Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “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 to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

Don’t Forget Your Conference on Faith and History Proposal

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I am serving as the program chair for next Fall’s CFH meeting in Grand Rapids.  I have posted the call for papers below.  The deadline for proposals is March 15, 2018.  Please consider submitting a paper or panel proposal!  Whether you are proposing a panel/session or a paper, all I need is a one-page abstract.  Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions.

And don’t forget our Secondary Teacher Initiative!

CALL FOR PAPERS

The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

History and the Search for Meaning:  The Conference on Faith and History at 50

 October 4-6, 2018

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, Michigan


Plenary Speakers:

Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Library & Archives, Boston)

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University)  

Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)

The Conference on Faith and History (CFH) was chartered fifty years ago to uphold, study, and improve the complex relationship between Christian faith and the discipline of history.  As an organization, we are interested in how Christian faith in all its manifestations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) plays a role in our lives as professionals, writers, teachers, and colleagues. Our members work at large public universities, Christian liberal arts colleges, museums, historical sites, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and K-12 schools.

In October 2018, we will gather together at Calvin College, one of the organization’s earliest sponsoring institutions, to reflect on a theme that has been at the heart of the CFH since its birth: “History and the Search for Meaning.”  During our meeting in Grand Rapids, we will consider how the study of the past—in all its fullness and complexity—might bring meaning within our institutions, neighborhoods, classrooms, and congregations, and how it might promote health and stability for our democracy in an ever-shrinking and even more dangerous world.

As always, we are eager to see papers and panel (preferred) proposals that focus on the conference theme, but we will consider submissions on any historical topic.

Proposal ideas may consider, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Historians and the church
  • Christian historians as public intellectuals
  • Thinking Christianly about the history of race and gender
  • Teaching as Christian historians (at both the university and K-12 level)
  • The role of the Christian historian in teaching and writing about under-represented groups
  • Christian historians and the history of justice and inequality
  • Christianity and historiography
  • The social responsibility of the Christian historian
  • Christian faith and the writing of history
  • The role of the history major and the place of historical study in the academy
  • Spiritual disciplines and the work of Christian scholarship and teaching
  • The relationship between theology and the work of the historian
  • History and citizenship
  • The calling or vocation of the Christian historian/scholar
  • The influence of the Internet and social media on Christian scholarship
  • Digital history and the Christian historian
  • History and the state of the “evangelical mind”
  • History and advocacy
  • Christians and graduate training in history
  • Stories of women and seeking meaning through the study of the past
  • History and Christian mission
  • History and the moral imagination

Individual paper and/or complete session proposals may be sent to:

 John Fea, Messiah College:  jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu

 DEADLINE: 15 March, 2018

 Decisions will be made on or before April 30, 2018.

Details about the Conference on Faith and History and forthcoming information about local arrangements can be found at the CFH website: faithandhistory.org

The Secondary Teacher Initiative at the 2018 Conference on Faith and History

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As you may know, I am chairing the program for the 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  We will be meeting October 4-6 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  You can see the Call for Papers here and here.

Under the leadership of CFH president Jay Green and Woodberry Forest School (VA) history teacher and department chair Fred Jordan, we are hoping to attract secondary teachers to the 2018 meeting.  There will be a special session devoted to teachers tentatively titled “How Can the CFH Better Serve Secondary School Teachers?”  If you are a teacher with an interest in the CFH I hope you might consider coming to Grand Rapids and participate in the conversation.

Another way that teachers can get involved in the conference is through the presentation of papers.  If you are a CFH member, would like to be a CFH member, or are a fellow-traveler with the CFH, I would love to entertain a proposal from you.  We have already had a few teachers submit proposals, and are expecting a few more.  If you have any questions or concerns on this front, don’t hesitate to contact me.

We want the Conference on Faith and History to be a place where secondary teachers of Christian faith might find a home.

jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu

One Month Left: Don’t Forget to Submit Your Proposal to the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

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I am serving as the program chair for next Fall’s CFH meeting in Grand Rapids.  I have posted the call for papers below.  The deadline for proposals is March 15, 2018.  Please consider submitting a paper or panel proposal!  Whether you are proposing a panel/session or a paper, all I need is a one-page abstract.  Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions.

CALL FOR PAPERS

The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

History and the Search for Meaning:  The Conference on Faith and History at 50

 October 4-6, 2018

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, Michigan


Plenary Speakers:

Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Library & Archives, Boston)

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University)  

Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)

The Conference on Faith and History (CFH) was chartered fifty years ago to uphold, study, and improve the complex relationship between Christian faith and the discipline of history.  As an organization, we are interested in how Christian faith in all its manifestations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) plays a role in our lives as professionals, writers, teachers, and colleagues. Our members work at large public universities, Christian liberal arts colleges, museums, historical sites, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and K-12 schools.

In October 2018, we will gather together at Calvin College, one of the organization’s earliest sponsoring institutions, to reflect on a theme that has been at the heart of the CFH since its birth: “History and the Search for Meaning.”  During our meeting in Grand Rapids, we will consider how the study of the past—in all its fullness and complexity—might bring meaning within our institutions, neighborhoods, classrooms, and congregations, and how it might promote health and stability for our democracy in an ever-shrinking and even more dangerous world.

As always, we are eager to see papers and panel (preferred) proposals that focus on the conference theme, but we will consider submissions on any historical topic.

