Faith and History (AHA2011 Day 3)

11 Jan

I apologize to the devoted half-dozen readers out there. This entry covers a Saturday morning session from the AHA, but its publication was delayed while I recovered from a nasty cold I picked up in Boston. I guess nametags and tweed coats are not kryptonite against the winter sniffles. To the issue at hand…

What is the role of faith in history? This was the question addressed by a panel sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the 2011 AHA in Boston this past Saturday morning. Should we bracket or exclude our faith when we write history or should we bring it into conversation with our work?

Randall Balmer used Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney to explain the differences between the two major camps of thought about supernatural agency. Edwards believed that the revival he witnessed was a divine event. God was responsible for righteous laughter and slain spirits. Finney preferred to emphasize the role of human agents in stoking the fires of revival. God was there in the background, but played far less of a role in the day-to-day. The historian, Balmer argued, must be like a Finney because there is no role in the academy for divine causation. Despite our personal beliefs, we must dig deeper in the whys and wherefores not of the supernatural but of the historical. There is faith in history but not in its practice.

This perspective was shared by other members of the panel, many of whom drew a fairly sharp line between personal faith and professional responsibility. Jon Roberts, Lauren Winner, and Grant Wacker all similarly argued for the need for clear boundaries, and more than one speaker stressed the role of honesty in making good history. We must treat our historical subjects with honesty, Jon Roberts claimed, and at the end of the day our work is to convey their beliefs with clarity and without obfuscation from our own beliefs. He hoped that anyone reading his Darwinism and the Divine in America would not be able to tell whether he believed in Evolution or not. It is entirely irrelevant to portraying those historical agents honestly. Another form of honesty was expressed by Balmer and Wacker, who each felt that failing to disclose one’s lack of objectivity could become a kind of dishonest treatment of one’s subjects. We always stand somewhere, and both belief and nonbelief can change how we write our history.

Nonbelief was a centerpiece of comments by Margaret Bendroth, Lauren Winner, and Eugene McCarraher (whose paper was read by Lauren Winner). Winner and Bendroth expressed their concerns that more essential question today is how nonbelievers can write convincingly about faith. Interpreting faith as the hope for the possibility of transcendence, Bendroth worried that our treatment of faithful believers has often only palely reflected the ways in which faith has played a role in their lives. The immanent frame is neither neutral nor objective, and it is a lens that darkens the subjects we see through it. This criticism was central to Eugene McCarraher’s paper, where he forcefully argued that history is sacramental and that to understand history we must accept that love of divinity and love of humanity moves us to act.

In the end several themes emerged as basic features of the dialogue among historians about the role of faith in the writing of history. The first was a persistent division between naturalist/empiricist historical writing and writing informed by divine causation. The historical roots of this divide were traced to the late 19th century, although I know there are some very fine examples of empirical writing from the ancient world. (Thucydides anyone?) The challenge here is to decide what is gained and lost with each perspective and to avoid thinking that the historian’s job ends when one path is chosen over the other. A supernatural force behind the Great Awakening doesn’t absolve anyone from explaining the social and psychological features of that event. The second was both a dismissal of the problem as well as a confidence that basic historic methods often render it moot. Lauren Winner and Randall Balmer both felt that the problem’s time had passed and the panel in general looked to honesty in dealing with historical agents and sources as the keys to writing good history regardless of faith issues. Finally, historians of all faiths care deeply about the role of their own beliefs and biases creeping into their professional work. On the whole they were not afraid that their work might contain biases, only that they might be there without having received their full critical gaze. If a scholar consciously introduces or uses their faith as a historical lens, that’s okay as long as they have set out to do so and understand its ramifications.

For my part I found the discussion missing one significant thing: the role of faith in teaching. During the Q&A I patiently waited for a turn to ask the panel what the role of faith is in the history classroom, but my turn never came. It was a rather glaring and egregious oversight by a panel of distinguished scholars and teachers. Grant Wacker alone of the panelists noted in his presentation that there may be differences between the classroom and the written page, but what those difference might be was left unsaid. Scholars who are also teachers would do well to think more and more seriously about their audience in the classroom. The dialogue is therefore still very much open and awaiting a more practical engagement with the challenges of teaching religious history to individuals who have strong religious and personal beliefs.

Previous Commentaries:

On the American Religious History Survey

On Keywords in American Religious History

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