Monday, August 18, 2008

Academic anti-historicism: an American problem

Yesterday, I quoted from a recent article on the absence of Freud, Marx, and Hegel from the disciplines in which they were so influential (psychology, economics, and philosophy). These figures are now discussed in other departments, all but forgotten in their original contexts—Hegel less so than Freud or Marx. The article does not seek to find a “single proposition” which explains this phenomenon, but it does present one problem as the likely culprit or at least the most probable basis for our present situation: “the ruthlessly anti- or nonhistorical orientation that informs contemporary academe.” In the article, Russell Jacoby offers the following analysis which I quote at length:
Psychology without Freud, economics without Marx, philosophy without Hegel: For disciplinary cheerleaders, this confirms intellectual progress. The cloudy old thinkers have made way for new scientific researchers. But at what cost? The past innovators shared a fealty to history. "We are what we are through history," stated Hegel; and Freud, for all his biological determinism, believed that one must master the past to master the present. Yet today we lack the patience to dig too far, or perhaps we lack the patience to unravel the implications of discoveries into the past. We want to find the exact pill or the exact gene that provides an instant solution. Psychology transmutes into biology. To the degree that a chemical imbalance results in depression, or a gene gives rise to obesity, the effort to restore health by drugs or surgery cannot be faulted. Yet an individual's own history may play a decisive role in those disharmonies. We triumphantly treat the effect as the cause. As a practical measure, that approach can be justified, but it avoids a deeper search.

The flight from history marks economics and philosophy as well. Economics looks more and more like mathematics, in which the past vanishes. Sometimes it even looks like biopsychology. . . . But can we really figure out today's economic problems without considering whence they came? Philosophy nods toward its past, but its devotion to language analysis and logic-chopping pushes aside as murky its great 19th-century thinkers. Polishing philosophical eyeglasses proves futile if they are rarely used to see.

No doubt there has been progress in those fields, but is it possible to advance without any idea of where one has been? Without a guide to the past, the scholar, like the traveler, might move in circles. Moreover, should the giants of the past be dispatched so coolly and mechanically? Culture is not like an automobile that should be junked when old and decrepit. I don't see how we can be educated — or consider ourselves educators — if we consign to the dustbin, say, Freud's exchange with Einstein on war, Marx's description of "the cheap price of commodities" that batters down national boundaries, or Hegel's notion of the master/slave relationship. Those ideas should be addressed, not parried; taught, not dismissed.

Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA, is entirely right, even prophetic. The problem he identifies is not unique to these three disciplines but has thoroughly infected the academy. As a theologian, I can say quite confidently that theology has suffered greatly from our current ahistoricism. No discipline has a greater stake in history than theology, not only because it begins from a historical starting-point, viz. Jesus of Nazareth, but also because the discipline of theology itself stands in continuity with an historical community, viz. the church. Theology takes place in the company of those who have gone before us. Those Christians who see themselves as “confessional” are likewise demonstrating their dependency upon history, in that they submit themselves to the guidance of past believers who were fellow witnesses to the same gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

In our current ahistorical environment, theology is clearly suffering. Not only are students of theology ignorant of the ancient church fathers and mothers whose wisdom and witness are indispensable for the church, but they are ignorant of more recent historical events and figures. Protestants, in particular, are unfamiliar with the issues, events, and people of the Reformation. People have heard of Luther, Calvin, and the 95 Theses, but know little to nothing about their significance. Names like Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bucer, Beza, Ursinus, Bullinger and others are virtually unknown to most Christians, and some of them even to many theology students. The consequence is that most Protestants have no idea why they belong to one denomination rather than another. Modern ecumenism, I suspect, often has less to do with genuine agreement over doctrinal issues than with simple forgetfulness regarding the original disputes. Many Baptists don’t know why they aren’t Reformed, and many Reformed don’t know why they aren’t Lutheran, and many Lutherans don’t know why there aren’t Catholic. This is a real problem. We cannot have serious theological dialogue unless we understand the history of the church and the history of theology. The future of the church depends upon the church’s knowledge of the past.

