Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Turning ontological

One of my preoccupations is the difficulty of how the discipline of history – in its modern, quasi-scientific, secular garb – can engage seriously with profoundly different worldviews. Given my own interests, I am thinking in particular of how history can deal with the religious faith of past societies and individuals, and do so without condescension or dismissiveness. But the point applies more widely. I tried to address some of these issues in the introduction to my most recent book, although the best extended consideration of it that I know remains Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Hearing Things.

So when I see an article in the new American Historical Review,* in which the ancient historian Greg Anderson argues for an ‘ontological turn’ in which we take the reality of what he calls other historical ‘lifeworlds’ seriously, I ought to be delighted. And in many ways I am. I am certainly very stimulated by it (as you can tell). Much of what he says seems like obviously good sense, especially if, like me, you tend to think that all history is in the end history of mentalities. And, indeed, if his description of some of the crudely anachronistic histories of ancient Athens is fair, I am kind of shocked that respectable scholars are still doing that sort of thing.

So why does the whole thing leave me feeling a bit queasy?

Anderson is rightly critical of history-writing which takes what he calls a ‘God’s-eye, “etic” (outsider)’ view of the past, urging us instead to inhabit those past worldviews. But he does not directly address the problem which seems to me fundamental here, namely that historians do not inhabit the past. We inhabit the present. And this is not a liability. Very good historians can sometimes inhabit both past and present, stretching their minds to multiple worlds. But the point of doing history is not to inhabit the past for its own sake, but to understand it from the perspective of the present, to make it intelligible to the present, and to use all the resources we have (necessarily, present resources) to interrogate it. Historians are, at best, the conduits between ages. We need to have a foot in each one.

Failing to recognise that we ourselves are and must be rooted in a particular historical moment, pretending that we and we alone can transcend our historical particularity and inhabit other worlds – that seems to me the ultimate ‘etic’ viewpoint.

Instead, should we not recognise that our present and its knowledge can bring real value to reading past societies? Take, for example, an event in ancient Athenian history which Anderson does not mention, the plague of 430 BCE. It seems to me historically sensible to use modern ideas such as germ theory in order to analyse that event, even though they were not part of the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’. Sometimes we just know stuff they didn’t. And naturally, they knew stuff that we don’t. The point of a historical conversation with the past is surely that both we and they are allowed to bring insights to the table.

I am also a little troubled by the sealed, stable ‘lifeworlds’ that he implies, a bit like native reservations, in which exotic peoples can be admired in their pristine habitats. It is not simply that modern ideas can sometimes be powerful analytical tools for examining past societies, but also that past societies themselves were not stable. I kept expecting Anderson to talk about my old friends Herodotus and Thucydides, whose views on this particular question seem to me relevant. Herodotus, famously, used divine agency as an explanatory tool in his Histories. A generation later Thucydides, very deliberately, refused to do so. Without getting into who was right, that suggests that the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’ was pretty plural and unstable. Perhaps the truisms Anderson lists – gods, land, demos and household – were not so universally held. In particular, perhaps the women, slaves and other voiceless peoples of ancient Athens did not accept them.

I think Anderson would respond that this is part of his point: that lifeworlds are contingent and fluid, and that this extends to our own. But this troubles me too. I mean, he is right, obviously. But one of the plainest features of this essay is its distaste for modernity. His description of the modern post-Enlightenment lifeworld – materialist, secular, anthropocentric and individualist – reeks of disapproval. Fair enough, you might say, although I am not sure quite which variety of collectivism and supernatural agency he would like us to adopt instead. But his final line, that an ontological turn in history may lead us ‘to imagine less exploitative, more equitable, more sustainable lifeworlds of the future’, gives the game away. That’s not a historical project, it’s a political one (and is profoundly presentist, ransacking the past for what it can give us). Historically, studying the past can reveal to us how deeply contingent, and indeed weird, our own society is: although I think he overdoes the present’s absolute exceptionalism, a little narcissistically. Whether that makes us want to critique the present, or, alternatively, to consider how lucky we all are nowadays, is a political matter. A perfectly legitimate one, but if you’ve a constructive critique of modernity to make, let’s have it openly stated, not assumed and framed as history.


*Greg Anderson, ‘Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:The Case for an Ontological Turn’ in American Historical Review 120/3 (2015): 787-810. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The 'Tyndale' Erasmus MS: update

Earlier this year I wrote about the discovery of what appears to be a manuscript of Tyndale's translation of Erasmus' Enchiridion. Now comes the very welcome news that the British Library has managed to raise the funds necessary to keep it. Thank you to whoever the donor was. And anyone who wants to look at the thing for themselves simply needs to go to the BL, request Additional MS 89149, and form an orderly queue.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

JEH: A very British apocalyptic suicide cult

The new Journal of Ecclesiastical History (vol. 66 no. 4: Oct. 2015) has the usual range of treats, and as usual I will arbitrarily pick out those that appeal to me. The most memorable single line is from Jeremy Morris’ splendid treatment of nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics who went on tours of continental Europe, and whose religion was profoundly shaped by them. The previous neglect of this subject is a grave comment on the insularity of so much English scholarship. Jeremy rightly could not resist, however, pointing out that even some nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics shared that insularity. W. F. Hook, the energetic, creative vicar of Leeds and later dean of Chichester, had this to say of his one trip to France:
I am heartily sick of Paris; hate France, and think Frenchmen the most detestable of human beings. In three weeks I hope to be in dear old England, and never shall I wish again to quit her shores.
It’s only a shame we couldn’t get that one into print in time for the Waterloo anniversary earlier in the year.

