Thursday, January 27, 2011

Finding a Theology of History


It is somewhat common in the history profession – or at least in graduate school – to be asked about one’s philosophy of history. What is your guiding framework? Economic determinism? Marxism? Gender theory? The Annales school?

I don’t generally think of myself as having a philosophy or overarching theory of history. I just read about the past and tell stories, trying to make sense of what happened, and why. But lately I’ve decided to think more about the biggest questions in history. After all, I am a Catholic and a historian, but am I a Catholic historian? Does my faith inform my work? Some days I think I have a better sense of what it would mean to be a Catholic physicist than a Catholic historian. So I’ve picked up Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure.

Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) is a theologian, not a historian, but he became interested in history for a very simple reason: our salvation occurs in history. This might seem trite, but in fact it is a major question with which Ratzinger wrestles. Most theology is grounded in metaphysics and asks questions about things that are eternal and universal, such as the Holy Trinity or the nature of man. But the key moments in salvation are moments, particular events. Jesus Christ was made incarnate at a particular time in the town of Nazareth in the womb of a woman named Mary. He was not made incarnate in an earlier age, nor in another land, nor was He born of another woman. His birth, ministry, death and resurrection also occurred as discrete events in particular places. What then is the relationship between theology (universals) and history (particulars), Ratzinger asks.

I have not finished reading The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, nor am I expecting it to definitively answer this quandary. Still, I am beginning to sketch out two distinctions that I think might be useful.

The first distinction is between “spiritual history” and “mundane history”. The former involves all things non-material: the working of God, the angels (including demons) and men (at least in their spiritual capacity). Mundane history, in contrast, involves things that are of little spiritual or eternal consequence. The Incarnation clearly belongs to spiritual history, while the fluctuations of the price of rye are fairly mundane. (To clarify, this is not a distinction between a history of the Church and the secular world. Ecclesiastical history can be just as mundane as the price of rye. Just ask any parish secretary.) There are, however, events which are not so easy to place, such as disasters which prompt men to turn to God in prayer. Rising water levels or spiraling inflation are, of themselves, mundane, but may take on spiritual significance. This is because man is himself a hybrid, possessing a spirit like the angels but also a body like the animals. To divorce these two aspects of man from one another is a grave danger; we should expect similar dangers if we try to divide history.

Moreover, Bonaventure notes that sapientia omniformis (omniform wisdom) perceives the traces of God’s work in all things. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, “What can be known about God is plain to [the nations]…. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:19-20). Thus, if all creation points to God, it becomes problematic to label any of it “mundane”.

Still, I think the spiritual/mundane distinction has its merit. Most of the history that is written today is terribly mundane, though occasional works on the Civil Rights Movement in America or the battle against Nazism in Europe may touch the spiritual. Still, historians should be reminded that much of what they study, though interesting in its way, is of only passing importance. Moreover, they should be encouraged to push through the mundane and at least aspire to charting the spiritual, when possible.

Alas, that “when possible” may be the hang-up. C. S. Lewis argues in his essay “Historicism” that charting spiritual history by means short of divine revelation is impossible. First there is the problem of collecting data: how do you know if or when God has touched the hearts of men? Few people keep spiritual diaries, and I know of no World Bank of the spiritual world which tabulates such information, telling whether or not the spiritual life has enjoyed a good year. But even if we somehow had access to all the right data, Lewis points out that it would be overwhelming. Important things in politics get written down; key moments in art are recorded by the works of art themselves. Thus it is fairly easy to pick out the high points of political or cultural history, or at least to collect some events which are of arguable importance. But the spiritual life is both fuller and more subtle. At any moment of your life, you are experiencing life with all of your being: the five senses, recent memories, more latent concerns, a history of experiences and your particular intellectual and emotional formation. To see a picture of a place you have been is not the same as returning to a past visit. Even a second visit to the same place cannot recapture the old moment. If somehow you could be re-inserted into a past experience, it would take the whole of your being to re-live it properly. Thus, Lewis contends, for the spiritual historian to properly reconsider a single day of a single life would take him an entire day himself. He could never properly survey even his own life, much less a century or two of an entire nation.

Still, Lewis leaves the door open to spiritual history by freely conceding that his comments do not apply to those who claim knowledge by revelation. Indeed, Lewis clearly knows that Christianity makes just such a claim, contending that God has revealed Himself throughout the centuries and has made known His actions through Scripture. Thus, at least with regards to events discussed by Scripture, the Christian can claim knowledge of spiritual history by revelation.

But can we hope for a spiritual history of the 20th century, or must we settle for mundane history? Bonaventure’s understanding of “revelation” gives us hope for more recent spiritual history. He contends that the revelation of Scripture is not in the words on the page, but the spiritual understanding of the individual reading them. (After all, there are anthropologists and literary critics who have read Scripture inside and out but remain atheists; nothing has been revealed to them.) Bonaventure does not claim that any interpretation of Scripture has equal claim to being “revelation”; the authoritative interpretation is that found within the Church and her life of faith. Still, his definition may be seen as an invitation to consider “revelation” in a broader sense, one which allows us to apply the principles of Scripture to more recent events. I would not claim such an interpretation as authoritative or “revealed” in the same way as the Trinity is revealed, but I think it suggests a way out of Lewis’ dilemma.

Finally, we must consider the possibility of direct revelation, that is, spiritual insight apart from Scripture. The Church teaches that the revelation of doctrine is closed – expect no news flashes about a Fourth Person of the Godhead – but interpreting the events of history need not be a doctrinal matter. Thus, the historian who is faithful to prayer might reasonably consider the possibility of the Holy Spirit guiding his efforts.

This may sound a bit far from history as it is practiced in the academy. In fact, it may sound more like staring into a crystal ball. I advocate no such thing. But I do advocate an approach to history which is not divorced from faith. At the bottom of things I desire to understand history in a why that is meaningful, as are all things in a world created and sustained by a loving God.

That second distinction, you ask. Where is it? Today’s discussion has gone on long enough. Tomorrow we will consider divine and worldly history.
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