Thinking Christianly or Thinking Historically

Sometimes w-w’s collide and this is a problem for neo-Calvinists who think that integrating faith and learning is possible. What makes it especially hard to integrate one’s personal religious convictions and professional expertise is that being an expert usually means putting aside personal beliefs as much as possible in order to achieve some level of impartiality. This is not simply a question of hiding one’s faith under a bushel but also trying not to be subject to racial, nationalist, class, and gender prejudices. Of course, it never happens perfectly. But the idea of science — even historical science — is to resist personal bias. A Christian’s plea, “to live is Christ, to die is gain,” is not exactly impartial.

John Fea recently has uncovered, though I think intentionally, the challenge of being a Christian and/or doing history. In the wake of the recent news that Gordon College is doing away with a history major, he wrote this:

The skills and ways of thinking that one learns from the study of history are not something that can happen in a few courses as part of an “integrated major” like Politics-Philosophy-History. In over two decades of teaching at Christian liberal arts institutions I can attest to the fact that a historical way of seeing the world–one informed by contextual thinking, the understanding of contingency, the complexity of the human experience, a grasp of causality and change over time–is something that is cultivated through a deep dive into the discipline. You can’t come to an interdisciplinary or “integrated” conversation without grounding in a discipline.

I can’t stress the formation piece here enough–especially at a Christian college in the liberal arts tradition. (I don’t care if it is evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant, etc.) Research universities and big regional public institutions are sometimes different animals since faculty do not often have the sustained engagement with undergraduates.

How are we forming our Christian students intellectually if we don’t give them the opportunity to dive into a particular discipline–a particular way of seeing the world with its own set of thinking skills?

Even if conducted at an evangelical institutions, the skills of thinking historically are different from thinking Christianly, and the same goes for other academic disciplines. That also means that simply being regenerate, or having a Christian w-w, does not guarantee a historical awareness. (Though, knowing the difference in redemptive history before and after Christ’s first advent is a start.) I am not certain that a student needs to major in history to think historically. Where I teach out two course history sequence in the core curriculum gives students some awareness of historical methods and sensibility — at least that is the design. Even so, a Christian historian like Fea senses that he has a higher loyalty (in the hyphenated world we inhabit) to history than to Christianity.

Or does he?

At other times, Fea has described himself as a Christian historian:

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags. I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does. I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach. As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it. This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian. That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

In this case, Fea senses that his Christian faith separates him from historians in the guild of professional history. This is not exactly a full-bore affirmation of the neo-Calvinist notion that faith changes the way we conduct our scholarship. Fea has actually registered some dissent to the neo-Calvinist understanding of history by saying that w-w has been “enormously fruitful” but is not where he lands as a self-consciously Christian historian. Instead, he prefers the notion of vocation as an organizing principle for Christian historians. And yet, Fea does think that faith makes him different from unbelieving historians.

One area where Christian and non-Christian historians agree, is this:

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas. I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently. I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues. I wonder about my place in the mix.

That was in May of 2017. Since then, as I have often argued, Fea has not been free from applying a political or moralistic outlook to his understanding of political and religious history.

I wonder what happened. I sure hope it isn’t that he got #woke for Jesus.

22 thoughts on “Thinking Christianly or Thinking Historically

  1. “Even so, a Christian historian like Fea senses that he has a higher loyalty (in the hyphenated world we inhabit) to history than to Christianity.”

    Seems like lately he is sensing he has a higher loyalty to the fame being afforded him by the media than to either history or Christianity. A slog through the last few weeks of his twitter feed (https://twitter.com/JohnFea1) would seem to suggest that, at least. I also see him using his platforms to moan about “climate change” frequently, but I’ve yet to see him talk about the greatest moral evil of our day – the murder of the unborn. If he has, someone please give me a link. I would be happy to be proved wrong. Fea is a good reminder that Hillsdale and its professors really are unique.

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  2. “ Research universities and big regional public institutions are sometimes different animals since faculty do not often have the sustained engagement with undergraduates.“

    That’s certainly not true in my experience.

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  3. Professor Fea likes to portray himself as a rigorous analyst, but his blog posts suggest otherwise. They reveal a political partisan who tends to make snap judgments that ultimately prove to be unjustified. His treatment of Nick Sandmann and his classmates is illustrative. Like many others, Professor Fea uncritically accepted the initial description of the incident at the Lincoln Memorial (“Someone Failed These Boys” (January 19, 2019)). Thankfully, the deception did not last long. Within a few days, the truth began to emerge. A few of the writers who initially denounced the boys were gracious enough to acknowledge they had participated in a wrongful rush to judgment. Tellingly, Professor Fea was not among them. (“Should We Rethink Our Response To The Covington High School Boys” (January 21, 2019)).

