Blogs > Cliopatria > Sifting through the questions on Christian history

May 3, 2004 12:44 pm

Sifting through the questions on Christian history

I've been working at formulating a response to the critics of my post on Christian Historians. Obviously, I blurred together several issues. Reading the critics here and here and here and here and at Cliopatria itself has been most illuminating. Basically, there are three questions that need to be answered, and I haven't done much to answer any of them satisfactorily:

First, is there such a thing as"Christian History"? Do Christian historians do"history" differently because of their presuppositions about God's role in human affairs?

Second, is there an equivalence between an explicitly Christian approach to history and a"feminist", or"Marxist", or"Post-Structuralist" approach? If we accept Marxist and feminist historians -- and their ideological commitments -- within the secular academy, why do we not also accept evangelicals? Or is there some explicit difference between Marxism and Christianity that makes the former more palatable than the latter?

Third, to what degree can a Christian historian in a secular academic environment honor both his obligations to his profession and to the Great Commission? Can we use history as an evangelistic tool in a public institution without betraying our commitments to Caesar, our employer and paymaster?

Let me do things out of order and tackle the third question -- which is perhaps the most obviously" charged" of these -- first.

Among other things, I've been"googling" about, looking for more on the subject. I came across this paper from 1999 by a Robert McKenzie of the University of Washington, entitled"Christian Faith and the Study of History: A View from the Classroom". McKenzie is discouraged by the rise of"postmodern relativism" within the culture and its impact upon students' willingness to think deeply and critically about the"meaning of life". He and I seem to have similar students:

...the most common type of student I have encountered appears to possess no deeply-held convictions of any kind, much less anything approaching a consciously articulated world view, however immature. I find it relatively easy to show such students the nihilistic implications of philosophical relativism, but getting them to care is a more difficult matter. And in spite of all the talk about the"angst" felt by"generation X," I doubt that this is an entirely new phenomenon. More than a half-century ago, C. S. Lewis noted that,"for every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be guarded from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts."

This does not make the job of the Christian historian impossible, however:

The good news is that, for scholars who wish to do so, it is a simple task to structure their history courses in such a way that they touch regularly upon"Permanent Things," i.e., questions of explicitly religious significance. This need not be orchestrated artificially, furthermore, but rather develops naturally when students are encouraged to use history as well as understand it, to evaluate the past as well as describe and explain it. Indeed, I would argue that, at least for the teaching of history, it is the exclusion of religious questions that is artificial. This should not be surprising, of course, given that history as a discipline focuses so centrally on the experience of humans, including the ultimate questions that they have always confronted"about the nature and meaning of the world, and of [their] existence in it."

But in our contemporary academic culture of what I choose to call"militant secularism", the prospects are bleak:

Although it may be encouraging to note how relatively easy it is to inject religious questions into the history classroom, it is also essential to remember the larger institutional context in which those questions are raised. Therein lies the bad news. In the secular classroom, the believing historian may pose religious questions but never answer them, introduce religious perspectives but never endorse them, demonstrate the contradictions of other belief systems but never proclaim the good news of a consistent alternative...

Well might we contemplate, before closing, the sober query of Psalm 11:3:"If the foundations are destroyed, what will the righteous do?" At the very least, this is a question that every believing scholar on a secular campus must reckon with, implicitly if not explicitly.

Nine or ten years ago, when I was a pup, one of my older female colleagues asked me why I wanted to teach women's history. Given that she was on my tenure review committee, I made some weak and diplomatic answer, stressing the goal of"teaching students about important women from the past whose stories have been neglected within the dominant narrative." My reviewer shook her head, and asked me"Do you want to know why I teach women's history? I teach it to raise up young feminists!" I've never forgotten that, and I have come to adopt her position wholeheartedly (though she and I disagree mightily about some of the finer points of what constitutes feminism!)

Now that I am a"born-again evangelical" (albeit one whose politics do not match the stereotype conjured up by that image), what does that mean for my teaching of Western Civilization? I would never say that I want to"raise up young Christians!" But I can say that I do intend to do the following in my courses: structure an overall narrative -- and ask certain questions -- with the intent of leading students to what McKenzie calls the"good news of a consistent alternative" to our culture's thin diet of relativism.

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Clayton Earl Cramer - 5/5/2004

"Christianity offers, as far as I've seen, no greater understanding of events, no heuristic, no self-adjusting critique; while feminism and marxism are analytical perspectives, Christianity is just a perspective."

