Almost forty years ago Alvin Plantinga’s memorable “Advice to Christian Philosophers” set out a three-fold challenge to encourage members of his own academic tribe, but also “Christian intellectuals generally.” First, “to display . . . more independence of the rest of the philosophical world”; second, to “display more integrity in the sense of integral wholeness”; and, third, to display greater “Christian courage, or boldness, or strength, or . . . Christian self-confidence.”1 For historians, the challenge to wholeness or integrity is probably different than for philosophers because of the huge diversity of regions, eras, topics, languages, published and unpublished sources, spheres of life, and ethnicities that historical study must include when considered as a whole. Yet for the other two—more independence and more self-confidence—that past advice to Christian philosophers serves very well as excellent counsel for Christian historians today.
In light of much publicized circumstances for the profession of history—indeed, for all of the liberal arts—self-confidence is a daunting existential challenge. The catalogue of bad news seems endless: a steady decline in numbers of undergraduate history majors; tortuous difficulty in gaining a secure academic appointment; the turn by institutions to filling whatever openings that do exist with adjuncts; and a preoccupation of parents (and some of their children) with the first job that rules out “wasting time” in studying the past.
Historians’ professional organizations, along with responsible departments with graduate programs, have long since advertised that advanced historical study provides excellent preparation for careers in government, business, law, librarianship, and many other worthy professions besides university or college teaching. Yet the difficulty with such advice is patent. The road from graduate study to the academy is clearly marked and, despite contemporary uncertainties, remains the favored destination for someone with a PhD. By contrast, the paths to other professions call for the kind of aggressive personal initiative that does not come readily to an often-introverted population with no higher desire than an unencumbered day, alone, in the library.
For Christian historians, a further impediment to self-confidence is the conventional wisdom prevailing in much of the contemporary academy. As recently phrased by Bruce Kuklick, historians committed to “the glossaries of Vatican Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism” can be easily written off as “proselytizers or cultists.” Among respected scholars, “these sacred frameworks are seen to affirm the partiality and favoritism of the researcher.” In short, “political ideas have replaced those of the holy as the ultimate presuppositions of culture.”2 It is, hence, now regularly assumed that religious commitment of whatever sort is simply an avoidance technique to keep from seeing the past “as it really was”—that is, a past (in another prevailing convention) filled full of imperialism, colonialism, the hegemony of privilege, and the dehumanization of gender, economic, sexual, or ethnic minorities.
In a word, gloomy prospects for the liberal arts in a society dominated by economic self-interest and an academy prejudiced against religious belief would seem to justify low self-confidence among Christian historians today.
In response, it is appropriate to be practical. Yes, follow your interest in history, if that is your calling, but also explore alternative careers for which historical training (expansive curiosity, wide reading, careful organizing, convincing prose) does in fact provide excellent preparation. For younger would-be historians, work hard in the classes you like best, but also think about adding courses, or a second major, in business, physical therapy, international relations, pre-ministerial or pre-medical studies.
Yet for Christian historians of whatever age, and despite genuine practical difficulties, the surest reason for self-confidence is found in Plantinga’s advice to pursue historical study with independence grounded self-consciously in full orbed Christian faith.
In this particular cultural moment for historians in North America, independence can be illustrated by how to engage much-debated questions concerning “presentism.” To what degree should historians direct their work to the pressing moral questions of our day? Who defines what are “the pressing moral questions of our day”? Does historical inquiry aimed at informing contemporary moral problems reduce history to a species of political punditry? Are all historical efforts comprehensively determined by historians’ values and the values of the cultural tribes to which they belong?
Controversy that recently blew up over a short essay by the sitting president of the American Historical Association (AHA) underscores the urgency of these questions. James Sweet, a respected scholar at the University of Wisconsin- Madison who teaches courses on Brazil, South Africa, and comparative slavery, has written highly regarded studies like Domingo Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World.3 In September 2022 he used the column in the AHA’s newsletter given over to the Association’s president to publish “Is History History: Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present.”
The essay made a general complaint: “We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as method and analysis but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics.” Sweet then cited as a main example the 1619 Project, which famously proposes that American history as a whole should be viewed as an unfolding of the forced importation of captive Africans to Virginia in the second decade of European settlement. About this project, Sweet opined, “the project spoke to the political moment, but I never thought of it primarily as a work of history.”4
In response to the essay, a chorus of Sweet’s fellow historians offered a swift, dismissive rejoinder. One example highlighted “the harm of Sweet’s condescending portrayal of African Americans’ understanding of history and of his attempt, from his influential office, to delegitimize scholarship on essential topics like race, gender, and capitalism (in a manner that now has drawn the approval of white supremacists).”5
Almost as quickly, voices from the general public responded vigorously to the first responders. One opined that the “orthodoxy” condemning Sweet “is based on a simplistic understanding of history. The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates.”6
Throughout this mini-tempest, measured opinions probing beneath the surface were rare, though one unusually nuanced viewpoint was noteworthy. It came from Malcolm Foley, a Baylor University historian whose own scholarship focuses on Black responses to the lynching regime that prevailed in the United States from the late nineteenth century well into the twentieth. To Foley, it was simply a given that historical work should in some sense be presentist: “central to the work [of historians] is the understanding that the past matters today, a truth that every human being assumes and regularly acts in light of. Yet this is also fundamentally a political act, insofar as politics are understood to be the exercise of power by groups and individuals.” In other words, judgments about states of affairs in the past inevitably reflect the exercise of power as experienced by the historian and the historian’s generation.