    Professor Fea likes to condemn as hypocrites those evangelical Christians who support President Trump. In the coming months, we’ll see whether Professor Fea lives by the standard he preaches. Will he be willing to hold former officials in the Obama administration legally accountable if, as appears to be the case, they deceived the FISA Court in order to obtain authorization to surveil Carter Page? The things Professor Fea has written to date are not encouraging. For example, early in 2018, he republished Mark Byrnes’ skeptical assessment of the Nunes memo. (“Historical Thinking And The Nunes Memo” (February 5, 2018)). Obviously, the public now knows much more about Christopher Steele and his dossier than it did 15 months ago. However, even 15 months ago, anyone who was paying attention knew enough to understand Professor Byrnes’ analysis was both superficial and misleading. And yet Professor Fea endorsed it.

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  4. Zrim – well, since eeeevangelical is a meaningless term these days, who is to say what is or is not eeeevangelically correct?

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  5. “I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues. I wonder about my place in the mix.”

    Everything I have read by Fea comes across like moralizing or preaching buttressed by a self-satisfied selection of facts.

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  6. Rob, give John credit. He did not call MAGA hats wicked (like some #woke Christians might). He pulled back and used the academic’s favorite word by rendering the hats “morally problematic.”

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  7. Bryan, some might say that it’s become a political term (since evangelicals have long since sold out to politics). And to be politically correct among evangelicals is to cast climate change in suspicious light (he moans) while abortion is obviously about plain old right and wrong (he neglects).

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  8. Zrim,
    It is a lot easier to biblically prove abortion (Jer. 1:5, Psa. 51:5) is a sin (Ex. 20:13) than climate change (maybe Rom. 8:22?). Laws against murder should be naturally known as well and not just biblically. Solutions for abortion are realistic too, just make laws against it and enforce them. What do you do to stop climate change? Outlaw cars, planes and trains? Kill farting cows? Would it be okay to burn wood to warm a Michigan house in the winter or would that be wrong too due to destroying forests? Is it a sin to burn gas, wood or coal? Would climate change stop if just the US stopped burning gas and coal? Is it a sin to clear out the rain forests? Should we go to war to stop the clearing of rain forests? If the climate is changing it is a fools errand for us to try to stop it (I moan)!

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  9. @Scott – what does Jeremiah 1:5 have to do with abortion? Wouldn’t that reading imply personhood prior to conception? Similarly for the passage in Psalms. I doubt that the laws surrounding abortion are so realistic. Unlike in the case of other forms of murder, no one knows the victim yet (no body no crime?). Distinguishing between abortion (particularly very early ones) and miscarriages is can be difficult as well without very intrusive investigations. If one takes the moment of conception as the beginning of personhood, then IVF, hormonal birth control, and IUDs, etc… are all potentially forms of murder. There is absolutely no realistic way to turn back the clock on these. Then there are the cases of rape and incest. The lack of exception for these cases means that the laws just passed are inviting a severe backlash that will likely set the pro-life movement back significantly. As it stands the abortion rate has been declining steadily since the 1990’s. Perhaps what we had been doing was working and the rather radical proposals now will cost more lives in the end.

    As far as climate change is concerned, the concern is not so much that the climate is just changing, but rather the rapidity of that change. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased by about 50% since the dawn of the industrial era, and we have seen nearly a 2deg F increase in the mean global temperature. Of course, that temperature increase is not uniformly distributed. If we were halt the use of fossil fuels, the climate would stabilize relative to what we see now. One way to do that is to tax carbon at a sufficiently high rate to make fossil fuels infeasible to use and shift to non-carbon intensive forms of energy such as nuclear power. This would slow the rate of change and make it easier to adapt. Whether it is sinful to continue on our current path is certainly not clear.

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  10. sdb,
    I am not saying those verses prove abortion, but that they prove abortion is a sin! Most Christians that agree with abortion usually argue babies are not alive until they leave the womb (e.g. the late Peter Ruckman of KJV Only fame). I was merely anticipating that argument and answering it. This a common procedure in logic to save time.

    As for your statement that we can reverse climate change, that would need to be proven and you offer no proof. If God is changing our climate then there is no way we can reverse it. I stand by my statement it is a fool’s errand!!!

    As for our path being sinful not being clear, I ask you the same questions. Where in the Bible is it a sin to burn gas, coal, oil or wood? My scripture is perspicuous about it, it is not. Or how about where does the Bible say not to clear out rain forest for humans to live?

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  11. “I am not saying those verses prove abortion, but that they prove abortion is a sin!”
    Right. But the Jeremiah passage points to a state prior to conception. If that text establishes personhood, it implies personhood prior to conception. That is obviously absurd, therefore that passage does not bear on personhood and thus has nothing to do with the morality of abortion. A better approach is to turn to the law and note the penalty prescribed for harming a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry and compare that to killing a man under similar circumstances.

