Loving History, Knowing History

Thanks to Marginal Revolution once again for sharing a fascinating but perhaps not surprising article about ethics professors. The upshot is, apparently, they do not act any more ethically than the rest of us.

So the natural question arises then, what good are professors who teach ethics?  Would it be possible for an ethics professor to live badly and teach ethics well?  What about other disciplines?

Of course 99% of ethical questions seem perfectly obvious to answer.  So, as a friend pointed out, professors of ethics have to make their hay in the disputed areas where debate exists and the classroom might get a bit more interesting.  The article states,

An ethicist who feels obligated to live as she teaches will be motivated to avoid highly self-sacrificial conclusions, such as that the wealthy should give most of their money to charity or that we should eat only a restricted subset of foods. Disconnecting professional ethicists’ academic enquiries from their personal choices allows them to consider the arguments in a more even-handed way. If no one expects us to act in accord with our scholarly opinions, we are more likely to arrive at the moral truth.

In other words, there lies the implicit belief that to teach well one must distance oneself from the material so as to be more “even-handed.”

This gets at the whole purpose of teaching and education in general.  What follows below attempts to reproduce a conversation I had with a good friend and colleague.

If we hope to arrive at satisfactory conclusions regarding ethics or other subjects, we must start first with theology, the “queen of the sciences.”

One can take two basic approaches to God:

  • Know something, believe something, then finally love something, or
  • Love something, believe, then know

Scripture and the history of God’s people clearly endorse the latter option, though in modern times we tend to prefer the first.  In the Psalms we see numerous examples of something like this:

  • The author struggles with evil
  • Doubts God’s presence, His goodness
  • Goes to worship God, then
  • Arrives at the right knowledge and understanding of who God is

So too in the Gospels, Jesus rebukes the people when they ask for a sign.  We shouldn’t interpret this so much as Jesus saying, “You’re so weak and impatient!” but more like, “That’s not how you can truly know me,” which is what He wants for all of us.

The idea of establishing some kind of clinical distance from God and taking a piece of him out to examine is utterly absurd. Surely even skeptics would agree that such an approach would not allow us to know God, and if it could, what kind of God would we have?  So the best theologian would have the best prayer life, whatever form that took.

In an ecumenical environment the Bible teacher might need an even-handed approach with certain topics.  In teaching baptism he may need to give arguments for and against infant baptism.  But his goal should be to have students love baptism.  If a student came to the said teacher privately and asked, “Which do you believe?” we would rightly be aghast if he said, “I have no commitment either way.  It’s all the same to me.  I baptized one of my kids as an infant and another as an adult.”  The teacher would not love baptism.  For him, the discussion he led remained a mere game.  He would not teach his students to love baptism, but to think of baptism as a mere game.

So “detachment” from a particular conclusion may have its place at times, but knowing how and when depends.  The idea of “analyzing” God is absurd for so many reasons.  He is mystery and entirely transcendent.  Perhaps the level of analysis we apply has to do with the degree of mystery and transcendence in our subject.  A music teacher hears a piece of music and thinks, “What a great song.  I love it.”  This love then might lead them to analyze the piece and its tempo, chord changes, and so on.  But who would begin with analysis?  No one says to themselves, “This song has ‘x’ tempo, ‘y’ chord changes, and ‘z’ meter, so therefore I love this song.”  The transcendent qualities of great music, and the mysterious nature of its effect on us, renders that approach almost meaningless.

Indirectly the study of History should lead us to the love of God, just as in any other subject.  But that’s not the first port of call, but the second.  Directly History involves the study of people.  Most of us know that we remain a mystery to ourselves. What of our perception of others, and how should this impact our methodology?  Music has transcendent qualities, but do everyday people?  The question is difficult.  In biology the need to lead with “love” over “analysis” gets much reduced because we have dominion over matter.  As Pascal stated, matter might crush us, but we know it does so, while matter has no consciousness. We should analyze the bacteria before deciding whether or not to “love” it.

