By Mark Edwards
I've been spending alot of time lately with the good folks over at USIH. Not only do they generate fascinating, substantive reflections on the art of history and a high level of sustained discussion, but they are also nice to me, which is nice (check out, for instance, this thoughtful review and critique of my book by Gene Zubovich, another "new light" in the field of American religious history). One of the more stimulating USIH debates of late has concerned the impact of "ideology" in historical scholarship and teaching (see here then here). Put simply, are personal convictions, political or otherwise, obstacles for the historian to overcome or resources that the historian should embrace? How sympathetic should scholars be toward their subjects, especially those whose politics the scholar finds reprehensible? Should the teacher seek to be "objective" before their students, presenting "all sides" of an issue and then "letting the student decide?" Or, should instructors rather share openly their partisan preferences and/or operating principles?
Confessing History (Notre Dame, 2010) for my historiography class. The book is a collaborative effort by several members and fellow travelers of the Conference on Faith and History, including its editors Jay Green, John Fea, and Christopher Lasch biographer Eric Miller. Since 1967, the CFH has concerned itself with primarily one question: What difference does being a Christian make to the study and practice of history? I've heard the CFH referred to in private conversation as "the intellectual arm of the religious right." Certainly, George Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1998), despite its huge popularity among the CFH and conservative Christian colleges, has been greeted with suspicion by those fearful that "integration of faith and learning" is theocratic code for "faith over learning." But I'm not here to judge. Instead, I want to commend and recommend Confessing History essays for the questions they raise about ideology and history in general, as well as for their attempts to articulate a post-Marsden vision of Christian historiography. The best academic conference I ever attended remains the 2002 CFH meeting at Huntington University. For a young grad student, I (and fellow graduate and undergraduate students) marveled at the passionate seriousness and open confrontations of presenters trying to determine the ifs, hows, and whys of Christian scholarship. Confessing History might not be able to take readers back to that moment, but 2002 is nevertheless written all over it. In fact, one of the must-read essays is a revised version of Christopher Shannon's opening address of the 2002 meeting, "After Monographs," a merciless assault on Marsden's "Idea" (with Marsden in the room, mind you), on the state of Christian historiography, and on the post-Enlightenment historiographical/monographic tradition as a whole. Here's a taste, if you dare:
It is my contention that in embracing naturalistic causality and the procedural norms of the historical profession, Christian historians merely trade in 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. The modern secular monograph tells us, with pius, mind-numbing regularity, that human beings, as individuals and groups, make history, but not under conditions of their own making. Within the general framework of accommodation and resistance, secular historians remind us of the ironic disjunction between intended actions and unintended consequences, but insist on the primacy of action, whatever its consequences. Historical actors are those people who manipulate, negotiate, and reshape their relations with each other and with nature in their effort to maximize their individual and collective autonomy from imposed constraints. History, through a process of dialectical struggle, reveals the natural unfolding of a kind of instrumental individualism. The producer ethic of the middle-class professional historian is written into the narrative structures of history. It finds its most immediate material manifestation in the industrial production of history monographs (p. 172).
For those interested in a concrete example of what Shannon is getting at, check out his review of Robert O. Self's All in the Family (Hill and Wang, 2012) at USIH.
I should add that Shannon's essay is hardly representative of the Confessing History collection. The most compelling contribution to me is Beth Barton Schweiger's elegant meditation on the central role of love in historical practice (with honorable mentions to Lendol Calder and Thomas Albert Howard).