Thursday, October 29, 2009

Department Dinner Party

Dr. Jenkins is hosting another dinner party for the History Department. This one will be held at his home and school vans will be available for transportation. There are 24 seats in the vans and several people bringing their own cars.

So, come join in good food and great conversation on
Saturday November 21, 2009 from 7-10pm.
For van pick-up please meet at 5:40 sharp behind HHC.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why We Study History

History is politics, some would say—especially our good friends the sociologists. What they mean in saying this is that history is partisan. It is partisan, they say, both because history is inevitably perspectival (one can’t avoid having a perspective) and because history takes sides, or so they say—hence the phrase, “history shows...” as in, “history shows the evils of slavery” or “history has shown the failure of the free market.”

The distinguishing character trait of this kind of historian is spiritedness or self-assertion. The Greeks called it thumos and the Romans called it virtûs. Such spirited, assertive historians find themselves endorsing political parties in the classroom, redressing social ills by creating new courses, doing justice to lost voices, and colonizing academic disciplines in order to civilize them. As I’ve said, these historians are partisan; these historians take sides.

This is history as politics.

Others say that history is science—perhaps even some in this room. History in pursuit of Wissenshaft, that definite articulation of things, that pristine, finalized descriptive specimen of the past. History as science notices and applies historical laws and detects processes. Practitioners of this sort of history see things like the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the Investiture Controversy as molecules or cells in an unsupervised, but nevertheless natural process or as doo-hickies and thing-a-ma-bobs in a deistical machine, set in motion by an absentee God. They study the mechanisms, detect the laws, and finally after much revision present the results of history. Some look through bigger and bigger telescopes while others look more and more microscopically at local histories, searching for historical quarks and gluons, nano-histories that drill miles deep into invisible sub-sections of over-specialized disciplines.
Here the scientific method is at play; and so is objectivity—or at least that’s what they say. Here history is a resource or a tool, which makes history as science into history as utility. And for all this we have far too many people in Germany to thank, so I shan’t try.

This is history as science.

There are still others, me for example, who see history in an altogether different light. Let’s call us—my kind of historian—humanists. For us the human past is to be remembered for its own sake. Events, surprising as it may seem, have something to do with people. Movements do too. Even years measure, not quantifiable increments of stuff the way inches do, but increments of human memory and human experience. And although Einstein has taken time away from us (having already taken away space), we still have consciousness—of which memory is a sub-set.
Humanist historians demure to be partisan, they’re strong enough not to be self-assertive, they grow nauseated at the thought of utilitarianism, and they feel affirmed in their subjectivity. Humanists can do all of this because they know, as Herbert Butterfield has explained, that the great virtue of the historian is brotherly love, which blossoms in the historical subject who affirms the full personhood of his historical object. Hence those we remember are not means to our ends (either scientific or political), but ends in themselves, to be remembered for their own sake. And the past, being human, is not ours to master, for we ourselves find the high-tide of the past gradually filling in all around us. Indeed, we find ourselves all too quickly slipping into the past, and so we have a stake in humanist history. For we too desire to be loved (rather than mastered or used) by those who as yet have not been born.

This is what the humanist knows.

And the Christian humanist knows one more thing: that in the incarnation all time becomes present so that all time is redeemed. This is because in the incarnation the infinite and the eternal took on our flesh, which had always been slipping into the past—but no longer does. Our flesh, our dignity is preserved even in death.

The truth of this allows us to stand in the present and not fear the coming of the tide of time, which will gather all of us in its insatiable belly. The prophet of the Lord was right in saying of the God of Israel, “his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22-23). And he was something of an historian in saying so. The Lord’s compassions were new every morning for us when the prophet wrote his prophecy. They are new every morning for him even as I speak this evening. Time is redeemed.

Of course all this hinges on a final observation, that if history shows us anything it shows us that the God of both providence and mystery is deeply at work in the lives of persons—all this is what we study as historians. During which we marvel and then pray, where as T. S. Eliot says “prayer alone is valid.”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Department Party

Come meet new students and old teachers!

There will be food and drinks!

When: October 2, 2009

What Time: 6pm

Where: Baird Library

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