Pardon the pop culture reference in the title, but we have weighty matters to deal with and I thought a little levity might be in order to balance things out. Richard Williams has asked me the following:
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a question which involves the teaching profession and one’s faith. This whole discussion about teaching history, polarization, perspective, etc, etc begs the question: Can history be taught in a vacuum?
As you have indicated [in a comment left on Richard's blog] that your consider yourself an evangelical Christian, I would have to assume you believe in the Providence of God and its implications regarding history. You are also aware of Scripture’s admonition to ‘do all to the Glory of God.’ So, as a historian, teacher, and Christian, how do you believe you should approach the teaching of history, particularly American history?
This is not a ‘gotcha’ or ‘trick’ question or some sort of trap. I’m sincerely interested and curious of your thoughts and approach. If you’d prefer to answer privately, you may email me and any response would be kept confidential.
I don’t mind at all, and in fact this might make for an interesting discussion deserving of its own post, so here goes.
First of all, in order to talk about this, one particular cat has to be let out of the bag. As I indicated to Richard elsewhere, I’m your run-of-the-mill evangelical Christian, and I hold to most of the standard Christian doctrines in a pretty literal fashion: the Trinity, the incarnation, the virgin birth, the propitiatory sacrifice on the cross, the bodily resurrection and eventual bodily return, the existence of supernatural evil, and all the rest of it. In fact, when it comes to most of the major theological points, I fit in pretty well with most other Southern Baptists, except possibly when it comes to the age of the universe and the development of organisms over time. (I’m an old-Earther through-and-through, and I’m about as convinced of evolutionary change as I am of gravity.)
To answer Richard’s first question, do I think history can be taught in a vacuum? No, I don’t, but I also don’t believe that doing fair, balanced, impartial history is totally impossible. Any historian—any human being—is going to bring a lifetime’s worth of experience and opinions to anything they undertake, but a good historian tries to ensure that his investigations are aimed at extrapolating the truth out of the evidence and nothing more. My conviction is that the historian’s only goal in scholarship should be finding out the truth. History can and should be taken into account by decision-makers and citizens, since it provides the context for understanding human activity. But the historian’s task is primarily to provide the information, and then somebody else can take that information that only the historian can provide and then use their own distinct skills to apply it to some given situation in which variables come into play.
That, in part, is my answer to the second question. How should I approach history, particularly American history, as a Christian? The same as anybody else. The purpose of scholarship remains the same. It’s to find the truth. The purpose of teaching remains the same. It’s to impart accurate information and enable understanding so that students can find the truth. The purpose of history is to discover and share the truth about the past, period.
So does religious belief have any impact on what I believe to be that truth? Well, when it comes to specific matters of historical interpretation, when the rubber hits the road it really doesn’t matter that much. I don’t mean that I want to minimize faith; I mean that I don’t want to abuse it. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Richard mentions the Providence of God. I believe that God has plans, and that He works to carry them out. I think I’ve got a general idea of the big, overarching plan that underlies reality. If you asked me to sum it up, I’d say something along the lines of, “God has been, is, and will continue to reconcile creation (including us) to himself until it’s been fully accomplished to His satisfaction.”
But being a Christian doesn’t automatically mean that I believe God causes all things to happen. There are some Christians who do in fact think so, and they would challenge me by asking whether I believe that God is sovereign. And I’d reply that I think God is every bit as sovereign as He wants to be. Part of that sovereignty means that He has allowed humankind the freedom to act on its own, and history is (among other things) the sum of the consequences.
In other words, while God has a plan, I think He allows things to happen that don’t always conform to it. Some events have unfolded because people have acted according to His plans, others because they’ve acted in opposition to them, and still others because people have been going about their business in ignorance of or indifference to what God wants. In some of those cases, God comes in and gives portions of mankind a good, sound kick in the pants to get things back on track, or to correct people’s course, and that sort of thing occupies a good deal of the Old Testament.
The point of all this is that while I know God’s overall, general plan for mankind, which is to reconcile it to Himself, and while I do my best to discern what He expects of me individually, I think it would be presumptuous of me to take some historic event or action and say, “This is what God wanted to happen.” Maybe God wanted an independent nation in North America that would become an experiment in republicanism. Maybe He wanted it to expand to the width of the entire continent. Maybe He wanted it to become a global power. Or maybe He wanted none of these things, or only some of them, but allowed them to happen anyway. Unless it’s specifically described as such in the canon, I don’t have any way of knowing when some historical incident is an example of God acting, rather than an example of fallible humans doing the best they can or just royally screwing things up. (For all I know, God may have raised up America only to use it bring some other nation low, and He might then turn around and do the same to the U.S. once it’s served its purpose. If you read the OT prophets, you’ll notice quite a bit of that sort of thing going on.)
So when I study history, unless it’s biblical history, I don’t assume that God did or did not ordain something. I just try to figure out what happened and why based on the evidence in front of me. How, then, does my religion impact my work? It means that in my professional dealings with people I try to behave with as much integrity as I can, knowing that God values these people no less than He does me, and that they are eternal creatures just like me. It means I try to do the best work that I can, by finding the truth as conscientiously as possible. It means also that I try to remember that there are more important things than my professional life, or even than figuring out the truth about some given historical situation.
Beyond that, I don’t worry about whether or not I can discern every single detail of God’s working over the course of human history. I think I know what sort of life He intended for man, both here and in the hereafter, and the means He’s put into place to get us there. That’s enough for me.