Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

61IBluU1ZiL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Vintage, 2010), 587 pages.

My guess is that many do not know to what America’s Great Migration refers. Reconstruction, the Great Depression, Progressive Era, Jim Crow, or the Early Republic are all recognizable eras and events, but the Great Migration is not as well known. This refers to a phenomena where “over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an existence in nearly every other corner of America” (9). This lasted from First World War all the way through the 1960s. Quite simply it transformed the South, the North, the Midwest, the West, and any other region of the continental United States you can think of, particularly the urban areas. The way that urban areas are even set up in most cities today reflects the phenomena that Wilkerson talks about. This is nothing new, but the depth of detail and the connection to real stories is unforgettable.

This was easily one of the best books that I have ever read. Everything about it hit the mark. Its writing was clear and compelling, even gripping at times. Its topic and content was incredibly interesting and important. Its research is meticulous and undeniable. The author knows well the literature surrounding her subject and deals well when interacting with other historians. More than that, she conducted more than 1,200 interviews with those who were a part of the event she writes about. The most impressive part is how she weaves together the scholarly historical study with the massive narrative evidence. Altogether, it is a stunning piece of history.

This is a work of narrative non-fiction. This means that the author writes history, but gives it not just through a lecture manuscript filled with annotated footnotes showing her scholarship. Rather, this book tells the story of the Great Migration through the lens of three main characters. The broader scholarly historical explanations are brought in at numerous points to give context to each of the three individual narratives. And during these broader explanations, she uses the many interview details she collected to bolster her presentations. The payout is that you are presented with living history while you follow three highly compelling stories. I can think of no better example of narrative non-fiction writing.

Wilkerson follows her three main stories from their early lives in the south, detailing the intense daily struggle they experienced. The story is that in the South after the Civil War, life for black Americans was very difficult, primarily through Jim Crow laws and customs. Segregation, sharecropping, harassment, vandalism, and the racial terror used to enforce Jim Crow were ubiquitous. Black Americans had to live by these written and unwritten rules under the specter of terror. Even answering a greeting toward a white person without proper etiquette could result in death. “Across the America South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as ‘stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks’ or ‘trying to act like a white person'” (39). Such a number should cause a shock, but it is almost certainly an under-representation. The individuals the author interviews all saw beatings, harassments, rapes, tortures, and lynchings that were not recorded. The reality of life for black Americans caused them to look North for other options (‘the warmth of other suns’) where they might build a new life. Many left the South with that hope.

The book then chronicles the various routes taken by Southern migrants to a variety of Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities as well as their struggle to establish themselves once there. The reality is that the “other suns” were not always terribly warm. The road to these new worlds were often difficult and dangerous. And even once the migrants arrived at a new city it was difficult to get a foothold. While segregation was not always lawful in these places, it was certainly present everywhere. The job options were limited for black migrants (despite the fact that many of them had more education/qualification than many of their white competitors), the education options were limited, and residential segregation limited even where they could live. City planners would determine which areas were to be white-only. Neighborhoods would have official and unofficial covenants disallowing black residents. And even when these options were not in place, harassments and vandalism could often overwhelm and ultimately drive away any would-be-tenant. Racial segregation permeated every aspect of life.

The end of the book recounts the drastically changed American scene one hundred years after the migration began and several decades after it ended. The three stories told show how, despite the difficulties of the new locations, the migrants were, by-and-large, quite happy with their choice to go. Their individual choices ultimately changed the landscape of American history. Indeed, the landscape is so changed that (much smaller) migrations are seeming to take place away from some of the urban areas of the North, Midwest, and West in a turnaround from what the three main characters lived through.

It can be very hard to read the details of this dark period of American history. But I would say that it is really important. The fact that so many Americans relocated has had an incalculable effect on life in America, both in the places they went and the places they left. It is pretty interesting to me that many history books seem to overlook this huge change of landscape. We might know that one hundred thousand people migrated to California during the gold rush or that three hundred thousand migrated out of the Midwest due to the Dust Bowl, but what about the over six million who relocated due to racial oppression of Jim Crow? But, as Wilkerson shows, this Migration had undeniable causes and effects. Such a massive moving of people and the cloud of racial prejudice that surrounded it on all sides has undeniably had many ripples that we continue to feel. How the South is now structured, how inner cities are shaped, how the suburbs came to be, where the urban manufacturing jobs are located, and the socio-economic situations of urban areas (along with other important realities of American life) cannot be explained apart from this story.

