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.


Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

That is one way to explain why the editors of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal for professional historians in the United States published by the American Historical Association, let Randall Balmer, a long time student of American evangelicalism, open his book review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business — when will this sentence end!?! — this way:

On the face of it, the evangelical embrace of capitalism and free enterprise should be a tough sell. Jesus himself warned that rich men face long odds against entering the kingdom of heaven and that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. First-century Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, held goods in common, a nascent form of socialism. So how is it that many contemporary evangelicals who trumpet their fidelity to the Bible have become such ardent evangelists for affluence and free-market capitalism? How could Jerry Falwell plausibly argue that “God is in favor of freedom, property, diligence, work, and acquisition”? (AHR, June 2017)

Does this mean that the AHA favors socialism even though it requires members to pay upwards of $200 to attend annual conferences where hotel rooms often go for at least $150 per night? Are we supposed to believe that in a socialist world the workers would unite to underwrite historians gathering annually to hear and present papers, meet with editors, and wine and dine with old colleagues?

Or could it be that Balmer thinks the Bible, which talks about the sin of stealing in pretty big letters, favors “a nascent form of socialism,” one without Gulags or walled cities?

And how is it that Balmer, historian of the United States, is such an expert about religion and society in first-century Palestine? “On the face of it” is not the kind of intellectual muscle needed to master the kinds of research techniques that antiquity requires.

And does Balmer actually believe that Jesus is opposed to property but favors freedom, especially liberty for consenting adults to experience sexual pleasure?

My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.

I do wonder though how Balmer gets up in the morning and goes to lecture in classrooms at Dartmouth College, an institution which boasts an endowment of $4.5 BILLION (according to Google). That, my friends, is a lot of property that resulted from a lot of acquisition. Does Balmer ever trumpet Jesus’ teaching about rich men and serving Mammon with Dartmouth’s administration?