Christian historians and the “imago Dei”

Why Study HistoryEarlier today I posted on the politicization of the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in the imago Dei informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans. Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created us in his image. Human beings are the highest form of his creation and thus have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior. Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred. There are no villains in history. While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has value in God’s eyes.

The imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history. This 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. Let me illustrate this from my own subdiscipline, the study of colonial American history.

Lately, historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.” Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase. For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “thirteen colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation–as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications. Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies? Since the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contributed to the forging of a new nation. In this view, the worth of particular humans living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these humans will have in the stories we tell about the period, is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

For example, we might give short shrift to humans living in North America who did not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic. We all know the usual suspects: Native Americans, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies. But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period worthy of study on its own, then these marginalized historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002. For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they served as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution. Rather, they should be studied for the story of European imperial expansion in North America and for the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves. The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, were the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century. For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than did the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776. This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basin brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves, and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places. Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world. And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt. All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, were profoundly influenced by global economic trends. Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas. Indians and their wars had an effect on European markets for skins and furs, even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities. Such an engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land. European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.

As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story. The British colonies and their gripes with Parliament and the king were only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than by good historical practice. By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, Taylor is engaging in political correctness. He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies. According to such a critique, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history.

But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history, as portrayed in Taylor’s American Colonies, from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth? If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell. To put this differently, everyone’s voice counts, regardless of whether that person or group contributed to the eventual formulation of the United States.

Now, of course, certain white Europeans–such as the founding fathers–will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often only celebrates the winners, the beneficiaries of liberty and progress, or the most privileged figures in the history of Western civilization. Whig history neglects anyone who does not fit this mold, and it fails to consider the imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

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? On closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and which still have influence today. A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

Miroslav Volf on Why Christians Should Vote for Hillary Clinton

volf

Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School.  (Yes, Yale does have Christian theologians on the payroll).  Check out his interview with journalist Jonathan Merritt that is currently running at Religion News Service.

A taste:

RNS: In a given election, is there ever a “Christian” candidate?

MV: With just a bit of facetiousness, we could say that Jesus Christ is the only Christian candidate. Short of him, just as, strictly speaking, there are no Christian nations, so there are also no Christian candidates for the public office. Candidates can be more or less aligned with the commitments, convictions, and character that we see displayed in Christ, in the New Testament as interpreted in the context of the entire Scripture and taking into account the changed economic, political and cultural conditions under which we all live.

RNS: Who, in your opinion, is a more “Christian” candidate in this presidential election?

MV: It seems clear to me that Hillary Clinton is not only the more competent of the two major party presidential candidates running for office now, but that the kind of vision she stands for is more in line with the Christian faith than is Donald Trump’s. It is important to keep in mind the whole range of convictions and virtues when making an assessment, rather than zeroing in on just one or two. In Public Faith in Action, we discuss some 25 of them, ranging from positions on wealth and education, though positions on abortion and euthanasia to positions on war, policing and religious freedom.

RNS: I want to get to these issues. But first, make your best case for the candidate you think Christians should vote for.

MV: The best case to be made for Hillary Clinton is that on balance she better represents the convictions and character that should concern Christian citizens. No candidate is perfect. There are certainly areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause. But she takes the threat posed by climate change seriously. Her policies, such as paid family leave, would actually strengthen American families. She is committed to a just and welcoming approach to immigration that does not unduly compromise the legitimate good of security. She supports major reforms to America’s overly retributive and racially-biased criminal justice system. And, perhaps most importantly, she has demonstrated much deeper commitment to supporting the disadvantaged and the vulnerable than her opponent has, his grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding.

RNS: What about the traditionally conservative issue of abortion? How should Christians think about this?

MV: Human life should be inviolable. That follows from the fact that human beings were created in the image of God and that God is attached to them in love. No matter who we are — how underdeveloped, incapacitated, and unproductive or how brilliant, diligent, and productive – we all have equal dignity before God and equal worth. That holds true for the new one in the mother’s womb, for the dying, and for everyone in between. The debates about the point that life in a mother’s womb becomes human life should not obscure that basic conviction.

Some food for thought.  Read the entire interview here.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?: Christian Theologians Weigh-In

If you are following the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College you know that she was placed on administrative leave by the college not for wearing a hijab in solidarity with her Muslim “sisters,” but because she said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  

I am not a theologian, but one cannot deny that historically both Christianity and Islam trace their roots to Abrahamic faith.  So in that sense, they do worship the same God.  Of course there are some big distinctions between the way Christians and Muslims worship this God, understand His identity (the Trinity, for example), and view His plan for His creation.  (And these distinctions, as I argued in the post I linked to above, are extremely important and should be paramount at evangelical Christian colleges).  I think Hawkins is trying to say that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged. And they should be acknowledged, and even celebrated, for Christian reasons–namely the Imago Dei.  So I am not sure that someone saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a statement that is necessarily out of bounds at a Christian college, but it must be carefully nuanced and explained.  Unfortunately, this nuance is often lost on much of the constituency of evangelical colleges.

But I digress…

In the last twenty-four hours, two respected Christian theologians have made a case that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God.

Here is Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian cited by Hawkins, in The Washington Post:

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.
For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response? Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.
Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?
Read the entire piece here.
And here is a post from Francis Beckwith, a Baylor theologian/philosopher and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society who had to resign his post when he converted to Catholicism:
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? To answer it well, we have to make some important philosophical distinctions. First, what does it mean for two terms to refer to the same thing? Take, for example, the names “Muhammed Ali” and “Cassius Clay.” Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa. (By the way, you can do the same with “Robert Zimmerman” and “Bob Dylan,” or “Norma Jean Baker” and “Marilyn Monroe”).
So the fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. In fact, what is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.
But doesn’t Christianity affirm that God is a Trinity while Muslims deny it? Wouldn’t this mean that they indeed worship different “Gods”? Not necessarily. Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”
Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. In the same way, Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity, but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? Again, of course not. The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.
For these reasons, it would a real injustice if Wheaton College were to terminate the employment of Professor Hawkins simply because those evaluating her case cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions.
Read Beckwith’s entire post here.