Huh? How would you teach U.S. Constitutional History without the Christian analytic perspective on such matters as concentrations of power, the inherent sinfulness of people, and so on. Yes, you could try to substitute some other analytic perspective--but it would not be the one that the Framers of our Constitution assumed and used.

Maybe somewhere there is a feminist analytic perspective that means the criteria you describe; my wife and I sure didn't see much evidence of it when we were undergrads and grad students, and feminism was purely a method for professors to rant.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2004

Hugo, I don't mean this in an insulting way, but why should Pasadena pay you to do evangelism either for feminism or for Christianity?

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

Sorry to tax you. I'll try to provide some answers, this time.

I forget, sometimes, that Jews have a continuing place in Christian theology, though the variation in exactly what that place is is rather remarkable. The idea that the Jewish covenant remains in force and valid is, in my understanding and correct me if I'm wrong, a relatively new idea, or at least one that only became prominent in the modern age. The dominant mode before that was "replacement theology" sometimes tempered with an understanding that the final replacement would come with the Second Coming. Too bad, though: I thought for a moment that repentance had wrought change.

I'm not going to say that all evangelism is inherently imperialistic: I spend too much time trying to convince people to change their opinions on too many topics to fall into that.

But with religion, there is still the problem of falsifiability. I can argue, for example, that Judaism's solutions to many of the difficult questions of life are more ethical, more responsible, more rational or more practical than those of other religions or atheisms, and hope to convince; if I argue, however, that Judaism is "truer" than other religions, I have only faith, assumption, and a few bits of highly circular logic on my side. I'm honest enough to realize that theology is inherently unstable, mysticism is unspeakable truth, and sacred texts are historical sand-traps. Which makes the assumption of absolute superiority difficult. For me, at least.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/3/2004

Lots for me to unpack; this will come out rather breathlessly.

Why is evangelism evidence of a lack of respect for the social and theological integrity of other groups? Is the belief that Christianity grasps a truth about the nature of God superior to the truths grasped by Islam inherently a sign of a lack of respect? Is all evangelism imperialistic? I hope that is not your implication.

The history of the Jews, in Christian theology, is a distinct one -- most evangelicals (not all) regard God's original covenant with them as still intact. Muslims and Buddhists are not in that same covenant.

I want to raise up young feminists, but I don't require my students become feminists as a condition of passing the course. I do hope that those around me will come to know Christ -- but I don't ask them explicitly to do so.

I think we have different definitions of relativism. I am using relativism in an admittedly pejorative sense: "all religious and theological positions have equal merit, and the only sin is to argue that one faith is superior to another". What you seem to mean by relativism is common decent civility; much recent Christian-Islamic dialogue has been characterized by a willingness to engage seriously with folks of other faiths without conceding that their positions are equal to yours. Inter-faith dialogue does not require the absence of one's own exclusive commitments.

As to "Christian history", that's a longer answer for another day. Whew. I feel over-asked!

Adam Kotsko - 5/3/2004

Honestly, I'm really sick of discussion of "worldviews."

As Jonathan Dresner remarks, Marxism and feminism are analytical tools and not necessarily totalizing worldviews: in fact, many Marxists today (I harp on Marxism because I'm most familiar with it) would say that one of the big errors of Stalinism is precisely its character as a totalizing worldview, which gave him the confidence that all his atrocities would be worth it in the end.

I fail to understand what a specifically "Christian" historian can bring to the table other than
1. A deeper familiarity than average with the Christian intellectual tradition, or
2. A desire to get more people to become Christians.

If a Christian is bringing number one to the table, I'm all for it -- Christianity is part of the tradition that has shaped all Westerners and all our social institutions, and I'm sure many people do ignore such sources simply because they worry they'll be contaminated by them (which is stupid). An understanding of the Christian tradition is essential to a full understanding of our contemporary situation -- a "Christian worldview" is not. God save us from people with "Christian worldviews"! In fact, God save us from that term!

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

I'm quite curious about the concept of Christian historiography/analysis. If there's any meaning in this discussion at all, it has to start there. If it's just a form of providential teleology, then I'm not sure where the conversation can go, but that's a matter for that conversation.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

It seems to me that you've already admitted to proselytization as a feminist ("'I teach it to raise up young feminists!" I've never forgotten that, and I have come to adopt her position wholeheartedly"). I object to that, as well. Not because I disagree with feminism and feminist analysis, but because that absolutism is an open invitation to abuse; perhaps not by you, but the potential is there nonetheless.

