The Shape of Divine Providence & Human History
As with so many aspects of Christian higher education, the disappearance of “Christian history” in the past thirty years, while justified as a sign of a new intellectual maturity, was in fact the opposite—a panicky impulse motivated by insecurity before the larger secular culture.
The ideal of historical “objectivity,” first formulated by the “scientific” historians of the nineteenth century, was always misleading, in that such objectivity, implying the complete absence of personal feeling on the part of the scholar, would be possible only with respect to subjects that the scholar found uninteresting, even perhaps trivial. Almost by definition, an interesting and important subject calls forth a personal response from anyone who approaches it.
More realistically, many scholars now believe that their ideal ought to be honesty, a personal response that nonetheless strives to use evidence with scrupulous fairness and to reach conclusions based on the evidence, even though those conclusions might make the scholar uncomfortable.
Points of View
In fact, almost all great historical scholarship has been biased in certain respects, that is, based on the historian’s point of view, although often (as, for example, with the “Whig” interpretation of English history) not recognized as such by the historian himself. As Herbert Butterfield, one of the most astute historians of historiography, has put it, even an overtly polemical approach to history sometimes reveals aspects of the subject neglected by others. Even someone who is regarded as a crank may, by his very single-mindedness, focus attention on things no one else has noticed.
Even as Christians were surrendering the right to have their own history, that is, a history overtly informed by a Christian viewpoint, the legitimacy, indeed the inevitability, of this kind of scholarship was being urged as normative in the secular academy. Black history, women’s history, homosexual history, and numerous other kinds are now enshrined, each resting on the privileged assertion that only persons who belong to a particular social group can adequately understand that group’s history and that scholars outside the group are irredeemably insensitive or prejudiced. The claim of women’s history, for example, is that all of history needs to be interpreted from a feminist perspective and that those who do not do so are morally irresponsible and intellectually deficient.
Ironically, the intellectual deficiencies of Christian colleges and universities are revealed in the fact that, almost without exception, they have embraced this approach to scholarship even as they have systematically expunged all evidence of a “ghetto mentality” with respect to their own religious past.
Liberalism defines itself in terms of intellectual “openness” and thus is required to give evidence of its sincerity through repeated public acts of self-criticism. Perhaps the first great modern Catholic historian was Lord John Acton, who was also one of the fathers of modern liberal Catholicism, and Butterfield noted how Acton’s bias in his scholarship was against Ultramontanism, the Catholic historian distorting historical truth in the very act of demonstrating his “objective” detachment from credal loyalty. (Liberal Protestant scholarship of the nineteenth century, of course, did the same thing.)
Christian History from Within
On one level, “Christian history” proceeds from what Jacques Maritain called connatural knowledge—the understanding of his subject that a scholar possesses by virtue of its being in some sense a part of himself. Maritain noted that, whereas a scientist is wholly detached from the physical world that he studies, a historian approaches his human subject in terms of his entire personal disposition. Great works on religious history have been written by nonbelievers, but they are required to make a prodigious imaginative leap in order to do justice to their subjects, whereas for the believer, there is an immediate sympathetic comprehension of even the subtlest dimensions of religious history.
Thus, all things being equal, the believing historian should be a better student of religious phenomena, able to penetrate its inner meaning more profoundly. But of course, things are not always equal, and the believer may be deficient in intellect, ambition, or diligence. A peculiar temptation for believing scholars (Hilaire Belloc, for example) is to deduce reality from their principles instead of studying the empirical evidence, a habit that more than once has embarrassed Christians when a secular scholar discovers inconvenient information that the believer had neglected.
Curiously, what is still often called “the new social history,” although it is now four decades old, has had immense effect in revealing the pervasive influence of religion on history, despite the fact that almost all its practitioners have been secular-minded, since it strives to map nothing less than the entire fabric of a given society, and thereby comes face to face with the ubiquitous role of religion. At the same time, such discoveries are problematical for the believer, in that they often show that there was apparently a wide gap between official teaching and actual popular practice, a gap that a theologically and spiritually sophisticated scholar might be able to close on a deeper level.
