Posts Tagged ‘Historiography’

Capitalism’s Turn?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley

The Greenstone Church in Pullman Town, ca. 1883

Scholarly interest in capitalism has been on the rise. The most obvious sign of this interest has been Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which received a surprising amount of media attention for being a rather dense book with new methods but an old argument. Piketty is a French economist, but scholars from a variety of disciplines have also sought to incorporate capitalism into their research. Last year, The New York Times pronounced a capitalist turn in history departments. The article highlighted Cornell’s History of Capitalism Initiative, which, by the way, is hosting a conference November 6–8 that is worth paying attention to if you are an Americanist. To give another example, Edward E. Baptist’s new book has joined a body of work that situates the expansion of capitalism, and specifically finance capitalism, in the Atlantic slave trade and slave labor.

Not to be left behind, scholars of Christianity and religion generally have also been especially interested in business, wealth, and trade. This interest, of course, is not unprecedented, but I want to list some of the more recent works for this post. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, which was noted in The New York Times article, explores the rise of “Wal-Mart Moms” and the political impact of their faith in God and market. Kathryn Lofton has already given us Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, which explores the relationship between modern American religiosity and consumerism. She is also working on a project that does something similar with the financial practices at the Goldman Sachs Group. Thomas Rzeznik’s Church and Estaterevels in the Gilded Age by looking at the intersection of religious claims and business practices among the Philadelphia elite. Christopher Cantwell’s essay over at Religion & Politics sketches out some of the links between big capitalism and big Christianity in Illinois.

This interest is not limited to scholarship on the United States and modernity. A number of works have explored the relationship between Christianity and economics broadly. To provide one example, Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, which won ASCH’s Philip Schaff Prize in 2013, traces the problems and products of wealth in Christian churches during and after the decline of the western Roman empire.

These works rely upon a variety of methodologies. Some highlight a type of religiosity present in economic practices. Others show the mutual relationship between religious and business organizations. In my last post at the blog I suggested how the tracing of metaphorical motifs might allow us to traverse archives in order to undo the impact of compartmentalization. Specifically, I wanted to draw connections between anti-monopoly, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and other popular late nineteenth-century protestations in order to illustrate a broad sense of dread of invisible systematic subversions.

Taken together, I think this growing interest in capitalism is interesting because it tests how scholarly vocabularies from cultural studies, history, religious studies, and economic theory can (or, perhaps, cannot) mingle. I do not believe that interdisciplinarity is always a good in and of itself, but the particular junctures created and debated seem to me to be productive in bringing together conversations whose separation has made sense disciplinarily but not historically. As Winnifred Sullivan notes in her critique of liberal reactions to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, beliefs and practices under the sign of religion have always been—and she is speaking within the context of American religious history—entwined with business.

I think it will be especially productive to examine formations of religion and business within the context of state projects. How have states adjudicated the economic and the religious? How, at the same time, have they replicated certain economic and religious assumptions and practices within the body politic? Or among colonized groups? In future posts on this blog I hope to address these questions with some historical examples while also laying out some of the theoretical and methodological problems that have resulted from the disciplinary intersections that have occurred due to rising interest in capitalism.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

*Image courtesy of the Pullman Virtual Museum.

Upon Further Review: Religious Dispositions and Tastes

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

by Jacob Hicks

Upon reading Mark Hanley’s review of Nicholas P. Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (2012) [in the June issue of Church History], the following appraisal of Miller’s work stood out: “While most of Miller’s pages are devoted to establishing dissenting Protestantism’s influence among colonial founders and the Revolutionary generation, it is his complementary emphasis on the religious disposition of ordinary Americans that represents this study’s most important contribution” (470, emphasis mine). In the culturally Protestant culture of the late colonial era and early republic, the dissenting Protestant idea of people exercising the right of private judgment in matters of faith was quite appealing to much of the populace, which contributed to the new nations’ citizenry ratifying the First Amendment’s religion clauses. In other words, they had developed a taste for wanting to express their religious opinions freely.

By mentioning how Miller highlights the religious dispositions of the people, I wonder if Hanley is pointing out the emergence of a new trend in American religious history that focuses on a people’s dispositions or tastes in examining religion. One other book that seeks to accomplish the same goal is Eric Slauter’s The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Slauter notes how “to many Americans at the end of the eighteenth century, the most natural and legitimate government was precisely the one that could claim cultural origins” (12). He cites Montesquieu, one of the most widely-read philosophers among the Revolutionary generation, favorably when Montesquieu contends that “government most comfortable to nature is that which best agrees with the humor and disposition of the people in whose favor it is established” (12). So, part of Slauter’s book examines sources that comment upon the architecture and portraiture of the period. He argues that from these cultural artifacts that everyday people encountered, the Founders drew metaphors for forming the government: “framing” the government from architecture and “representation” in government from portraiture.

Both Religious Roots, at least according to Hanley,and The State as a Work of Art are examinations into the dispositions and tastes of regular people that influence the creation of the Constitution. What would it look like to take such an emphasis and apply it to other eras of American religious history or the history of Christianity? Might it provide yet another tool in the scholar’s toolbox for one to get beyond writing historical works that focus on elites?

Jacob Hicks is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. His research focuses on the history of American religion.

Sermon Studies: More Possibilities than We Can Imagine

Friday, May 31st, 2013

by David M. Powers

I am grateful to Robert H. Ellison for the useful suggestions raised in his post “On the Discipline of ‘Sermon Studies,’” and I endorse his hopes for more systematic attention to the vast and often undervalued resource which sermons provide. Basing his comments in part on Keith A. Francis’ proposals in The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 (2012), Ellison has specified several areas for potential gleanings. It occurs to me there may be additional benefits we can scarcely envision.

