Trying to See Things Their Way

February 17, 2022

How should Christians think about the past?

Many of the fiercest battles in today’s culture wars are about history. We may think that the hot-button issues are all about theology, politics, sociology, ethics, and economics—and all of these are controversial too, of course. But more often than not, the issues lurking behind these issues—whether we are talking about critical race theory or the role of Christianity in politics or the toppling of statues or the toppling of patriarchy—are, at least in part, about how we understand history.

Which prompts the question: How do we interpret the past?

That’s a big question, one that would take a long book or semester-length course to answer in full. But here’s the start of an answer: In dealing with texts and people from the past, we should—in so far as possible, and as the first and most important line of intellectual inquiry—endeavor to see things their way.

That last phrase was made famous by Quentin Skinner, one of the chief architects of the Cambridge School of intellectual history. Opposed to the reductionistic historiography of the 1960s, Skinner tried to steer a middle course between the materialist school (which crammed everything into Marxist or Freudian categories) and the idealist school (which tended to put Great Thinkers in supposed conversations with other Great Thinkers). Skinner’s conviction was that the historian’s first job was to make every effort “to see things their way,” or, as historians John Coffey and Alister Chapman put it, “to understand past agents on their own terms in their own contexts, rather than framing the ideas of the past in familiar modern (or postmodern) categories.”

To be sure, historians are not prohibited from criticizing texts and persons from the past, but prior to criticism, they should seek to understand historical agents as they understood themselves. David Bebbington, reflecting on Skinner’s historical method, calls this the test of acceptability: “Only if the agents are content that their intentions have not been misrepresented can the account stand.”

If someone someday wants to write about your life, your ideas, or your church, wouldn’t you want them to be as fair as possible?

Even if the historical onlooker may know more than the agent from the past, still we must always start with the point of view of the historical agent in his or her own time. This means we should be slow to impute unstated motives to people in the past and hesitant to think we have uncovered the “real” reasons for their ideas and actions. Again, Coffey and Chapman put it well: “Some historians are still inclined to explain religious belief as a mask for more fundamental social, economic, or political interests, or as a reflection of psychological needs. Such approaches are deeply problematic because they allow historians to ignore what their subjects actually say.”

If the problem with Christian historians used to be hagiography (making our religious heroes into uncomplicated saints), the danger today is hamartiography (making our religious opponents into unmitigated sinners). Too many historical reconstructions—either on the academic level or of the more casual journalistic variety—are adept at highlighting the worst things someone has said or done and then using those sins and mistakes to deconstruct an entire movement, era, tradition, theology, or people group. The problem is not that we are made to reckon with the failures of the past. The problem is with any historical approach that traffics in monocausal explanations, judges the past by the concerns of the present, and applies its own method unevenly. When our people are in the dock, we want nuance, caution, carefulness, and precision. When our ideological opponents are being evaluated, however, we are quick to make unflattering connections, assume motives, and make the evidence fit the story we want to tell.

More important than following any approach to history, the Christian must be committed to treating our neighbors (dead or alive) as we would hope to be treated. I think of George Marsden’s aim in his magisterial biography of Jonathan Edwards “to make Edwards intelligible to widely diverse audiences by first attempting to depict in his own time and in his own terms.” This strikes me not only as good history but as a Christian way to do history.

Of course, doing history in this way does not mean that everyone will agree with our interpretations. But careful criticism (where necessary) mingled with genuine appreciation (where appropriate) is not the same as quick, constant, and vituperative denunciation. If someone someday wants to write about your life, your ideas, or your church, wouldn’t you want them to be as fair as possible? To understand you on your own terms instead of assuming the worst? To deal with you not as a cartoonish villain but as a complicated person?

Christian writers, historians, and scholars would do well to set the bar high for themselves in this regard, and in so doing set an example for others.

This content was originally published on WORLD

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