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Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and The Return of Religion

Alister Chapman, John Coffey, and Brad S. Gregory, eds
Published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2009

At bottom, this is a wonderfully simple book. It gathers essays from scholars of high academic standing to tell us what we learned in kindergarten: we need to listen in order to understand; we need to put ourselves in another person’s shoes; we need to see things through another’s eyes. This collection of authorities gives us license to side-step, at times, “reading theory” and all the fancy assumptions we learned in graduate school. The authors encourage us to listen with ears to hear. All the authors appreciate the advice of Quentin Skinner: “If we approach the past with a willingness to listen, with a commitment to trying to see things their way, we can hope to prevent ourselves from becoming too readily bewitched [by our own intellectual traditions]” (47). In the last sentence of one of the excellent essays, Howard Hotson states the message of the book clearly: “‘Seeing things their way’ may … not be the ultimate endpoint of all investigations into the history of religious ideas, but it is clearly the indispensable place to begin” (122).

Although the essays are written primarily from the context of European intellectual history, the basic message is interdisciplinary. Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at Oxford University, in “Anti-Semitism, Philo-Semitism, Apocalypticism, and Millenarianism in Early Modern Europe,” starts by showing that Norman Cohn’s widely read The Pursuit of the Millennium, first published in 1957 and still influential, is deeply flawed by post-Nazi assumptions. Cohn did not listen to his sources well. Cohn’s interpretive framework did not accommodate the widely prevalent philo-Semitism of early modern Protestant millenarians. Hotson and the other authors in this book warn of the danger of too-quick over-generalizations constructed out of modern minds that do not try hard enough to see things through the eyes of dead people.

The fundamental interdisciplinary message of the book warns against the false dichotomy modern scholars impose upon themselves between objective and subjective. It is a graduate-school commonplace to dismiss objectivity and insist that humans are trapped in subjectivity. Furthermore, that which is social has to be some form of inter-subjectivity that keeps us isolated from each other. Seeing Things Their Way promotes the more traditional, humanist, commonsense belief that scholars can, to some extent, get out of their own head and into another person’s. Most often for historians, this means getting into the head of dead people.

The hook in this collection is to tie all the essays to the work of Quentin Skinner, who “is arguably the most influential historian of ideas at work today” (46). It is Skinner who coined the phrase “Seeing Things Their Way.” On the other hand, Skinner has a blind spot when it comes to religion. Lacking his own religious perspective, he avoids it in the people he studies. John Coffey, professor of early modern history at the University of Leicester, in his essay “Quentin Skinner and the Religious Dimension of Early Modern Political Thought” notes that Skinner has encouraged a secularized perspective of political history. Coffey recommends that a deeper understanding of the Bible and Christianity can only enhance the ability of Skinner to see things through the eyes of his subjects.

The ten essays in this collection all share Coffey’s hope of discouraging the secular tendencies of modern scholarship. In “Can We ‘See Things Their Way’? Should We Try?” the most hard-charging essay of the book, Brad S. Gregory writes:

Since the nineteenth century and the heyday of philosophical positivism, the denunciation of revealed religion as superstition, and the creation of grand, explanatory theories of religion à la Feuerbach and Marx, and later Weber, Durkheim, Freud, and others, the secularization of Western intellectual life has led to the widespread view—sometimes explicit, but more often, especially in recent decades, simply assumed—that religion is not something that can or ought to be understood on its own terms. Indeed, according to this view, precisely the point of studying religion is to show that it is not what its protagonists claim it is; Durkheim, for example, asserted that no religious believers should be consulted for an account of religious ideas, even their own. (26-27)

Gregory takes on this assumption that critical scholarship must try to out smart religious people and religious texts. Using the prison letters of a sixteenth-century Anabaptist, Gregory shows that we can and must, in principle and practice, rely on these letters to get inside the head of this Anabaptist. Criticism that we cannot and should not try goes nowhere.

Gregory is hard-charging, but promotes nothing radical. As with all the essayists in this book, he is moderate and wise. Given a dichotomy between the objective and subjective, Gregory advises that “we must be willing to pursue the objective” (42). On the other hand,however, he understands that such a pursuit will end with us entangled somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity. The unifying point in all these essays is that Seeing Things Their Way is a practical and helpful aspiration for historical understanding, more helpful than wallowing in theoretical subjectivity. Given the fact that most intellectuals in history are religious, intellectual historians must try to think religiously in order to see things in the manner of their subjects.

The book has a simple and well-presented interdisciplinary message, a nice hook connecting it to Skinner, one of the great intellectuals of our time, and, finally, the book is filled with lots of important information and interpretations from insightful and careful historians willing to try to see through the religious perspective of their subjects. These historical essays exemplify the usefulness of the method being advocated. Hotson clips the wings of Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium. Anna Sapir Abulafia from Cambridge University offers a lesson in better use of “Christian-Jewish Disputational Material.” Richard Muller from Calvin Theological Seminary vigorously exposes some egregious errors in common assertions about John Calvin and Calvinism. Willem J. Van Asselt from Utrecht University and the Evangelical Theological Faculty, Louvain, dissects several common problems of interpretation in “Scholasticism Revisited: Some Reflections on the Study of Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought.” British history is honed by Californians James E. Bradley from Fuller Seminary and Alister Chapman from Westmont College. Bradley investigates Dissenters. Chapman, the principal editor of the whole book, defends the usefulness of a religious viewpoint even when dealing with the secularized Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Religion may not be as useful for understanding the Great Minds of the twentieth century; however, the intellectual culture of Europe has not become so secularized that religion is of no use. Skinner’s blind spot should not be allowed even for students of recent European history.

Mark Noll from Notre Dame, while offering “British Methodological Pointers for Writing a History of Theology in America,” concludes his essay with a “Theological Postscript” that might be the deepest thinking on why Christian scholars have to entangle themselves with “seeing things their way.” Classical Christianity believes in the providence of God and the incarnation in Jesus Christ. A “fully-orbed doctrine of providence” along with the implications of a “Chalcedonian perspective” of the incarnation will push a Christian historian to expect that spiritual realities in history will “require multiple interpretations, each true unto itself, but none entire unto itself” (222).

Noll, with this taproot in the doctrine of providence and incarnation, allows for the broadest application of this book for Christian scholars in many disciplines. What this book does for historians is remind us that history is a social art rooted in the simplicity of disciplined listening and empathy. Chapman hopes that the kinder, gentler forms of postmodern thinking might support the theme of this book (233). The cold reductionism sometimes prevalent in social sciences and the default insistence on doubt before belief probably hurt more than they help our scholarship. Seeing Things Their Way is wonderfully simple with profound implications for all Christian scholars.

Cite this article
Rick Kennedy, “Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and The Return of Religion”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 336-338

Rick Kennedy

Point Loma Nazarene University
Rick Kennedy is Professor of History at Point Loma Nazarene University.