Proposal ideas may consider, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Historians and the church
  • Christian historians as public intellectuals
  • Thinking Christianly about the history of race and gender
  • Teaching as Christian historians (at both the university and K-12 level)
  • The role of the Christian historian in teaching and writing about under-represented groups
  • Christian historians and the history of justice and inequality
  • Christianity and historiography
  • The social responsibility of the Christian historian
  • Christian faith and the writing of history
  • The role of the history major and the place of historical study in the academy
  • Spiritual disciplines and the work of Christian scholarship and teaching
  • The relationship between theology and the work of the historian
  • History and citizenship
  • The calling or vocation of the Christian historian/scholar
  • The influence of the Internet and social media on Christian scholarship
  • Digital history and the Christian historian
  • History and the state of the “evangelical mind”
  • History and advocacy
  • Christians and graduate training in history
  • Stories of women and seeking meaning through the study of the past
  • History and Christian mission
  • History and the moral imagination

Individual paper and/or complete session proposals may be sent to:

 John Fea, Messiah College:  jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu

 DEADLINE: 15 March, 2018

 Decisions will be made on or before April 30, 2018.

Details about the Conference on Faith and History and forthcoming information about local arrangements can be found at the CFH website: faithandhistory.org

Don’t Forget to Submit Your Proposals for the 2018 Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

I am serving as the program chair for next Fall’s CFH meeting in Grand Rapids.  I have posted the call for papers below.  The deadline for proposals is March 15, 2018.  Please consider submitting a paper or panel proposal!  Whether you are proposing a panel/session or a paper, all I need is a one-page abstract.  Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions.

cfh-header-2

CALL FOR PAPERS

The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

History and the Search for Meaning:  The Conference on Faith and History at 50

 October 4-6, 2018

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, Michigan


Plenary Speakers:

Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Library & Archives, Boston)

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University)  

Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)

The Conference on Faith and History (CFH) was chartered fifty years ago to uphold, study, and improve the complex relationship between Christian faith and the discipline of history.  As an organization, we are interested in how Christian faith in all its manifestations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) plays a role in our lives as professionals, writers, teachers, and colleagues. Our members work at large public universities, Christian liberal arts colleges, museums, historical sites, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and K-12 schools.

In October 2018, we will gather together at Calvin College, one of the organization’s earliest sponsoring institutions, to reflect on a theme that has been at the heart of the CFH since its birth: “History and the Search for Meaning.”  During our meeting in Grand Rapids, we will consider how the study of the past—in all its fullness and complexity—might bring meaning within our institutions, neighborhoods, classrooms, and congregations, and how it might promote health and stability for our democracy in an ever-shrinking and even more dangerous world.

As always, we are eager to see papers and panel (preferred) proposals that focus on the conference theme, but we will consider submissions on any historical topic.

Proposal ideas may consider, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Historians and the church
  • Christian historians as public intellectuals
  • Thinking Christianly about the history of race and gender
  • Teaching as Christian historians (at both the university and K-12 level)
  • The role of the Christian historian in teaching and writing about under-represented groups
  • Christian historians and the history of justice and inequality
  • Christianity and historiography
  • The social responsibility of the Christian historian
  • Christian faith and the writing of history
  • The role of the history major and the place of historical study in the academy
  • Spiritual disciplines and the work of Christian scholarship and teaching
  • The relationship between theology and the work of the historian
  • History and citizenship
  • The calling or vocation of the Christian historian/scholar
  • The influence of the Internet and social media on Christian scholarship
  • Digital history and the Christian historian
  • History and the state of the “evangelical mind”
  • History and advocacy
  • Christians and graduate training in history
  • Stories of women and seeking meaning through the study of the past
  • History and Christian mission
  • History and the moral imagination

Individual paper and/or complete session proposals may be sent to:

 John Fea, Messiah College:  jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu

 DEADLINE: 15 March, 2018

 Decisions will be made on or before April 30, 2018.

Details about the Conference on Faith and History and forthcoming information about local arrangements can be found at the CFH website: faithandhistory.org

Don’t Forget to Submit Your Paper or Panel for the 2018 CFH Meeting in Grand Rapids!

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I am heading off to the executive board meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to give them an update on the 2018 Biennial Meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

It is going to be a great conference.  Keynote speakers include Robert Orsi, Margaret Bendroth, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.   Deadline is March 15, 2018.  Contact me with questions.

Here is the call for papers:

CALL FOR PAPERS

The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

History and the Search for Meaning:  The Conference on Faith and History at 50

 October 4-6, 2018

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, Michigan


Plenary Speakers:

Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Library & Archives, Boston)

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University)  

Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)

The Conference on Faith and History (CFH) was chartered fifty years ago to uphold, study, and improve the complex relationship between Christian faith and the discipline of history.  As an organization, we are interested in how Christian faith in all its manifestations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) plays a role in our lives as professionals, writers, teachers, and colleagues. Our members work at large public universities, Christian liberal arts colleges, museums, historical sites, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and K-12 schools.

In October 2018, we will gather together at Calvin College, one of the organization’s earliest sponsoring institutions, to reflect on a theme that has been at the heart of the CFH since its birth: “History and the Search for Meaning.”  During our meeting in Grand Rapids, we will consider how the study of the past—in all its fullness and complexity—might bring meaning within our institutions, neighborhoods, classrooms, and congregations, and how it might promote health and stability for our democracy in an ever-shrinking and even more dangerous world.