I cannot think of a better place to get acquainted with this era than this book. It is like having three walking tour guides through history. There are very few books that I have finished and felt I had read a masterpiece, but this was one. I would encourage anyone to pick this up and read it. It’s a compelling read, but it also has gut-wrenching moments. It is hard to read any story of torture and murder, but when it was racially based, and sometimes even geared toward minors, it will hit deep. But this is an hugely consequential part of the American story. Read the book. My guess is you will learn something new about the formation of America as we know it today.

Bucket-Head History and the Vice of Non-Falsifiability

Memorizing long lists of names, dates, and events is a frustrating yet common experience to history students. We can all picture a teacher standing like a statue by a chalkboard droning on and on while giving names and dates ad nauseum. This is not a good look for history. And, I would say that it is history done poorly. If the simple mention of the word “history” makes you want to fall asleep or cringe at having to put your memorization skills to the test, then you have not been properly introduced to what history can and should be. It is what I refer to as bucket-head history. There is an old (and bad!) idea that when you take a history class, your brain is like a giant bucket that the teacher is filling up with facts and dates. This will make history very boring. The bigger problem is that there are holes in the bottom of the bucket and the information being poured in seeps out. Or, as is true for many, there is no bottom to the bucket at all and it just goes in the top and out the bottom. Learning history like this is frustrating and ineffectual. There are better ways to think about history. 

We have to start by recognizing that history is not just simply the past. History is better understood as the “remembered past” (to borrow a phrase from John Lukacs). This is where C. S. Lewis’s short essay, “Historicism,” is helpful. Lewis explained that if you take one moment of time and that one moment represents one drop of water, then think about the incredible complexity of that one drop of water. That one moment is beyond our ability to grasp. So much happens in every moment in just one person’s life that it is staggering to extrapolate that one moment and every person on the planet. Now consider the past. For Lewis, it is like “a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond imagination.” Imagine that roaring stream flowing over a waterfall. The historian is the one standing at the bottom of the waterfall, holding out a cup, and catching some of the past. The question is not whether historians can know the past comprehensively (that is beyond all possibility). The question is whether historians know anything about the past at all. Historians have no choice but to pick and choose a small sample of what happened and weave it together into a narrative.

41mkizc-ncL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Just to be clear, as an aside, this does not make me a relativist. There is a difference between historical neutrality and historical objectivity (as Carl Trueman has said) or between absolute truth and probable truth (as Richard Evans has said). When historical fallacies are avoided and positive evidence is correctly presented according to proper historical methods there there can be objectivity or probable truth.

To make history interesting the historian tells a compelling story. This presents history as coherent and explains causal connections. The good news is that this helpfully replaces bucket-head history. But there can be a danger on the other end. It is tempting to come up with a paradigm of what is happening in history and then let this hypothesis become the grand scheme to which all historical evidence must conform. Carl Trueman, in his book Histories and Fallacies, spends an entire chapter talking about these “grand schemes and misdemeanors.” Trueman gives an extended example of Marxism and its all-explaining theory. Marxism is a theory of everything which argues all history is understood dialectically in terms of class struggle. The purpose of discussing Marxism is to show it is a grand scheme that forces all evidence to fit. A thoroughgoing Marxist believes that all actions are ultimately driven by material class struggle. Historically speaking, it is really hard to prove that, despite the elaborate schemes Marxist historians create.

The fundamental problem with such an overarching scheme of history is that it fails Karl Popper’s falsifiability test. There is literally nothing that can prove Marxism wrong because the theory is controlling of all evidence. A non-Marxist might be able to present evidence that someone’s actions were fundamentally motivated by religion or by good-will toward others, but a Marxist would reject it. They have a category of false consciousness wherein someone thinks they are acting according to religion or something else, but in reality there is an underlying explanation of material class struggle going on. You can see that Marxism twists and distorts evidence to fit their preconceived scheme (you can also see how they call religion the opium of the masses). Trueman describes it as “an all-encompassing aprioristic view of reality into which the phenomena of history must be made to fit, whether by fair means or foul” (101). It is nonfalsifiable and, ultimately, a Procrustean bed.

I don’t think most conservative Christians are tempted toward Marxist explanations of history, but we are often tempted toward other grand schemes (what my former professor John Woodbridge called “paradigmatic history”). Several examples in church history can be given: the repeated recourse to calling conservative theology a child of Scottish common-sense realism, distinguishing Calvin from the calvinists, Harnack’s hellenization thesis, assuming a strong distinction between Antiochene literal exegesis and Alexandrian allegorical exegesis, and saying that church history “fell” after Constantine and has not recovered yet. This also does not mean that we cannot use some scheme or paradigm for historical understanding. But we must see those schemes as heuristic and not prescriptive. Problematic grand narratives are often all-encompassing and utilize fanciful schemes to explain contrary evidence away. Good history is always open to revision based off further evidence and proper historical reasoning (and I’ll say it again: that is not relativism).

