Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Gift of the Guild

Having just finished graduate school, I'm beginning to see more clearly how much I needed it.  Early on I designed a makeshift one-man historiographical seminar, comprised of Herbert Butterfield, Kenneth Scott Latourette's remarkable presidential address, some Christopher Dawson, and any other books I could put together that espoused a "Christian" view of history, whatever that might mean.  George Marsden's and Mark Noll's work played in as well, and a bit later, this little volume came in quite handy.  I'm deeply indebted, however, to Wilfred McClay for providing the capstone to this homemade seminar in his contribution to the series of essays on offer in Confessing History.

Christopher Dawson's view of history is intoxicating, especially considering how much it informed T.S. Eliot. "Every living culture," wrote Dawson, "must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for... sustained social effort." Europe's spiritual dynamic is Christianity.  It was challenged by science, but "only through the cooperation of both these forces can Europe can realize its latent potentialities."  McClay's, however, is the best critique of Dawson I have read:
It is one thing to argue that the Christian faith is socially beneficial and even intellectual and morally plausible, but quite another to argue that it is true.  But unless men and women are convinced of the truth of the Christian faith, how can it have the culture-forming role that Dawson describes - how can it even be a 'religion' in Dawson's sense, that organizing force that constitutes a social world?  For to argue for the resurrection of religion because it is the dynamic core of the culture of the West, and the proper partner for (and opposite to) science is, at bottom, to make an argument from utility, from the standpoint of consequences rather than truth.
Even if one were to defend Dawson's rhetoric as an apologetic strategy, McClay's critique still seems to stick.

I have a copy of the very book that McClay says is so rare, Herbert Butterfield's Christianity and History, and it has been dear to me.  For Butterfield, providence, like vengeance, is God's alone, and is not necessarily the domain of the historian.  His little book concludes, "Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted."  McClay, however, criticizes Butterfield as well, whose historiographical detachment makes little sense of the kind of history on offer in the Bible, rife with declinist narratives and precise attributions of providential activity.  For McClay, "Butterfield did something rather similar to what the analytic philosophers of his day were doing: asserting that because nothing can be said with clarity and precision about God's activity in history, nothing should be said at all."  The middle ground between Dawson and Butterfield, between Christian cultural progressivism and the providential cloud of unknowing, is something to which I will return.

In Confessing History, George Marsden emerges as a sort of neo-Butterfieldian.  Christopher Shannon summarizes what is termed "the Marsden settlement":
Christian scholarship consists in Christian scholars infusing the relatively neutral, technical, procedural norms of the various academic professions with their distinctly Christian background faith commitments.  These spiritual commitments inspire distinctly Christian questions and nurture a sensibility capable of producing distinctly Christian interpretive insights that may enrich the historical understanding of Christian and non-Christian alike, provided the Christian scholar achieves these insights with all due respect to secular professional standards of evidence and argument.
Though I find this rather plausible, Shannon - to put it perhaps a bit too strongly - smells a rat.  "It is my contention that in embracing naturalistic causality and the procedural norms of the historical profession, Christian historians merely trade one providentialism for another.  Where Christian historians of old once looked for the hand of the Holy Spirit, the new-model Christian history follows the naturalist quest for historical agency."  Shannon compellingly insists that we must think behind the nineteenth century:  "Christian historians should engage the profession not by adopting partisan positions on the causes of the Reformation but by exposing the real stakes of [the] debate:  The legitimation the modern secular world." 

Most essays in this volume aren't as extreme as Shannon's (which I'll confess I found appealing).  Others seek to restore a personal dimension to scholarship, as in a wonderfully moving essays by Una Cadegan (which could have availed itself of more art historical scholarship!).  But for me, the hinge paragraph, serving as a fulcrum for the sometimes conflicting essays, came from William Katerburg:
The crisis in contemporary historiography... is threefold: unresolved theoretical debates; mainstream historians who as a matter of practice ignore these debates; and a neglect of the useful, life-serving purpose of history (even though the scientific ideal that fosters this neglect has long been fragmenting).  One way through these dilemmas is to shift the focus of historical and theoretical debates form methodology and the possibility of producing stable knowledge to the purpose and meaning of historical study.  In short, a shift from epistemology to vocation.  If history is in the midst of a crisis, it is a crisis of vocation, not a crisis of epistemology.
Katerberg's very nuanced approach calls for a return to civic and ecclesial responsibility.  Confessing History's solution - if it can be said to have one - is pedagogy or perish.  Hence a focus later in the book on the classroom, on imparting virtues, caring for students, and serving the church as well as the academy.  This vocational turn emerges most clearly in Douglas Sweeney's essay:
During the mid-twentieth century, Christian scholars had to work hard to earn the respect of secular colleagues.  We devoted a great deal of energy to impressing them with our work.  We sought to acquire places of honor at the academic banquet.  But now that we have done this, a different agenda may be in order...  I am certainly not calling for a return to shoddy scholarship...  We must maintain, and even improve, our levels of academic excellence if we hope to make a difference as historians in our guild.  But rather than operate as other-directed, status conscious scholars, I hope we will finish the task of moving beyond our need for recognition and engage a bit more freely in public service that is fueled by Christian faith.
It is here that Alister Chapman's Books & Culture review is helpful.  Amidst all the important talk of meaning over monographs and pupils over the profession, "There is the question of how new this new inclination is.  Some of the engagement with postmodern thought is indeed new, but Christin historians have been committed to loving students and addressing society for a long time," Marsden and Noll among them.  In fact, Katerberg, in an interesting move, places Noll right next to Howard Zinn as a perspectivalist model for this new kind of history.  With Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (and its sequel), Noll spoke in and to his community from where he was situated, but he also - obviously - speaks in and to the profession of history with his other work as well.