Virtually all of Christopher Dawson’s works were a meditation, by a believing Catholic, on the meaning of history. Yet few of them actually required the reader himself to be a believer. Dawson’s faith made him extraordinarily sensitive to the powerful influence of religion in history, and he was able to reveal its workings in such a way that all but the most biased readers had to acknowledge it. Towards the end of his life Dawson had a plan for a comprehensive educational program based on the study of “Christian culture,” which was merely a plea for what is sometimes now called religious literacy—that students at least be made aware of the influence of Christianity on history, even if they reject that faith in their own lives. It was a program, Dawson noted, that would not necessarily require believing professors.
Once again, the failure of the Christian universities even to attempt an approximation of this is a sign of their intellectual deficiency, their failure to achieve a consistent and settled identity. This too may be endemic to a certain kind of Christian liberalism—Butterfield noted that Lord Acton tended to treat religion almost exclusively in institutional terms, especially the involvement of the Church in politics, which Acton deplored. The founders of the Catholic University of America, such as its first rector, Bishop John J. Keane, deliberately excluded “medievalism” from its curriculum; thus, an area where Catholics were potentially well equipped to exercise scholarly leadership was left to be developed by secular scholars like Charles Homer Haskins at Harvard.
The Heresy of Idealization
At the same time, Christian historians ought to avoid the trap of nostalgia, whereby the Middle Ages or the Reformation is presented as the high point of history, from which everything since has been a decline. To idealize a past historical age is itself heretical, the unrecognized assumption that orthodox belief is a guarantee against sin. Christian historians should not leave to their enemies the discovery of how often good has been perverted by self-righteous men, and the believer’s very understanding of his faith ought to make him especially sensitive to this inevitability. The idealization of a particular era is also heretical in that it fails to recognize that the work of redemption continues throughout history.
The refusal to idealize any past age also serves the Christian by precluding the use of the present to judge the past. One of the central insights of the man often considered the father of modern historiography, Leopold von Ranke (a devout Lutheran), was that “each age stands by itself in the sight of God,” that is, no age should be treated merely as a preliminary to what follows. Butterfield, unlike most liberal Christian historians, approached the history of Christianity itself in those terms, insisting that the greatest Christian contribution to history was its witnessing to the primacy of the spiritual and the imperative of charity. In contrast to the current practice of “politically correct” history, he insisted, for example, that the saints retain their significance despite perhaps having been wrong about certain historical questions, such as the rise of democracy. Here again, the wisdom of the historian and the wisdom of the believer, both recognizing the singularity of history, coincide.
Since history is an empirical discipline, in principle there ought not to be disagreements over facts between believing and nonbelieving scholars. The same criteria for establishing the credibility of historical sources ought to be employed identically by both. Inevitably, bias might affect the way they evaluate the evidence, but believing historians have a special obligation not to suppress or underestimate sordid chapters of church history.
Butterfield observed that, like the physical sciences, the study of history began to make “progress” when historians ceased to look for ultimate explanations and concentrated on secondary causes, which led to an increasingly detailed study of those causes. Both the scientific method and the historical method arose out of Western Christian culture. Men of faith have no shortcuts open to them to attain knowledge.
Practically speaking, a Christian historian will manifest his personal faith, at least minimally, in his recognition that the role of religion in history is often slighted, that even those who acknowledge it often do not adequately understand it as a spiritual phenomenon, and that the decline of religious belief has empirically verifiable effects on a culture, many of which are measurably debilitating. (American history, for example, is often written as though Christianity never existed, except in instances, like Puritanism, where it is unavoidable.)
Evil in History
In a famous remark, John Henry Newman said that experience seems to force the conclusion that mankind was implicated in some “primordial catastrophe,” and this awareness, too, is one of the believer’s special qualifications for the understanding of history. Specifically as a historian, the believer has no special knowledge of the exact nature of that catastrophe, but his faith allows him to understand that it did occur.
Butterfield proposed that the sense of sin is one of the believer’s crucial contributions to the understanding of history. The Christian understands evil best, because he is part of it (Maritain’s connatural knowledge). Historical evidence alone cannot unlock the mystery of human nature, and without this knowledge of sin, history finally remains a mystery. Butterfield noted that the historian and the Christian both begin by assuming the greatness of humanity, then proceed to offer negative accounts of human behavior. The historian’s negative view of humanity is demanded by the innumerable crimes of history, while that of the believer is reinforced by his faith.