Yet Foley, while defending his own perspective, went on to acknowledge that other perspectives are also legitimate. He then added a comprehensive or controlling “point” that recast the narrow dispute over presentism in much more comprehensive terms: “It is my love of humanity, but especially my love of my Black brothers and sisters, that encourages me to pursue work that enriches their lives. That is no slight against the historians of early modern China, the Roman Empire, or ancient Mesopotamia. It is to make the point that as historians, we are primarily concerned with people in all their complexity, and in our orientation toward them, we regard them not merely as subjects to be studied and experimented on with our hypotheses but as people to be loved and to be justly interacted with.”7
In my own expansion of Foley’s “point,” I hear an echo of what careful students of historical study have long contended: that historians fail if they do not strive to understand complexity, both of what they are studying and of what they bring, consciously or unconsciously, to that study. In addition, however, Foley asks for more. He wants past individuals to be studied not only as experimental subjects. He recognizes the limits of the historians’ own hypotheses. And he hopes historians can view the objects of historical study with love and justice.
Although Malcolm Foley was probably not thinking about Alvin Plantinga when he entered the debate over presentism, his intervention in fact illustrates the kind of independence that should characterize Christian historians. Specifically concerning presentism, believers may affirm that historical study always reflects the convictions, conventions, and commitments of the historian and that unthinking presentisms of the Right are just as damaging as unthinking presentisms of the Left. It is as inadequate to view American history as simply Liberty coming into its own as racial discrimination worked out over time.
To put matters with a little of the complexity that the discussion deserves, a believing historian may affirm the potential value of presentist convictions and deny that presentist concerns should overwhelm historical study. A common sense observations is helpful at this point. It frequently happens that features of the past have remained unnamed, and therefore unanalyzed, until contemporary circumstances gave those features a name. Again to quote Bruce Kuklick, “In this understanding, the passage of time, the transformation of the present into the past, equips us with the apparatus to grasp the past in maxims unavailable before today. It is wrong to suggest that if there is no name, there is nothing to be named.”8 For an example central to the current discussion, “structural racism” may in fact have actually existed before the notion of “structural racism” had been formulated. At the same time, it is not necessary to treat a freshly produced insight as a eureka explaining everything. In this example, the American past can be treated “in all its complexity” by realizing that much else—like some expansion of liberty actually trickling down, real instances of altruism for the marginalized, specified benefits from a capitalist economy—existed alongside of, contending against, and mixed in with structural racism.
Christian grounding offers believing historians a solid rock on which to stand.9 Christian teaching about creation affirms that the world outside of the human mind as well as human minds have been made by God and that, by divine mercy, human minds are able to grasp some of what is actually real about the world outside of their minds.
Further, Christian teaching about human nature as finite and fallen encourages the right kind of epistemic humility, or the conviction that researching the world beyond myself can accomplish more than simply illustrating what I knew before I started the research. As such, historical study should be viewed as capable of disabusing me of what I thought I knew before I began the study and may reveal aspects of reality that I did not know I did not know. While realizing that all historical study is inevitably presentist, it need not be exhaustively so.
Above all, Christianity rests on a confession of infinite complexity, that God became human, eternity intersected time, immorality took on mortality. The Incarnation opens out to the Good News of sins forgiven, reconciliation with God, and resulting love for the neighbor. It should also predispose Christian historians to reject simple, one-dimensional, all-encompassing, or hegemonic interpretations of the past.
A Christian stance in teaching, scholarship, and responsible popularization will be manifest when (at least a measure of) clarity is combined with charity (to the extent possible)—clarity because, under God, it is possible to discover at least some truths about the human past, charity because believers know that if we can see evils in what previous generations took for granted, it is certain that future generations will see evils in what we take for granted. In the past and even more dramatically in our social media era, American culture tilts strongly against “both-and.” Yet taking “both-and” to heart is the Christian historian’s declaration of independence.
- Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers 1, no.3 (July 1984): 253–271, DOI: 10.5840/ faithphil19841317.
- Bruce Kuklick, Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 195.
- James H. Sweet, Domingo Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
- James H. Sweet, “Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” Perspectives on History 60, no. 6 (September 2022), 7.
- Priya Satia, “The Presentist Trap,” Perspectives on History 60, 7 (October 2022), 6–7.
- Bret Stephens, “This Is the Other Way that History Ends,” New York Times, August 30, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/30/opinion/history-sweet-aha-academia.html.
- Malcolm Foley, “History as Love,” Perspectives on History 60, no. 7 (October 2022), 5–6. For an example of his scholarship, see Foley, “‘The Only Way to Stop a Mob’: Francis Grimké’s Case for Lynching Resistance,” in Every Leaf, Line, and Letter: Evangelicals and the Bible from the 1730s to the Present, ed. Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 196–217.
- Kuklick, Fascism Comes to America, 171.
- An apology is in order at this point for offering only a precis of what I tried to develop at greater length in “Chapter 5: Christology: A Key to Understanding History,” in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).