For the relationship between love and analysis for the History teacher, let us imagine three different teachers numbered 1-3:

  1. This teacher has a passionate love and identification with the colonial cause and the American Revolution.  With just as much passion, he also teaches his students that Nazi fascism is evil.  His students absorb his passion and his conclusions in both subjects.
  2. This teacher has no firm conclusions about the American Revolution and feels it a “tough call either way.”  He teaches both sides of the argument well.  When teaching W.W. II, however, he also teaches the evil of Nazi fascism.  His students split on their opinions about the Revolution.  On fascism they come out of his class with a more full understanding of evil.
  3. This teacher has no firm conclusions on either the American Revolution or W.W. II.  When it comes to the Nazis he remains “objective” and even-handed, giving arguments for and against the merits of their world view.  Some of his students take the British side, some the American.  Some of his students take the Allied side, some identify with the Axis powers.

Teacher ‘3’ should never teach.  His teaching would lead people either to cynicism or evil living.  No good history teacher should consistently produce students who apply their knowledge to live evil lives.

But would we prefer teacher ‘1’ or ‘2’?

Theology has two basic approaches to God.  One is the way of affirmation — what we can truthfully say about God (Dante stands as the greatest master of this “way” still today, in my opinion).  Apophatic theology stresses that we can know God best by stating what He is not.  God is so fundamentally “other” from us that our affirmations will always remain deeply inadequate.  Both approaches have their place.  In the discipline of History I think the way of negation safer.*

We can say with certainty that God is not “in” the Nazi regime.  We lack the same certainty when discussing the American Revolution.  In History in general I think we can more often say what God is not than what God is.

This should not mean that we should have a goal of the “detached” teacher.  When we think of great teachers we had in the past we probably think of teachers that had a definite point of view.  They loved something about their subjects.  The key to teaching History well must lie in deciding what the proper object of love is in the study of History.

If we attach our love too heartily to particular people, eras, or civilizations we will likely obscure their faults and not teach them truly.  But a worse fate would mean becoming one of those historians that loves to point out everything bad about everything and seems to enjoy nothing at all.  The first teacher would wrongly order his love but at least love something.  The second has only cynicism and no sympathy for anyone or anything.

Nor should we say that what we love the process of investigation or method in the study of history.  We can use the term “love” in this case to mean “I find a certain process of investigation useful.”  But who can truly “love” a process?  What good is the process?  Where does it lead?

So to return to our question above . . .

I lean towards teacher #2.  Teacher #1 has the distinct advantage of communicating a clear passion (of course the American Revolution is just a stand-in for other events/people, political parties, that involve moral grey areas, etc.).  It’s easier to have a passionate dislike as opposed to something positive, so he gets credit there as well.  But teacher #2 can still have passion and communicate a love for much more than a process even if he has more caution in what he attaches himself to.  Applied rightly, the method he uses extends his sympathy and his humility.  This humility goes beyond intellectual humility.  The historian sees the complexity of a situation and realizes that salvation cannot come in this world and that failure inevitably comes.  We would not necessarily have acted more wisely had we been in their place.

What we love through this method, finally and hopefully, involves a vision and a desire for the Kingdom of God made manifest.  This should not preclude us having a warm attachment to certain people and places in history.  It might protect us from the danger of idolatry inherent in the “Way of Affirmation.”**  It seeks our own redemption as we identify with those in the past.  It seeks the redemption of others as we see their need for transformation of the fallenness of the world.

The dance between idolatry and detachment will always remain delicate, but we should understand that we’re near the truth when we see this tension.  Such tension lies throughout Christianity.  God is One God in three distinct Persons.  Christ is God and man, and so on.  When faced with such a dilemma we affirm both equally and finitely hold them in tension as best we can.

The time has come to end this rambling before I exhaust any more of your patience.

“Too late!” say my kids.


*The way of affirmation usually involves metaphors or similes.  The potential problem with this is our reference point which inevitably involves our own experience.  For a few centuries we said God designed the universe like a clock maker makes a clock.  Now that the clock has gone out of fashion, we no longer use this metaphor.  Did God create like a clock maker? Maybe, but probably not?  How can we be sure?  Perhaps we can see some faint or very basic connection between creation and the clock, but I think it safer to say God did not create the universe like a clock.

**The danger of the “Way of Negation” would probably involve a safe detachment that precluded practicing love.  Taken to extreme, could such an approach prevent one from loving even oneself?  If that happened, we could not love others either.