As always, we are eager to see papers and panel (preferred) proposals that focus on the conference theme, but we will consider submissions on any historical topic.

Proposal ideas may consider, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Historians and the church
  • Christian historians as public intellectuals
  • Thinking Christianly about the history of race and gender
  • Teaching as Christian historians (at both the university and K-12 level)
  • The role of the Christian historian in teaching and writing about under-represented groups
  • Christian historians and the history of justice and inequality
  • Christianity and historiography
  • The social responsibility of the Christian historian
  • Christian faith and the writing of history
  • The role of the history major and the place of historical study in the academy
  • Spiritual disciplines and the work of Christian scholarship and teaching
  • The relationship between theology and the work of the historian
  • History and citizenship
  • The calling or vocation of the Christian historian/scholar
  • The influence of the Internet and social media on Christian scholarship
  • Digital history and the Christian historian
  • History and the state of the “evangelical mind”
  • History and advocacy
  • Christians and graduate training in history
  • Stories of women and seeking meaning through the study of the past
  • History and Christian mission
  • History and the moral imagination

Individual paper and/or complete session proposals may be sent to:

 John Fea, Messiah College:  jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu

 DEADLINE: 15 March, 2018

 Decisions will be made on or before April 30, 2018.

Details about the Conference on Faith and History and forthcoming information about local arrangements can be found at the CFH website: faithandhistory.org

Call for Papers: Conference on Faith and History Biennial Meeting

I am serving as the program chair for next Fall’s CFH meeting in Grand Rapids.  I have posted the call for papers below.  Please consider submitting a paper or panel proposal!  Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions.  –JF

cfh-header-2

CALL FOR PAPERS

The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

History and the Search for Meaning:  The Conference on Faith and History at 50

 October 4-6, 2018

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, Michigan


Plenary Speakers:

Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Library & Archives, Boston)

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University)  

Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)

The Conference on Faith and History (CFH) was chartered fifty years ago to uphold, study, and improve the complex relationship between Christian faith and the discipline of history.  As an organization, we are interested in how Christian faith in all its manifestations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) plays a role in our lives as professionals, writers, teachers, and colleagues. Our members work at large public universities, Christian liberal arts colleges, museums, historical sites, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and K-12 schools.

In October 2018, we will gather together at Calvin College, one of the organization’s earliest sponsoring institutions, to reflect on a theme that has been at the heart of the CFH since its birth: “History and the Search for Meaning.”  During our meeting in Grand Rapids, we will consider how the study of the past—in all its fullness and complexity—might bring meaning within our institutions, neighborhoods, classrooms, and congregations, and how it might promote health and stability for our democracy in an ever-shrinking and even more dangerous world.

As always, we are eager to see papers and panel (preferred) proposals that focus on the conference theme, but we will consider submissions on any historical topic.

Proposal ideas may consider, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Historians and the church
  • Christian historians as public intellectuals
  • Thinking Christianly about the history of race and gender
  • Teaching as Christian historians (at both the university and K-12 level)
  • The role of the Christian historian in teaching and writing about under-represented groups
  • Christian historians and the history of justice and inequality
  • Christianity and historiography
  • The social responsibility of the Christian historian
  • Christian faith and the writing of history
  • The role of the history major and the place of historical study in the academy
  • Spiritual disciplines and the work of Christian scholarship and teaching
  • The relationship between theology and the work of the historian
  • History and citizenship
  • The calling or vocation of the Christian historian/scholar
  • The influence of the Internet and social media on Christian scholarship
  • Digital history and the Christian historian
  • History and the state of the “evangelical mind”
  • History and advocacy
  • Christians and graduate training in history
  • Stories of women and seeking meaning through the study of the past
  • History and Christian mission
  • History and the moral imagination

Individual paper and/or complete session proposals may be sent to:

 John Fea, Messiah College:  jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu

 DEADLINE: 15 March, 2018

 Decisions will be made on or before April 30, 2018.

Details about the Conference on Faith and History and forthcoming information about local arrangements can be found at the CFH website: faithandhistory.org

The State of the Evangelical Mind Conference

25ff0-scandalLater this week I am heading to Indianapolis to participate in the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.  This two-day conference will explore how the evangelical mind is faring since Mark Noll wrote his seminar The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994.

Somehow I managed to end up in the opening plenary session with my old partners-in-crime Eric Miller and Jay Green.  Needless to say, we are happy to be Mark Noll’s warm-up act.  But like most warm-up acts we don’t have a lot of time to play our full repertoire. We each get 12 minutes to offer a review of The Scandal and reflect on the state of the evangelical mind today.

Unfortunately, registration for the event is closed.  I will try to keep you updated via social media, but I am not sure how much time I will have or what the Internet connection will be like.

