I love it when a plan comes together

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.

Edward P. Moran's depiction of the signing of the Mayflower Compact, from the Pilgrim Hall Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

7 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

7 responses to “I love it when a plan comes together

  1. Michael,

    Excellent post. Thanks so much for responding to Richard’s question. Your response points to the reason why the two of us can engage in serious historical debate about a given topic. I am not a christian, but the two of us have been trained to analyze primary sources and formulate an interpretation based on those sources. I assume that the two of us bring very different baggage to the table, but when it comes to a historical question of what and why we are able to utilize a language that doesn’t necessarily cancel out our personal backgrounds, but allows us to communicate.

  2. Michael Lynch

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for commenting. I think you’ve raised an interesting point here. There’s a sense in which formal academic training in history is similar to military training. I’ve read a lot of accounts of modern-day soldiers in combat, and a lot of them agree that once they found themselves in an ugly situation, there came a point in which their own fears and emotions got swallowed up in their training. Their civilian selves didn’t vanish, but there came a point in which their professional selves kicked in and took over.

    There’s nothing mystical about it. It’s the same thing that happens with any kind of training. When an athlete steps onto a court with a ball in his hands or a plumber sits down in front of a leaky pipe with a set of tools, the same thing happens.

    In a similar way, when you’ve spent time learning from historians in a formal setting, your training automatically kicks in when you’re trying to answer historical questions. You still have your own beliefs and experiences, but just like a soldier in battle, you’re faced with a situation similar to what you’ve faced in training, and the training just kind of takes over on its own.

    I’m certainly not saying that academic training is necessary to do history, just that it’s tremendously helpful. Some of my favorite historical scholarship isn’t the work of academic historians. Those of us who have been lucky enough to study history extensively are no smarter or more virtuous than anyone else. We’ve just been able to apprentice with people who have spent years doing what we want to do, and they’re able to show us the ropes, warn us about the mistakes that they’ve already made, and so on. It’s the benefit of all that cumulative experience that’s really helpful, the same as with learning any other trade.

    –ML

  3. Michael:

    I find little to disagree with in your post, except your view of Creation. Other than to mention that I am a former Darwinist, we’ll leave that one alone for now. ;o)

    I would have to add, however, that a Christian approaches his discovery of truth and facts much differently than a non-believer. Yes, both bring “baggage” to their discovery. Part of that baggage is their worldview and philosophy. According to Scripture, those two worldviews are at enmity with one another – so much so that Scripture describes this enmity in military terms – “warfare, battle”, etc. If the believer is true to his faith, then there will inevitably be conflict in interpretation. There will also often be differences in which “facts” and “events” each see as important and relevant.

    A Christian should not avoid his worldview. Yes, he should seek the truth, but not be afraid to allow his worldview, (which he should embrace as fundamental to “truth”) to influence how facts and events are interpreted. I’m currently reading Eugene Genovese’s book, “The Southern Front – History and Politics in the Cultural War.” I’m finding much of it quite fascinating and some of it rather laborious. But he made an interesting observation in his chapter titled, “Marxism, Christianity, and Bias” which expresses part of my point.:

    “. . . I must confess that I cannot understand how Christians, without ceasing to be Christians, can retreat one inch from a belief that Jesus is the . . . Christ, the redeemer. . . and when I read much Protestant theology and religious history today, I have the warm feeling that I am in the company of fellow nonbelievers.”

    That, in my mind, is an indictment against Christians. And one which is well-deserved. When I write about history, though I certainly want to tell the truth, I do not want to give non-believers a “warm feeling.”

    Genovese also made this observation earlier in the same chapter:

    “We cannot escape the intrusion of a worldview into our work as historians. Whether that worldview be Marxist, Christian, liberal, conservative, fascist, or other, . . . ”

    Thanks again for the response and providing a forum to discuss the issue.

    Best,
    RW

  4. All of Genovese’s scholarship stands or falls based on how well he applies the historian’s trade and not on whether he self-identifies as a Christian has nothing to do with the success of his scholarship. It’s the reason why a book like _Roll, Jordan Roll_ is still required reading. It’s assigned by believers and non-believers, it is read by believers and non-beievers and it is criticized and praised by believers and non-believers.

  5. Michael Lynch

    Hi Richard,

    I think your first Genovese quote is an excellent point, but at the same time, I don’t write theology or religious history. I wouldn’t want to retreat one inch from my religious convictions either, but I can’t imagine any circumstances in which researching backcountry militiamen in the Revolutionary Carolinas or nineteenth-century Tennessee historiography would put me in that position.

    Even when dealing with the history of religion, I still maintain that basic scholarly responsibility is the most important component. Many atheists have written extremely perceptive and sensitive appraisals of historical religious belief, even though they don’t share that belief, simply because they followed the tenets of good historical scholarship. What disqualifies someone from writing any kind of history is an inability to approach the evidence honestly and interpret it correctly, not whether they share the opinions of the people about whom they’re writing.

    –ML

  6. Michael:

    “I don’t write theology or religious history.” I understand, but I think his point has broader applications.

    “I still maintain that basic scholarly responsibility is the most important component. ” I agree. I believe God requires our best.

    “Many atheists have written extremely perceptive and sensitive appraisals of historical religious belief, even though they don’t share that belief,” Again, I agree. Genovese would be in that group and I often enjoy the commentary and insight of Christopher Hitchens, though I also often disagree with many of his conclusions.

    “What disqualifies someone from writing any kind of history is an inability to approach the evidence honestly and interpret it correctly,”

    Once again, we are in complete agreement. Thanks again for the post and for allowing me to participate in the discussion.

  7. Michael Lynch

    Richard, you’re quite welcome, and I hope you’ll come back and comment often.

    –ML

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