You responded to Adam Kotsko with "What's wrong with trying to get everyone to be Christians through persuasion?" But you should know (you do, in some corner of your mind) that the position of teacher is not just a persuasive one: it can easily be a coercive one, in fact or in perception.

In your response to Ralph Luker you draw a distinction between evangelizing Jews and evangelizing other faiths. While I'm certainly glad that some Christians have awakened to the historic atrocities committed against Jews in the name of evangelization, I am disappointed at the lack of concern for the social and theological integrity of other groups. I don't expect a satisfactory answer: the exclusive and missionary character of Christianity (Islam is similar in this respect) dictates this to be a continued problem.

I realize that you teach a broader range than I do, but I see history as a discipline which teaches important things about society, and about the individual's place in society, but which is not fundamentally engaged in the search for meaning in life. To include that as a component of history is worthwhile, and religion has a starring role in much of the drama of history. But to dictate self-examination as a component of a historical survey goes beyond what I see as reasonable or useful.

Finally, I'd like to suggest that relativism does not have to be a simplistic "thin diet" at all: taken seriously, it requires engagement with other positions, other religions, etc., and the development of common ground and common understandings.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/3/2004

Every decision I make in terms of what texts I assign, what lectures I give, and so forth is based on an effort to both cover the topic adequately and to invite the students to ask deeper questions.

Why do we want students to ask questions? To become good askers of questions? Or to find answers? Or, like most good secular grad students, to become convinced that the truly modern mind believes that THERE ARE NO ANSWERS, only more subtle questions?

I don't proselytize in the classroom. I've reread my post and am unable to find anything to suggest that I do. I am framing questions designed to get students to think in certain ways about their lives. That doesn't mean I prescribe any one definite conclusion for them to reach. My "syllabus choices" means that I choose to focus on texts and individuals (ranging from Aristotle to Augustine) who asked the same questions I am asking my students to ask. But it is my faith as well as my scholarship that suggests to me that some questions are more important than others.

BTW,I think Augustine -- whose "Confessions" includes a memorable section on time and history -- would be fascinated to know that Christianity has no "analytical perspective" on history. I know C.S. Lewis would also be intrigued. But I don't think it's helpful to start dropping quotations on one another, though I confess I have been plenty guilty of it already.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

This argument, feminists and marxists do it so why shouldn't I, is a serious threat to academic freedom. Exhibit A is Horowitz's "affirmative action for conservatives/Republicans" movement.

Politicization and proselytization within the classroom is unacceptable FROM ANY PERSPECTIVE, and the attempt to extend it into a completely non-academic realm like religion is just beyond the Pale. I don't condone it when it's done by feminists, I don't condone it when it's done by Democrats, I don't condone it when it's done by libertarians, etc., etc., etc.

And I don't do it. I don't comment directly on current affairs or politics, unless the connection to what I'm discussing within the class is clear and the analogy is non-partisan. I will comment on current affairs if asked outside of the classroom, and I've commented on the historical background of current events within the classroom, and even offered an opinion or two, but clearly identified as such. I've (rarely) made moral judgements on historical events, but clearly identified as such (and even more rarely partisan in any simplistic way, as in my consistent condemnation of book-burners).

Marxism and feminism do not HAVE to be totalizing ideologies. They are analytical perspectives which have added important, useful tools to our understanding of history and whose best practitioners adjust and refine their heuristics constantly. That is, in my opinion, the difference between these and Christianity in history: Christianity offers, as far as I've seen, no greater understanding of events, no heuristic, no self-adjusting critique; while feminism and marxism are analytical perspectives, Christianity is just a perspective.

Allowing it to guide the syllabus or inform the conclusions of a course is precisely the kind of "my perspective is just as good as yours" relativism which McKenzie, cited above, warns against.

Benjamin Keen - 5/3/2004

I think there's a difference between on one hand

* laying out for someone an opposite view which they are free to embrace or sharpen their own views against by putting them to a strong test

and on the other hand

* evangelizing them.

Is there a distinction to be made here? Definitely there is in an 'is' sense and in a 'passes-for' sense; if you asked most people what 'evangelizing' meant I think folks wouldn't come up with something too close to the first entry. I'm talking in an ideal, maximally charitable sense, is there a difference?

