Saturday, May 23, 2009

Historicity?

The following is an e-mail correspondence with a relative of mine who is a history professor at a Christian university. Since I took so much time in the response, I will share the details here. Also, he'll never see this blog because the censors at his institution filter them out.

E-MAIL MESSAGE I RECEIVED:

First, I believe that there is an objective reality to past events and that understanding these events to the best of our ability is important.

Second, because men are finite, imperfect, and sinful, all human attempts at reconstructing history are necessarily imperfect, partial, and distorted images of reality. Although many historians research and write history as even-handedly as possible, pure neutrality or objectivity is impossible.

Third, although a Christian historian, like any historian, will distort historical reality, a historically-trained Christian should distort it less than a secular historian because a Christian’s philosophy should be rooted in God’s word. A Christian should see man’s condition with a sharper eye. Proverbs 28: 5 says, “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all things.” Human reason is a gift of God, and a Christian assessing history through a biblical perspective, should—everything else being equal—assess it more accurately than a non-Christian .

Finally, because no one—Christian or non-Christian—can construct a totally truthful picture of the past, history cannot be used to construct a scientific or biblically accurate philosophical system, true in all its particulars. What history provides the Christian is the reverse of a system. To a Christian, history is the ax to the roots of all man’s ideologies—his secular religions. That is, history is chiefly valuable to Christians, not for its positive lessons but for its negative ones

MY RESPONSE:

As an admittedly more amateur student of history, I have to respectfully disagree with your contention that "a historically-trained Christian should distort [a historical account] less than a secular historian because a Christian’s philosophy should be rooted in God’s word." At least you admit your bias, but unfortunately it is so exclusionary that it severely hinders your historicity.

Hasn't the majority of the history of Western civilization been written from a Christian perspective, much to the detriment of women, minorities, non-Christian religions, and any other group marginilized as "sinful" from this perspective?

Thank goodness "liberal" scholarship has taken steps to amend the "dead white guy" history I was taught in public secondary schools, which overlooked many atrocities and displayed outmoded biases, such as social Darwinism and echoes of Frederick Turner's Manifest Destiny in its boring pro-capitalism prose. Popular historians such as Howard Zinn, James Loewen, Kenneth C. Davis (okay, they're still white guys) have strived to give an account of Americans in history overlooked in school textbooks.

There is much moral strength to be felt when taking an unpopular position, and the Christian historian today, I imagine, is now as marginilized as those previously marginilized by them. Still, a Christian view of history has already been tried and, thankfully, superseded, by more inclusive biases.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Greg,

Have you ever noticed that at the top of this Blog Spot there is an advertisement for a "Study Bible." I find that quite interesting given the environment. In fact I find almost ironic.

JMatzko said...

Hi, Greg,

I need to define what I mean by "Christian." You say:
"Christian" and "Western" are inextricable. Aren't the pre-dominant belief systems of Western civilization Christian?

No, if “Western” means “Christian” then Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud are Christians, and we’ve entered the intellectual world of Alice in Wonderland. By Christian I mean a person who believes that the Bible is God’s inspired word, that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and that salvation comes only through Christ’s shed blood on the cross.

If you choose, you can define Christianity as someone who lives in the West and who’s not a Jew or a Muslim, but that makes you a Christian, and the notion is a dead end intellectually both for me and for secularists.

Neither John Locke nor Adam Smith wrote history, and I’m not sure whom you’re thinking about among the Founding Fathers. Adam Smith was a man of the Enlightenment and a deist. John Locke is a more interesting case religiously; but in his own day, he was attacked for Socinianism, a matter of real consequence during the seventeenth century when disbelief in the Trinity was not included under the Toleration Act.

You say that historians such as Zinn and Loewen have "explored fresh territory in historical research namely the histories of non-capitalist, non-white, non-male, and non-straight groups and individuals" and that "most of the leading figures in American and European historical accounts were male, white and Christian."

White and male, maybe, but not Christian. If Zinn and Loewen had a different religious perspective from what went before, then we would expect them to criticize that earlier religious position. They don’t. That’s because the folks they challenge are as much secularists as they are.

You give as examples of history written from a Social Darwinist position Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), Progress: Its Law and Cause, and from a Manifest Destiny position, Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), The Significance of the Frontier in American History.

Spencer, an agnostic, was not a historian, and Progress is philosophy not history. Fredrick Jackson Turner was a historian, but again, the essay on the significance of the frontier is more a philosophical statement than a history. He was encouraged (repeatedly and, at the end, frantically) to put substance on the bones of his speculation, but he seemed incapable of writing it up, perhaps because historical facts barred the way. In any case, Turner had abandoned religion in college and his frontier thesis rested on his Darwinianism, not Manifest Destiny, a destiny that had already been achieved during Turner’s career and, in any case, presupposed some sort of god who made the destiny manifest.

Finally, I didn’t say that Christian historians “can do a better job than non-Christians because of some divinely-inspired edict to tell the truth.” I said they do a better job—everything else being equal—because a Christian’s philosophy should be rooted in the Scripture. A Christian should see man’s sinful condition with a sharper eye. Accepting man as what the Bible says he is, a sinner and intrinsically evil, is an advantage to anyone who tries to interpret the historical record.

All the best,
Uncle Jack