Certainly sermons offer a source for accessing the issues, the questions, the flavor of any given point in Christian history. They not only provide snapshots of the character of popular theological discourse at particular moments in the past; they also encompass the observations of community leaders who were charged with addressing a “word from the Lord” to their contemporaries. Depending on how carefully sermons were recorded and preserved, they can offer the possibility of listening in on long-lost community conversations from a variety of times and places. Add imagination, and exploring past sermons can provide a time-warp way to recover an hour spent in a social setting, as if one were seated in the midst of a worshipping congregation, witnessing a community experience from possibly centuries ago. And read with care, through the various lenses Francis proposes, sermons can offer what he calls “detail — depth and contour” (p. 615) which can greatly help us get inside the thought and word patterns of previous eras.

At its best the approach does need to be interdisciplinary. When it comes to the area with which I am most familiar, namely, American Puritan sermons, much careful work is being done by persons in the fields of literature and rhetoric. I think of Lisa M. Gordis’ Opening Scripture: Bible Reading and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England (2003), and Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric (1999), as well as Meredith M. Neuman’s forthcoming Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England. Each of these offers insightful observations on the dynamics of communication as they apply to sermons and other forms of public discourse in the Puritan world.

I suspect the treasure trove of sermons is even richer than we are probably aware. Although taking every fragmentary note into consideration would be both impossible and unnecessary (Wilberforce’s single word on the back of an envelope may possibly be an exception!), it seems to me that sermon studies runs the risk of privileging printed materials. Scholarly awareness of the contribution of sermons to the Puritan enterprise has evolved significantly since Perry Miller’s The New England Mind (1939), with its heavy reliance on sermons in print. By exploring non-published materials, Harry S. Stout developed a substantially revised understanding in The New England Soul (1986); his study leaves Puritan preachers looking much kinder and more versatile than the stereotypical haranguers of “Jeremiads” we used to assume they were.

I have deciphered and transcribed sermon notes taken in a “short writing” code of his own invention by a teenager in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the time those notes were composed in 1640, Springfield was on the western colonial frontier. John Pynchon, the young man in question, was what Neuman calls an “aural auditor:” he wrote what he heard of the Rev. George Moxon’s preaching.


Click the image to see full size.


It is his notes, with their sporadic phonetic spelling of Moxon’s Yorkshire words and pronunciation and his recording of Moxon’s occasional interpositions, like “Well,..” and “Only, by the way, one thing I forgot,” that make me confident that some recorded sermons offer vivid links to recoverable if not relivable moments. Again, in Sermon Studies imagination as well as analysis plays a part.

But access does remain a very large problem. My question is, will anyone beside me be able to make use of those notes on thirteen mid-seventeenth century sermons? What is the vehicle for making such primary material more widely available, more thoroughly studied, more carefully discussed? Short of a journal dedicated to this discipline, sessions on sermon studies at academic conferences could extend the conversation around this rich resource and the sometimes surprising access sermons provide to the past.

On the Discipline of “Sermon Studies”

Monday, November 19th, 2012

by Robert H. Ellison, Marshall University

Multidisciplinary endeavors with “Studies” in the name have become a staple of the modern academic landscape. British and American studies are among the more common terms; students at my university can earn degrees in religious studies, and pursue minors in African and African American, Asian, Latin American, sexuality, and women’s studies. A program in film studies is in the works as well.

Recently, an online book review introduced me to another example, the field of “Illustration Studies.” According to that review, one of the main premises of Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room is that the time has come for Illustration Studies “to be recognized within the scholarly community and beyond.” I wish now to make the same claim for “Sermon Studies.” This field is not entirely in its infancy; by some estimates, it has been emerging for about twenty years (see the Preface to The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 [2012], for which I was a “consultant editor”), and now boasts some 200 active scholars, according to a count conducted by Bob Tennant. It still, however, lacks the name recognition enjoyed by the areas I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Momentum has been building, through an annual symposium of sermons-oriented scholars of Early Modern English literature held in Reading and Manchester Universities, the publication of an Oxford handbook on Early Modern sermons (2011), Brill’s New History of the Sermon series (I was the editor for Volume 5), and other recent works, but much more remains to be done.

Bill Gibson’s introductory essay in the Oxford Handbook offers a thorough discussion of the task. Some of the work is very elementary, so much so that it might remind us of Vince Lombardi’s famous statement to the Green Bay Packers: “Gentlemen, this is a football.” What, for example, do we mean by the word “sermon”? While the boundaries of most literary genres are fairly clearly defined—we have good ideas about what constitutes a novel, a poem, a short story, or a play—we still lack a definitive answer to this question.

Must a sermon, for example, have an oral component? The fact that George MacDonald published three volumes of what he called Unspoken Sermons suggests that the answer may be “No.” If a speech is delivered before a religious audience or on a religious topic, is that sufficient? The answer, again, is likely “No,” because ministers through the ages have described such works not only as “sermons,” but as “lectures” and “charges” as well. To complicate matters further, some texts were published—in virtually identical forms—under more than one of these names!

