History and Method
"An American Myth" in The Democracy of the Constitution: And Other Addresses and Essays (C. Scribner: 1915), pp. 208-9.
Every one who has studied history is familiar with the myths which crowd its pages. I do not mean by this the frankly mythical tales which tell of gods and goddesses, of the divine founders of nations, tribes, and families, or those in which the Middle Ages delighted and which were replete with angels and devils, with witches and sorcerers, with magic and miracles. The myths to which I refer are those which masquerade as history, which are moden as well as ancient, which make no pretence to the supernatural, but which, being either pure invention or a huge growth from some little seed of fact, possess all the characteristics of their great namesakes which have rejoiced the world for centuries, awakened almost every emotion of which the human heart is capable, and from which the historian and the man of science have been able to learn innumerable lessons as to the toughs and beliefs, the hopes and fears, of primitive man. These historical myths grow up silently. Some of them reign for centuries. Modern research has exposed many of ancient lineage and long acceptance, has torn away the mask and revealed them in their true character. Yet the historical myth rarely dies. No exposure seems able to kill it. Expelled from every book of authority, from every dictionary and encyclopedia, it will still live on among the great mass of humanity. The reason for this tenacity of life is not far to seek. The myth, or the tradition, as it is sometimes called, has necessarily a touch of the imagination, and imagination is almost always more fascinating than truth. The historical myth, indeed, would not exist at all if it did not profess to tell something which people for one reason or another, like to believe, and which appeals strongly to some emotion or passion, and so to human nature.
Reflections on the Revolution in France (J. Dodsley: 1790) pp. 11-12.
All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and apparently, by the most contemptible instruments. Every thing seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror. ¶ It cannot however be denied, that to some this strange scene appeared in quite another point of view. Into them it inspired no other sentiments than those of exultation and rapture. They saw nothing in what has been done in France, but a firm and temperate exertion of freedom; so consistent, on the whole, with morals and with piety, as to make it deserving not only of the secular applause of dashing Machiavelian politicians, but to render it a fit theme for all the devout effusions of sacred eloquence.
Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press: 2009), pp. 33-34.
Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an 'age of reason' emerging from and overthrowing an 'age of faith'. Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma. All was darkness. ¶ Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowing of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. ¶ This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, 'intellectual journalism,' and vulgar legend.
"The Value of Historical Theology", in Sundoulos, Fall Issue, 2009 (Talbot: 2009), p. 7.
Leopold Von Ranke's famous maxim that the historian's task is to "tell it like it was" may be ridiculed by those who doubt the possibility or even the desirability of objective history, but I believe Von Ranke was fundamentally correct. In the case of intellectual history, this involves understanding a thinker on his or her own terms, in his or her own context. It is coming to grips with a document's meaning and penetrating what underlies the arguments being advanced. It is no about rehabilitating or castigating those long dead, but about grasping objectively what is being said and why. ¶ While objectivity is the historian's goal, this does not mean that the historian is void of personal commitments, or that he or she must remain neutral as to the truth or falsity of the positions under consideration. The point is simply that history qua history is not about passing such judgments but is merely about getting the story straight, however the chips may fall. It is only after the position has been understood on its own terms and without bias that the historian may turn to evaluation and employ the fruits of his or her discovery in polemical or other theological application. But at that point we've moved beyond the historical task simpliciter and into something else — something wonderfully valuable and necessary, perhaps, but something different nonetheless.
"Christianity's Despicable History" on the CPXtra blog at PublicChristianity.com (Oct 31, 2009).
Christians have to acknowledge just how serious is the complaint today that the church acted despicably throughout its history. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem, with their Crusades and Inquisitions. Protestants have their own dark history. Martin Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, wrote the most awful things about European Jews in his 1543 tract “The Jews and Their Lies”. John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition and one of my favourite theologians, was brutal in his treatment of heretics like Michael Servetus, whom he had executed in 1553. The case is serious. But there is also something wrong with most modern versions of the complaint. First, retellings of the evils of Christianity frequently involve gross exaggerations in popular discussion. This is the product of an unnoticed propaganda. ... [E]very new era retells the past in a way that elevates its own position as the great deliverer, the bringer of special freedoms; and that necessarily requires exaggerating, even lying, about the horrors of the past. We do this on a small scale when we talk about the moralism of the 1950s or the prudishness of Victorian England. It happened on a macro scale in the 18th-19th centuries ... when Enlightenment leaders popularised the expression 'Dark Ages'. Here was an attempt to describe the era of Christendom as an era of oppression, ignorance and violence, as opposed to the era of freedom and peace brought about by secular reason. No serious historian today could go along with this story. ... I ... ask readers to contemplate an important insight. Experts aside, most of us have picked up our knowledge of the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other horrors of Christendom from sources other than respectable academic literature. Is it not possible that we have simply accepted mere propaganda as fact?
