Understanding Postmodernism

Postmodernism affects everything it touches, often in ways of which we are not aware. Its effects on the writing of history are to make history inaccessible to all but a few academic elites, or to reinterpret history in the image of the historian, with little regard for documentary evidence. Richard Evans explains this phenomenon in his book, In Defense of History (W.W. Norton, 1999). My own experience in a very postmodernized philosophy program at a Philadelphia area University bears out this observation.

Many aspects of postmodernism can be understood, sociologically, as a way of compensating for this loss of power within the world at large and within the university as an institution. For it places enormous, indeed total intellectual power in the hands of the academic interpreter, the critic, and the historian. If the intentions of the author of a text are irrelevant to a text’s meaning—if meaning is placed in the text by the reader, the interpreter—and if the past is a text like any other, then the historian is effectively reinventing the past every time he or she reads or writes about it. The past no longer has the power to confine the researcher within the bounds of facts. Historians and critics are now omnipotent.

To underline this, the postmodernists have developed a new level of specialized language and jargon, borrowed largely from literary theory, which has rendered their work opaque to anyone except other postmodernists. The enterprise thus seems not only self-regarding but, ironically in view of its criticism of hierarchy and prioritization, elitist as well. Its narcissism and elitism both can be seen as compensatory mechanisms for the loss of real power, income, and status suffered by its academic practitioners over the past ten to fifteen years. It all reminds one of Oscar Wilde’s saying that any fool can make history; it takes a genius to write it (p. 172-3).

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There Were No Golden Ages of Church History

How often have you heard people lament that these days are not like the “good old days”? Perceptions of the past state of the world or Christianity are often skewed, reflecting the selective memories of individuals or the selective reading of the historical record. We like to think that there was a Golden Age when true and pure Christianity was dominant and Christians all lived happy, holy lives, but the more history I read, the more I believe the idea is a fantasy.

Westminster Seminary church historian, Carl Trueman reminds us that this pining for an ideal era of Christianity has a long history that goes back at least to the Reformation:

One harmful but guiding assumption of much of Reformation and post-Reformation historiography has been that there are ‘golden ages’ such that the present state of the church pales in comparison to some perceived time when all was right with the church…

The Golden Age model has two faults. First, it typically smooths out the rough spots in a particular era by treating theology as though it dropped out of the sky, or, perhaps better, straight out of the Bible. It does not. Humans do theology in specific historical, cultural contexts, and theological issues are always more complex than the Golden Age model allows. One does not have to reduce everything to an extreme materialist model of history to acknowledge the truth of this statement.

In addition, it does not always allow for the fact that we live in the late twentieth century, not the sixteenth or seventeenth. If one wishes to appropriate the sixteenth or seventeenth century, for example, as a model for contemporary church theology, one must do without blinkers and with an awareness of the theological, cultural and philosophical developments between then and now. Ignoring the critical questions of history does not make them go away.

(Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment,ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark; Paternoster, 1999, xvi.)

With that last statement Trueman reminds us that we need to tell the whole story, a story that takes all the aspects of life into consideration: political, sociological, and cultural. We cannot imagine that none of these things mattered or had an influence on the times. Additionally, if we wish for the good old days of selective memory or reading, we have to take the good and the bad. If it’s the Reformation we wish for, we have to take the inherent violence and political instability of the times, in addition to the somewhat rudimentary post-Catholic church order and life. If we long for the great revivals of the 18th or 19th centuries we have to take the extreme emotionalism, moralism and nationalism that were often confused with the gospel.

Rather than wish for the “good old days,” we ought to take the advice of Solomon, who recommended against idolizing the past, and instead instructed us to enjoy the present, warts and all:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this…In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl. 7:10, 14)

Rationality and Irrationality in History

Have you ever read history and wonder, “What in the world were these people thinking?” Have you ever been tempted to question the sanity and rationality of an historical figure? In his essay, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth” (in Visions of Politics, vol. 1; Cambridge University Press, 2002), Quentin Skinner makes a compelling case for the granting of the rationality of beliefs held in the past, unless strong evidence exists to the contrary. He warns against the common practice of the historian accusing historical figures of irrationality when those historical figures held beliefs that contradict his own. By doing this, says Skinner, the historian sets himself up as the authority on rationality.

This is a significant mistake by the historian. As a fallible human being, the historian is in no significantly better position than any other person to determine what is rational, since he is finite and prone to error himself. It is a sign of hubris to think that a historian is in some privileged epistemological position that grants him a transcendent view of rationality. That is not to say that no historical belief can be judged irrational. But if a historian is to judge a particular belief irrational, it ought to be because it was “not an appropriate belief for that particular agent to have espoused in that particular society at that particular time” (p. 38). The standard for rationality moves away from the historian’s judgment, which is anachronistic, to the time, place and culture of the subjects under consideration.

Skinner gives as an example Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic study, The Peasants of Languedoc, in which Ladurie attributes the belief in witchcraft to “mass delirium.” According to Ladurie, belief in witches could never be rationally held. He proceeds to infer, therefore, that the peasants were slipping savagely into irrationalism and pathological beliefs. He speculates that the peasants were reacting to the loss of traditional spiritual assistance as the Reformation progressed, and so gave in to their anxieties and primordial fears. They felt a deep sense of frustration at the social upheaval and failure of social reform, and so their desire to improve their lot took on a mythical dress with demonic forms of escape.