Once the term “sermon” has been more or less adequately defined, the next challenge is identifying the texts relevant to a given research project. The quantity of works is not the problem: thousands are available in manuscript, print, microform, and electronic texts online. The issue, rather, is narrowing down the choices. Scholars at other institutions and one of my own graduate students, for example, have recently asked for help in locating sermons preached on specific scripture texts. As it stands now, no resource–WorldCat, the Internet Archive, or a particular university’s online catalog—contains the metadata or search capabilities necessary to provide this information, or to identify sermons by other important criteria such as the dates on which they were preached or the occasions for which they were written (e.g., Christmas, Easter, or 5th November [Guy Fawkes’ Day]). Instead, researchers have to comb through scores of individual sermons and volumes upon volumes of collected works in the hope of finding what they’re looking for. Indexes such as a chronological listing of Newman’s sermons and J. Gordon Spaulding’s 6-volume Pulpit Publications 1660-1782 can aid the process in some cases, but there remains a pressing need for a comprehensive catalog, designed from the ground up for the digital age and reflecting the “best practices” of librarianship and cataloging.

The texts indexed in such a catalog can be used in a host of important research projects. Studies published in the early to middle years of the 20th century—such as those by Edwin Dargan, F. R Webber, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Eric Mackerness—are primarily biographical, applying Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory to the history of preaching. More recently, the focus has shifted to analyses of the texts themselves, a change I have advocated in my Brill volume and elsewhere. Such studies could of course be theological, focusing on interpretations of the creation story in Genesis 1 or examining the sacramental implications of “this is my body” in Luke 22:19, but they need not be restricted to that discipline. They could, for example, be historical (surveying sermons preached in St. Mary’s Church in Oxford), political (examining sermons on the Glorious Revolution or questions of church and state), or linguistic (conducting sophisticated textual analyses using web-based programs such as Voyeur Tools).

Finally, even the best projects are of little use to the scholarly community if they never appear in print.

Work on sermons is currently being published in journals in a variety of fields: recent examples include religion (Anglican and Episcopal History), rhetoric (Rhetoric Society Quarterly), and American studies (American Quarterly). The broad readership of even church history journals, however, prevents them from giving any kind of extensive attention to the genre. It would likely be unrealistic, for example, to expect an article on preaching to be published in every issue (or even every year), to say nothing of having a special issue entirely devoted to the topic. A journal called Sermon Studies, published in association with a respected academic press and perhaps under the sponsorship of a scholarly society, would recognize the emergence of sermon studies as a subfield give it momentum that could be very beneficial to its continued growth.

The final chapter in the Oxford Handbook, written by ASCH Executive Secretary Keith Francis, lays out a rather ambitious agenda for students of the sermon; it, along with Bill Gibson’s introduction, is a kind of manifesto on the current state and future direction of the field. Realizing this agenda—or even just the portions of it I have mentioned here– will be a rather daunting task. Scholarly publishing, like every other aspect of higher education, is facing economic challenges that make the launch of a new journal a risky proposition at best. Building a useful sermon database will be extremely labor-intensive as well, requiring faculty, graduate students, and others to devote hundreds of hours to reading and classifying thousands of sermons.

Readers of this blog are in a good position to help meet these needs and keep Sermon Studies moving forward. The American Society of Church History is already making important contributions, including panels on sermons in its conferences and publishing articles in its journal Church History on topics ranging from Billy Graham’s preaching to French sermons at the end of the nineteenth century. ASCH members who would be interested in contributing to a database, helping to launch and maintain a journal, or collaborate on other projects are warmly invited to contact me at

Beyond the Black Church, Or, African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation

Monday, July 16th, 2012

by Matthew Cressler

(CC BY-SA) Elvert Barnes
I study, among other subjects, black Catholics. When I tell people I study black Catholics, I am often met with blank stares. If black Catholics occupy any space in the American religious imagination, they conjure images of Catholic Masses with Gospel choirs and the politics of parishes like St. Sabina’s on the South Side of Chicago.  Black Catholics sometimes baffle because they pose a problem for scholars and laypeople alike.  African American religious studies, until relatively recently, may be one of the few instances in which popular imagination and scholarly interpretation align quite neatly.  When African Americans and religion are invoked a specific image usually comes to mind, and black Catholics don’t quite fit.
Lucky for me, while working on this dissertation about black Catholics in Chicago, a number of books have interrupted popular and scholarly assumptions.  What I have realized over the past few years, with equal parts gratitude and relief, is that we have not simply witnessed a number of great books.  Rather, we stand in the midst of a new generation of African American religious studies. African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation, as I’m thinking of them, challenge at least three persistent theses about African American religion.1

The first thesis presumes black people are naturally religious or, if not naturally religious, at least more religious than other Americans. The second thesis assumes black people are not just more religious, but more religious in very particular ways. Black religiosity is presumed to be stylistically emotional and politically liberationist. The third thesis, which speaks more to the internal discourse of black religious communities than to their external study, challenges the “blackness” of those not conforming to the standards of the first two. If a black person or black community is not religious in a particular way, they remain racially suspect.2

But the Next Generation has come to challenge these popular assumptions that black people are naturally religious, that there is one way to be black and religious, and that those black religious outliers are somehow suspect. The real flurry of publications began in 2008.3 Two works in that same year took on the two presumptive pillars of African American religion: the notion of an essential “black religion” and the myth of “the Black Church.”4

Curtis Evans’s The Burden of Black Religion traces the intellectual construction of “black religion” and how this essentialism was weighed down by “the burden of a multiplicity of interpreters’ demands,” whether imagined as “amorphous spirituality, primitive religion, emotionalism, or…‘the Negro Church.’”5 In the end, Evans hopes to free scholars of the burden of black religion’s essence, so that they might be attentive to the actual lives of religious black people—lives that vary quite dramatically in terms of theology, worship, and politics.6

Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us interrogates the narrative of “the Black Church” as necessarily involved in black liberation. She incisively identifies the ways iconic civil rights movement images definitively shaped how black religion and politics were imagined ever since. By unearthing the many debates within the black community about the potential political potency of African American churches, Savage reveals how many scholars “misread the successes of that [civil rights movement] period and applied them retrospectively over the entire span of African American political history, seeing the past through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness.”7 She successfully demonstrates there is nothing necessarily liberationist about the Black Church and, in fact, “the Black Church” itself is a normative notion which tells us more about internal debates over the politics of black religion than it does about black religion in se.

