A Theological Narrative of America

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Serene Jones

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I wrote:

How might the reality of human sin influence our work as historians?  Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologicans and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.”  Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”  Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history.  While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God.  Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life. (p.90-91)

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I also wrote:

…the imago Dei should…inform the way a Christian does history.  The doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.  An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer…. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social and embodied selves with their specific needs.”  What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?…A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

My attempt to connect theology and history in these passages came to mind again when I read Serene Jones‘s recent piece in Time titled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.”  Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls for a new national story informed by theology.  Here is a taste of what she means:

Over the past year, streams of commentaries have analyzed the ferocious and alarming combat marking this year’s presidential campaign. Few among them, however, include wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts of what is transpiring. From where I sit, as a religious and spiritual leader, I see it as the manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.d94aa-whystudyhistory

As a theologian, I think about stories all the time because theology is nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives. We find these “ultimate” stories everywhere; they are conscious and unconscious, and not just in religious communities, but also broader, secular cultures.

 

As Americans, we have a “theological” national story we tell about our country. It begins with the Constitution and typically describes the constant progress that good people have made since the start. It’s a relentlessly positive story.

From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. Our enduring flaws, profound failures, egregious harm and horrendous evils–none of these are part of our core story. The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native American and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.

Why is this absence a spiritual problem? There is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. There are many names for the negative side of human existence, such as sin, evil, illusion, moral absence, iniquity, transgression and negative karma. All recognize that human beings, alone and collectively, can do really bad things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But these stories insist that if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities. Egregious harms will continue to unfold and profound despair and alienation inevitably set in. Why? Because deep down, we are living a spiritual lie.

I should add that in many traditions, spiritually reckoning with moral flaws and egregious harms is not considered debilitating but liberating and freeing. It allows people to be honest about their lives, and with this comes insight and fresh possibility. Any well-trained therapist would agree, as would evolutionary biologists, positive psychologists and a growing list of behavioral scientists.

Read the entire piece here.

14 thoughts on “A Theological Narrative of America

  1. Sure, Tom. Just heroes, man! Ignore everything else.

    Not what I said, John, and thanks for the condescension. I’m saying nothing different than CS Lewis did about the cynicism in the education racket in The Abolition of Man. Good book. There is nothing wrong with heroes, with inspiration.

    The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. … A persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment… It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

    And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

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  2. The thing to teach about evil is its banality and ubiquitousness. There is nothing difficult or inspiring in being a scold, John.

    And the story of man even more than his evil is all of our cowardice in the face of it. Metaxas had a point about heroes; the great mass of men are neither villains nor heroes. To teach one without the other is to teach nothing of value atall.

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    • Tom: If I misunderstood you I apologize. If you read my stuff you know that I think that historians should point about both the tragic dimensions of life AND the heroic acts. My point about no villains or no heroes was more a point about identity, not behavior. Should historians point to heroic acts? Of course they should. But when I read people saying that “the only purpose of history is…” red flags go up for me. And yes, I do reserve the right to scold every now and then. 🙂

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  3. “If one believes this–and I do–depravity is man’s natural state. The evil that men do is unexceptional. The only purpose of studying history is not to recite the endless list of crimes and sins but to chronicle those times when man [and men] stood with courage and did the right thing.”

    Sure, Tom. Just heroes, man! Ignore everything else. Honestly, you can’t be serious about this. I will give you a pass this time around.

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  4. Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

    If one believes this–and I do–depravity is man’s natural state. The evil that men do is unexceptional. The only purpose of studying history is not to recite the endless list of crimes and sins but to chronicle those times when man [and men] stood with courage and did the right thing.

    Of course there are heroes.

    From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs.

    I have no idea what she’s talking about. Even in Alabama they teach the Civil Rights Movement in 3rd grade.

    http://www.tolerance.org/book/appendix-alabama-through-missouri

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  5. When I was in grad school, the one main point that was constantly driven home was for each of us to be aware of our personal biases. No one studies and writes history in a vacuum. We bring our personal worldview with us and it is important to acknowledge that bias. The problem I have is with Dr. Fea’s assertion about the role of the Christian concept of sin as we do history. Dr. Fea wrote, “Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin. In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life.” I strongly disagree with this perspective because it distorts the historical record if you believe that a supernatural faith-based concept like “sin” is the primary driver of history. It works well with Christian Apologetics because that is focused on defending Christian dogma and doctrine but fails in doing secular history.

    Think of how we view Islamic scholars who view history through the lens of humanity’s relationship with Allah or of Jewish scholars who do not accept the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and view Western history as a series of errors made by Christians who completely misunderstood the Tanakh/ Septuagint. We would rightfully see their historical works as being biased leading to erroneous conclusions. A historian should follow the evidence that leads to the conclusion based on the facts not using one’s faith-based conclusion to selectively choose items from the historical record and present it in a manner that supports a preconceived conclusion. If the Christian writing history cannot do this, then at least make a clear statement in the forward that the author’s faith in the Christian God guides the writing and conclusions of the work. Dr. Fea does a good job of doing this in his work and I commend him for it.

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    • Thanks for this post. For me personally, sin explains the imperfections and flawed character of the human beings I study. I do, however, think that any historian must come to grips with these imperfections and flaws in human kind. I don’t see how they can be ignored as an essential part of the human condition. You don’t have to theologize the flawed nature of human beings in the past and present to acknowledge these flaws.

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      • Thank you Dr. Fea for your kind response. I agree that history documents plenty of bad behavior by humanity. I just don’t see the need to invoke the supernatural to attribute such behavior to “sin.” Hitler believed he was on a divine mission sanctioned by God. I’m sure those who suffered under his reign would feel differently. We can understand man’s inhumanity to his fellow man without invoking a God. As Historians, we can acknowledge this malicious behavior and document the context and circumstances in which it occurred.

        History shows us how much progress humanity has made over the centuries, especially in the West, thanks to the Enlightenment. We no longer enslave people, children aren’t regarded as the property of the parents, we have universal education, we have made great strides in health thanks to our understanding of biology and nature, our basic civil rights are protected by law, we are free to pursue the political and religious beliefs of our choice without fear of imprisonment, women and minorities have been enfranchised, etc. So as the great philosopher John Lennon famously stated, “It’s getting better all the time.” Is our society perfect? Not by a long shot but I wouldn’t want to live at any other time in history.

        By focusing on “sin” it seems like the Historian will miss the progress humanity has made. The area of most concern in the US and around the world involve religious extremism. I don’t see “sin” as a historical explanation for the actions of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS. It is clearly their adherence to religious dogma that motivates them to act the way they do. The major motivating factors for humans typically are things like race, class, ethnicity, political ideology, religious ideology, competition for scarce resources, family, etc.

        I enjoy reading the work of scholars, like yourself, who have a different perspective from mine. I can always learn something new that provokes me to think about an issue. At the end of the day, even if we agree to disagree on an issue, I believe we both come away better for having the dialogue. So I appreciate your thought on this subject sir.

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        • Spacehistorian: No arguments here. Again, I don’t expect people who do not believe in the theological category of sin to describe the flawed nature of human beings as “sin” (or any other theological category) only to recognize the tragic dimensions of life. It seems like historians need to describe both. I guess, in the end, perhaps I see more limits to the Enlightenment project than you do. I’ve probably been listening to too much Springsteen! 🙂

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      • I’ve seen your Springsteen posts, so I can understand the influence he has on you! I discovered The Beatles at a young age, so maybe their optimism rubbed off on me. I did turn into a Lennonist!

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