Here is that schedule:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

  • 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM – Preconference Roundtable (filmed live): Comments in Context – Donald Cassell (Sagamore Institute) & Abson Joseph (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 5:00 PM to 5:30 PM — Reception of Guests
  • 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM – Opening Dinner, Welcome – Jay Hein (Sagamore Institute), Opening Remarks and Tributes to John Wilson – David W. Wright (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM -The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Tripartite Review
    John Fea (Messiah College), Jay Green (Covenant College), & Eric Miller (Geneva College) 
    Session Host — Abson Joseph
  • 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM – Reflections upon the Past
    Address – Mark A. Noll (University of Notre Dame) 
    Session Host – David W. Wright

Emcee – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)


Friday, September 22, 2017

  • 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM – Continental Breakfast
  • 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM – The Church 
    Keynote Address – Jo Anne Lyon (The Wesleyan Church) 
    Paper Overviews – Andrew Draper (Urban Light Community Church & Taylor University),
    Christopher Smith (The Englewood Review), & Maureen Miner Bridges (Excelsia College)
    Session Host – Mark Bowald (Christian Scholar’s Review)
  • 10:00 AM to 10:30 AM – Break
  • 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM – Para-Church Organizations 
    Keynote Address – David Mahan/Don Smedley (Rivendell Institute & Yale University Divinity School)
    Paper Overviews – Rachel Maxson (John Brown University), Mark Stephens (Excelsia College), & Tim Dalrymple (Polymath Innovations)
    Session Host – Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)
  • 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM – Lunch
  • 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM – The University 
    Keynote Address – Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College) 
    Paper Overviews – Rick Ostrander (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), David Johnstone (George Fox University), & Jack Baker/Jeff Bilbro (Spring Arbor University)
    Session Host – Stacy Hammons (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 3:00 PM to 3:30 PM – Break
  • 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM – The Seminary
    Keynote Address – Lauren F. Winner (Duke University Divinity School) 
    Paper Overviews – Karen Johnson (Wheaton College), Erin Devers (Indiana Wesleyan University), & Grant Taylor (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University)
    Session Host – Jim Vermilya (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 5:00 PM to 5:30 PM – Break
  • 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM – Dinner
  • 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM – Prospects for the Future 
    Address – James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) 
    Session Host – David L. Riggs (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 7:30 PM to 8:00 PM – Closing Remarks – Mark Galli (Christianity Today)

Emcee – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)

 

What Happens When You Are Catholic And Your Research Uncovers Unflattering Things About a Person Up For Sainthood?

Hecker3Head over to Religion in American History blog to read “Historiographic Saints,” William Cossen‘s excellent piece on balancing his Catholic faith with his work as a Catholic historian.  Cossen’s research has turned-up what he describes as “unflattering information” about Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers and a significant figure among American Catholics in the early 19th century.  Hecker has been up for sainthood since 2008.

Here is a taste:

It is obviously not uncommon for historians of Catholicism to write about men and women who have been recognized as saints by the Catholic Church.  This may be somewhat rarer in scholarship on U.S. Catholicism, which reflects the fewer canonized saints from the United States than from other countries with longer histories of an extensive Catholic presence.  There are, however, several fine examples of recent historical scholarship that include canonized (or soon-to-be canonized) Catholics as central figures in their narratives.

Why this has been on my mind is that my research on Hecker could have the potential to turn up what may be, at least to present-day observers, unflattering information on this Servant of God (an initial step in the process of canonization).   While Hecker’s life has been examined as part of the history of transcendentalism, the religious conversion experience, and the Americanist controversy within late nineteenth-century Catholicism, my research on Hecker explores how his writings and their intellectual legacy intersected with ideologies of race and growing American imperialism during the same period.  Remaining mindful of the multiple audiences of a scholar of Catholicism, I want to employ a rigorous methodology befitting an academic historian.  I also want to provide a more detailed picture of Hecker that is neither hagiographical nor exaggeratedly critical, recognizing that the institutional church and Hecker’s canonization promoters may be undertaking the simultaneous process of writing their own histories of Hecker.  Following Pope John Paul II’s reform of the canonization process in 1983, religion journalist Kenneth L. Woodward writes, the Catholic Church’s saint-makers began “employ[ing] the academic model of researching and writing a doctoral dissertation.  Hereafter, causes would be accepted or rejected according to the standards of critical historiography.”   In contemporary saint-making, individuals involved with the formal canonization process as well as academic historians operating outside the church’s institutional structures are all involved in creating saintly historiographies that may or may not exist at odds with one another.

Read the entire piece here.

Cossen addresses an issue that many historians of faith will encounter in their careers. He handles it in a thoughtful way.

The Conference on Faith and History Comes to Grand Rapids in October 2018

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The Fall 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) will be meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan from October 4-6, 2018.  This year’s conference theme is “History and the Search for Meaning: The CFH at 50.  Mark your calendars!

I am happy to report that we have secured the following keynote speakers:

Thursday Night Plenary: Peggy Bendroth, Congregational Library—“The Spiritual Practice of Remembering”

Friday Afternoon Plenary: Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Syracuse University—Title TBD

Friday Banquet Speaker: Beth Barr, CFH President

Saturday Morning Plenary: Robert Orsi, Northwestern University, “History and Presence”

I hope to see you all there.  Let’s have a record turnout for our 50th anniversary conference.  Stay tuned.  The Call for Papers will be released in a few months.

Historians “get in the way of death”

Resurrection

And in the process we “practice resurrection.”

Yesterday was a long day of meetings about unhappy things.  I needed a reminder of why I do what I do and why I do what I do where I do it.

Chris Gehrz’s powerful reflection on the work of historians was just what I needed. Thank you.