While I do not wish to place all the blame on American education, I do think this is a uniquely American problem. That is not because the United States has a poor education system, though that is certainly true and may very well be a factor. The issue is actually more basic to American culture as a whole. Paul Tillich first articulated this insight in his 1952 address entitled, “The Conquest of Theological Provincialism: Europe and America.” In this essay, Tillich discusses the cultural differences between America and Europe. He talks at first of the benefits of being in the United States, because it breaks a European from his or her intellectual provincialism. America’s freedom from tradition prevents the formation of an American provincialism to rival what one finds throughout Europe. Unlike Continental theology, Tillich says (in a statement that echoes Bonhoeffer), “American theological thinking is centered around social ethical problems.” Whereas the church in Europe is “the institution for the salvation of souls,” the church in America is “a social agent.” That is, the American church is primarily concerned with the pragmatic issues of the present moment, whereas the European church is primarily an historical institution continuing a particular tradition. Americans are more interested in practical theology than systematic theology, he says. Likewise, American theology is concerned with congregational life, not with church dogma. The so-called “Emerging Church” is a perfect example of American Christianity gone wild: radically ahistorical, non-confessional, and pragmatic.

Near the end of his essay, Tillich summarizes the problem with American Christianity:
Historical consciousness generally was something we brought from historically minded Europe to unhistorically minded America. It is not a matter of historical knowledge, but a matter of a feeling which every European instinctively has, namely, that ideas are in their very nature historical. The development of an idea is an essential element in the idea itself. This is the background of what was called Geistesgeschichte (inadequately translated “intellectual history” or “history of thought”). The true meaning of Geistesgeschichte is not a factual history of former thoughts, but is the attempt to make visible the implications and consequences of an idea in the light of its history. In this sense Geistesgeschichte is a part of systematic philosophy and theology. The assertion is rather unfamiliar to most American students, and it was one of our most important tasks to balance the American emphasis on new beginning with the European emphasis on tradition. And it was equally important to balance the American emphasis on facts with the European emphasis on interpretation. (175-76; emphasis added)
Tillich’s observation is acute. Americans emphasize “new beginnings,” whereas Europeans emphasize tradition; Americans emphasize facts, whereas Europeans emphasize interpretation. That is, Americans emphasize “historical knowledge,” whereas Europeans emphasize the “history of thought.” The American obsession with trivia game shows summarizes our situation: a love of pure factual information sans historical interpretation along with the possibility of starting a new beginning with one’s prize winnings. (How interesting that in Magnolia, two of the main characters are game show contestents and one of the central themes is our relationship with history, summarized in the thrice-repeated line: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”)

In any case, Tillich identifies what is most important and also most concerning: America is “unhistorically minded.” Why is this the case? There are probably any number of reasons, but I seem to recall hearing that Tillich once said that this lack of historical consciousness is a consequence of the fact that the United States came into being in the Enlightenment and never went through its own period of Romanticism, the way Europe did. This seems to be a plausible and interesting thesis. Regardless of how we got to this point, what we do know is this: Americans are all about the here and now, the present moment. American Christians are thus interested in the present tense rather than the past tense, in orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy, in ethics rather than theology. Few events in history are more American than the Great Awakenings of the 19th century, and few actions in the church are more American than the altar call, in which the individual, in the heat of the moment, throws off the sinful past and embraces a “new beginning” in Christ.

