Monday, June 24, 2013

US Intellectual Historians Tackle *Confessing History*

University of Texas-Dallas graduate student Mark Thompson has offered the most thorough review of our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation to date.  I think he captures the essence and schizophrenic nature of the volume.  It is a great review and I am thrilled that the good folks at US Intellectual History have chosen to post it.  I now have no doubt that sales of this volume will be brisk. In fact, I am sure that after I split my next royalty check with Jay and Eric I will be able to buy a few stocking stuffers for my kids this Christmas.  Heck, the cover "art" alone should boost sales. :-)

At one point, Thompson writes:

While one can appreciate the desire by these Christian scholars to grapple with their life’s vocation, one underlying theme seems to echo Wilson’s dilemma while teaching in higher education: if one is a theist, when does one invoke God (or spirits) to explain events?  If  Confessing History is a tocsin for Christian-founded and –affiliated colleges, then it should have a positive impact on introducing faith-based institutions of higher education to a more rigorous analysis of history and causation.  However, when the goal is to attempt to bridge the gap between confessing and secular institutions, one wonders how the City of Supernaturalism and the City of Naturalism can ultimately merge into one city, although, that does not seem to be the objective for some of the authors.  To this reviewer, the complications involved by allowing supernatural evidence to guide (or even supplement) the professional community of inquirers are centered around how to identify which parts of past events were caused by supernatural intervention vs. human intervention. 

It seems that everyone who reads Confessing History seems to think that the book is somehow promoting a return to providential history.  While a few authors in the volume play with this idea, most of the authors would reject the kind of providential history that Thompson describes in the quote above.

Others--such as Dan Allosso in the comments section of review--thinks that Confessing History somehow "privileges" Christianity "in a way that culturally sensitive religious historians would never do."  Allosso has not read the book so I will give him a pass on this one.  (I am glad that Allosso still "likes" me despite my apparent cultural insensitivity). But I don't think any of the authors in Confessing History blatantly privilege Christianity as a system of interpretation that offers some special insight into the past.  (Perhaps the essays by Shannon and Miller could be read this way).

As one of the editors, I will also admit that Confessing History lacks any kind of central argument about the relationship of Christian faith and history.  Even the editors have serious disagreements. (I put all my cards on the table in my forthcoming [September] Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past). The only thing that holds the volume together is the fact that all of the authors are people of serious Christian faith who have thought deeply about how that faith bears (or in some cases does not bear) on their work as historians.  We also tried to offer an approach to this topic that deals more with "vocation" than with the epistemological questions often associated with the "world view" thinking of the Reformed tradition.

I also think that it is important to situate this book in the larger context of historians--Charles Bancroft, Herbert Butterfield, R.G. Collingwood, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Ron Wells, Arthur Link, Scott Latourette, C.T. McIntire, Nick Salvatore, the Calvin School, etc...--who have explored the relationship between Christian faith and historical practice. 

I am looking forward to following what has already proven to be fruitful conversation at U.S. Intellectual History.