            That’s very British, but it’s not a suicide cult. For that we have to turn to, for me, the most revelatory article in the issue, Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s wonderful piece on the British Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the 1960s. It’s well-known that in the 1960s, the SCM turned towards political radicalism and imploded, going from dominance of the student Christian scene to near-collapse and subsequent irrelevance in only a few years. The usual explanation is that it was trying to hitch itself to the bandwagon of 1960s political activism in an attempt to stay relevant in a secularising age, and in the process got sucked under the bandwagon’s wheels. My interest was piqued. I was a member of the rump SCM group in St Andrews in 1993-4, a group which, though tiny, was high-powered (its alumni include an SNP MP, indeed one elected before the mammoth 2015 intake – hello, Eilidh). They were a lovely group of people, who made my own liberal-evangelical convictions seem terribly staid.
            Brewitt-Taylor’s piece shows that the SCM’s collapse was not a hapless accident but almost wholly self-inflicted. It was taken over by what can only be described as an apocalyptic cult. These radicals, inspired by Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’, believed that God was at work in the secular world and its transformations, and that Christians should therefore abandon all the outward trappings of Christianity and throw themselves into socio-political activism. Like any classic Christian apocalyptic movement, they overread events in the world around them, mis-reading (as we can now say from a safe distance) subtle shifts and ambiguous movements as absolute changes of cosmic significance. The drift of students away from Christianity meant that it was ‘totally irrelevant’ in a world that had ‘no room for religion’. Likewise, they saw signs of the kingdom of God in the rise of revolutionary movements across the world, from student demos to Algeria and Vietnam – and even, though they really should have known better after 1956 and especially 1968, in the Warsaw Pact countries.
            The result was a movement which openly disparaged traditionally Christian activities and advocated revolution. Naturally, most of its Christian members (especially its female majority, who like many women at the time recognised that they weren’t invited to 1960s-style revolutions) simply left. Those who hung on were often uncertain what they should actually do to usher in this postmillenial kingdom. As they subsided into a series of consciousness-raising workshops, the movement sank out of sight.
            The tragedy of this – for that is how I read it – is that the leadership knew what they were doing. They expected to lose much of their membership and their income: these were prophetic, self-sacrificial acts, laying down their institutional life for the sake of the Kingdom. As with most suicide cults, however, the dramatic act of self-immolation didn’t produce the desired results. At least this time, instead of ending in a literal bloodbath, it ended in a commune in a draughty Gloucestershire manor house which wound up for lack of funds in 1977.

            The SCM was many good things: bold, inspired, prophetic, honest, willing to read the signs of the times, determined to lead change rather than being dragged along behind it. Only one problem: it was wrong. Its error, as Brewitt-Taylor bluntly puts it, was ‘contextualising limited religious decline as part of God’s plan to abolish organised religion’.  It’s been the defensive, conservative, counter-counter-cultural forms of Christianity that have survived, this far at least – not least in the student world. We all know that, in reality, hares can run faster than tortoises. But a tortoise is better at coping with crossfire and less likely to dash off a cliff.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Anglican Reich

Guess which two Christian movements in modern history I am thinking of?

Both have names which identify them with a particular nationality. Both aspire to be truly national churches, despite large parts of their respective nations rejecting those claims. Both cling to the notion of legal establishment, even though the state has no great affection for them. As a result, you will search long and hard in the liturgies, hymn-books and formularies of either movement before you find any critical (let alone prophetic) distance from their national governments: both are suffused with the assumption that the state is an unproblematic force for good, and both make a particular point of praying for the head of state.

Moreover, both, in the interests of pursuing national religious unity, have been willing to abandon doctrinal precision, and indeed to make a virtue of their comprehensiveness and their refusal to impose confessional tests. Indeed, many ministers in both groups are avowedly impatient with inherited rules restricting (for example) whom they might baptise, marry or otherwise provide with the church’s services, and under what circumstances – to the point of boldly defying regulations in the name of national inclusion. They are ready to see their external critics as fundamentalists or foot-dragging legalists, out of step with modernity. Indeed, both stir up opposition from conservative Protestants by attempting reconciliation or alignment with Catholicism, even though Catholics generally rebuff their advances. But for all this inclusiveness, these are movements which stick very strictly to their own internal rules, in particular to rules about precisely who can and who cannot be recognised as a valid minister. And, it should be said, that neither movement is conspicuous by its success in winning large numbers of converts.