R. G. Collingwood, a secular scholar who was the rare combination of a historian and a philosopher of history, went so far as to say that the Christian doctrine of the Fall, by asserting that man is not sovereign over history, broadened that study beyond what the Greeks knew and thereby rendered it open to an awareness of impersonal forces. The Jesuit theologian Jean Danielou argued that history simply cannot be understood apart from the fact of sin, in the form of universal selfishness, and this seems undeniable. Many secular-minded people employ the concept of sin, if not the word.
However, those who deny that a tendency towards evil is basic to human nature simply cannot make sense of history, which then becomes endless, incomprehensible tragedy, since the story of mankind is to so great an extent the story of benign dreams somehow treacherously betrayed and turned into evil. A sinless view of history could only be Sisyphean, the historian chronicling the endlessly repeated process whereby mankind approaches fulfillment of its exalted plans, only to see them destroyed in the end. Any doctrine of inherent human goodness must confront the massive and continuing evidence of James Joyce’s remark that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake up.”
This daunting reality inspires an approach to history that is a perennial temptation for Christians, albeit by no means exclusively for them—history as moral judgment. Butterfield, who was a Methodist lay preacher as well as a distinguished historian, argued strongly against this, noting that few things foreclose historical understanding more quickly than the pronouncement of moral judgment.
Acton, he noted, was especially prone to this, and it is by no means merely the temptation of the orthodox. Indeed, contemporary historiography is awash with this kind of moralism, where the past is endlessly ransacked for examples of alleged injustice to designated groups, and appropriate condemnation then pronounced (the dominant approach at the time of the Columbus quincentenary in 1992, for example).
Butterfield offered a theological reason for refraining from such judgments—the fact that all men are sinners and thus dare not set themselves up to judge others. Acton had a famous exchange with the Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton, himself an important historian, over the latter’s refusal to condemn Pope Alexander VI, whom Acton thought a wicked man representing a wicked ecclesiastical system. Butterfield observed that, apart from the question whether the contemporary accusations against Alexander were accurate, Acton lacked sufficient knowledge of the pope’s soul to condemn him, while for the same reason Creighton could not acquit him. (In fact he did not; he merely refrained from condemning.)
Acton came to believe that all the great men of history were wicked, in that virtually all of them used force and treachery to achieve their goals, and Butterfield responded that this may be true but is also unhelpful in understanding the past. (Acton’s curious myopia led him to concentrate his attentions almost exclusively on men of affairs and not, for example on the great saints of history.)
The Myth of Progress
Such moralism is perhaps inevitable in a certain kind of liberalism, which tends to assume human goodness and is endlessly sympathetic with what it deems to be the “progressive” movements of history, and can then only attempt to salvage meaning from the wreckage by pronouncing condemnation on those who appear responsible.
The historian’s task, according to Butterfield, is to record and describe the deeds of past men, deeds that may be deemed wicked by those who read of them, although it is not the historian’s task to force this conclusion. In Butterfield’s words,
The whole process of emptying oneself in order to reach the thoughts and feelings of men not like-minded with oneself is an activity that ought to commend itself to the Christian. In this sense the whole range of history is a boundless field for the constant exercise of Christian charity.
An obvious argument for Butterfield’s counsel of perfection is the fact that condemning the deeds of men who are long dead can have no effect whatever; they have passed into God’s hands. But the danger of this, as Acton saw, is the blunting of contemporary moral sensitivity—if the wicked deeds of past men cannot be condemned, how can modern men be held to account and their own wickedness thwarted?
The Christian historian must live with this tension, but in exactly the way that every Christian must, enjoined not to judge his fellow men but without falling into moral agnosticism. The Christian belief in human freedom proves to be one way out of this dilemma—since men can and do make responsible decisions, to understand all is not to forgive all. Historians can press to the limit their powers of empathy, without thereby becoming apologists for past wickedness.
