Rick Kennedy does me a great honor by reviewing not only my most recent book, but also, in a minor key, two prior ones and labeling them together a “trilogy.” Neither fame nor fortune have followed in my case, but I am pleased to be found, in Kennedy’s judgment, of writing a “thriller[,] … intellectual history at its footnoted best.”
Sometimes it takes someone else to help you see more clearly what you have been doing all along. Kennedy’s assessment of my combined and ongoing interests in the history of the university, modern knowledge formations generally, and the history of historical thinking (historicism) rings true to me.
With Kennedy, I recognize that many Christian scholars have struggled with coming to grips with historicism in the modern age. But I do want to make clear that I embrace historicism in a qualified sense. The attention to sources, the neces- sity of evidence, the rejection of simplistic appeals to providence—in short, many of the things we associate with a “Rankean” conception of history—I applaud, and I do not deploy them “ironically.”
But just as natural science can be unwarrantedly absolutized into a more questionable (ultimately philosophical) scientism, historical inquiry can be unwarrantedly absolutized into a rigid historicism, denying any transcendent realities, not to mention philosophical or theological modes of knowing, in an overweening attempt to view all higher verities as “socially constructed,” and hence incapable of making strong claims on one’s mind or conscience. Of course, much more could be said about this.
Both Jacob Burckhardt and Ignaz von Döllinger encountered variants of early historicism in their intellectual formation in the nineteenth century. But I might qualify Kennedy’s reading of them—or his reading of my reading of them. I do believe that Burckhardt experienced an “honest” crisis of faith, one that eventually led him to forsake theology for history, abandoning his faith in the process. This was less of a “triumph” than a tragedy too in its own way. There is something abidingly melancholy and humble, I find, about Burckhardt’s secularized intellect; he never had much patience with those post-theological conceptions of histori- cal progress associated with the likes of Hegel, Comte, and Marx, among others.
Historical knowledge meant something else for Döllinger, who, unlike Burckhardt, never forsook theology. He felt that if employed correctly, history could help the Catholic Church figure out what was consistent (and what not) in its own tradition. Like many Anglican and Orthodox theologians, Döllinger regarded the early church and the patristic period as normative. Since papal infallibility was unknown at this time, Döllinger felt it could not be “developed” in good faith in the nineteenth century. Its warrant in the tradition was simply too thin. At root, Döllinger saw himself as remaining a (critically) loyal churchman as a historian; he just felt that the Roman Catholic Church had gotten its own history wrong at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). The fallout from all this was his excom- munication.
Kennedy’s reflections also make me wonder if I treated Neo-Thomism fairly in the book. The more I read in this rich branch of the Christian intellectual tradition, the more impressed I am with it. And while Döllinger was critical of the way this tradition was invoked—against him, against historical forms of criticism—he also had many positive things to say about it, especially its moral theology (what today we call “virtue ethics”). He often spoke of modern theology needing two eyes to see—one philosophical (Thomism) and one embracing the historical sciences as they had developed in the German university system. In other words, he tried to make an intellectual both/and case, whereas his critics, especially Jesuits and members of the Roman Curia, very much saw the matter as either/or. I probably could have done a better job in the book of making all this clear.
But I suppose one cannot do all things—even in a trilogy! Again, I am profoundly grateful to Kennedy for his probing engagement with my work.