Skinner disapproves of so much speculation, noting that Laduries’ presupposition of the peasants’ irrationality precludes a number of possible explanations. Skinner suggests one alternative theory that is certainly more plausible in the historical context of the events. He suggests that the peasants also held to the belief that the Bible constituted the directly inspired Word of God, a belief that was widely accepted as rational and indeed indubitable in sixteenth-century Europe. Since the Bible affirms the existence of witches and proscribes that they not be allowed to live. Within this historical context, therefore, it would have been the height of irrationality to disbelieve the existence of witches. To do so would have also been tantamount to denying the credibility of God’s Word, something very dangerous (and therefore irrational) in that day.

From this, Skinner derives a principle of judging the rationality of historical beliefs.

We need to begin by recreating as sympathetically as possible a sense of what was held to connect with what, and what was held to count as a reason for what, among the people we are studying as historians. Otherwise we are sure to commit the characteristic sin of ‘whig’ intellectual history: that of imputing incoherence or irrationality where we have merely failed to identify some local canon of rational acceptability.

It seems that this principle can be applied to at least one twentieth-century belief system that seems to commit this same fallacy of anachronistic judgment of irrationality. The evangelical and liberal retelling of the history of American fundamentalism in the twentieth-century often evidences this unjustified accusation of irrationality. Not that there were no irrational beliefs held by fundamentalists. There were plenty, and the historical evidence bears this out. But the number and severity of these accusations is grossly and inexcusably exaggerated. Only recently have we seen more sympathetic readings of fundamentalist history that have extended this assumption of rationality. Some may also see the postconservative revision of evangelical theology’s so-called reliance on Greek philosophical metaphysics regarding the nature of God as another example, but this is technically wrong, because the postconservative accusation is more often that evangelicals through the ages were simply dead wrong, not that they were irrational.

On the other hand, some fundamentalist histories violate this same principle in their accusation of irrationality on the part of their antagonists. It may very well be that a fair reading will reveal that on some points, some of the opponents of fundamentalists through the years were the rational ones. One need only review the proceedings of the Scopes Trial of 1925 to see that, at a few select points, Clarence Darrow’s beliefs about the need to engage the cultural challenges of that day seemed more rational than William Jennings Bryan’s desire to pretend they didn’t exist.

The point is simply this: ascribing rationality and irrationality to a belief held in the past needs to be done carefully, taking into consideration the cultural and intellectual climate of the time, the place and the individuals under consideration. Only then will we achieve a more objective evaluation of the past and avoid such gross anachronisms.

As Christian historians, we believe that man is made in the image of God, but was ruined spiritually and intellectually at the Fall. We believe that man is essentially the same throughout history (contra evolutionists), and therefore we can assume that our ancestors shared at least some of our beliefs about the importance of coherence and consistency. We can assume, then, that our ancestor’s utterances are a guide to the identification of their beliefs, and that generally, they sought to have coherent and consistent belief systems (p. 54). When we encounter a people for whom it is no problem to affirm and deny the same proposition, we must ascribe irrationality, and admit that there is no prospect of reporting what they believed.

While these historiographical principles may prevent us from understanding the histories of a few self-consciously irrational objects of study, they will also guard us from a speculative hagiography of our historical heroes and a demonization of those whose beliefs we find distasteful.

The Influence of Christian Views in Writing History

What difference does being a Christian historian make? George Marsden suggests three things that Christian perspectives do not mean. First, Christian perspectives on academic topics will not change everything, but it will change some things. Important areas of thought regarding human nature, anthropology, justice, etc. greatly influence the way history is perceived. Second, for Christianity to make a difference, it does not mean that the perspective must be uniquely Christian. Distinctly Christian scholarship means that our scholarship is grounded in distinctly Christian principles, not that it is wholly unlike other perspectives or scholarship. Third, there are no set formulae for the Christian perspective. There are many types of questions that a Christian might ask if they consciously seek to relate faith and learning.

So, how does being a Christian shape the way we do history? Marsden suggests three things that are unique about a Christian writing history. First, our Christian commitments shape our selection of topic. What is worth studying? Our priorities and values shape these choices, so a Christian may choose a field of inquiry that is considered politically incorrect to scholars committed to cultural relativism or scientific naturalism. Second, our Christian perspectives will influence the questions we ask about the subject. Christian scholars are likely to be interested in a different set of issues than are other scholars and to see different things. Third, our Christian commitments inevitably influence which current theories we are likely to accept. For example, Christians who accept the authority of ancient texts are unlikely to accept radical postmodern deconstruction of the authority of all texts, or accept the idea that humans are, in effect, the only creators of reality.

For example, Christians approach the study of man as a created being made in the image of God, marred by the fall, capable of being redeemed by Christ, and destined for an eternity beyond this lifetime. This metanarrative explains much about psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. In contrast, secular scholars view man as the “Transcendental Self” that is devoid of a creator, and therefore any transcendent authority. Human capacities are immensely inflated and man’s goodness is assumed, along with the inevitable progress of mankind. The secularist’s metanarrative also provides a number of answers (however flawed) to problems of human nature, psychology, anthropology and sociology. Applied to history, Christian and secular historians end up telling a very different story of the past.

The insights that a Christian view of history brings should not, however, result in pride. Being a Christian historian does not in any way mean that one is a better historian than a non-Christian historian. It simply means that a better way of viewing history is available to the historian who is willing to submit his perspective to the Scriptures, do the hard work of history and remain humble in the doing. Marsden sums it up well when he says,

Ultimately people are convinced not simply by arguments, although sound scholarship is essential. They are convinced also by the character of the people who present arguments…So Christian scholars should, without compromising their scholarship, present themselves as models of genuine servanthood within adverse academic communities.

This essay is adapted from George Marsden, “What Difference Might Christian Perspectives Make?” in History and the Christian Historian (ed. Ronald Wells; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).