February 1, 2014

Progress in Historiology

The history of the study of history can be summarized in four stages of knowingness. Or at least, so I believe, as you’ll see outlined below. But first, here’s a personal disclaimer of sorts…

I set out years ago to discover why scholars of the New Testament do not write History based on the Gospels, or construct a more comprehensive History of Paul’s ministry among the earliest churches that’s based on implications of Acts combined with his letters. For almost as many years, I’ve also been trying to get past the most obvious (but grossly over-simplified) answer, which is simply that “liberal” historical-critics don’t accept enough of the first hand material, but then “conservative” Christian apologists don’t want to add things to what that material already says. Granted, that’s not necessarily wrong but it is grossly oversimplified. There must be more of an explanation for everything that is *and* is not being done, as regards History and the New Testament. Or at least, wouldn’t you think?

To this point, while I’ve not become anything like an expert historian of the historical and biblical studies professions, I may be finally grasping enough of the larger trends through recent centuries to attempt the following summation, and to consider where things may be headed. In that hope, if tentatively, here are my personal categories for the “Four Stages of the Historical Enterprise” (and a possible fifth). Note that these stages describe how professional historical understanding has advanced over time, both the general progress of the professional Academy at large and also the specific progress of individuals in the Academy, as well as some of us playing at home. So, without further ado…

The Four (or five?) Stages of Historical Engagement:

(1) Naïveté - history is everything that happened in the past

(2) Authority - history is what we, or they, or others have said about the past

(3) Criticism – authorized histories have failed to represent the past accurately or objectively

(4) Irony – criticism is the new authority; only skepticism is trustworthy; all histories are inherently unstable

(5) ??????? – ???????

Will there be a fifth stage? Can there be a fifth stage?

First, let’s consider how the first four stages interact with one another, simultaneously, still today.

Within the Academy, the fourth stage seems to have created somewhat of a self-perpetuating cycle. Any retreat to authority (2) results in further critique (3), which returns us to irony (4) which can multiply endlessly. The perceived futility (or merely natural frustration) explains the increasing attention to things like Historiography, Narratology, Narrative & Rhetoric, Reception History, Identity and Memory studies. Thus far, the attempt to account for what Y said about X has met with more agreement and less criticism,in general, though there are certainly exceptions. Meanwhile, only a few scholars along the way seem to have become hopelessly relativistic unlike most scholars, who simply acknowledge the difficulty of saying anything new in definitive ways. Overall, however, while traditional criticism still plays more effectively than straightforward history, especially narrative history, the strongest academic impulse is still a desire to avoid saying nothing. If there is nothing new to be said, they will find new ways to say something.

(Side note A: The few academics who insist that absolutely nothing can be said definitively are, themselves, firmly retreating to step two. Our progress toward abandoning metanarrative is, itself, a grand metanarrative! Thus, such theorists arguably make themselves the victims of irony, rather than leveraging it. But on such topics, at the moment, I really digress!)

(Side note B: The rise of micro-history suddenly seems more like a separate phenomenon, a new sub-field of history which appears to escape criticism largely because it treats subjects no one much cares to fight about and also partly because it builds from smaller pockets of source material that don’t leave historians with much grounds to fight over, anyway! But again, on this I really digress.)

Outside the Academy, and sometimes within it, a lot of people seem happily fixated at steps two or three. In actual practice, most people stick with chosen authors or critics, with loyalty to those voices coloring all further judgment. The need for them to be right makes the mind find ways of letting them be correct, and so those at steps (2) and (3) often stand with one foot back on step one because even criticism is now every bit as suspect as authority, and thus to dismiss the deep irony of our epistemological situation is in some way to remain partly naïve.