The Next Generation continues to redefine the field of African American religious studies and reshape the ways we think about African American religions and American religion more broadly.8 The New Black Gods: Arthur Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, edited by Edward Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler, collects the work of eleven other representatives of this new era in an attempt to reinvigorate Fauset’s attempt to study African American religions beyond the Christian conception of the Black Church.

Essays by Sylvester Johnson and Kathryn Lofton offer just two brief examples of this rich contribution. Johnson argues that the search for “religion proper” (the essence of religion) cannot be understood apart from the colonialist construction of “proper religion” (the legitimization of particular ways of being religious and the marginalization of others). Thus, for Johnson, the study of “other” African American religions like the Moorish Science Temple of America not only moves African American religious studies beyond the Black Church but also serves as a postcolonial critique of the normative implications of Black Church history.9

Lofton also brings critical theory to bear on African American religious history, pointing out the ways black religion has been categorized as the primitive foil to the contemplative, cosmopolitan, modern religious subject. Lofton notes that scholars reinforce this primitivist reading in their reproductions of an abstract emotional Black Church, assuming they already intuitively know what African American religion looks and sounds like: “the African American believer remains the body in motion, the voice in song, with eyes affixed, unblinking, to God.”10

Though it has apparently become popular to declare the Black Church “dead,” or to note that it never existed, this is not what makes The Next Generation truly revolutionary.11 It is not enough to simply add in new characters, jettisoning the Black Church for a diversity of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. No, their work is revolutionary because it has transformed what we mean by “religion” when we describe African American religions and narrate African American religious history. It is not that “the Black Church is dead,” per se, but rather we’ve moved beyond it altogether.

Matthew J. Cressler is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. He holds a B.A. from St. Bonaventure University and a M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. He is currently working on his dissertation, “To Be Black and Catholic: African American Catholics in Chicago from the Great Migrations to Black Power,” which won the American Catholic Historical Association’s 2011 John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award.



[1] Yes, challenging the singularity of African American religion is one of them.

[2] This is, of course, an incredibly truncated summary of the long and rich tradition of African American religious studies. I have selected these three theses not because they are representative of all works on African American religions, but rather because they are the primary theses this Next Generation attempts to tackle.

[3] There were, of course, scholars who preceded this new generation. Theologian Anthony Pinn’s Varieties of African American Religious Experience is just one example, which clearly stated “African American religious experience extends beyond the formation and practice of black Christianity.” Anthony B. Pinn, Varieties of African American Religious Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998): 1.

[4] Barbara Dianne Savage has recently published an excerpt of her work under the title “The Myth of the Black Church,” on the online journal Religion & Politics.

[5] Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 5.

[6] Ibid., 279-280.

[7] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008): 2.

[8] Sadly, I don’t have the space to discuss every book in the ever-growing corpus of The Next Generation, which would also include, among many others, Marla F. Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (California, 2003); Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, 2005); Jonathan L. Walton, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU, 2009); Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories (Harvard , 2010).

[9] Sylvester A. Johnson, “Religion Proper and Proper Religion: Arthur Fauset and the Study of African American Religions” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, ed. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009): 145-170.

[10] Kathryn Lofton, “The Perpetual Primitive in African American Religious History” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, ed. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009): 171.

[11] The “Black Church is dead” debate, sparked by Eddie Glaude in 2010, is obviously intertwined with this Next Generation. However, to a certain extent, this debate is an altogether different beast with normative implications that sometimes overlap and other times diverge from the topic at hand. For more see: “The Black Church is Dead” and “Call and Response on the State of the Black Church”.

Herodotus, Hermeneutics, and Vatican II: Should Historians Trust Us Theologians?

Monday, July 9th, 2012

by Christopher Denny

HerodotusTwo decades ago I graduated from a liberal-arts school whose curriculum is based upon reading classic texts from Western Civilization—the so-called Great Books. Students read them in roughly chronological order, from Homer to Heidegger. Having decided that I needed to postpone entry into the real world for a tad longer, after I left college I embarked upon a more ambitious reading project.

Beginning with surviving fragments of ancient Egyptian literature from the Old Kingdom period, I planned to work my way chronologically through influential texts from the succeeding four and one-half millennia of human history, this time branching out beyond the West and also reading texts from China, India, the Middle East, and Japan. The detail with which I drew up the reading list was not matched by a corresponding level of interest in the need to earn enough money upon which I could live, and so after three years I decided to head to graduate school in religious studies, where I could embark upon a profession in which I could combine teaching, writing, and reading. I put aside my reading list, having only reached Herodotus’s History.

In the succeeding years I finished graduate school, earned a doctorate, and assumed a post teaching historical theology at St. John’s University in New York City. My cherished reading list was relegated to a file cabinet, until this past year, when I decided to return to Herodotus, picking up right where I left off twenty years ago—in the middle of the History’s third book.

Herodotus wrote his History during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, around 430—425 BCE, and his subject was the earlier war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. The History was part of a stream of demythologization that swept through Greek literature in the last half of the fifth-century. Along with Aristophanes, Euripides, and Thucydides, Herodotus cast a critical eye upon both Greek religion and the paideia that supported this piety.

