogether, and then go from there. That is fine, because none of those positions presume to understand the way God works. But to declare that the Holy Spirit (God) was not a historical actor of any significance in the papal conclave because it took more than one vote is not to deny or ignore the existence of God, it is to presume to understand the way God would work to influence a papal conclave. That presumption, in the context of some real personal and historical problems with the Catholic Church, led to outright dismissals of the Catholic faith. That was why it was wrong.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

I agree that you don't pretend that a part of you (the historian) is not there when you are receiving the sacrament. The whole of you is there when you are being the historian and the whole of you is there when you are being the communicant. But they are two different ways of being there. The historian begins with tangible evidence, attempts to make sense of what evidence there is, and does not go beyond the limits of evidentiary reasoning. The believer begins with faith, even the fragmentary faith that we have, and builds from that toward understanding. As Augustine said: "I believe that I may understand." That's a different way of knowing than a contemporary historian's, isn't it?

Tom Bruscino - 4/22/2005

I'll make it entirely personal. If I were to write about the recent conclave, I would say as a historian that the college of cardinals believed that they were guided by the Holy Spirit. I would then try to describe what that meant. Being a Catholic might help with the process, but I do not deny that a non-Catholic could do the job just as well or better.

I take communion as a Catholic and believe that I am receiving the body and blood of Christ, but a part of me (maybe the historian) will always ask for the chemical analysis. I do not pretend that part of me is not there at Mass. Yet that part also understands that there is no human test that would prove that the bread and wine have not changed on some level.

More to the point of my post, I would never claim that I have clear proof that the cardinals did not discern the will of God or that the body and blood is not really body and blood, and imply that any historian who believes otherwise is not taking the craft seriously.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

When you are reading a history of the recent conclave, I take it that you don't expect the historian to write: "On day whatever, at least two thirds of the Cardinals who were eligible to vote discerned the will of God." That kind of statement doesn't meet our standards of evidence -- we don't claim to know the will of God or to write history as if we do.
But I take it that when you are receiving the body and blood of Christ you do not require the priest to do a chemical analysis of the host to demonstrate that transubstantiation has taken place.
That, it seems to me, suggests that there's a fairly clear difference between the historian and the believer -- even if you are the same person doing both things.

Tom Bruscino - 4/22/2005

I'll let Oscar speak for himself, but I did not read what he wrote as celebrating the insider perspective. It seemed to me he was pointing out an inherent difficulty in looking at religious affairs from a secular viewpoint.

It is a pretty huge logical jump from not claiming to understand how God works to having to make an impossible distinction between being a historian and being a believer. There will always be overlap. I don't stop being a husband or a Catholic or a sports fan or an American when I put on my historian cap. If I claimed otherwise, I would be lying. That, in theory, is what Rebunk is all about--blurring and blending our wide interests.

But I certainly understand the need to adhere to certain generally agreed upon standards of weighing evidence as a historian. To that extent, Dr. Dresner was exactly right. The problem is with falsely extending those standards to that which we cannot weigh, i.e.: God's actions.

As historians, I suppose the best we can do is acknowledge that historical actors did believe, and try to understand the nature of that belief (that is where being an insider can sometimes help and sometimes hurt), and then talk about more tangible, humanly verifiable factors. Really well done history does a good job of balancing these issues, but there is no formula to do so, and I think that was Oscar's point.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

The insider perspective was celebrated in Oscar's original observation at Cliopatria -- an observation to which you said a hearty "amen."
If we do not have "a special ability to measure God's works", aren't we obliged not to make claims about them? In other words, aren't we obliged to make a fairly sharp distinction between ourselves as historian and ourselves as believer?

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2005

I partially agree and partially disagree with the "special access" claim. I think it is an important perspective, and we would be poorer without it. However, there are people who can cross such lines with a combination of imagination, empathy, and knowledge with remarkable effect.

Also, in a different discussion, I would be defending the importance of "outside" perspectives. People outside a community, a faith, an ethnic group, whatever may be able to perceive things that those within cannot perceive, at least not without great difficulty.

In short, we always need multiple perspectives. In fact, all that I have argued for in these posts here and back at Cliopatria stems from this belief: the more vantage points we have, the better our histories will be.

Tom Bruscino - 4/22/2005

I hope this goes to the right place.

I do not believe that you have to be within a group to study it or understand it. I think being an insider can help sometimes and can hurt sometimes. The same goes for being an outsider.

In any case, that was not the point of my post or any of my comments, and I'm not sure where that is even implied. My post was simply about historians claiming that we have some special ability to measure God's works. We do not.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

Robert, You speak the creed of academic identity politics. It's a blight.

Robert Wisler - 4/22/2005


I think Tom has a legitimate claim "that a person who is inside a tradition/race/class/gender/whatever has special access to interpreting it". As a Catholic myself I would say that I have better insight into the workings of the Catholic Chruch than, say, someone that is Jewish or a member of the Assembly of God. Just as Jewish person has better insight into being Jewish and the workings of the Jewish religion than I as a Catholic do. Similarly, me being White gives me less insight into being Black, Hispanic or Asian. That is not to say that one cannot learn about a certain culture or religion. However, growing up with first hand experience does, I believe, give a person better insight into the way things work.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

I'm with you on #1 if you are talking about a thorough grounding in primary sources, but I'm inclined to think that #1 paves the way to #2. I learned too much from a conservative Jew about the tradition into which I was born and he was not; and I've seen too much of the damage done by those who think they have nothing to learn from scholars who write about things that they are not, to be very tolerant of the pavement.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2005

Thank you. That is clearer.

