Thursday, November 10, 2011

Historical Theory 2

Continuing this train of thought since this post.
One of the most important issues in historical method to arise in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was the question of supernaturalism, whether a good historian could allow for the possibility of divine intervention in history.  Of course this issue had been around in philosophy for a long time, with the Deism of the 1700’s effectively trying to bracket the idea of God’s involvement in the world.  But with the rise of modern historiography, the necessity to exclude God from one’s explanations of historical events became a dogma.

Perhaps no one captured the spirit of the age better than Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) in his 1922 book on Historiography. For him, no explanation of nature is allowed to resort to metaphysics (what is supposed to stand behind or above nature), which includes God.  The historian and scientist must stick to concrete, material causes and effects.  Notions of ultimate reality have no business in historical description.

Accordingly, he formulated three basic principles for critical history.  First, all decisions regarding history are open to revision.  They are never a matter of certainty but of varying degrees of probability.  Secondly, he assumes that historical events today happen similarly to the way they took place in the past.  This is a principle of analogy.  So if people do not come back from the dead today, he rejected any suggestion that someone might have come back from the dead in the past.  Finally, historical events are intertwined (they correlate) with what comes before and after them.  They must be explained in the flow of clear historical causes and effects.

Most Christians today will question the complete exclusion of God and the supernatural from Troeltsch’s historical method.  However, it is just as clear that he well describes the way most of us approach our daily lives.  If we cannot find our keys, we do not initially think, “What demon has hidden my keys,” especially if we are always losing them, if we have a roommate with a mischievous bent, or if we have a child who likes to put keys in his mouth.  And as much as we believe that Jesus rose again from the dead, few of us would go to a cemetery three days after the death of a friend to see if she will rise.

Indeed, different Christians see the level of God’s direct involvement in the world differently, as we saw in chapter 10 when we discussed determinism.  Some see God steering everyday events down to small details, often working in and around people and events to accomplish his hidden purposes. [1]  Such believers spend significant amounts of time trying to guess what God is trying to teach them by causing them to catch a cold or forgetting to call someone.

Others like myself think that, while God does act in history, his purposes and interventions are much more mysterious.  We might suggest that God wants us to think more for ourselves, to take responsibility for the consequences of our choices, as well as be able to accept the unpredictable ebb and flow of the world.  The former approach seems hard pressed to see much of anything that happens simply as the normal flow of cause and effect that God has built into the creation (i.e., the rules that scientists and inventors have capitalized on to give us cell phones and lap tops).  Rather, for them things that happen are primarily God behind the scenes, orchestrating everything. By contrast, the latter approach expects to be able to explain most things by normal causation and would only conclude a miraculous intervention when the normal paths of explanation were exhausted...

[1] A good example of this approach is Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).


Andy said...

Also helpful on this topic, with respect to the tracing of historiography as it relates to theological/religious studies, is Elizabeth Clark's "History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn" (Harvard U Press, 2004).


FrGregACCA said...

Is there a necessary contradiction between "God" as an explanation and those of "normal" causality?

Regarding lost keys: I misplace them myself, certainly, but St. Anthony never fails to find them for me...

Also, we all know that washing machines have a black hole underneath the agitator, into which single socks (never pairs) are often sucked, never to be seen again...

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Andy... too bad I don't have more time... it looks like a great book!

FrGreg, I'm sure there is some possibility of supervenience here that hasn't made it through my brain.

FrGregACCA said...

Ken: the following may be helpful:


There is a debate as to whether God is "a being among beings" or "the ground of all being". God of course is both.

The existence of God is not question; our existence, and that of the universe, is indeed in question.

For the universe to cease to exist, all that is necessary is that God stop maintaining it in existence.

God is both absolutely transcendent and absolutely immanent.

Ken Schenck said...

I personally reject panentheism and question it's orthodoxy (although I doubt you mean it in a process way). It is important for my theology for the world to be a distinct entity from God.

FrGregACCA said...

Ken, in pantheism, the universe is God and vice-versa.

In panentheism, at leas the Orthodox version, the universe is not God, nor God the universe, but, well, as the Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit says, God "is everywhere present and fills all things": God is in all and all is in God.

Ken Schenck said...

I figured you defined it in a way that maintained the distinction. The way I understand those who put forward the panentheist option is that the universe is part of God, although there is also a part of God that is different from the world. So perhaps the world might be conceptualized as God's body.