The Next Generation of Christian Historians

JANUARY 2012: REVIEW

by Ronald A. Wells

CONFESSING HISTORY: EXPLORATIONS IN CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THE HISTORIAN’S VOCATION
EDITED BY JOHN FEA, JAY GREEN, AND ERIC MILLER
UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME PRESS, 2010
$35.00. 354 PAGES.

This welcome collection of sixteen essays is the result of collaboration by three young historians: John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. They are professors in small colleges in the orbit of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, institutions that value the essential question asked by this book: what does it mean for a confessing Christian to work in the discipline of history? Thus the fetching title,Confessing History.

These scholars are aware that they stand on the shoulders of a previous generation. They acknowledge that they found their way in an organization—the Conference on Faith and History (CFH)—that began its work when these editors were in grade school.Confessing HistoryThe fact that Christian historians can now be self-aware and forthright in their vocations is due in no small part to the CFH, which was founded under adverse circumstances, when “confessing history” was considered by the History Establishment to be an unacceptable intrusion of religion into a scientific enterprise. One minor observation: while the editors of this volume laud the CFH as an organization, they do not say much by way of gratitude for the founding generation. One senior scholar told me that it seemed a bit churlish of the editors not to say something more about those on whose shoulders they stand.

The first generation of Christian historians (roughly from about 1970 onwards) was disproportionately drawn from institutions in the Reformed tradition, and they published with houses with Reformed ties. Indeed, the initial argument for Christian historical scholarship turned on the necessity of acknowledging worldview and presuppositions, an approach in which Mark Noll, George Marsden, David Livingstone, Nathan Hatch, and I were the forerunners. The editors of this book imply in the foreword that there is something wrong with that viewpoint, but they don’t pursue the criticism in this book. (In fact, three scholars in the book are Reformed). Instead they move on to explicate what they really want to do: offer the idea of vocation as a new source for understanding the Christian historian’s task.

One final introductory word about the genre of anthology. I have been the editor of four such volumes so I know the pitfalls, that is, that the essays are sometimes uneven as to quality and adherence to the theme. Just so in this book. They are almost all previously published pieces, many of which I had the privilege to publish in Fides et Historia, the journal of the CFH, when I was its editor. It is good to see the essays again, although seeing them between the covers of one book is a bit startling. In a journal, over several years of semi-annual issues, divergent views can stimulate discussion. But between the covers of one book, the reader now sees how far apart some of the writers actually are. For example, the essays of Mark Schwehn and James LaGrand, which show the limits of what Christians can know as well as the dangers in overstatement, are a pole apart from that of Christopher Shannon, whose work—by the spare standard of the other two—could be thought both considerably overstated and unfortunately graceless toward some other Christian scholars.

In a review essay one has to limit one’s scope, so I beg the pardon of some authors whose outstanding work will be passed over: Mark Schwehn’s lyrical essay, “Faith Seeking Understanding”; Wilfred McClay’s elegant prose in “The Christian Historian and the Idea of Progress”; Robert T. McKenzie’s practical suggestions about how an academic historian can help one’s local church in “Don’t Forget the Church: The Forgotten Dimension of Our Dual Calling.” The three essays of outstanding merit that I will explicate here are by William Katerberg, Beth Barton Schweiger, and Una Cadegan.

William Katerberg’s “The Objectivity Question and the Historian’s Vocation” pushes past the now-outmoded quest for scientific objectivity to the crisis of professional history. He quotes the father of American historical writing, Frederick Jackson Turner, who, back in 1891, said, “Each age writes its own history anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its time.” What is going on now, according to Katerberg, is a thorough dismantling of the credibility of the scientific ideal. In fact, he says, the real crisis in history is not epistemological but vocational; that is, the pressing question now is not “what is history?” but “what is the purpose and meaning of history, both for us and for our understanding of the subjects of history?” For Katerberg, Christian historians could lead the way in bringing “the wisdom and resources of the past to the needs of living well and faithfully in the present and future.”

Beth Barton Schweiger, in “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” pushes further the argument about vocation. She quotes approvingly the historian Gerald Strauss, who claims that historians “live in two worlds, and our dual citizenship brings conflicting loyalties.” Christians in the Augustinian tradition know very well the problem of dual, thus conflicting, loyalties because we understand the difference between the two cities of our lives. Double-minded Christians, she writes, “stand between here and eternity, between glass darkly and unfettered light.” This well-argued point could have been deepened with an engagement of Shirley Mullen’s presidential address to the CFH in 2004, when she suggested that the normative position of Christian historians was like that of “boundary dwellers.” Schweiger goes on to invoke Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf about the need to be both truthful and loving to the dead by embracing communities of memory. Only then, she rightly says, can the Christian historian’s vocation go beyond mere professionalism.

Una Cadegan, one of the two Catholic contributors to this book, is eloquent in her testimony about being a Catholic Christian in her essay, “Not All Autobiography Is Scholarship.” She relates her shock in going to graduate school— the first time in her life outside the realm of Catholic education—and finding out that most scholars regarded as a stumbling block what was the cornerstone of her worldview. She became aware that being a historian while also being a believer in a religion that makes historical claims would characterize her professional journey. As she writes, “whether you believe in the Incarnation affects how you read evidence,” which is to her a vital “contemporary task for the believing historian.” One highlight I will take away from this book is her description of how the Eucharist, received daily and weekly, has been the essential and deep background of her thinking. She writes that historical events and characters really matter because “the experience of the liturgy, the sustained and continually revived realization of that repetition, is an occasion for renewed understanding and depth.” As a Catholic, Cadegan says all of this is a mystery that is not easily analyzed. But for her that is not a problem because, to quote Flannery O’Conner, “Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.”

In all, this book leaves this senior scholar with hope. Forty years ago, when some of us began to ask questions about the relationship of our faith to our historical work, we were not sure where it would lead. Now, because the Conference on Faith and History is vital and active, and with younger scholars taking our places, we can move to our rocking chairs (some to wheelchairs) knowing that the religious renewal in our profession for which we hoped will continue and—with a renewed sense of vocation—flourish.

 

Ronald A. Wells is professor emeritus of history at Calvin College and was an editor of Fides et Historia and The Reformed Journal. His forthcoming book, with James D. Bratt, is The Best of the Reformed Journal (Eerdmans). He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, where he is the director of the annual Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College.