No Moral Vindication
Moral judgment is at the origin of Western historical consciousness, which grew not only out of the Greek but also from the Hebrew sense of history, as the Hebrews were driven by an urgent need to find some comprehensible purpose in the repeated catastrophes that they suffered. As has often been pointed out, they were forced to reject the seductive, even irresistible, hypothesis that suffering was simply God’s punishment for sin, since they could see quite obviously that their faithless enemies repeatedly triumphed over God’s people and that Israel’s own infidelities could not adequately explain this. Making moral sense of history has preoccupied human beings ever since.
The study of history immediately confirms that evil men often flourish and the good are often defeated, with no reversal or vindication in this life. Indeed, this reality is almost knowable a priori, in that the selfishly wicked, who are usually calculating and clever, would obviously not embrace wickedness if experience showed that they would inevitably suffer punishment. The dichotomy of time and eternity is nowhere more evident than in the fact that justice often does not triumph in this world. Thus, calculating people can choose to ignore the justice that may be visited on them in the next life, in order to prosper in this one.
Calvinism offers a logical explanation of this in insisting that all men deserve damnation and God cannot be blamed for bestowing free gifts on some. But this view of history also tends to foster moral agnosticism, in that the seemingly innocent are revealed as being as wicked as the obviously guilty, no final distinction to be made, presumably, between Adolf Hitler and his victims.
Liberalism, including liberal Christianity, finds the triumph of evil particularly in need of urgent explanation, although, as noted, liberalism’s view of history inevitably dooms it to continuous disappointment and frustration. Butterfield pointed out that Acton originally viewed providence in the orthodox Christian sense of God bringing good out of evil, but then moved on to what is essentially a secular view that “progress” itself is the chief manifestation of divine providence in history.
The fatal flaw in the liberal idea of progress is its unavoidable shortsightedness. Thus, the evolution of the Greek polis might be celebrated as progress, but that achievement flourished for only about two centuries and was then crushed by new forms of despotism. Most liberals see the history of the past two centuries in terms of self-evident progress, yet no one would be so foolish as to deny the fragility of that achievement, vulnerable to being snuffed out by both physical and political disorders.
The liberal view of progress offers no explanation for the movement of history over the centuries, and in fact either forces the condemnation or ignoring of whole periods of history that were not “progressive,” or else settles for the trivial task of scanning bleak periods of history for small signs that the light of progress was dimly shining even then.
Hidden from Our Eyes
Butterfield believed that Christianity alone provides a resolution of this dilemma, through its doctrine of vicarious suffering, Christ himself the victim through whom the sufferings of other innocent people can have meaning.
In this as in other respects, however, the believing scholar’s personal faith cannot successfully be made an explicit part of his teaching and scholarship, except insofar as he explicitly makes himself into a kind of theologian. History does not prove beyond all doubt the value of vicarious suffering, and offers innumerable examples to the contrary. The triumph of Christianity can be seen as vindicating the sufferings of Christ, but the nonbeliever will persist in finding other explanations for this triumph.
Rather, faith allows the historian to approach his subject with a certain serenity, as capable as any nonbeliever of being shocked and appalled at “man’s inhumanity to man” but ultimately hopeful nonetheless. As Butterfield said, history is indeed the war of good against evil, but the exact progress of that war is hidden from human eyes.
From earliest times, one of the great temptations of Christian historiography has been to deduce, from a general belief in divine providence, its specific manifestations in history. Whole theologies of history have been based on this, and each one has finally failed as a comprehensive explanation of historical events.
The belief that specific catastrophes are direct divine punishment for sin dies hard, for obvious reasons—the laudable desire to make sense of events but also the less than laudable desire to see one’s enemies punished. For every wicked man who finally suffers his deserved fate, there are perhaps ten who die in prosperity, honored in their communities. Edifying stories of devout people saved from danger by divine intervention (a city spared the plague, an angelic visitor steering a child away from a precipice) fail to explain why countless other people, even more pious and innocent, have been allowed to perish.
Contours of Providence
Christianity can understand this quite easily on the individual level—suffering itself is redemptive and God takes his servants when he wants them. It is, however, far more difficult to explain events in terms of whole societies, the very mystery with which Israel was forced to wrestle obsessively.