All of this is simply to say, theology in America is in a perilous predicament, and has been for some time. Not only is the American academe growing more anti-historical with each passing year it seems, but the American culture itself is an ahistorical one. This is particularly distressing for the discipline of theology. If Jacoby and Tillich are right, then it makes perfect sense why American students are quite able to regurgitate factual information about historical figures yet often entirely unable to explain the historical significance of these same figures. In evangelical churches, like the one in which I grew up, one learns how to memorize Scripture and ace Bible drills, but not how to interpret those verses. Theology students may know who Athanasius, Origen, Thomas, Melanchthon, and Zwingli are, but not why they are significant for the church today. Christians may know the Nicene Creed, but not why it matters. Is it any wonder, then, that so many Christians today have no idea why Jesus has any significance for us beyond providing some moral example, comparable to Ghandi or King? Is it any wonder that Christ’s death and resurrection are viewed, if not as antiquated ideas of the past, as irrelevant facts which have no bearing on our lives here and now (see Peter Kline’s sermon for some thoughts about this)? Lessing’s “great ugly ditch” yawns wider for Americans, it seems, than for anyone else.

Can we stop the bleeding? Can we reverse the American anti-historicism? I sure hope so. Rather than offer any of my own answers, let me open the floor for discussion:
  • Have you noticed the problem of non- or anti-historicism? If so, what are some examples from your own experience?
  • How has ahistoricism affected the church?
  • What do you think might be some of the reasons for this problem?
  • What should the response of the church be to the lack of historical consciousness?
  • What are some possible ways of combating our culture’s emphasis on the present tense over the past tense?

19 comments:

IndieFaith said...

As a new pastor I have been teamed up with an older mentor. When discussing the sense of historical identity the Mennonite church had he told me of his multi-week series on Anabaptists that he offered in the adult Sunday School class. After it was over one woman came up to him and thanked him for teaching them about the Anti-baptists.

By the way do most the readers out there attend churches that offer adult Sunday School before or after the service? This is a significant expression in our denomination (perhaps despite the above mentioned example) and possible site for some of the correction sought above.

william said...

As for the reasons for anti-historicism, Stanley Fish's recent Professor, Do Your Job! may not be the perfect statement of the professor's job, but Fish does a good job of analyzing the obsession with relevance over tradition that seems to be prevailing in American universities. To sum up, universities try to create a certain kind of student (incidentally, one that generally fits quite nicely in a modern consumer society) when they should be simply introducing students to bodies of knowledge and areas of study in their full historical complexity. There is more to the article, but I thought this was one important implication.

As for what the church can do, I've always believed that the Sunday School hour for middle- and high-school students should spend at least half its time on church history rather than the same sorts of discussion sessions we did on our weekday night Bible studies, our FCA meetings, our Young Life retreats, etc. etc. I had a Sunday School teacher in middle school who taught the Church councils and creeds, and all this at a fairly normal Presbyterian church. It was amazing!

Tim F. said...

To be sure, history is important. But, it's much more difficult to negotiate than it first seems. For example, historicism can be a foe as well. One only needs look at the dominance of historical critical exegesis in the past 150 years, and then the ease with which many have become reductivist in their understandings of history and science.

I know you're focusing on history as "the past" and not on the discipline of history which gives us this knowledge. However, so often the how and the what are so bound together that one wonders if we have really come upon the past or looked down the long well of history only to see a mirror (to borrow and modify a famous phrase).

I don't intend to argue for skepticism here, but to think more deeply about what's going on in the modern turn to history, which is in fact a modern phenomenon (in certain specific ways) and I don't name it modern to dismiss it, but to better shed light on a complex issue.

Blessings,

Tim F.

Christian Collins Winn said...

David,

My initial instinct was simply to post the following: "Amen", said the historical theologian.

I am currently preparing for one of two courses that I teach in the history of theology over the course of a year. I find sometimes that not only among students, but even among the faculty in the very theology dept. in which I teach there is a kind of self-willed ignorance as to the importance of historical theology. Here are some of my thoughts:

1) Christian theology is a habit of thought, disciplined by Scripture, in conversation with the church, done in the midst of community. This is my basic working definition of theology which--I think--avoids the notion that theology is simply the organizing of facts from the bible, or the conveyance of salvific data. It emphasizes the notion of time and history through habit so that what I am asking students to do is to enter into the ancient and modern habit of thought that is theology [Undoubtedly it has more definite Christological, pneumatological and eschatological dimensions than given here].

