This month students in our capstone course, Senior Seminar, have been reading through Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Last Monday we read chapters rethinking how Christians understand historical theories and methods.
In “The Problems of Preaching through History,” Messiah College professor James LaGrand (an expert on Native American history) warns that “conflating historical understanding and preaching by focusing first and foremost on a political agenda poses significant problems” (p. 191). He concludes that Christians can “find purpose in the vocation of the Christian historian as historian, and not only in the life of a Christian historian as an activist or revolutionary” (p. 209).
In her seminar journal entry for the week, Ro Tollefson (’13), strongly agrees, and reports that LaGrand’s recommendations are mostly followed in the Bethel History department. (In this series Ro has previously written about the limits of science, and in favor of historians focusing solely on the acquisition of knowledge rather than its application.)
I prefer the model which finds “purpose in the vocation of the Christian historian as historian”. I believe that history should be studied in as unbiased a manner as possible, by both the secular and the religious historian. I believe that they should all adhere to rigorous standards that enable the findings they portray to be as accurate as is possible. This is essential because if the history is not based on fact, but instead based on bias, there is truly little to learn. Or rather, what can be learned could also be learned just as well by a myth or parable. Practicing history as a historian is what makes history a valuable tool to use and learn from. It can only be a useful tool if it comes from fact as much as is possible, and not from an individual’s pre-conceived ideas or interpretations.
I also believe that once history is gathered in this factual, rigorous way it is then that the Christian can learn from what has happened in the past through the circumstances and lives of others. This is the point at which interpretations can be made and humanity can be studied and perhaps even the hand of God can be identified in some ways.
That said, I would not necessarily consider this second step of interpretation as falling under the category of the profession of the historian. No, this second step would be bringing the Christian into a different area, one more of philosophy or religion. At this point it is necessary to differentiate it from the role of historian and call it what it is – something other than history. That is not to say it is any less important or substantial, indeed in some cases it could be viewed as more important. However, I still think the two must be separated. History can be used as a tool for the Christian, but the tool itself must be crafted within its own guidelines for accuracy so that it may be of true use and value to the Christian.
As for my experience at Bethel University, I have found that, although the professors educating are Christian, this has not had a profound biasing effect on what material is learned in the courses. Yes, professors do incorporate their faith into their classrooms and it is known to the students that the professor holds such a Christian worldview, but I believe the material selected is still adequate for the courses. I think that I have learned as much as I would have at a secular institution that did not incorporate Christianity into their classrooms. I think that the student is able to separate what is Christian from the rest of the material and make their own decision.
The material is not overly clouded by Christian influence that it is unrecognizable apart from it or skewed because of it. Some may not appreciate the Christian influence within the teaching style, but they then should choose an institution with another environment more fitted to them. I don’t believe the material learned is “jeopardized” at Bethel due to the professor’s Christian faith. In fact, they may even do more to emphasize other viewpoints held because I can sense that they are aware of the fact that their faith affects their profession in certain ways. This is something I have not seen at secular institutions. I have seen the opposite in fact, where professors have flatly proclaimed that their worldview is correct (usually agnosticism and evolution) and that to entertain otherwise is lunacy. Bethel professors I believe do well in avoiding this kind of judgement, and are careful not to exude such a black and white attitude, knowing that the students are of diverse backgrounds and thinking.
- Ro Tollefson