Yes, you’re right. My two movements are Anglicanism; and the German Christian movement of the Nazi era.

I have been reading about the German Christians*, and had expected to be horrified by their  crazed racism and perverse distortions of core Christian ideas. Which I am. But I am also discomfited by the parallels above. The German Christians provided active moral cover for appalling crimes, without which – to be conservative – many, many thousand fewer people would have been murdered. And yet … they said, and believed, that they were just churches which trying to keep pace with the times, to work with the national mood and to remain relevant in a fast-changing society. It was the classic liberal theological enterprise.

Now the Nazi-era Confessing Church, supposedly the anti-Nazi church, was in practice not much better: often just as anti-semitic, simply more insistent on its theological traditions, sometimes mulishly so. But that did at least give it something solid to hold onto.

Is the comparison with Anglicanism fair? No. Does it mean anything? Not much – the Nazi era was, mercifully, truly exceptional, and attempts to read off general lessons from it are usually polemical and opportunistic. But I will say this much. It does remind us that liberal theological methods do not by any means necessarily imply liberal politics (in either the European or the American sense). And it reminds us that, when liberal theologians are led to question or jettison parts of their tradition, it is a good idea always to remain in dialogue with that tradition, and to listen even to shrill and hectoring voices coming from it. Naturally Christians want to move from spiritual milk to meat and to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ. But just sometimes, when you let go of Nurse, you really do find something worse.

*Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: the German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Batman fallacy

This is a historians’ problem which has bugged me for some time, but I’ve never had a name for it. Now I do, courtesy of my ten-year-old son.

‘You loved Batman as a boy,’ he declared confidently to me over the weekend. His evidence: a photo of me which hangs in our hallway, aged about eight, wearing a Batman T-shirt.

Now I happen to know that that’s not the case. I vividly remember my enthusiasms at that age: Star Wars was peaking, the now-forgotten Micronauts were putting in a respectable showing and Lego was just beginning to register. Superheroes of any kind: meh. I was willing to wear the T-shirt. (Or do I only believe I remember these things? - We all know contemporary documents, like the photo, are more reliable than later recollections …)

But it was a perfectly sensible hypothesis for him to make based on the very limited and fragmentary evidence he had to draw on. And historians do this all the time. All we have are a few fragments, chance survivals. The temptation to assume that they are keys to understanding everything is very strong. We can formulate hypotheses from them which are both plausible and legitimate. At least they seem legitimate.

Since Karl Popper we’ve measured the legitimacy of a hypothesis by whether it is falsifiable. If not – if there is no test which could be devised which could in principle prove it wrong – then it is not a scientific hypothesis, but something else. That works fine in the experimental sciences. But in observational sciences like history (or, say, palaeontology), there is a grey area. Some hypotheses – lots of hypotheses in fact – are falsifiable in principle, but not in practice. That is, you can imagine the evidence which might allow us to test it. But we don’t have it, we know we don’t have it, and we are pretty sure we’re never going to have it. In which case, what you have is not really a hypothesis. It is a speculation, or a generalisation. It is, in fact, a sand-sculpture: perhaps very attractive, but not something you'd be wise to build on, or indeed something that's likely still to be there once the tide has come in.

Now historians need to speculate, we all do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not the Batman fallacy. The Batman fallacy is when we imagine that because a speculation is compatible with all the evidence we have it is therefore likely or even proven. In short, we forget how much we do not know.

It is hard to emphasise this enough. For most of the human past, we know almost nothing. Even for my own period, the 16th and 17th centuries, huge swathes of ordinary life are simply mysterious to us. For earlier or less well-documented periods the problem increases exponentially. We tend to skate over or conceal this ignorance: books stating baldly that we know nothing and that there is no evidence are short and do not sell well. Textbooks particularly, which are required to give an overview, do so by giving an illusion of knowledge. Students tend only slowly to realise that their own persistent ignorance about the past is not a mark of their own stupidity, but the historian’s condition.

No scholarly field that I know is more vulnerable to this problem than Biblical study. There a body of evidence which is both tiny and enormously unbalanced meets a huge enterprise of focused scholarly attention. Genuinely new evidence does appear, but it is pretty rare. So the danger of overinterpretation is everpresent. Naturally scholars make plausible and often ingenious guesses about the authorship, redaction history, contexts, social meanings, cultural assumptions and so forth surrounding the Biblical texts. Which is wonderful. The danger is that they start to believe that these hypotheses are established and proven. There are, in fact, very few hypotheses for which we have enough evidence for us to be able to establish them. Most of the Bible's historical context is simply lost to us, and if there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that any substantial new evidence about it would contain surprises.

Genuinely substantial evidence is of course unlikely. So in the meantime we read the texts and make the best of what we have. But we need to remember that we are doing the equivalent of deducing a boy’s life and enthusiasms from a single snapshot.