Overall, it is dissatisfaction with the state of the profession (one which is by no means limited to Christian historians) that seems to animate many of Confessing History's essays. One historian complains about program envy and another (quoted anonymously) gripes about Christians who seem to have sold out to academic success.  Beth Barton Schweiger's illuminating essay affords a peek behind the academic curtain:
Graduate students learn that the hierarchy of the profession is predicated on knowledge, and not all of it is knowledge about the past.  The most powerful knowledge for students is knowledge of professional networks that will afford them fellowships, book contracts, or even the highly prized tenure-track job.  Intellectual merit is simply not enough.  In the end, scholarship is not the purely intellectual pursuit many students expected...  Historians like to cast the profession as one in which the value of ideas transcends that of cash and where wisdom is valued above power, but one of the most important lessons of graduate school is that professional history is a bureaucracy like any other.   There are careers to be made.
This, of course, is all true.  But is there any profession where it isn't?

All this is to return to McClay.  The middle-ground between Dawson's somewhat utilitarian progressivism and Butterfield's withdrawal from providential assignation is Reinhold Niehbur's view of history. 
Of the three writers under consideration [Dawson, Butterfield and Niebuhr], I suspect that Niebuhr may well be the one with the most to offer us in thinking about how a religious perspective can shed light on the present condition and future prospects of the idea of progress.  His "reflexive" outlook takes account of the virtues of both Dawson's and Butterfield's works, by acknowledging that the idea of progress is deeply rooted in the Christian Weltanschaaung and in Christian culture, but also by insisting that the misuses of the idea, including the overconfident identification of man's purposes with God's, are paradigmatic examples of sin at work - and moreover by insisting that the dynamic of progress in history, while genuine, is also by its very nature full of moral peril for us, because of the kind of being we are.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Chapman's very fine review suggests that McClay's essay doesn't neatly fit into this volume.  But by applying McClay's Niebuhrian insight in that paragraph to the guild of history (or, in my case, art history), McClay's essay fits the volume well.  Niebuhr, to be sure, is not good for everything.  But we do well to bring to our guilds, which are not untouched by providence, the kind of realism that Niehbur brought to history.  To the extent that they have succeeded in countering historical misconceptions they have, however unwittingly, served God.  There has been a lot of poor history in the name of faith, and the existence of the profession of history can help Christians avoid, and correct, those mistakes.  Our academic guilds have progressed, they have been (not hopelessly) corrupted, and they are - especially now - open to correction.   It is consequently not duplicitous to, in Mark Schwein's words, "honor Chronos in our work and the Logos in our alleluias." The Lord of Chronos, after all, is Christ.

Confessing History makes clear that there are many ways to be a Christian historian, but the guild suspicion, though not present in every essay, seemed somewhat overblown.  The post-secular turn in academia makes conditioning in materialist epistemology much less of a concern than it may once have been.  The secular providentialism that Shannon rightly decries is certainly still there, but it is easily dismantled using the very guild standards that such views transgress.  Perhaps I say this because I've been professionalized, but that's a good thing, one which I'm well aware hasn't happened to me sufficiently enough.  Guild standards beat my mind into something better than it was; and because it is a mind that certainly requires more beating, there is nothing like a healthy fear of colleagues - perhaps especially secular colleagues - to help that process along.

Confessing History contains a moving sermon entitled, "For Teachers to Live Professors Must Die." It employs an elaborate mountaineering parable to propose that rather than ascending their professions in search of status, professors should kenotically descend to the cognitive level of their students (the pedagogic bibliography for this descent is especially helpful).  And while this is no doubt necessary, the sermon neglects to emphasize the rest of the story.  The aim of such a descent is to teach students how to climb.  Christian historians, because they're required to love their students, should naturally be better teachers.  Encouraging them to be better scholars, ones who thereby sharpen their students, continues to strike me as a more urgent concern.  And there is Scriptural support for that as well.

We should attempt to summit our disciplines because it's too easy not to try, and the views from the top need be seen with Christian eyes as well.  If the peak seems boring or irrelevant, that's because it hasn't been reached yet, so we should keep climbing   If we exert ourselves primarily to change our disciplines, for their sake over our own, we will only better serve our students and churches.  If we focus primarily on our students and churches, our guilds - which are ready for change - won't.