His opening account of the Trojan War, which Herodotus saw as the prelude to the latter struggles between the Greek city-states and Persia, omits any reference to the machinations of divinities. Croesus of Lydia loses his empire to King Cyrus after misinterpretations of oracles lead to a series of political mistakes. Herodotus reports religious customs of the Babylonians without evincing any belief in their efficacy, chastises the Egyptians with being “religious to excess,” ridicules selected Greek beliefs regarding Heracles, and emphasizes the novelty of Greek religious beliefs by comparison with more ancient cultures.

Herodotus does not ascribe the events of the Persian Wars to a theomachy on Mount Olympus. This novel emphasis does not stem from religious unbelief, as Herodotus warns that harsh punishments can draw down the gods’ wrath. Rather, Herodotus relegates religious influence to the realm of the inscrutable, pushing his History away from religion and towards . . . history. It is to Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” that later centuries owe the distinction between theological and historical interpretations of the world. Readers interested in Herodotus and Greek religion can read Thomas Harrison’s book Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford UP, 2000).

As a historical theologian, both the institution at which I work and the Catholic community of which I am part expect me to make sense of history by discerning God’s activity therein, but the enterprise is treacherous and often ill-defined. Methodologically church historians despite their monotheism are the offspring of the polytheist Herodotus, while Christian theologians are impatient to construct a “usable” history for their present contexts, lest they and the communities they represent be suspected of antiquarianism, nostalgia, or reactionary sympathies. The same events, the bare facts of the Christian past, are examined through two very different disciplinary lenses, leaving historical theology as an uncomfortable hybrid in the academic menagerie.

These musings about Herodotus came to mind as I was reading a new book by theologian Massimo Faggioli, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (Paulist, 2012). Faggioli is a religious historian at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, and his specialization is the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council (1962—65).

Those with an interest in intra-Catholic disputes perhaps know about the recent struggles among Catholic historians, theologians, and bishops regarding the proper understanding of Vatican II. Part of the ongoing debate between centralized and decentralized visions of the Catholic Church, these differences of opinion have recently crystallized into two major groupings. One group’s preferred understanding of Vatican II is alternately termed “the hermeneutics of discontinuity” or the “hermeneutics of rupture,” while the opposing group styles itself as promoters of the “hermeneutics of continuity” or the “hermeneutics of reform.” Regardless of the terminology employed, the fundamental difference between the parties is the extent to which the Second Vatican Council should be understood as having departed from the previous practices, intellectual frameworks, and customs of Roman Catholic tradition.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) Wikimedia Commons

Is this a theological dispute or a historical dispute? No less a theologian than Karl Rahner begged off making a clear distinction between history and theology at the beginning of a widely cited address in 1979, later published as “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II.” (PDF) This contest operates at both these levels simultaneously because each faction wants not only to recount past events but also to use the past to establish ecclesial norms for the future. Faggioli himself acknowledges his debt to the late Italian church historian Giuseppe Alberigo, the editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II (Orbis, 1995—2006).

Alberigo’s work established a new standard for the historiography of Vatican II, making use of archival documentation, unpublished correspondence of council participants, and journals to construct a narrative of conciliar activity. The end result was so influential that the name of Alberigo’s home institution is now the eponym for the scholars who use the series as a baseline for further historical research — the Bologna school.

Debates about the Council predate the close of the council itself, but Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning joins other recent publications in promoting a new standard by which to settle theological disputes about the Council. Along with John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard UP, 2008), Faggioli’s book aims to ground theological disputes about the meaning of Vatican II by appealing to history. In what Faggioli identifies as one of the “macro-issues of the debate,” he writes,

What is typical of Vatican II is the dimension of the relationship between the Church and the modern world, the assumption of history in its epistemological value for Catholic theology, and the fact that Vatican II is not a paradigm in itself . . . but a ‘paradigmatic example’ of the complex relationship between continuity and discontinuity” (p. 137). Again, “The historicization of Vatican II starting in the late 1980s has clearly introduced a hermeneutical shift in the theology of Vatican II.

Catholic theologians of different persuasions can certainly spill ink about how to balance the letter and the spirit of Vatican II, and debates about continuity and discontinuity have been a feature of Christian theology since the first-century debates over circumcision in Antioch and Jerusalem recounted in the New Testament. But what stake do historians have in this debate? Continuity and discontinuity may be problematic for theologians seeking doctrinal, liturgical, and moral norms, but all historians presume change as a precondition of their disciplinary methodology. One doesn’t have to be a resolute empiricist or positivist to insist that ascertaining theological standards and formulations is more than a function of setting past events in their historical context; this much should be uncontroversial, and yet the turn to history in twentieth century Christian theology unearths quite a few examples of theologians attempting to settle differences with an appeal to history.

Consider the example of ecumenism. In 1963 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Montreal. In a conference report the Commission published that year, entitled “Scripture, Tradition, and Traditions,” the hope is expressed that somehow history can be a catalyst for overcoming church divisions. The Commission wrote:

During the centuries the different Christian communions have developed their own traditions of historical study and their own particular ways of viewing the past. The rise of the idea of a strictly scientific study of history, with its spirit of accuracy and objectivity, in some ways ameliorated this situation. But the resultant work so frequently failed to take note of the deeper theological issues involved in church history (para. 59).

A “scientific” Christian history tantalizes theologians with the prospect of undoing the damage done by early modern confessionalization, but the authors of the Commission’s report recognize that such history is insufficient. The hope that ressourcement of Christian traditions, especially from the period of the early church, would bring ecclesial unity was also present at Vatican II. Members of the 1963 Commission included Protestant observers at Vatican II, while Catholic periti (theological advisors) at Vatican II were present at the Montreal gathering, even though the Roman Catholic Church was not (and still is not) a member of the World Council of Churches.