Here is a taste:

…history can serve as both an academic and spiritual discipline, a way of getting in the way of death and practicing resurrection.

First, history gets in the way of death.

Not that history stops people from dying — neither its subjects nor its practitioners — but it resists the power of death. For if Paul is right that death is the “last enemy to be destroyed,” then death is more than an event: it is an active force, one among the rulers, authorities, and powers that oppose God. Death doesn’t merely snuff out the spark of life; it seeks to strip humanity of the dignity inherent to being made of the image of God. Resurrection may bring change “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” but in the meantime, death lingers: slowly, methodically seeking to erase the meaning of mortal existence from our memory.

So if we practice the discipline of history, we act as a counter-force to death. We are not standing passively by the grave, but actively protecting against the decay of forgetting. For not only do we help preserve the evidence the dead leave behind, but we make meaning of lives that death seeks to render meaningless…

I don’t mean to claim too much with that phrase: we are not emptying tombs. Nor do we do the practical good that Claiborne and other neo-monastics have done when they “practice resurrection” by working to revive urban neighborhoods left for dead.

But I also don’t want to claim too little. It is no small thing to breathe life into what remains of the past by teaching, speaking, and writing about it. History is harder than most will ever know; it must be fueled by passion and compassion. Indeed, such “resurrection” is one of the most common ways that Christian historians fulfill Christ’s command to love our (temporal) neighbors: dedicating our time, energy, and gifts to bringing them — however briefly and figuratively — back to life, in all their messy complexity. We read historical texts, argues Fea, “for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies” (Why Study History?, p. 131).

In the process, perhaps we might even bring some life back to our students and ourselves. Long before our physical demise, we suffer the creeping spiritual death of sin. Perhaps history can serve as a means of grace, reviving in us the ability to love God with our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Read the entire post at The Pietist Schoolman.

History as Love

adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-bakerI thought this excerpt from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past would make for an appropriate Valentine’s Day post on history blog.

Love is at the center of the Christian life.  It is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” recorded in Galatians 5:22-23.  Jesus reminded us that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13).  His sacrificial death on the cross exemplified the ultimate act of love (Phil. 2:6-8).  In the Christian tradition, we flourish as human beings when we learn to live the “Jesus Creed”–loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Such sacrificial love for God and neighbor is the source of true joy and happiness.  In the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  As theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, ” At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that…’others’ need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers… The story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the ‘sons, and daughters of hell.'”  Our lives should be one of “embrace” rather than “exclusion.”

The study of the past offers endless opportunities to exercise loving embrace to our fellow humans, even if they have lived in a different era and are no longer alive.  It is easy to manipulate the voices from the past to serve our own purposes in the present, and out of love we must not do this….This kind of presentism makes for bad history, and when looked at theologically, this kind of manipulation is also a failure to love–a failure to enter into the worlds of those who have gone before us with a spirit of compassion, selfishness, and empathy.  People in the past cannot defend themselves.  They are at the mercy of the historian.  This, of course, gives the practitioner of history a great deal of power.  But Christian historians will do their best to meet the people in the past as Jesus encountered the people he met during his earthly ministry.  They must relinquish power and avoid the temptation to use the powerless–those in the past who are at the mercy of us, the interpreters–to serve selfish ends, whether they be religious, political, or cultural.  The exercise of this hermeneutic of love means that we will read historical texts for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies.  It forces us to love others–even a nineteenth-century slaveholder or Hitler–when they seem to be unlovable.  Failure to respect the people in the past is ultimately a failure of love.  It is a failure to recognize the common bond that we share with humanity.

A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas Before Study

O ineffable Creator, Who, out of the treasure of Thy wisdom, hast ordained three hierarchies of Angels, and placed them in wonderful order above the heavens, and hast most wisely distributed the parts of the world; Thou, Who are called the true fountain of light and wisdom, and the highest beginning, vouchsafe to pour upon the darkness of my understanding, in which I was born, the double beam of Thy brightness, removing from me all darkness of sin and ignorance. Thou, Who makest eloquent the tongue of the dumb, instruct my tongue, and pour on my lips the grace of Thy blessing. Give me quickness of understanding, capacity of retaining, subtlety of interpreting, facility in learning, and copious grace of speaking. Guide my going in, direct my going forward, accomplish my going forth; through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

(I write about this prayer in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past)

More “Abundant History”

history-and-presence-199x300Earlier today I posted some thoughts on the first few chapters of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence.  I did a little more digging and found some of Orsi’s early thoughts on the subject in a 2007  American Scholar essay titled  “When 2+2=5.”

The imagined story of Orsi’s grandmother in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderful illustration of the difference between “presence” and “absence.” It further illuminates Orsi comment about museums in my previous post.