However, I think you are blurring two things together:

1. the ways that individual beliefs and life experience can aid historians in approaching certain topics and that, combined with solid research and writing, can lead to excellent and even unique insight, and

2. the claim that such beliefs and experience provide an exclusive or privileged access to those topics that must be considered superior regardless of the quality of research and writing

I cheerfully affirm the former. I firmly oppose the latter. And I do not think affirming the former makes the latter any more dangerous.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

An implication of what Tom has said in re Catholicism and what you had said earlier is that a person who is inside a tradition/race/class/gender/whatever has special access to interpreting it. That gets spelled out in identity history and, in its most provincial, even stakes out claims that _only those_ within the tradition, etc., have a legitimate claim to interpreting it. I hope that none of us believes that, but when you suggest that it would be particularly interesting for someone who posits miraculous interventions in conventional narratives -- because they believe such -- to tell us how it is -- I throw up my hands and say: why bother going to graduate school? Why bother with critical methods, at all?

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2005

Ralph, with great respect, I literally do not understand what you mean by "outsider history" or its exploitation by others and the evils I might be inadvertently encouraging. It's even possible we're in agreement; that's how confused I am. Therefore I cannot respond to most of your comment.

However, I can say that my comments are not intended to Balkanize history, Instead I would expand its embrace in two ways. 1) by making clear that it is possible to respect and learn from a study of history that is not based on a "scientific model" so long as it is honest, competent, respectful of all facts, and conscious of the points where faith enters, and
2)by pointing to the truth, as I see it, that the boundary between a "scientific approach" to history and a history in which elements of faith intrude is not a sharp line at all but a really blurry one.

As an example, go back to the debate, substitute the word "Marxist" for "Catholic," and consider Genovese's work on slavery. No, it's not a precise analogy, but if you consider Marxism more faith than science it's an intriguing one.

PS I put "scientific model" and "scientific approach" in quotes because, while the terms are useful here, in the old debate over whether history is an art or a science, I come down firmly on the side of art.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

Leave no opportunity to attack Luker untaken, Jason! I would have thought that as many times as you've needed to apologize for the trigger finger attacks on me that you'd have reformed yourself. That's called learning.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

You would be correct to limit claims as you do in your second paragraph. I see no evidence in Dresner's comments that he would not similarly limit his claims. On the other hand, the attitude expressed in Chamberlain's comments, that you celebrate, that "outsider" history is, by reason of its being "outside", suspect, is the great refuge of scoundrels in our time. (Just to be clear, I'm not calling Oscar a scoundrel. He simply gives voice to a claim that others have exploited ruthlessly.) And, if we weren't talking here about Catholicism, I suspect it's one you wouldn't have patience with. It's the claim that threatens to Balkanize historical study by excluding all outsiders -- and, truth to tell, we're all outsiders with respect to some subjects.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2005

No, not really.

Jason Nelson - 4/21/2005

Mr Dresner--the "Anti"-Luker.

Tom Bruscino - 4/21/2005

I have no problem with people in a public forum challenging the tenets of Catholicism. Feel free. It was the nature of this specific criticism that I found insulting.

I might be skeptical of an Assembly of God preacher speaking in tongues, but that is a far cry from me saying that, if, for example, that preacher dies of a heart attack at a young age, we have proof positive that God was not speaking through him. Better yet, when we kill or capture Osama bin Laden and his movement fails, I would never declare that we now have rock solid evidence that Osama did not speak for Allah.

I don't know how God works. That evidence is not weighable, even as historians. That was Oscar's point, and an excellent one at that. But Dr. Dresner set up an evidentiary standard by which historians must judge God's works, and by that standard said that as historians there was no way to 'take the idea of Catholicism as God's Law seriously.' Where does that leave historian Catholics? Are we bad historians for taking our religion seriously?

I'm not trying to set my self up here as defender of the faith or anything. I just think that in this case, distaste for the Catholic Church as an institution led to some false claims about our ability to judge Catholicism as a faith.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2005

This is not my response to Dr. Bruscino's analysis and charges. This is just an acknowledgement, publicly, that I've seen them and am going to respond to them in my own time and fashion. Anyone else is entirely welcome to join the discussion on their own terms, but I would ask that people try, at least a bit, to avoid speaking "for" me. I will speak for myself, when I have decided what I need and want to say.

These are serious issues, and though the blogging medium and culture of digital immediacy doesn't strongly support slow discussions, that is what I intend to do: think carefully and respond carefully, and it will take some time.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/21/2005

Tom, Jon Dresner can certainly respond for himself in whatever forum he chooses, but I don't understand your claim that anything he has said is "profoundly insulting." In the first place, neither he nor I are Catholics and it's strange to act as if those of us who are not Catholics must not say anything about these matters or must speak as if we were Catholics or that we must defer to those who are Catholics. I see no reason why, as historians, we should not be skeptical of claims that what has taken place in the conclave of the Cardinals is inspired by the Holy Spirit. I assume that you would be skeptical when an Assembly of God preacher starts speaking in tongues and claims that what he has said is directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. I assume that you would be skeptical when Ossama bin Ladin claims to speak on behalf of Allah. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the claims. We do have reason to be skeptical of the claims.