Yet despite major advances in historical scholarship in the intervening decades, the ecumenical movement is no stronger than it was during the heady days of the 1960s. Indeed, the global Anglican Communion itself is struggling to remain united, with little indication that historical study will heal divisions rooted in contrasting understandings of the authority of both Scripture and ecclesial traditions as they pertain to church authority and sexual morality.

If the ecumenical frame of reference seems too narrow, historians can listen in on the theological debate regarding salvation history and world history that emerged in Europe after the Second World War. In two influential books — Christus und die Zeit (1947) and Heil als Geschichte: Heilsgeschichtliche Existenz im Neuen Testament (1962) — Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann (1902—99) distinguished between the events of history and their significance for God’s plan of salvation. In Cullmann’s formulation the empirical facts of history are visible to all, while proper insight into the specifically religious significance of these facts is only granted to those privileged to receive the Word of God in faith.

Cullmann himself was a biblical theologian who participated in ecumenical dialogues from the 1920s onward and was an observer at Vatican II. His proffered relationship between world history and salvation history is a neat solution to many of the pressing issues confronting Christian theology at mid-century. By granting historical scholarship autonomy from theology, Cullmann made room for historical-critical research while safeguarding religious interpretations of Christian history.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-) Wikimedia Commons

Wolfhart Pannenberg and others attacked this cleavage in the 1960s, challenging the claim that salvation history was a sanctum cordoned off from the general progression of world events. In the introduction to Offenbarung als Geschichte (1961) Pannenberg evinced a confidence that historical events needed no supernatural hermeneutics to make them intelligible. He claimed that using historical methodology to examine the events of Christian history should be sufficient in principle to establish a response of religious faith.

Whether they deal with the relationship between Christian churches or between Christians and the world, these debates are in essence boundary disputes in which the fence pickets are often dimly glimpsed. Catholics such as Alberigo, O’Malley, and Faggioli debate opponents of the Bologna school such as Agostino Marchetto, Matthew Levering, and Matthew Lamb over whether the intentions of those who drafted the documents of Vatican II should guide interpretation of the sixteen documents that the Council produced.

O’Malley cultivates a vision of Vatican II that identifies the Council as a language event that is unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church, while Marchetto (Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Controppunto per la sua Storia; Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005) insists that the texts themselves rather than the surrounding conciliar debates establish the standards for contemporary Catholic theology. Alberigo’s co-editor of the History of Vatican II, Joseph Komonchak, emphasizes the reception of the Council by the members of the Church as an important marker in understanding its activity, while Levering and Lamb (Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition) interpret the conciliar constitutions and decrees with reference to each other and to previous magisterial teaching. The necessary distinction between history and theology in these publications is mostly implied and rarely expounded in sufficient detail.

Continuing a trend of magisterial statements on the meaning of Vatican II dating back to the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Benedict XVI himself reentered the fray in a Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he contrasted a defective “hermeneutics of discontinuity” with his preferred “hermeneutics of reform.” Historically of course discontinuity cannot be denied, but the pope is primarily concerned to assert that the Catholic Church “has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

For the former Cardinal Ratzinger, the essence of the Catholic Church transcends temporal fluctuations. Like Cullmann’s sacralized interpretation of salvation history, however, the pope’s ecclesiology is rooted in a theological vision that historical-critical researches will not be permitted to obscure.

Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we should expect this of a religious leader, even one who is a former academic whose 1957 habilitation was devoted to the theology of history in Saint Bonaventure, but for theologians and historians promoting the historicization of the Second Vatican Council are we not right to insist upon a more systematic differentiation between history and theology? Shouldn’t we expect that the tasks of historical reconstruction on one hand, and doctrinal, ethical, and systematic construction on the other, be properly distinguished?

Fortunately a pair of theologians influenced by Bernard Lonergan (1904—84) have set about to clarify these matters by directly examining what history and historiography are and what they are not. Lonergan was a Canadian Jesuit who was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. His most lasting contribution to Christian thought was the development of a detailed methodology that distinguished between research, interpretation, historical reconstruction, and evaluative judgment. In his 1971 book Method in Theology Lonergan provided a thoughtful delineation of intellectual tasks that contestants in the Vatican II debates should keep in mind. Lonergan wrote:

Embedded in the problem of hermeneutics, then, there are quite different and far profounder problems. . . . In my opinion, they can be met only by the development and application of theological method. Only in that fashion can one distinguish and keep separate problems of hermeneutics and problems in history, dialectic, foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. In fact the most striking feature of much contemporary discussion of hermeneutics is that it attempts to treat all these issues as if they were hermeneutical. They are not.

For Lonergan a concern with theological method was a non-negotiable requirement for empirical cultures of the modern age if Christian theology was to successfully negotiate the discontinuities that the modern world imposes upon the churches at an exponentially increasing rate.

Robert Doran is a Jesuit at Marquette University, the author of Theology and the Dialectics of History (University of Toronto Press, 1990) and also the editor of Lonergan’s collected works. As a student of Lonergan, Doran built upon his teacher’s theories in a 1999 article in Theological Studies (“System and History: The Challenge to Catholic Systematic Theology”) to argue for a more explicit distinction between critical descriptive history and a systematic explanatory history.

The former genre would address the question, “What happened at Vatican II?” while the latter answers the question, “Why is Vatican II significant?” Critical history is one discipline; philosophies and theologies of history are another. Archival researches, cross-cultural comparisons of contemporary events, and interviews to compile oral history collections are all necessary endeavors for critical history.