My working definition is shaped in some ways by my own pedagogical sense that the theologian is involved in the "moral formation" of the student, and indeed of the Christian community. Habit evokes virtue (as well as critique) which is more than skill and requires more than mere intellectual gymnastics; in terms of historical theology that means more than memorizing names, dates and places (though that is necessary). It requires the patience and charity to step into the historical, social, economic, spiritual and cultural gestalt of particular eras and figures to think along side them, even with them. This is not something that can be learned in simply one class, but really takes several years, a detriment in our day and age. In other words, it requires prayer and discipline, which I would argue must occur in midst of community. I take Barth's lectures on Calvin and the 19th century as a great example of that kind of habit of thought. One predicated on the resurrection, but unafraid of the particulars. For what it's worth, what I have found is that I often have trouble offering a compelling apologia for historical theology to my students, but I don't have trouble letting the individuals and the content speak for itself. That is, when I take them down the road they find the journey far more interesting than when I'm trying to convince them that going down the road is worth their while.

2) In general I would agree with Tillich's assessment, with one important caveat. I find Tillich's bifurcation of theology and ethics deeply disturbing and I think the social/ethical slant and orientation of "American" theology is an important "tradition" [worth highlighting and developing!] that is rooted in the ethical antinomies that are at the very root of the so-called "American expereince." That is, social-ethical concern ought not to be dismissed, but perhaps seen in the light of the very traditioning process that Tillich claims for European theology. He would have benefited from MacIntyre in other words, or at the very least, Hauerwas.

3) My own guess is that a lack of Romanticism is less to blame; rather, at least within the US, the actual material conditions of the growth of the country as well as the captialist logic that accompanied it has played a far more important role in terms of the popular imagination and in terms of higher education. I think one would be wise to look to the creeping logic of the market in which all things, especially knowledge, are reduced to commodities (ala Lyotard), as the real culprit. Those forms of knowledge which seem to move the fulcrum rather giving us an understanding and description of why and how it got to be there, are bound to be more highly prized in such an environment. Thin air and the like. The tyranny of the market!

4) I also teach a lot of sunday school and degree completion courses in church history and I am amazed at the relative lack of knowledge of history among adults. In fact, before I left the PC(USA), I was shocked that my local church, in general, didn't seem to care about sunday school at all, much less about the Reformed tradition, etc. I'm not sure I can draw conclusions from any specific cases, but I would note that many folks who I have had the opportunity to teach classes on the reformation or Bonhoeffer, etc., express a deep appreciation more so because of their sense of thirsting for an understanding than because of any prowress on my part.

5) I found Tim's comments interesting because I think that within the "evangelical world" there is a general uneasiness with history, and for the very reasons Tim highlights. I would suggest that this is at odds with the pietistic roots of "evangelicalism," as well as the incarnational logic you mentioned in your post, the resurrection of Jesus, and the communion of the saints.

I would agree with you that "confessionalists" also have a built in resistance to this kind of thought in so far as they are genuinely reformed, and not simply a reformed parody of Lutheran orthodoxy in terms of the status of confessions. It seems to me that what often has happened is that a more Lutheran notion of confessions have creeped in, such that the reformed notions of freedom vis-a-vis confessions has been lost.

Thanks for the post! Also, I am having trouble accessing the article. Do you know if the link is functioning properly?

d. w. horstkoetter said...

J. Kameron Carter covers this a bit in his book that just came out on race. He attributes the ahistorical approach to modernism in general. And basically calls it a form of supercessionism. Its in his section on Foucault. And I suspect Carter is quite right.