But the most extreme folks make a full retreat to stage (1), where those who reject all criticism outright find that doing so ultimately requires a rejection of human authority, also. That is, any attempt to enthrone Author X will eventually necessitate a defense against Critic Y, and no human author stays immune to all critics indefinitely. Thus, to reject criticism (3) in absolute terms requires a return not to authority (2) but to total naïveté (1), a position sustainable only by claiming inherently superior powers of discernment (blind arrogance) or special divine revelation (religious fundamentalism). This, of course, explains why Biblical Fundamentalism was born in recent centuries. Inerrancy doesn't support the authority of its adherents. It supports their need to be critically impervious. Contrast this with Calvin and Luther and Zwingli, each of whom made themselves little Popes – proclaiming the new order to their followers, revising but maintaining established traditions, asserting the priority of scriptural doctrines – and they did it all by the power of human authority. The Reformers knew what to do with a critic. It's the modernists, when they could no longer win, who organized a full scale retreat.

Ironically, this acknowledgement that only God's direct speaking can trump the invincible ironies of meta-criticism is, itself, evidence of Irony's (at least Earthly) supremacy. At least, one certain Truth on which everyone honestly agrees is that human beings aren't always correct. So as the fundamentalists retreated completely the academics stuck firmly in stage four made a sideways retreat, or forward progress on side trails, at least – examining things like the literary aspects of historical texts, the cultural values of memorializations, the commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries, the marginalized and the minor local events, the appreciation of narrative, the appreciation of ways in which writers have spoken for people groups and situated their various perspectives on the world, on the past, on who’s done what, and the endless if increasingly anchorless discussions about what, if anything, all of this means. We have all that, and it’s proving substantially valuable, but about what? What we are doing here now must always regard where we have come from. At some point, we still have to reference the past – the original, actual, as-it-actually-was, imperfectly remembered, largely forgotten, gone but still causing change – past times we once referred to as History! What about that? The neo-naïve have their view of the past and these postmodern perspectives provide other views on the past (or at least views about views of the past). But what do we still possess, if there is anything, that gives us a reliable procedure for knowing things about History?

I would like to propose a fifth stage for working with History which might accurately be called:

(5) Ironic Naïveté. That is, we don’t know what happened in the past but we do know something happened, and though we may not know what it was, we can represent multiple scenarios, at least one of which may contain important aspects of the truth. 

In short, Ironic Naïveté is a position that fully embraces our knowing uncertainty but does not demand certainty before attempting to increase what we know.

This coming new stage is one I believe has already begun, or has been recently anticipated by various aspects of postmodern work being done across fields related to history and literature. In my view, this fifth stage – once recognized – will be understood best not precisely an escape from or as a way to move past the perceived impasse of the fourth stage. Rather, this “fifth stage” is another compounded response, as the previous stages each responded to one another in turn, each time compounding our understanding of how the study of History works – what it does, what it is, what it can be, what it cannot be – just a little bit more at each stage. In other words, this “fifth stage” is merely a way of embracing the proper finality of the fourth stage while partially restoring the more positive aspects of bygone stages one through three.

To summarize this idea more in terms of those categories, then, this new fifth stage basically needs to say something like this:
(1) something or other must have happened at times in the past,
(2) we can’t talk about that past without making somewhat authoritative types of claims,
(3) those claims must remain tentative at best because they might not be accurate.

In this way of attempted knowing, or proposing new knowledge, the unstable history suddenly has a chance to become more stable, both in offering multiple viewpoints (one of which is likely to be right) and also in reducing the extent to which one viewpoint must successfully ‘hold weight’. In addition, if multiple scenarios sometimes happen to possess significant commonalities, then those common aspects of the newly reconstructed and pluriform past, perhaps, may be seen to hold more weight, by virtue of holding that weight together.

At any rate, that’s what I think is already beginning to happen. And I hope it happens more and more. But if I’m at all close to correct, and if this movement does continue to take hold, and if it advances, I must also predict that it will not and cannot ever render anything like total confluence, although perhaps there will occur more significant instances of a minor confluence in particular areas.

Not that consensus is somehow the ultimate authority, it must also be noted! No, honestly and in my very humble opinion, there is one and indeed only one Ultimate Authority. So I do believe. But I also believe, if for worse or for better, that God Almighty simply does not seem to speak with us very often.

In the meantime, therefore, we must say what we can.

And so?

What will you say, to these things?????

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