This difference of theological interpretation is fundamental to the identities of these two divisions of the Christian world (the history of the Orthodox faith is another matter), and it is the pivot around which other differences, other identifications, accusations, lies, and hatreds have spun (and in some places at some times still spin). Catholics in the United States in the middle years of the 20th century, for instance, claimed that Protestant support for birth control was yet another expression of corrupted and disembodied Protestant modernity. What do you expect from people who think the Host—the Communion wafer, which is, for Catholics, the real presence of Christ—is nothing? Catholics I have spoken to who grew up in Catholic towns in rural Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s told me they were deeply ashamed of their large farm families because they knew the children in nearby Protestant towns made fun of their parents’ fecundity, associating Catholics with the body and sex in a nasty schoolyard way. Catholic statues weep tears of salt and blood, they move, they incline their heads to their petitioners; recently in the diocese of Sacramento, California, which is near bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse lawsuits, the eyes of a statue of the Blessed Mother leaked what believers saw as blood. Religious historians in the last decade or so have taught us that Protestant popular culture is also replete with images and objects and that there are divisions among Protestant churches over the meaning of the Eucharist. But still the basic differences between a religious ethos that is based on the real presence and one that is not are deep and consequential.

This divide between presence and absence, between the literal and the metaphorical, between the supernatural and the natural, defines the modern Western world and, by imperial extension, the whole modern world. Imagine one of my Italian Catholic grandmothers going to see a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She climbs the museum’s steep steps rising up from Fifth Avenue and pushes through the crowds and into the rooms of medieval art, where there are many lovely statues of the Blessed Mother, whom my grandmother knows and loves. My grandmother wants to touch the statues. She wants to lean across the velvet ropes to kiss their sculpted robes or to whisper her secrets and needs. But this is not how modern people approach art. For them, the statues are representations, illustrative of a particular moment of Western history and the history of Western art, and are to be admired for their form and their contribution to the development of aesthetic styles over time. There’s nothing in them, no one there. The guards rush over and send my grandmother back out to the street.

This is a parable of two ways of being in the world: one associated with the modern (although this is complicated, clearly, since my grandmothers lived in the modern world after all, and you can find believers in cathedrals throughout the world today petitioning statues); the other with something different from the modern. One is oriented toward presence in things, the other toward absence. As the guard rushing over shows, the difference is carefully policed—as carefully policed as the difference between Jesus in the bread and wine and Jesus not in the bread and wine was policed on that August morning in Paris or at the base of Campion’s scaffold—although with less dire consequences. Certain ways of being in the modern world, certain ways of imagining it, are tolerable and others are not. Especially intolerable are ways of being and imagining oriented to divine presence.

Read the entire essay here.

A Historiography With the Gods as Agents

Back in August we featured Orsi’s History and Presence in the Author’s Corner.  You can read that interview here.  Over the last few weeks I have finally gotten a chance to dig deeply into this book.  I am taking it slowly.  It is a thought-provoking work.

Orsi wonders what the practice of history might look like if “the transcendent broke into time.”  How might we envision a historiography in which “the gods” are active agents and we, as historians, make an effort to try understand what they are doing.  What intrigues me the most about this suggestion is that it comes not from David Barton or some other providential historian of the Christian Right that we criticize here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but from a Professor of Religious Studies and History and the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.

Unlike the aforementioned providential historians, Orsi is not suggesting that we try to discern the workings of Providence in the world.  Instead, he starts with the assumption that God and the gods are present and have been present to millions of people in the past.  (He draws the word “presence” from the Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist).  He writes: “I am inclined to believe that presence is the norm of all human existence, including in religion, and absence is an authoritative imposition” (p.6). He is asking his readers “not to make the move to absence, at least not immediately, not to surround presence with the safeguard of absence, but instead to withhold from absence the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual prestige modernity gives to it, and to approach history and culture with the gods fully present to humans.” (p.8).history-and-presence-199x300

Orsi calls for an “Abundant History” that rejects the secular inclination to interpret “presence”–such as a Marian apparition or a pilgrimage to a shrine or a vision–according “to the authorized interpretive categories” of the political, sociological, ideological, technological, scientific, and economic.  He urges us to avoid explaining religious phenomena as social constructions.  Orsi adds:

In an intellectual culture premised on absence, the experience of presence is the phenomenon that is most disorienting, most inexplicable.  This puts that matter of “translation” and “bracketing” into a new light.  Constraints on the scholar’s imagination become, by means of his or her scholarship, constraints on the imaginations of others, specifically those whose lives the scholar aims to present and understand. There is a double intellectual tragedy here, for once their reality is constrained by ours, they no longer have the capacity to enlarge our understandings of our imaginations.  This is the price of ontological safety. (p.64).

Orsi concludes this chapter by wondering:

The past may act upon us in such a profound way as to erase our intentions of remaining outside of it.  This is the vertigo of abundant history.  It comes upon historians as a result of their training and disciplining.  But it may be that this is what abundant historiography is: approaching events that are not safely cordoned off in the past, that are not purified, but whose routes extend into the present, into the writing of history itself.

I am about halfway through the book and it is giving me a lot to think about.  I recently took a break from reading and listened to Ed Linenthal‘s interview with Orsi on the Process Podcast produced by the Organization of American Historians.  You can listen to it here.

There is one section in the podcast in which Orsi talks about museums as places where “figures of presence are gathered.”  These sacred objects–Orsi gives an example of a Buddhist deity–are meant to be touched and spoken to, but the practice of museum protocol means that they must remain behind glass walls.  This, Orsi notes, enforces a “code of absence” in the museum.

The conversation with Linenthal is fascinating since he is not only the outgoing editor of The Journal of American History, but he also has a background in religious studies and has written a lot about sacred spaces in American civil religion.