On an ironic note, at Union, I encountered very little direct Tillich. What Tillich I did encounter was through Cone's and Haight's theology or Dorrien talking at length. Union is now working to fix that with a Tillich chair, but nevertheless, the irony made me smirk.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think modernism is a major culprit, but also the American mindset additionally. We were/are a nation of new beginnings and fresh starts. Leave the old country and begin here anew. Nothing before 1776 matters. Screw-up here? Then, go west, young man (and woman). Re-invent yourself.

Add to all that the problem of the way first television and now the internet (which we are using even now) affects attention spans.

Is it any wonder that I am trying to recover neglected theologians?

Adult Sunday School is still widespread in Baptist circles (even liberal Baptist circles), but tends to focus exclusively on Bible Study. That's important, but we lost the time when we used to cover church history. Even in my congregation, the only time this gets a serious shot is Reformation Sunday. Maybe Anglican/Catholic/Orthodox focus on saints days helps?

I don't know what to do about the academe's ahistoricism. When I was teaching, I always tried to use a historical approach and always repeated H.Richard Niebuhr's dictum that "history is the laboratory of ideas." But the problem remains large. In the '80s, Langdon Gilkey was already warning that the religion of "scientism" was growing because of the ahistorical way in which modern universities (he was at U. Chicago) prepare future working scientists: the history of science is taught not in science departments but in history departments and the philosophy of science is taught in philosophy departments. Thus, we graduate top flight chemists, astronomers, oceanographers, etc. who have no concept of the history of their disciplines or of their philosophical frameworks.

Now I hear that there are seminaries where, after having previously eliminated biblical language requirements, church history will be optional! God forbid!

Chris Donato said...

The comments have been great, and I've little to add except maybe with respect to your fourth question: one possible way to combat this in the church is to belabor the mundane ad nauseum. It is during the present community's engagement with its confessional past, the accentuation of its own traditions and the rote practice of it, that will fend off at least a bit of the ahistorical tendency that plagues American Christians.

In my tradition, this means constantly availing ourselves to the Word and the sacraments.

stan said...

"What are some possible ways of combating our culture’s emphasis on the present tense over the past tense?"

I think you would have to offer a very compelling view of the FUTURE that shows the relevance of past thinkers. Otherwise this comes off as simple nostalgia of humanities profs, or alternatively attempts at thought control by radicals to the left or right trying to enforce their orthodoxies.

Look who is voicing the concerns. Not those in the disciplines affected who are making the most progress, but rather outside observers. And note most theologians now find themselves "outsiders" in the churches that have a future (apparently non-mainline if the demographics hold up).

We are in an age of rapid change socially and in technology. This has led to different needs than what could be provided before and an increased understanding that makes past work irrelevant. In this case forgetting the past can be helpful as almost anything in our imagination seems open to us technologically or socially.

Similarly in the church much forward progress might be possible if many chapters of church history and their interminable battles could be forgotten. As the old pastor said "there's nothing wrong with a church that a few funerals can't fix". Kuhn's revolutions seem be playing out with new paradigms not building but replacing the old ones by attrition (the old guard dies).

Camassia said...

I don't subscribe so I couldn't read Jacoby's full essay, but the criticism of psychology without Freud seems weird to me. For one thing, psychology is *supposed* to be a science, so complaining that it's gone "scientistic" is missing the point. The problem that a lot of people have with Freud is that he made himself out to be scientific without really following the standards of science. It's also supposed to be pragmatic, concerned with how to make life better for people, so criticizing it on that ground also seems to be missing the point.

Also, it's way too simplistic to imply that you either approach psychology biologically or as a Freudian. There are a number of other psychotherapeutic methods besides Freud's, and in fact Freud did not invent the "talking cure," although he certainly popularized it.

I realize this is a side issue in a discussion about theology, but it does occur to me that one problem with history is figuring out who counts as a "giant" and who was a big fad. Freud was in fashion for many decades, but he seems to be fading out; what will he look like in the longer view of history? Similarly, how much responsibility do theologians have to teach once-hot ideas that went extinct long ago, like Arianism, Montanism, or whatever? Are they part of the common Christian heritage, or just dead ends?

David W. Congdon said...

Tim:

I'm not sure historical criticism is really the problem. In fact, I wish more Christians were familiar with the scholarship of historical criticism. From my experience, most American evangelicals plug their ears whenever someone starts talking about biblical criticism, as if ignorance really is bliss. I think evangelicals would be much wiser to listen to what historical critics have to say and construct bibliologies which are not threatened by recognizing the historical and thoroughly human nature of the biblical text.

Granted, modern history is biased, and I have no patience with those scholars who think that science and history disproves the resurrection -- simply because the Christian faith in the resurrection presupposes that this event transcends what is historically "possible." That is, the resurrection redefines what is possible, but it's only a possibility in God, not on the basis of the forces of history.

All that's to say, historical criticism is something all Christians need to familiarize themselves with, but we need not accept the (non sequitur) conclusion that no event can possibly transcend the surface of history.

David W. Congdon said...

Christian,

Let me respond then by saying "Amen!" to everything you wrote. I heartily concur.

David W. Congdon said...

Michael:

Your "neglected theologians" series is a great idea. I hope to contribute something.

Theology cannot move forward without considering the past.

David W. Congdon said...

Stan:

I entirely disagree with your comments. I find them deeply disturbing for the following reasons:

1. No one should have to argue for the relevance of the past. That should simply be a given. The past is relevant because the past is what brought us here to the present, and it is what will carry us forward to the future. No event or person or idea is ever disconnected from the past. Nothing occurs in a temporal vacuum.

2. In fact, the entire project of arguing for the relevance of the past is, I would say, an example of "thought control." It presumes that the past is irrelevant until proven otherwise, which is another way of saying that only what we today find interesting about the past is actually important. But that is about as intelligible as saying that only what a child finds interesting is actually important. However, as any parent or adult knows, children don't know what is best for them. They don't have the life experience or education to understand the significance of the people or things around them. Similarly, why would we reduce the significance of the past to people who are already themselves ahistorical in their thinking, who find the past intrinsically irrelevant? That's simply foolish.

3. I don't see how being an outside observer is at all pertinent to this debate. The contention by Jacoby is that these academic departments are overtaken by thinkers who don't care about history. So then it remains up to people on the outside to keep those on the "inside" accountable. In the history of Judaism/Christianity, that role of "outsider" has been assigned to prophets who speak truth to power, who keep the centers of authority accountable for their actions. This applies as much to educational authorities as it does to political and economic authority. We need more prophets.

4. I am disturbed by how your comments seems to suggest that whatever is the "fad of the day" or whoever is in power at the moment gets to determine what is important. So if churches are run and attended by people who don't care about the tradition, then the tradition doesn't matter, and if academic departments are controlled by people who refuse to teach the history of their discipline, then that history is irrelevant and insignificant. This is either ignorant or elitist. Perhaps both.

5. "Forgetting the past" is never helpful; it is only destructive to the present and the future. There can be no progress, either in technology or in church theology, without attending to what has come before us. This is axiomatic. Any assertion to the contrary is simply mistaken.

6. "There's nothing wrong with a church that a few funerals can't fix." I don't think I've heard a more damnable statement in my entire life. It's certainly up there with the most asinine things I've ever read. God help you.

David W. Congdon said...

Camassia:

I am concerned about your statements, much like I am concerned about what Stan wrote above. But maybe you just misunderstood the article. Jacoby isn't arguing that Freud should be taught as an authority in psychology, whose ideas should still be propagated as the right way of thinking psychologically. I don't see how you came to that conclusion. What he said is that the discipline of psychology should not dispense with past thinkers in its field simply because the "state of the art" has moved on. Every person in academia needs to be familiar with the history of his or her discipline.