    “Most Christians that agree with abortion usually argue babies are not alive until they leave the womb (e.g. the late Peter Ruckman of KJV Only fame). I was merely anticipating that argument and answering it. This a common procedure in logic to save time.”
    I’ve never read anyone who denies the life of a fetus. Generally I have seen folks dispute the personhood and thus moral status of a fetus. Perhaps there is a discussion I have missed.

    “As for your statement that we can reverse climate change, that would need to be proven and you offer no proof.”
    Pretty sure I didn’t claim that we can reverse climate change. Rather, we can slow it down by reducing the rate at which we are increasing the opacity of the atmosphere in the midinfrared. If you are interested in the proof, I can try to sketch that out in the commbox. I don’t think there is any controversy over the result of increasing CO2 levels and warming. The debate is over the exact level of the forcing and the implications of the increase in temperature.

    ” If God is changing our climate then there is no way we can reverse it. I stand by my statement it is a fool’s errand!!!”
    If God has given you cancer, it is a fool’s errand to try and reverse it? If God gives you a dead battery, it is a fool’s errand to try and reverse it? I don’t see any distinction among these sentences, and they entail a fatalism inconsistent with scripture.

    “As for our path being sinful not being clear, I ask you the same questions. Where in the Bible is it a sin to burn gas, coal, oil or wood? My scripture is perspicuous about it, it is not. Or how about where does the Bible say not to clear out rain forest for humans to live?”
    Huh? It isn’t clear to me whether making bad ecological decisions is sinful. I don’t know. As far as perspicuity goes, not everything in scripture is equally plain. If I were to make a case for the morality of ecological decision making, I would likely tie it to love of neighbor. I wouldn’t expect a Bible verse to tell me so any more than there is one laying out the doctrine of infant baptism or the Trinity. Good and necessary consequence etc..

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  12. Scott, the point is that abortion is just as politicized as any other issue (like climate change). How to address it isn’t nearly as obvious as you suggest, see the disagreements among the lifers in the latest developments. So the suggestion that abortion is just about clear right and wrong and Christians should have uniform views while climate change is more complicated and Christians should be more skeptical than not is disingenuous.

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  13. SDB:

    I’ve never read anyone who denies the life of a fetus. Generally I have seen folks dispute the personhood and thus moral status of a fetus. Perhaps there is a discussion I have missed.

    Discussions are frequently sloppy on this point. Just today, someone in conversation opined that a fetus is not a “living, breathing human being.”

    NPR just released a style guide that instructs reporters not to call a fetus a baby (‘cause “baby” in Latin doesn’t mean BABY baby, right?).

    Pres Obama famously refused to answer “when life begins” on 2008, saying “that’s above my pay grade.”

    So yes, it’s common to deny or obscure the fact that the fetus is a living human organism.

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  14. @jeff
    Thanks. Sloppy indeed. While life is notoriouly tough to define, I don’t know of any proposed definition that would entail that a fetus is not alive.

    I would be interested in your insight on the Jeremiah text. It has always struck me as unconvincing for the reason I give above. In contrast Ex 21 seems to provide very strong evidence for the moral status of an unborn baby.

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  15. I take Jer 1 to refer to predestination, as in “before all time.”

    For me, the case against abortion is secular: Living human organisms have human rights.

    The Biblical prohibitions against murder intensify this argument but do not modify it.

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  16. Jeff and b, sd, for what it’s worth, I once saw a 1979 Planned Parenthood film (in one of the odd film groups to which I belong) that referred to fetuses as babies. It made me wonder when PP made the switch.

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  17. Jeremiah 1:5,
    I see this verse as taking place in the womb of Jeremiah’s mother. God could have said that he knew Jeremiah before the foundation of the world but he did not say this. As God created the earth in verse 1 of Genesis and then formed it in 6 days (I know Gap theorists and maybe Klineans disagree with me here. Day agers should agree they just think the days are billions of years) so here God in the first half of the verse knew Jeremiah as a zygote or embryo and then the second half of the verse deals with Jeremiah as a fetus in that God consecrated him before he left the womb. I know form in Genesis is Tohu and in this verse it is Yatsar but Yatsar in other verses seem to be on the same track (Isa. 45:7, Psalm 33:15 and Zech. 12:1). If it is your opinion that I should have used a different verse so be it but opinions are like buttholes everybody has one, and if you have a lot of them you are a one. Looking over Calvin and Gill, neither go into any great detail on this verse sadly.

    To Catholics this does not mean contraception is wrong!

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  18. @ Scott:

    I see why you read it that way. “Before” tends to suggest “just before.”

    My reason for reading it differently is that God’s decrees are typically understood to take place in eternity past. “Before” could mean “just before”, but it doesn’t have to.

    Either way, could we agree that the point of this passage is God’s election of Jeremiah rather than his moral status as fetus?

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