If one wants to compose a Christian theology of an historical event, however, whether that event is Vatican II or any other event, none of these activities are sufficient by themselves. Ressourcement is not sufficient for theologians; direct appeals to a normative source shaping continuities and discontinuities within historical developments are unacceptable in critical histories. This is true whether the normative source is the God of Israel, a Hegelian Geist, or the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches during the 1960s. Doran understands the contemporary theological task as one of mediating history while respecting its autonomy.

The second theologian using Lonergan’s thought to bring clarity to the issue of Vatican II interpretations is Neil Ormerod, a theologian at the Australian Catholic University who also holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. Ormerod retrieves the work of John Henry Newman to remind theologians that there are more productive ways of describing historical changes than to use the tautological categories of continuity and discontinuity.

In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman, Omerod sets forth criteria to adjudicate between authentic growth in theological understandings of Christian tradition and distortions of the same. Ormerod’s 2010 article in Theological Studies (“Vatican II—Continuity or Discontinuity? Toward an Ontology of Meaning”) brings Newman’s work to bear on the Vatican II debates:

In terms, then, of the changes initiated in the aftermath of Vatican II, what would Newman contribute? He would alert us to the many types of change that can occur. Change is not one-dimensional. . . . At the very least this question takes us beyond the simplistic metaphor of continuity/discontinuity. (p. 619—20)

Ormerod believes that Lonergan’s account of change improves upon that of Newman, to whom Lonergan acknowledged a debt in his writings, by enabling theologians to understand that their proper domain in historical research is not change in itself but the meaning of changes in church history for individuals and Christian communities.

Church historians may understandably bristle at this proposed division of labor, as though my praise for Doran and Ormerod is designed to suggest that historians sit down at the back of the bus while theologians, hoping to restore their discipline to its former glory as the “queen of the sciences,” shape the narratives that historians compile into something significant for Christian religion. Such is not my intention. First, many historians also wear theological hats while many theologians don historical garb. The popular discipline of historical theology attests to this.

Second, critical histories need not mean secularist histories impervious to religious interpretation. The narratives that church historians create are not simply indifferent catalogs from which all theological interpretations that can be drawn are equally adequate explanations. In his 1986 presidential address to the American Catholic Historical Association (“No More Than ‘Footprints in Time’? Church History and Catholic Christianity”), James Hennesey noted, “The historian’s role is to aid in the discernment of the authentic tradition, not to make the ultimate judgment. . . . The history of the Church, rightly studied and rightly understood, has a vital theological and ecclesial role” (The Catholic Historical Review 73/2, p. 194).

The insistence upon disciplinary boundaries that I am promoting is designed to protect church historians from theological encroachments rather than to shackle historical scholarship. The problems with recent debates over the hermeneutics of Vatican II and its implementation is that scholars from various positions on the spectrum of Catholic opinion are inserting specifically theological claims into historical reconstructions, and these claims are too often unacknowledged as such. When George Weigel titles his account of the papal election of Benedict XVI God’s Choice, even Weigel’s ideological opposites can acknowledge that he has made his theological convictions surrounding the events in 2005 explicit.

Would that others writing about Vatican II and its aftermath were as straightforward in expressing their own religious viewpoints. To make the claim God speaks through the Bible, through bishops, or through cardinals is easily identified as a theological claim and as an act of religious faith. But to claim that the cultural event of modernity provides the framework that should guide the application of Vatican II is also a theological claim. To claim that the documents of Vatican II should only be understood in accord with the intentions of those who promulgated them rather than the wider Church is yet another theological assertion.

In contemporary American society we are admonished to avoid expressing religious beliefs in polite conversation, and blurring the difference between historiography and faith is one way for Catholics in a polarized Church to camouflage their differences with one another in the interest of avoiding further rifts. Whether this scholarly politesse is helpful to the life of the Roman Catholic Church is a theological question for another time.

What should church historians learn from these theological disputes? For that I conclude by returning to Herodotus. Herodotus wrote at a time when traditional Athenian piety was solely tested by shifting social patterns resulting from urbanization on the Attic peninsula.

The early years of the Peloponnesian War were fueled by the enthusiasm of Cleon’s democratic party in Athens, but Athens’ early successes did not last. War dragged on and the oligarchic and democratic factions grew further apart. Playwrights such as Aristophanes lampooned divinities on the comic stage, laying the groundwork in the next generation for the more direct demythologization of Greek religion led by Socrates, Plato, and their associates. The historical parallels with the last decade of American society need no belaboring.

In the midst of these upheavals Herodotus adhered to a middle path. His History separated itself from the traditional myths that served as a foundation for Attic religion, but Herodotus did not deconstruct religion in the manner of philosophers such as Xenophanes and Plato. Though he is undoubtedly uncritical by modern standards — and evinces no consistent grasp of the ideals of multiple attestation, relative chronology, and other requirements of modern historical research — Herodotus’s value for those perusing the boundaries of theology and history is in what he refrains from doing.

At the start of a war that would eventually destroy both Athens’ economy and its independence, Herodotus looked back to an earlier war in which the combatants called upon their respective divinities and refused to take competing religious accounts of the world at face value or to choose among them. In this he should be a model for contemporary scholars regardless of his methodological shortcomings.

Church historians, when we Christian theologians come calling with supernatural explanations that presume to account for the course of human events, stick to your principles. Insist upon empirical scholarship and consistent standards of evidence. When evidence is lacking, show more humility and consistency than we often do in disguising piety as history. Learn from Herodotus, the father of history.