The ultimate Christian explanation is again in terms of providence, meaning that God finally brings good from evil. Without such a belief there could be no such thing as redemption, since even Christ’s redemptive act would be repeatedly and successfully thwarted.
The temptation for Christians to discern the exact contours of providence in history is even more compelling than the tendency to explain evil merely as punishment, since it speaks to the basic question whether history makes any sense at all, whether God’s goodness can be vindicated within the confines of his creation. It is, however, a temptation that believers, and historians in particular, must resist. It is bad theology and even worse history. At best, its validity is limited to edifying speculation, which believers might engage in as a pious exercise but which can never be assumed as true.
The fundamental barrier to a knowledge of providential history is the simple fact of human fallibility; genuine understanding of providence would require omniscience; the pattern of history could be fully seen only by someone above history.
The most obvious obstacle is limited temporal horizons. If, as some early Christians believed, the Roman Empire came into being in order to prepare the way for the birth of the Savior, this was not at all evident to pious Jews longing for the messiah. They experienced the Roman incursion as merely another of those periodic mysterious catastrophes which fell upon them. But hindsight also does not suffice. An argument can be made for the providential role of the empire in preparing the way for Christ, but in other respects the empire was a formidable obstacle to the spread of the gospel, mainly through persecution, which had the effect of strengthening the faith of many but of intimidating many others.
Once again, this desire to discern the hand of providence is an especially strong temptation for liberal Christians, as exemplified in Acton’s facile, even perversely false, view that modern “progress” is equitable with divine providence.
Maritain was not a theological liberal, but he was a political liberal, and he tended to trivialize his own philosophy of history by making a similar suggestion—that modern democracy is somehow the fulfillment of providence and vindicates the actions of God in history, a judgment that precisely illustrates the fallacy of providential history. When Maritain formulated it, shortly after World War II, it was possible to see the American experiment in those terms, because Christianity was flourishing in ways it had never flourished anywhere else, at any other time in history, and this was attributable in part to the democratic conditions that gave religion the fullest possible freedom. Maritain did not foresee that democracy might finally reveal itself as hostile to all claims of spiritual authority and thus become a force for undermining the very possibility of genuine religion. (He also proposed the evolution of moral conscience as the greatest of all historical laws, without foreseeing how that conscience, on abortion and other matters, is now being systematically repealed.)
If evil produces good, although such production is often hidden from human eyes, the ironic view of history that Christians must espouse shows also that good produces evil. To deny this is not to defend the orthodox doctrine of providence but the reverse—a heterodox denial of the reality of human sinfulness, which is able to pervert the most sublime truths into pernicious errors. Drawing on the parable of the wheat and the tares, Maritain recalled, as all historically minded Christians must, that good and evil exist together in the world, and there is a constant double movement, both upwards and downwards. The work of redemption proceeds only slowly, against the inertia of human affairs.
Belief in human freedom finally provides as satisfactory an explanation of evil as men will ever achieve. Most of the moral evil in history can be explained in those terms, in God’s mysterious willingness to grant this freedom and permit its full exercise, even when it is used to thwart the divine plan. As Maritain said, God’s eternal plan operates in such a way as to anticipate these human failings. Butterfield saw the action of God in history as like a composer masterfully revising his music to overcome the inadequacies of the orchestra that plays it.
The relation of freedom to providence remains finally one of the most tenaciously impenetrable of all theological mysteries, and thus, for the Christian, there can be no final understanding of history in all its fullness. Maritain asked whether Brutus was free not to assassinate Caesar, and the obvious answer is that indeed he was. But if that is true, in what sense did God will the death of Caesar at that time and under those particular circumstances? Caesar’s death, like most events of human history, was the result of the freedom that God gave to man, not of some preordained script that had to be played out.
Thus, the believing historian must rely on the theologian and the preacher to remind people of the reality of divine providence, whose workings remain hidden. Not being above the historical process, the historian cannot claim to discern this through empirical investigation. In dialogue with his unbelieving colleagues, he has the advantage of knowing that all things human eventually end badly but that this is never the last word of the story. He is permanently inoculated against unrealistic expectations of progress but also against the concomitant despair that follows each disappointment. In purely worldly terms, he has achieved a ripe wisdom that is partly given to him by his faith.