Also, to be consistent, why's one more free (morally speaking rather than so to say practically speaking) to evangelize to Muslims than Jews? I'm unfamiliar with the underlying reasoning and I'd like to know what it is.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/3/2004

Marxism and Christianity are obviously apples and oranges in a variety of respects, but they share this: they offer their adherents a comprehensive world view, in particular, they offer their followers a very clear view of history: where things come from, and where they are going.

Not all Marxists are actually working for a Communist society, though some still may; not all Christian professors are committed to "winning the world for Christ". But adherents of both structure their views of the world to fit what they "already know" to be true.

What's wrong with trying to get everyone to be Christians through persuasion? I don't just want my students to be critical thinkers, because critical thinking cannot possibly be a satisfying end in and of itself. Critical thinking, ideally, should lead one to a satisfying way of life and an ultimate purpose for one's existence. We can argue over whether or not Christianity is the best of these "ways of life", and Christians must be careful to engage with fairness those of other belief systems. But an insistence on total objectivity (which is usually feigned) seems useless to me. Many of my best students passionately disagree with me -- we argue, we debate, and we do so in civil language. My GRADING is always objective (or so I try to make it) but I see no reason why my syllabus should be.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/3/2004

Obviously, evangelizing Jews is a VERY different issue from evangelizing those of other faiths; Niebuhr would not have said the same thing (my reading of Niebuhr makes me fairly confident of this ) to a Wiccan, a Bahai, or a Muslim. Indeed, I would be thrilled to see my nominally Jewish students return to a deeper study of their own traditions.

Is a Marxist professor irrelevant to a young Republican? Hardly -- a good Marxist prof forces the young Republican to build a firmer foundation for his or her own principles, sharpening and deepening them along the way. A good feminist prof challenges the assumptions his or her students make about gender. Both the Marxist and the feminist have a vision of the world that they would like to see -- and their teaching will to some degree reflect that; I fail to see how my situation is different.

Adam Kotsko - 5/3/2004

I think it's misguided to expect an evangelistic Christian professor to receive the same level of "acceptance" as an evangelistic Marxist -- and part of that is the fact that in the series "Marxist/ feminist/ queer theorist/ behaviorist/ Christian/ post-colonialist, etc., etc." one of these things is not like the others! I find the argument that Christianity is one "ideology" among others (including Marxism, which has a long and distinguished tradition of ideology critique!) to be insulting both to Christianity and to the other schools of thought or analytical approaches compared. If such a parallel exists, the burden of proof is on you to show that it exists -- and also to show how something like Marxism is an "ideology" rather than, say, an "intellectual tradition" to which one can belong.

Plus, there are all manner of ways that people can explore our Christian heritage without identifying with any particular branch of Actually Existing Christianity -- a lot of atheist Marxist philosophers are in the process of doing it as we speak, for example.

The implied alternative between "postmodern relativism" and "Christianity" is also a little facile for my tastes. Indeed, I find that evangelical intellectuals often like to use "postmodern relativist" arguments (Christians should be accepted as one ideology among others) in order to get their foot in the door, when in fact the plan is almost always to get everyone to be Christians, whether through persuasion or subtle coercion.

And I say all this as a devout Roman Catholic, a "brother in Christ" as it were.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/3/2004

Indeed, happily confirmed.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2004

Leaving your older colleague's motive for teaching women's history aside, I don't see how this answers the problem you pose. Don't you risk being a teacher irrelevant to your Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist students, on the one side, or becoming simply a missionary/ imperialist, on the other? Far better, I think, the example of Reinhold Niebuhr. When my teacher, Will Herberg, went to Niebuhr years earlier and told Niebuhr that he was thinking of becoming a Christian, Niebuhr urged Herberg to explore his own Jewish traditions. Herberg and his wife (who had been secular Marxists) went into a period of intense study and emerged as Conservative Jews. Later, when I knew him, Herberg gave the homily at holy communion and then sat down without partaking in it. No one thought Herberg suffered from relativism. There are roots which are not our own.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/3/2004

" I do intend to do the following in my courses: structure an overall narrative -- and ask certain questions -- with the intent of leading students to what McKenzie calls the "good news of a consistent alternative" to our culture's thin diet of relativism. "

I can live with that. Indeed some of ny best undergraduate instructors (in a state university) had highly clear views, religious and other, that they shared.
But they admitted what they were doing and what they believed to their students. I suspect that you do so (and perhaps I missed a comment to the effect somewhere), but I would feel happier to have that confirmed.