The Black Swan (Random House: 2007), p. 11.
The Levant has been something of a mass producer of consequential events nobody saw coming. Who predicted the rise of Christianity as a dominant religion in the Mediterranean basin, and later in the Western world? The Roman chroniclers of that period did not even take note of the new religion — historians of Christianity are baffled by the absence of contemporary mentions. Apparently, few of the big guns took the ideas of a seemingly heretical Jew seriously enough to think that he would leave traces for posterity. We only have a single contemporary reference to Jesus of Nazareth — in The Jewish Wars of Josephus — which itself may have been added later by a devout copyist. How about the competing religion that emerged seven centuries later; who forecast that a collection of horsemen would spread their empire and Islamic law from the Indian subcontinent to Spain in just a few years? Even more than the rise of Christianity, it was the spread of Islam (the third edition, so to speak) that carried full unpredictability; many historians looking at the record have been taken aback by the swiftness of the change. Gorges Duby, for one, expressed his amazement about how quickly close to ten centuries of Levantine Hellenism were blotted out "with a strike of a sword." A later holder of the same history chair at the Collège de France, Paul Veyne, aptly talked about religions spreading "like bestsellers" — a comparison that indicates unpredictability. These kinds of discontinuities in the chronology of events did not make the historian's profession too easy: the studios examination of the past in the greatest of detail does not teach you much about the mind of History; it only gives you the illusion of understanding it.
The Black Swan (Random House: 2007), p. 8.
History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what's inside the box, how the mechanisms work. What I call the generator of historical events is different from the events themselves, much as the minds of the gods cannot be just by witnessing their deeds. You are very likely to be fooled about their intentions. ¶ This disconnect is similar to the difference between the food you see on the table at the restaurant and the process you can observe in the kitchen. ... the human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are: a) the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize; b) the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and c) the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories — when they "Platonify."
"Truth Commissions and Judicial Trials" in The Provocations of Amnesty (New Africa Books: 2003) p. 86-7.
Ominously for some Euro-Americans, analogous discussions are now gathering in the United States. We are not done with the evil legacy of Euro-American treatment of African slaves and native Indians. How a future-oriented culture such as America's gets propelled into serious moral re-examination of the dark sides of its history is a subject worthy of much future consultation between historians, social scientists, and theological ethicists in America. Already the ferment of new visits to our own ignoble versions of administrative massacres may signal a new openness in our culture to hearing the simmering angry memories of those whose ancestors suffered those events. As he left Atlanta recently to return to South Africa, Desmond Tutu remarked, 'The United States needs a truth and reconciliation commission.' African Americans and Native Americans are likely to agree; but, as both the histories of trials and truth commissions described in this essay vividly suggests, every country, with its unique history, must craft its own unique way of reckoning with that history. No one measure will suffice for the making and remaking of a public conscience. Installing negative history in public memory is a multi-dimensional project that has to circle back again and again to old facts from new perspectives.
Remarks on "The Age of Reason" (S. King: 1831), pp. 64,66.
Let us suppose the case of a man who was born blind. He can have nothing but oral testimony of such things as are visible to others. Does it therefore follow, that, to him, the luminaries of heaven do not exist, and, consequently, demonstrate nothing of the power and wisdom of God? No: the demonstration still exists, by an intellectual communication from others; and this, to him, is a revelation. What is history, but a revelation of facts, though man is the recorder, the witness, the auditor, and oftentimes the cause? View your premises however I may, they are demonstrably false; and, consequently, what you draw from them must fall to the ground. ... You further tell us, that "the whole account is traditionary." The truth of this assertion, will depend, in no small degree, upon the definition of the term. But, if what you assert, were granted, I cannot perceive, how this would falsify the account. If the supposed facts contained in the Bible, be traditionary, and are, therefore, false, there is no historical account in existence, that will not be implicated in the common charge; and, if this be admitted, all moral and historical certainty, must, at one stroke, be banished from the world.