The Dilemma of Miracles
A particular category of uncertainty concerning the discernment of the workings of providence are alleged acts of direct divine intervention, much more commonly believed by Catholics than by Protestants—Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge, the Virgin Mary’s appearances at Lourdes and Fatima. Believers are, of course, free to reject these as pious fictions or delusions and indeed the Catholic Church itself has throughout its history instinctively followed a policy of scholarly skepticism, placing the burden of proof on those who claim a miracle and warning the faithful against credulity.
Yet some miraculous events, above all, Christ’s resurrection from the dead, are undeniable truths of faith, and the believing historian must judge how to include them in his work. Maritain thought that the historian is obligated to take into account all relevant information, including the supernatural, and should not bracket such events or treat them as having a natural explanation.
The Jesuit theologian Martin Cyril D’Arcy pointed to the encounter of the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus as an instance of this dilemma—secular history has no way of dealing with such an occurrence, except perhaps by dismissing it as mere fiction, which is itself a dogmatically naturalistic assumption closed even to the possibility of the supernatural. D’Arcy’s solution was to point out that history is not “noumenal,” in the Kantian sense—what is known today is not the past as such but the past as it presents itself to the present mind. Hence, in a way, all historical events remain mysterious. He also pointed out the improbability, in purely human terms, that great men who recorded profound religious experiences, such as Paul on the road to Damascus, were simply the victims of delusion.
This hardly seems an adequate explanation for all that has followed from such events. Marc Bloch, the great medievalist who was a secular-minded Jew (he perished in a German prison camp), observed that the real question concerning the history of Christianity is why so many people fervently believed that Jesus rose from the dead, a belief of such power and duration as to be hardly explicable in purely reductionist terms.
Once again, however, the historian must separate his faith from his scholarship, for the simple reason that historical scholarship is an instrument completely unsuitable for discovering the supernatural. There is no historical argument that could convince skeptics that Jesus indeed rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. The cliché question as to what Christians would think if his body were discovered still buried in Palestine overlooks the fact that, from a historical standpoint, such a thing could never happen. History and archaeology would have no conclusive way of proving whether such remains were really those of Jesus.
Thus, the Christian historian ought not to become involved in fruitless discussions about the reality of the supernatural in history but should simply treat such beliefs as themselves historical events—the powerful conviction that the early Christians had that Jesus had indeed risen, and the immense consequences that belief had for the future history of the world.
The Christian Claim on History
However, Christianity is a historical religion, which is a cliché only in proportion to one’s ignorance of other religions that are decidedly not historical. Emanating from a Judaism that was itself a historical religion, Christianity stakes its claim to truth on certain historical events, notably the claim that at a precise moment in history the Son of God did indeed come to earth. Thus, Christians can never be indifferent to the reliability of historical claims.
But the thrust of modern biblical scholarship has been steadily to diminish the historical reliability of the Bible, and even though there are some signs of a reversal, it is a process that seems fated to play itself out (as in the Jesus Seminar) to the point where the Scriptures are thought to provide no reliable basis for any kind of faith.
The discipline of history as such has relatively little to contribute to this discussion, which proceeds from related disciplines like philology, archaeology, and papyrology. But the whole subject is a vivid illustration of the point made by Butterfield and others—the greatest challenge to the credibility of faith comes not from the physical sciences but from the historical disciplines, which are able to discredit Christianity precisely because it is a faith based on historical claims.
The believing historian’s role here is secondary but not unimportant. He can, for example, trace the pedigree of modern biblical scholarship itself, showing its presuppositions, how it has deliberately adapted itself to a “culture of suspicion.” Beginning with the liberal attitude of agonized self-criticism, biblical scholarship has by now advanced to the point where many of its practitioners have a vested interest in discrediting as much of the Bible as they can. Modern biblical scholarship is one of the intellectual trends that have a history of their own and cannot be accepted merely on their own terms.