Middle Ground: Reflections on the Historiography of David D. Hall

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

by E. Brooks Holifield

David Hall, recently retired from the Harvard Divinity School, has done as much as any historian of the past three decades to shape the direction and hone the methodology of both American religious history and the history of the book and of reading. We have much to learn by looking at his career — his career so far — and I would like to examine his style of historical thinking by noting a series of metaphors that began to appear in his books and articles in the 1970s. The metaphors assumed different shadings of meaning, but they exhibit a consistent habit of mind, a way of thinking historically that will influence us for a long time.

The central image is “middle ground,” or the “middle way,” or “middle space,” or “middling spaces.” And it attracts other related metaphors: negotiation, adaptation, appropriation, mediations, mediating contexts, reciprocities, tangled reciprocities. These metaphors, in turn, attract a related set of conceptions: ambivalence, paradox, overlapping contradictions, ambiguity, and dialectic.

Those metaphors and concepts have carried the weight of David Hall’s consistent opposition to binary constructions, sharp polarities between orality and literacy, piety and indifference, tradition and the market, clergy and lay, misogynist patriarchs and insurgent women, literate and illiterate, theocrats and democrats, purity and declension, formality and ecstasy, the people and the elite, dominating and dominated, communal and individualist, local and metropolitan, genteel and common, and European and American.

He has always acknowledged differentiations, but he has also relativized them, situated them in historical settings in which one finds both oppositions and mediations. He has been a critic of “stark extremities” and simple dichotomies. When he has looked at the past, he has found conflicts but also subtle negotiations.

He has written about educated elites, but he has uncovered their intimate linkage to “the people.” He has insisted that we look at both social history and intellectual systems, at both behavior and language, at both the liminal and the ordinary, at both the conserving and the radical, and the ways in which they are entangled with each other.

His position has been hard-earned, grounded in prodigious research in the primary sources and a mastery of the secondary literature that few can equal. When Hall published his study of the New England clergy in 1972 — The Faithful Shepherd — a growing array of colonial social historians were ready to say that the clergy were largely irrelevant to understanding early America, even the New England colonies. And intellectual history and the history of ideas were largely irrelevant to understanding almost everything about the past.

The opponent of choice for the social historians of colonial America was Perry Miller, whom they accused of overstating the power of “elite ideas,” and they published a variety of local studies that ignored religion, and especially religious leaders and their ideas, built a wall between high and popular culture, and accented the vast distance between the collective mentality of folk belief and the rarified and isolated mental world of the literate. Intellectual history seemed “irretrievably displaced by numbers-driven social history.” [“Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation,” 281] There was always, he wrote later, both conflict and negotiation, and so unpredictability and uncertainty, in the hunt for witches. He urged the necessity for a vision of mediation in the historiography of witch-hunting.

By 1989, when he published Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, he had become an incisive critic of the Americanization thesis (with its pronounced contrast between Europe and America). He also called into question notions of decline from supposedly pristine orthodoxies and over-precise distinctions between the people and their leaders. And he had found imaginative ways to get inside the heads of ordinary people who lived in both an enchanted universe and a Protestant world.

The 1990s brought a shift of interest in his scholarship in at least four ways: (1) First, he began to publish the results of his research on the history of reading and the book. Second, an assignment to edit one of the volumes of the Yale Edwards edition cast him into the manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards. (3) Third, he moved deeper into social history by exploring the dynamics of the colonial family and of women in New England religion. (4) And fourth, he began to develop his concept of “lived religion” as an alternative to the binary “popular” and “elite.” In all these endeavors, he exemplified a resistance to simple binaries.

In Cultures of Print (1996) and A History of the Book in America, Vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (2000), with Hugh Amory, he emphasized again the ambiguities and overlaps. Had there really been a revolutionary transition from intensive reading in colonial America to extensive reading in the nineteenth century? Did the polarity of domination and resistance really clarify the role of gender in reading? Should we distinguish high and low with as much confidence as we sometimes do? Was there really a vast gulf between local and metropolitan readers? The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World —rich in detail— will be, for our lifetimes and beyond, the classic, comprehensive study of the book in early America.

His work on Edwards led him to look closely at the institutional settings and the family dynamics in the background of Edwards’s ideas about the church. In fact, Hall’s study of the family helped him explain the ways in which the desires of women to protect their children helped define both seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritanism as a continuing “negotiation between extremes,” a multilayered system out of which both clergy and laity selected motifs and symbols that sometimes overlapped and sometimes did not. [“Introduction,” Jonathan Edwards: Ecclesiastical Writings, 82]

Finally, his concept of lived religion — a concept that has deeply influenced recent directions of American religious history — enabled him to look at how religions and cultures embodied overlapping tensions and even contradictions in early America.

The notion of lived religion was an effort to move beyond an undifferentiated notion of popular religion and to see both the continuities and the discontinuities between the religion of the people and official religion. For example, his essay on Samuel Sewall in Worlds of Wonder — a small masterpiece — showed through imaginative detailed reading of the diaries the ways in which this seventeenth-century Puritan layman partook both of Protestant tradition and popular sensibilities in his quest for protection in a frightening world of harsh contrasts and unpredictable forces.

Now, simply to trace a few continuities — a few motifs — in David Hall’s historical writing is to miss, of course, the textured complexity of his work. He has not written history that admits of simply summary. He has immersed himself in the detail — and unearthed both the spoken and the unspoken in early America. He has taken us into the stubborn recalcitrance of a history that is sometimes messy, rarely malleable and submissive to our simplifying categories, and always engaging of our serious attention.