Friday, 16 November 2012

Impossible history

Yesterday I had the unusual experience of leading a 90-minute class on the use of historical theory for theologians, and then going to preach on the connection between history and faith at evensong at University College. That double perspective and the discussions that resulted crystallised some old problems for me.

There was a lot of talk about how history (that is, modern, academic history, wearing its 19th-century rationalist garb) deals with miracles. The tendency is to assume that history is basically secularising. Leigh Eric Schmidt's wonderful history of American revivalism, Hearing Things, describes academic history as approaching the sacred with 'narratives of suspicion'.

That's obviously true, but I now wonder if it's both less sinister and less problematic than it appears. Because what strikes me now is that history deals exclusively in probabilities: nothing is ever proved or disproved categorically. But a miracle could almost be defined as an event whose probability can't be assessed.

On one level, you need to make an a priori decision whether miracles are possible at all. If no, then you are left with the Sherlock Holmes principle: eliminate the impossible, and whatever's left, however improbable, must be the truth. Which, as the late great Douglas Adams pointed out, is ever so slightly silly. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks."

But more than that, even if you grant that miracles are possible, how on earth can you assess their probability? A miracle is by definition an exceptional event, even a unique one, which defies patterns. It's neither probable or improbable: either it's impossible or it's inevitable.

So history isn't hostile as such to miracle-claims: it simply can't process them. They're outside its scope. And fair enough. The trick is to remember that, when there is something about which we cannot speak, it is sometimes prudent to keep silent.

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