Historians can, in effect, “demythologize” claims of biblical criticism, instructing believers in the ways of modern scholarship. Phrases like “scripture scholars tell us” are almost meaningless in view of the fact that there are very sharp contradictions among such scholars. Finally, the mainstream of modern biblical scholarship tends to take a far more suspicious view of Christian origins than most historians would take towards other aspects of ancient history.
What is not open to the believer is the rejection of the “Jesus of history” and a flight to “the Christ of faith.” To do so precisely denies Christianity’s historical character and is a thinly veiled attempt to turn it into a myth. Thus, however troubling the theories of biblical scholars may be, the believing historian must continue to dwell on the level of historical inquiry.
The problem has relevance to the entire history of Christianity, since for over a century there has been a parallel, less well publicized debate over the reliability of Christian traditions (stories of saints, for example). Bloch pointed out that, parallel with the emergence of the modern scientific method, the method of modern historiography also emerged in the seventeenth century, and that Catholics (notably the Benedictine scholar Jean Mabillon) were among its pioneers. The historical method grows out of Christianity by a natural process, and Christians can never reject it.
Christianity & the Lines of History
It has long been recognized that, not only is Christianity a historical religion, but it has also played a crucial role in the development of the understanding of history itself, replacing the cyclical theories common to the ancients with the “linear” view now taken for granted by almost everyone. The cyclical view was really a kind of despair, an expression of the sense that men were trapped in a process that they could not control and that would be endlessly repeated, albeit with variations.
Christianity, on the other hand, gave history a goal, an eschaton, towards which it relentlessly moves, so that repetition is more apparent than real. Thus, for the first time, the actual movement of history could have meaning. (To a lesser extent, Judaism had done the same, by pointing history towards the coming of the messiah.)
Linear time is the same both for believers and for modern historians because it is genuinely open to the future. Among the many ways in which history falls short of being a science is that it does not lead to prediction, at least not to prediction of a very high order of probability. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out that the Incarnation is the one absolutely unique event in all of human history, and in taking that as his starting point, the Christian historian must see history as completely open to God’s free action, thus as beyond both human control and final human understanding.
The historicity of Christianity also makes it a very concrete religion, in both respects the exact opposite of a myth. As Dawson said, in understanding Christianity, it is necessary to ask why great deeds, central to all of history, occurred among an obscure Near Eastern people, why an obscure peasant in that same part of the world was hailed as the world’s savior. This specificity has sometimes been an embarrassment to Christians, as well as a stumbling block to nonbelievers, and the gnostic temptation (alive again in modern times) has always been to fly to the realm of atemporal myth, which seeks to obliterate all specificity. The traditionalism of Christianity stems in part from the fact that, while God is present in all of history, Christians are also specially bound to a particular line of history, apart from any others, and are called to be faithful to that line.
The Lord of History
But if Christianity is by far the most historical of all religions, that should not obscure the fact that, from another point of view, it is problematical why Christians should respect history at all. The problem is obvious—Christianity points to the termination of history, which is precisely that—a termination. History will end. Christians are taught to live with the knowledge that “all this will pass away” and they will be gathered into eternity.
If one is a mere pilgrim in this life, how is it possible to regard what happens in this life as finally significant? It is a question, of course, with which Christians have wrestled since the beginning, and they will continue to do so until the end of time, when it will become meaningless.
Belief in providence is once again crucial. History has meaning because Christians know that God chose to reveal himself through history and that his providence works through history. Thus, even though believers cannot understand exactly how this occurs, they cannot dismiss history as unimportant. As Danielou pointed out, divine revelation reveals little about the inner nature of God; it mainly reveals his actions in history.
The Incarnation itself validates history, as the eternal descends into the temporal, and men have no way of working out their salvation except in this life. If history were solely the story of the saints, it would already be infinitely valuable. But its value lies also in the story it tells of sinners, of the entire great drama of human life.
But if the cyclical view of history expressed the pagans’ sense that they were at the mercy of the historical process, Christianity by no means offers the prospect of the reverse. One of the deepest insights available to the Christian is that he cannot hope to dominate history, and Butterfield judged (perhaps too simplistically) that history bestows its hardest rebuffs on those who arrogantly try. Christians “escape” from history not by mastering it but through faith in the benign Lord of History.
