Back in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”. They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.
Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece. I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.
If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:
The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.
Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.
This leads me to the question in the title of my post. Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity? I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.
The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism. I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind. As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.
In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.” Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant. In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.
A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity. They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful. Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture. When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.
The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt). I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians. In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity. (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).
Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time. In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself. Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian. He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.
As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with. See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”
But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian. Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one. By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation. In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian. Maybe. But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.
To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing. A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian. Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.
A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.” Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning. (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).
So back to my original question: I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.
Just some thoughts here. Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology. But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.