June 18, 2012

Exercising Historical Imagination

Richard Bauckham's book, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospelshas a 94 page long fifth chapter called "Joanna the Apostle". That chapter begins to crescendo on its 86th page with a section called, "The Historical Joanna - A Sketch". Justifying the sketch, here is that chapter's first paragraph (which I have cut into three parts, for better digestion):
"No historical reconstruction is possible without the exercise of historical imagination. What follows is my attempt to draw historical findings together into a sketch of the life of Joanna, using historically informed imagination to draw possible inferences from the evidence but stopping short of the kind of imaginative speculation that goes far beyond the evidence.
Note the contrast. Properly understood, "historical imagination" is very different from "imaginative speculation". Bauckham continues:
"Inevitably, gaps have to be filled and other reconstructions are possible (and this statement exempts me from tedious repetition of "probably" and "perhaps" in the sketch: readers may judge the degrees of probability for themselves); but, so long as we are aware of the limitations of the evidence, historical reconstruction of this kind is a valuable aid to historical understanding.
Terms like "probably" are a scholar's tool for claiming modest victories. Note that Bauckham prefers the term "possible" to describe his reconstruction, and further states that reconstruction is not the whole game, but an "aid" to our comprehension of history.

And now comes the best part:
"We enter another time and place by understanding both the facts, more or less probably established, and the possibilities they suggest. Even the unrealized possibilities are part of history. It is the possibilities of history, realized and unrealized, that make it relevant to the present."
And with that, plus a footnote, he begins, "Joanna was born into one of the prominent and wealthy Jewish families of Galilee and grew up in one of the small castles that dotted the Galilean hills..." Now, that's not going too far out on a limb, really, if one has done one's homework and calculated safe odds. And Bauckham has. (Go check out the preceeding 85 pages if you don't want to just trust me.)

In my humble opinion, bravely focusing on historical possibilities is infinitely more profitable than defiantly embracing historical ignorance. As I quoted last week from Vanhoozer's study of Ricoeur: "it is by reading stories and histories that we learn what is humanly possible."

So, what does all this mean to me, personally?

The study of History shows us that possibilities are endless and that people both act and are acted upon in the face of great change. If that is what History actually is, there can be little wonder why Institutional Christendom has always tended to resist embracing what History actually does.

Exercise, saints. Imagine. Conceive. Humbly measure your limitations and avoid wild speculation. But exercise.

Exercise your historical imagination, by examining the past... and then exercise your historical imagination by creating the future.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton