Academic anti-historicism: an American problem
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.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.
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.
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?