As Maritain observed, once this lordship was denied, it became necessary for secularists to seek for final meaning within history itself, thus giving rise to the various great “systems” of interpretation beginning with Hegel, of which Marxism was the most ambitious and influential. But the search for a supra-historical vantage point from which to see all of history is obviously futile. The end of history is beyond history, and history cannot reveal its own inner meaning.
History as Freedom
The great pioneer historians of the nineteenth century self-consciously spoke of history as “science” and tailored their research to subjects that lent themselves to such precision. They were thus forced to ignore vast areas of history, and as those neglected fields (religion among them) more and more came to be rediscovered, it became less and less feasible to think of history as a science, and today practically no one does. Here human experience merely confirms the wisdom of faith, for history could be a science only if human beings were not free. But, as Balthasar said, history is that space in his universe where God has created freedom. As Maritain said, there can be no “necessary” laws in history, only “general” laws that are mere approximations.
For Balthasar, the search for a final “system” of history is itself a significant manifestation of the reality of sin. Christ, he pointed out, did not anticipate the Father’s will but allowed it to unfold in time, and the desire to break out of the constraints of time is a fundamental expression of sinfulness.
Christ renounced sovereignty over his own life, as human beings must also do because they are historical beings. All things happen in the “fullness of time,” which cannot be known until it has already occurred. (As D’Arcy pointed out already in 1957, the once fashionable theories of the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were in principle beyond the possibility of historical evidence, although they posited the end of history, allegedly on the basis of such evidence.)
Christ the Center
Just as the Christian “linear” view of history is now universally accepted, so also the fallacy of great historical systems is now all but universally conceded. Historians are content to cultivate their particular gardens, to offer their produce for whatever finite value it may have, a task with which the Christian historian should also be content, although this does not, of course, preclude him from acting in other capacities at other times.
The fact that history is problematical for Christians is also seen in the fact that, as Danielou pointed out, there can be no “progress” beyond Christ. If Christ were merely a historical figure, he would then bring history to an end. However, he is also an eternal being whose reality permeates time, giving profound meaning to history, but a meaning that is hidden from the eyes of the historian. To D’Arcy, therefore, history is actually a kind of continuous present, although it does not seem that way to human experience.
As Dawson observed, the Christian approach to history is also perplexing to the secular mind because it is not completely linear, as all history is now assumed to be, but focuses around a central date—the coming of Christ—from which time is reckoned both forwards and backwards. (The present Western dating system, which is under some attack, is more than a pious commemoration of Christ’s birth. It expresses the fundamental Christian view of history. For this reason, it is almost bound to be repealed once cultural leaders have determined how to overcome the practical problems involved.)
Dawson also observed that secular-minded people do not accept a view of history that has a beginning and an end, a view that seems to depend on belief in an all-powerful God. Debates about the origins of the universe are now among the most significant in Western culture, but the historian as such has nothing to say on that subject. Similarly, by definition, the historian cannot even guess when time will end, and the believer is enjoined by Christ to refrain from such speculation.
Although the stretch of human history seems immensely long to the finite mind, in reality history has to be viewed, according to Dawson, as a “small” space surrounded by the infinity of eternity. If the human race survives another million years, its view of history will change profoundly, as all the carefully delineated eras that are now part of the historical record will recede into a very remote past, to be disposed of by future historians in the twinkling of an eye.
Acton, John, Lectures on Modern History (New York, 1965)
Balthasar, Hans Urs von, A Theology of History (New York, 1963)
Bloch, Marc, The Historian’s Craft (New York, 1964)
Butterfield, Herbert, Christianity and History (New York, 1949)
____, History and Human Relations (New York, 1952)
____, Man on His Past (Boston, 1960)
Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History (New York, 1956)
Danielou, Jean, The Lord of History (New York, 1958)
Darcy, M. C., The Meaning and Matter of History (Later edition titled The Sense of History, Secular and Sacred) (London, 1959)
Practically all the extensive works of Christopher Dawson either deal explicitly with the religious meaning of history or show a believing historian at work in an exemplary way.
James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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