Hugo Schwyzer's latest post (more here) at Cliopatria has prompted the departure of Ophelia Benson (see also here, here, and here). Schwyzer suggests that this essay illuminates some of the current problems facing Christian academic historians.
1. I'm doing my best to be charitable this week, but this paragraph makes no sense:
"If I want to study the history of the American Revolution, I'm presupposing that something real took place, that the evidence left corresponds in some way to what really took place, that I'm intelligent enough to understand that evidence, that I'm able to put together a plausible explanation of cause and effect that might get us close to the truth," Noll said. "All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God."
Beg pardon? I can't see any way to reconcile this claim with the history of historiography. (Er...Greeks? Romans? Jews? Enlightenment skeptics?) More to the point, Noll describes a set of presuppositions so broad that they have no relationship to "Christianity," let alone God. Surely he hasn't said anything with which a rationalist/atheist/materialist would disagree? It's quite possible that Noll himself believes that only the Christian God can anchor a chain of truth-claims, but to say that all historical practice depends on that belief is, to put it mildly, blinkered.
2. The article's author, Tim Stafford, wants to find someone to defend "providential history"--that is, history written to reveal God's work in the world. Stafford seems a bit dissatisfied with the caveats of historians like Noll or D. G. Hart:
The trouble with these points of view is that they seem to treat the meaning of history with a shrug. Indeed, historians are far more comfortable sticking to the mundane: what happened where and when. A Christian, though, is bound to say that God is at work in history, and that he has revealed in Scripture some of what his work is about. There is no possibility of building an airtight wall between theology and the things a historian can know.
It's hard to avoid noticing Stafford's use of the generic "Christian" (or Noll's, for that matter). Post-Reformation Christian historiography has, by and large, been relentlessly sectarian; certainly, it's rather difficult to reconcile even the most scholarly of Catholic and Protestant studies of the Reformation itself. But the problem goes deeper. Christianity (or any religious faith) doesn't affect the basic scholarly practices of evidence-gathering, verification, and so forth. Like any other applied perspective, however, it alters how the historian judges the evidence and, in some cases, blinds her to its significance. Moreover, as Jonathan Dresner points out in the Cliopatria thread, arguments about God's will aren't falsifiable, a point George Marsden skates over in the quotation offered by Schwyzer. Marsden argues that "feminism" is as much a "faith" as Christianity--but it's possible to rebut feminist (and anti-feminist) arguments by adducing new evidence. There's not much a Protestant can do with an argument from St. Alphonsus Liguori. Similarly, H. T. Dickinson can criticize J. C. D. Clark (and vice-versa) because they share considerable common ground as academic historians, despite their political differences; by contrast, an orthodox Jew isn't going to be able to carry on a serious academic conversation with a Christian who insists that history has to be interpreted in the light of revelations from the New Testament. A theologically-specific history may work well within a particular religious community, but by its very nature it's going to exclude those outside the faith. There's no doubt a lesson to be learned from the British and Foreign Bible Society, which had to choose between a broad ecumenical base and oral prayers at meetings; when oral prayers finally became the norm, the membership altered substantially.***
3. On my own turf, I should point out that Noll is right to be dubious about the possibility of doing good providential history. Protestant providential histories of the nineteenth century were consistently unable to integrate two basic problems into their agendas: 1) Jews weren't converting to Christianity in mass quantities; 2) Catholics weren't converting to Protestantism in mass quantities. Hollis Read's excited claim that "the Jews are on the threshold of a great revolution"* (of conversion, that is) is typical of providential optimism; in 1877, however, contributors to a lecture series on Jews were still shaking their heads at Jewish intransigence, while in an 1892 sermon the Rev. W. J. Adams sadly noted that "the Jewish people still withhold their faith."** Maybe later, perhaps? Equally striking is how completely and utterly "enlightened" Christian historical thinkers were unable to grasp the concept that Jews might seriously think that Christianity was not true. Protestant writers often represented Jewish responses to Christianity and Catholic responses to Protestantism as reactionary gestures against what was unwillingly acknowledged to be true; few were willing to concede that Jews and Catholics were sincere believers in their own right.**** In other words, the Protestant providential model did not and could not allow counter-arguments from "outside." Stafford's article suggests that it still can't. That's not a "Christian" failing--any model that presumes one group must be right will run into the same problems. Let's not forget that some secularists have their own version. (The Archbishop of Canterbury's cheerful suggestion that Christians have a lot to learn from atheists is a different kettle of fish altogether.)
4. Schwyzer notes in the comments that
As for the Jewish and Christian views of history, of course there will be overlap in that both acknowledge a God who works through history to establish his relationship with his people. But who those people are is something about which Christians and Jews might differ- and thus their scholarship differ as well.
To borrow some phrasing from Dickens: charity, Miriam, charity! Aside from the theological mess (see here for decent explanation) and the return of the generic "Christian" (somehow, I don't see the BJU crowd getting cuddly with the BYU crowd in the near future), Schwyzer seems to be presuming influence in the wrong area. It's hardly surprising that lots of Catholics migrate to Catholic history, that evangelicals find evangelicals interesting, and so forth, but it does not therefore follow that an evangelical historian must argue that since the sixteenth century God has been on the side of the Protestants. S/he may believe this as a matter of faith, which is fine with me, but how would one go about proving such a thing? And why should a Catholic (or Jew, or Muslim, or atheist) believe it, since there's little or no rhetorical common ground? Nor does this line of thinking explain those of us who write about completely different faith traditions precisely because they are different. I haven't the slightest interest in debunking Victorian evangelicals (or Christians in general)--they just strike me as really interesting. Ergo, I write about them seriously and, I hope, respectfully, just as I teach them seriously and, I hope, respectfully.*****
5. James A. Knapp. drawing on F. J. Levy, reminds us that "[f]or the sixteenth-century historical observer, the question was not 'What happened?' but 'What is the lesson in this episode of history?'"****** If I'm reading Schwyzer correctly, he's calling for something vaguely akin to this question. But lesson for whom, and about what?
*--Hollis Read, The Hand of God in History; Or, Divine Providence Historically Illustrated in the Extension and Establishment of Christianity (1848; Hartford: H. E. Robins and Co., 1851), 348.
**--The Jew in Relationship to the Church and the World, with a preface by Piers Claughton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877); W. J. Adams, "Sermon," in Memories of Gospel Triumphs Among the Jews During the Victorian Era, ed. John Dunlop (London: S. W. Patridge & Co.; John Snow & Co., 1894), 2.
***--See Leslie Howsam, Cheap Bibles: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 16-17, 196-97.
****--In didactic fiction, this leads to the "happiness fallacy," in which "good" Jews, Catholics, and sometimes--if it's a Catholic novelist--Protestants are always unhappy; after all, they know they're in the wrong.
*****--Which is not the same thing as saying that I'll pass off an especially dreadful novel as a masterpiece of Protestant theology and fictional technique. Sometimes you need a sense of humor.
******--James A. Knapp, Illustrating the Past in Early Modern England: The Representation of History in Printed Books (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 32.