Orsi admits that there is “little tolerance” in academia for the kind of abundant history he is talking and writing about.   He claims that he doesn’t know how to convince his colleagues that this kind of “real presence” is part of the “empirical world.”

I’ll keep reading.  Stay tuned.

History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher

College-classroom

My recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics” seems to be resonating with some people.  I am especially happy that it is resonating with K-16 teachers.  Some good discussion seems to be happening.

One of the teachers who has engaged with the piece at my Facebook page is Leslie Smith, a history teacher in San Bernardino, California.  I met Leslie in October 2011 when I was in California to work with the teachers of the San Bernardino School District. My visit was part of the district’s Teaching American History grant programming.  As the curriculum coordinator for the district, Leslie was responsible for running the grant. If I remember correctly, I did presentations on Protestantism in America and the American Enlightenment. (I was there under the auspices of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History).  More importantly, I got to know Leslie and we have continued our friendship through social media.

Here is what Leslie wrote in response to my original post.  I should add that she is not only an outstanding history teacher, but she is also a practicing Catholic.

Leslie: I see the tension that you mention and want to celebrate it because before there was *no* tension, at least not in the narrative taught in k-12 classrooms. It was a national narrative of great men (read fairly-wealthy, white men) did great things and that’s why America is great. Beginning, middle, end of story. And now students are being taught a different narrative that may be increasing their narcissism. Although I wonder how much of this is caused by other factors, I do see the narcissism you speak of. I would think that what they need isn’t one narrative or another but a willingness, the ability, and the time to complicate history education with multiple narratives.

I would argue that it is in dealing with and maintaining balance with tension that is where the work lies (perhaps Opus Dei). Without tension, we are left with flaccid tools that neither fulfill their purpose nor serve any use. It is hard work to maintain a balance with this tension, but so much is at stake. We must seek the Spirit of God living within us and at the same time see His face in those we meet. We must see ourselves in history and encounter new/different people as they were in history. Peter was a betrayer *and* a fisher of men. Washington was a slave owner *and* a great leader. We are sinners *and* made in Imago Dei. The *or* is easier but not the truth and will essentially get us no where. The same is true with history education *and* identity politics.

In the end, I worry about any single story. I would soooo love to sit with you and discuss this at length. There has GOT to be more time and effort put in building useful bridges between k-12 and university education, especially in the humanities. We can’t afford not to.

And here is my response:

John: Leslie: Yes–I would love to come back out to California and have this conversation. Your point in the first paragraph on the great men narrative is on the mark, but I am not convinced that we need to abandon some type of national narrative in favor of a U.S. history course defined by identity politics. Even if the narrative deals heavily with the failures of Americans to live up to their ideals (as King reminds us in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail) it will still show kids that the promise of America has always been a contested and unfulfilled one and that there is a lot more work to do.

I will be the first to say that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be the primary goal of a K-12 history course. But the 2016 election has also convinced me that the study of history must play some kind of civic role as well.  As I have argued in Why Study History?, I don’t think the teaching of historical thinking skills and the “history as civics approach” are mutually exclusive. Good historical thinking skills produce good democratic citizens. But such civic lessons should also come through the kind of narrative I described above.  

As for the Holy Spirit–I could not agree more. Again, I touch on this in Why Study History?. The kind of empathy necessary for historical understanding to take place and for empathy to contribute to our life together in this country and beyond is for me connected to the spiritual disciplines. I was just listening to a Ted Talk in which a political commentator–a non-believer– was saying that empathy is a “meditative practice” for her when she deals with conservatives who do not like her liberal politics.  I am not entirely sure that we can muster the inner strength alone to practice and teach the kind of empathy I talk about in this piece and elsewhere.  I can get away with this kind of talk at Messiah College, where most of my students share my Christian faith. But just in case some of my critics out there are reading this, I would NOT advocate this kind of approach to empathy in a public K-16 history classroom, even if an approach to empathy informed by the spiritual disciplines might be the presuppositional base upon which the teacher operates.  

Thanks for the conversation.

 

Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?

dickinson_college_18_college_classroom

Please help me think through this.

In my last post, I embedded a video of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and writer Leon Wieseltier discussing the role of humanities in everyday life.  In the course of their discussion they talked about the way in which the humanities teaches empathy.  Faust is a historian.  She suggested that the study of history challenges students to see the world through the eyes of others.  Wieseltier agreed.  Empathy is needed for democracy to thrive. It is cultivated through the imagination.  And the humanities trigger the imagination.

As readers of this blog know, I have been arguing this for a long time.  On Sunday I gave a lecture on this subject at a local church in my area and have led similar public discussions on this topic in the past.  The relationship between historical thinking, empathy, and democracy is at the heart of my book Why Study History? and, in many ways, at the heart of my vocation as a historian who takes seriously my responsibility to the public.

When I teach I want my students to empathize (not necessarily sympathize) with the so-called “other.” I want them to understand people in the past on their own terms.  I want to do the best I can to get my students to walk in the shoes of people who are different than them.  (I know, I know, you have all heard this from me before!) Yesterday I was laboring in my American Revolution class to get students to understand Shays’s Rebellion from both the perspective of the men in Boston governing Massachusetts and the perspective of the rural Massachusetts farmers who were getting squeezed by the breakdown of a moral economy and high taxes.  I wanted them to grasp why those in power articulated a language of republican virtue.  I also wanted them to understand the sense of desperation, hopelessness, and anger that the farmers felt. Primary documents, of course, were our guide in this exercise.