And are you arguing that Freud was just a fad, and not a "giant" in his field worth studying? If so, I would be shocked. I think he remains one of the top 5 most important thinkers of modernity. The same would hold true for Darwin. Scientists have progressed far beyond Darwin's inchoate ideas about evolution, but that doesn't mean we should just dispense with Darwin in the history of science.

Finally, you ask: "Similarly, how much responsibility do theologians have to teach once-hot ideas that went extinct long ago, like Arianism, Montanism, or whatever? Are they part of the common Christian heritage, or just dead ends?"

This is a false dichotomy, based on the earlier mistake of assuming that only those thinkers whose ideas we still accept are worth studying and teaching today. But that's patently erroneous. Just because Arianism is a "dead end" does not mean that it is not a part of our heritage or that we shouldn't teach it. The rejection of Arianism is the basis for the Nicene Creed, so to understand the first ecumenical creed, we need to know the heresy that led to its writing. We have to know the heresies of the past so that we don't repeat them in the future.

Our current ahistoricism is, I think, part of the reason why we see so many ancient heresies proliferating in so-called "orthodox" churches. I wrote a whole series on the "heresies of American evangelicalism" which was an attempt to examine precisely this problem.

Christian Collins Winn said...

Michael,

Church history optional? Seriously?!?!? Where was this being proposed?

Tim F. said...

Thanks for your response, David.

Let me say that I think the study of the past is imperative as well as the historical critical study of Scripture. However, how the past has been studied and understood has significantly changed in the past few centuries. This can't be elaborated on in serious detail here (though I have done some conceptual work on this on my blog), but anachronism is one example of these new developments. Anachronism is a two edged sword insofar as it can be helpful, but then we must admit that much early church exegesis succumbs to this criterion.

Blessings,

Tim F

Camassia said...

Well, like I said, I couldn't read the whole article so maybe I misunderstood him. But I do think there's a difference between academic disciplines that have a pragmatic end and those that are more about knowledge for its own sake. Psychology started as a branch of medicine, which it largely remains. Do you care if your family doctor learned about the medical theories of Galen? The history of medicine is interesting, certainly, but it is possible to treat patients well without knowing much about it.

It's too early to say if Freud will turn out to be a fad, but he *might* be. Your response, in fact, underscores the reality that Freud is more influential and respected these days outside of psychology than within it. Jacoby takes this to be a defect in psychology; but it seems reasonable to ask, why does the public continue to hold on to the man when he's lost so much respect within his own discipline? I think what was behind my perhaps intemperate reaction to the post is that a historian is telling scholars in other disciplines just which people ought to be important to them, and his solution (naturally) is that they ought to learn more history! I believe the different academic disciplines should interact, but they also need to appreciate the different frames through which they view the world.

As for church history -- well, Arianism was admittedly a bad example, because it was so large and influential. I guess I was thinking more from the standpoint that I'm interested in Christian history myself, but there is so much of it that one is obliged to perform triage of some sort when studying it. And there have certainly been a zillion heresies that have popped up and died out, many of which surely seemed important at the time. So how do we decide who is important enough to be worth our time?

James said...

For whatever it is worth:

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2008/07/an-open-letter.html

Geoff said...

Hi David,

re: Your response to Stan, I won't pretend to speak for him, but I am going to assume the point he was trying to make wasn't that such things are acceptable, but rather that, whether we like it or not, this is the way things are. I agree, that is very disturbing, but it just shows how much work is yet to be done... it may be that some have resigned themselves to the cycle of ever-changing paradigm shifts in the hopes that eventually things will revert back to a resurgence of interest in history (or theology for that matter!), but I, for one, agree wholeheartedly that it is up to those of us who have actively taken up the theological task to find genuinely intriguing ways to engage the many, many people who (I shudder as I say this) couldn't care less about where their beliefs came from or what they mean, they just want to get their "Jesus fix" to help them through the week. Consumer Christianity is a powerful drug indeed. God help us all.

Geoff