CFH Session at the 2011 AHA



1 comments
Randall Stephens

If you're heading up to Boston for the AHA in early January, make time for the Saturday morning Conference on Faith and History affiliate session:

Bracketing Faith and Historical Practice: A Roundtable

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM

Marriott Boston Copley Place, Maine Room

Chair: Randall J. Stephens, Eastern Nazarene College

Speaker(s):
Randall Balmer, Barnard College, Columbia University
Margaret Bendroth, Congregational Library (Boston)
Eugene B. McCarraher, Villanova University
Jon H. Roberts, Boston University
Grant Wacker, Duke University Divinity School
Lauren Winner, Duke University Divinity School

Comment: The Audience

More on the session: The question of the appropriate relationship between a historian's belief and the craft of history has received much recent attention. It is a question that has occupied the Conference on Faith and History since its inception in the late 1960s, with much of the CFH's conversation focusing on how to integrate faith and historical practice to avoid compartmentalization. At this year's CFH/AHA session we continue the conversation but from a different point of entry: the value of and reasons for bracketing out religious commitments. What is gained (or lost) when believing historians bracket out matters of faith? Is it best (or even possible) for historians--of whatever faith or no faith at all--to shelve religious belief and metaphysics when writing history? What is lost (or gained) when the religious commitments of historians are reflected in their work?

Passages like the following might serve as jumping off points for the discussion:

"[Anglo-Hegelian philosopher Francis Herbert] Bradley identified the will to truth in history with anti-supernaturalism and viewed our scientific standards as naturalistic. He believed that our norms must regulate our understanding of the past. But, he also presumed, historians had permanently discarded norms that allowed for supernaturalism. 'Critical history' methodologically centered on the will to truth, and the will to truth would also inevitably rule out the supernatural. . . . Historians of faith abide by the professional rules, but as Christians they have their own private outlook on what was going on when the Romans brought Jesus down from the cross." Bruce Kuklick, "Religion, Progress, and Professional Historians," Historically Speaking (September/October 2007): 18.

"One may say, therefore, that religion appears in history both as a world-maintaining and as a world-shaking force. . . . In all its manifestations, religion constitutes an immense projection of human meanings into the empty vastness of the universe--a projection, to be sure, which comes back as an alien reality to haunt its producers. . . . Within this frame of reference, the religious projections can be dealt with only as such, as products of human activity and human consciousness, and rigorous brackets have to be placed around the question as to whether these projections may not also be something else than that (or, more accurately, refer to something else than the human world in which they empirically originate). In other words, every inquiry into religious matters that limits itself to the empirically available must necessarily be based on a 'methodological atheism.'" Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967; reprint, New York: Anchor, 1990), 100.

"The historian is certainly interested in Sankara's or Guadapada's view of non-dual reality, Tillich's ground of Being, the view of the Buddha in the Lankavatara Sutra. But, historically speaking, these are all men's views of Ultimate Reality. While it is undoubtedly true that
all views of Ultimate Reality are human in the sense that it is men who hold them, to ask 'What is the nature of ultimate Reality?' is a different level question from 'What is Sankara's view of Ultimate Reality?' . . . . When we state that the history of religions is the study of man rather than the study of God we are making a methodological stipulation and not a theological proposal." Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religions (1971; reprint, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), 19, 20.

“We need to move away from two of the ontological assumptions entailed in secular conceptions of the political and the social. The first is that the human exists in a frame of a single and secular historical time that envelops other kinds of time . . . . The second assumption running through modern European political thought and the social sciences is that the human is ontologically singular, that gods and spirits are in the end ‘social facts,’ that the social somehow exists prior to them.” Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 16. See also, this sample chapter from Provincializing Europe.

"The problem is that we have no idea what to make of the bonds between humans and the spirits really present to them within the limits of our critical theories. . . . The question I want to pursue is how it is possible to study abundant events without translating them immediately
into the safe categories of modernist historiography and without yielding to the understandable frustration and despair that there is no way to think outside the modernist historical categories. . . . [T]here are people everywhere in the modern world who live in ways beyond the conceptual range of modernist epistemology and historiography, and at an angle askew to normative modernity (while at the same time they function quite well amid the ordinary challenges of life, let it be added)." Robert A. Orsi, "Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Modernity," Historically Speaking (September/October 2008): 14, 15.

1 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: December 5, 2010 at 12:39 AM said...

What is gained (or lost) when believing historians bracket out matters of faith? Is it best (or even possible) for historians--of whatever faith or no faith at all--to shelve religious belief and metaphysics when writing history? What is lost (or gained) when the religious commitments of historians are reflected in their work?

I would think the question applies as well to those who are skeptical if not hostile to faith.

I imagine it's tough for some to empathize with those who believe God is a reality, say with a Muslim, who in praying five times a day and fasting for a month each year, reminds himself constantly that God is immanent, not kept in a drawer or a church.

That said, Baird's ductum, "When we state that the history of religions is the study of man rather than the study of God, we are making a methodological stipulation and not a theological proposal," holds.

newer post older post