As I write, I am reminded once again of Sam Wineburg’s words about historical thinking and how this practice relieves us of our narcissism:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

If humanities and history education is about leading students outward then what do we do about students in our class who only want to see themselves in the past?  What do we do with the students who only want to look inward?  What do we do with students who (whether they realize it or not) only want to see the world through the lens of identity politics? What do we do with the students who resist this kind of humanities education because they are angry and resentful about the way their people have been treated in the past?  (These students don’t want to hear a lecture about empathy).  What do we do with the privileged student who could care less about such an exercise?

I started thinking about these things more deeply after I read Columbia University historian Mark Lilla‘s  New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  Here is a taste:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Read the entire piece here.

After this piece appeared, Steve Inskeep interviewed Lilla on National Public Radio.  In this interview Lilla said that he is anti-Trump, a supporter of transgender rights, and a liberal who wants nothing to do with identity politics.  We learn that one of his colleagues at Columbia, after reading his piece, called him a white supremacist. (Another one defended him).

Here is a taste of his NPR interview:

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It’s about recognition and self-definition. It’s narcissistic. It’s isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you’re so different that I’m not able to get into your head and I’m not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender – in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It’s that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I’m just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don’t want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

I am inclined to agree with Lilla here, especially when he talks about identity liberalism in terms of narcissism, isolationism, and navel gazing. If Lilla is right, then how do we teach history and the humanities (more broadly)?  Identity liberals want white people to empathize with people of color. I am entirely on board with this.  But is it wrong to challenge a student of color to empathize with white people?   If education is about looking outward, what do we do about a form of identity politics that teaches students (of all identities) to look inward or to always see themselves as victims? (And in the wake of the election of 2016 I have found both whites and people of color seem to be playing the victim).  Can I expect a black student to empathize with the writing of a 19th-century pro-slavery advocate in the same way that I expect a white student to empathize with 19th-century enslaved man or woman?

My thinking on this issue is complicated by the fact that I am an American historian. I know, as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, that “American freedom” has always gone hand-in-hand with “American slavery.”  I am convinced by scholarship that connects the rise of American capitalism to slavery.  I know the history that people of color, women, and the poor have inherited.  This makes teaching empathy through history a task fraught with difficulties.

I believe that the voices of all people need to be heard. I teach them because I believe that all human beings are important.  (I guess you could call this my own version of identity politics). My faith tells me that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  I am committed to a Christian narrative that understands the human experience through the interplay of the Imago Dei, sin, and redemption. This narrative shapes my teaching.  To me this narrative is more important than liberal identity politics informed by race, class, and gender. And since I teach at a college that claims to celebrate this narrative, and defines itself by this narrative (I hope it does), I want my students to come to grips with the meaning of this narrative as the most important source for understanding their lives and their identities. This narrative should shape how white students understand students of color and how students of color should understand white students.  It best explains our shared destiny as people of Christian faith.  This is part of the reason I find myself turning over and over again to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.” His approach seems to provide a real way forward.

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

So, in the end, how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism in an age of liberal identity politics? How do I teach my subject of expertise to students who are too often grounded in an approach to the world that trains them to always look inward? How do I teach history to students conditioned to see only themselves in the stories I tell about the past?

I am sure I will take some heat for this post.  But I am really interested in an honest dialogue. I realize that I don’t have this all figured out and would really like some help in thinking it through.  Thanks.

“The Anxious Bench” at the Conference on Faith and History Biennial Meeting

cfhOver at The Anxious Bench, blogmeister Chris Gehrz of Bethel University offers a preview of what Christian historians can expect at next month’s biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  It looks like Anxious Bench bloggers–past and present–will be speaking at the conference.  The list is an impressive one: David Swartz, Tommy Kidd,  John Turner, Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Beth Allison Barr, Andrew Turpin,  Blake Hartung and Gehrz.

I am still not sure if I will be able to attend due to a schedule conflict, but it looks like it’s going to be a great weekend in Virginia Beach.

Here is a taste of Gerhz’s post:

The connections between this blog and CFH have historically been strong. Beth was just elected to serve as vice president of CFH, and she’ll succeed Jay Green as president when his term concludes. Tal just finished a stint on the CFH board, and I’ll join that body starting at its next meeting. John Fea, one of our co-founders and previous contributors, has served on the CFH board and will coordinate the program for the 2018 biennial meeting.

And next month Anxious Bench-ers will be all over the terrific program(adeptly coordinated by Beth) for the 30th biennial meeting of CFH, hosted by Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. After the undergraduate conference on Oct. 19-20, the professional conference will run from the evening of the 20th through the afternoon of Saturday the 22nd.

If you’re planning to attend CFH 2016, you’ll find us at the following sessions:

Read more here.

Robert George: A Christian Scholar on the Spiritual Disciplines

Confessing History Available for Pre-OrderAs many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher.  Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.

If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).

So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology.  It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition.  In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.

It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians.  We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars.   But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work.  (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).

I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.

Here is just a small taste:

Prof. George, how do you pray?

GEORGE-WI

Robert George

On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.

I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.

Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?

That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.

It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.

It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.

I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.

In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]

Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.