Good history is not disjunctive, boring history and it is not paradigmatic history. The problem with such historical schemes is that they simply do not convince many who do not already agree. Eventually, a mountain of evidence and contrary explanations will collapse such explanations. And, they are not being fundamentally honest with the evidence. A better path is to have humility enough to admit we are prone to error and our understandings of history are never above correction. And there are other practical benefits to being able think this way. It is not just historical schemes that can be paradigmatic. It is easy to skim the political scene today and realize that many (on the left and the right) basically understand politics according to unfalsifiable grand schemes (one example would be reference to the “deep state” as somehow an explanation for contrary evidence).

Good historical thinking forces us to be honest with contrary evidence and honest with the limitations of our own explanations. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is not relativism. Solid evidence can be found and can be marshaled in favor of various historical narratives. Not all explanations are created equal and not all evidence is equally strong and convincing. The root problem, though, is us. Our limitations demand some humility and caution.

Thinking Sensibly about Unicorns

horse chest piece on chess board

Nearly everyone agrees that history is necessary subject in school. We all agree that it is helpful to know history. But the truth is that we do not always agree on what it means to “know history.” Maybe a better way to say it is that we do not always agree on what it means to think historically. Books, books, and more books have been written on this subject. I want to mention just one piece of this puzzle, and also unicorns.

One famous article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke distill historical thinking to five basic sensitivities. These “five C’s of historical thinking” are change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. If someone can weave these sensibilities into their thinking process, they are well on their way to good historical thinking. The categories are not too hard to understand. The problem is that they are unnatural and thus hard to learn.

When trying to understand anything we take our frame of reference (our knowledge, experiences, and habits of mind) and apply it to what we are confronted with in order to make sense of it. When someone travels to a new place they can make sense of a lot of what is happening, but definitely not all of it. This understanding can be complicated if they do not know the language. It can be complicated if the dominant religion is different. It can be complicated if we know nothing of the history of this location. It can be complicated for many reasons. If you live in Minnesota (which I have for about 16 months as of writing this) it takes some time to learn in what ways “Minnesota nice” is different than other kinds of “nice.”

61q8hSE8AhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We begin to overcome these potential misunderstandings by assuming we do not know what all these things mean (I’m still working on the Minnesota nice one). This is where we can apply the five C’s. The fact is that good historians are almost never satisfied with quick solutions when a new problem arises. They have the developed sensibility to think patiently and “cultivate puzzlement,” as Sam Wineburg mentioned in his widely referenced book: Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. The main point is that when we approach something new and different we have to realize that our frames of references are pretty limited in comparison to the vastness of human history. Epistemic humility is a basic assumption. We have to keep asking questions so that we can build a thick understanding of something. Hard questions almost never have easy answers. We cannot begin to truly know something until we first agree that we do not know everything about that thing. When criticized, many in our day like to retort that “you don’t know me!” And, based on the five C’s of historical thinking, they are probably right. Here Wineburg is pure gold: “Paradoxically, what allows us to come to know others is our distrust in our capacity to know them, a skepticism about the extraordinary sense-making abilities that allow us to construct the world around us” (24).

That brings me to unicorns. Wineburg relates a story from the travels of Marco Polo where he was confronted with a new animal. He did what we all do, he tried to make sense of it through his frame of reference. He was confused by this new type of animal, “which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo…[and] a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead. They do not attack with their horns, but only with their tongues and their knees; for their tongues are furnished with long sharp spines.” Polo concluded he had seen a unicorn. The problem was that “they are very ugly brutes to look at…not at all such as we describe them when…they let themselves be captured by virgins” (quoted in Wineburg, 24). Polo’s problem was his frame of reference had to be expanded. To actually understand what he was seeing required he not assume he had a wide enough frame of reference to understand. Again, Wineburg is right: “Our encounter with history presents us with a choice: to learn about rhinoceroses or to learn about unicorns. We naturally incline toward unicorns—they are prettier and more tame. But it is the rhinoceros that can teach us far more than we could ever imagine” (24). We ought to cultivate the historical sensibilities that help us see the things of the past that are unusual to us. Without them we see unicorns instead of rhinos. This is what it means to understanding history on its own terms.

You may notice that throughout this article I explored rules of historical thinking and applied them to thinking in general. That is because these ways of thinking are really helpful in our general life. A little humility, a little sensibility about the unusual, and a little more patient, deliberate thinking would go a long way. That is the heart of why history as a subject has long been considered necessary to nearly every level of education. It is more than just the events and people of history that is important, it is the ability to think well about history that we are after. Good historical thinking is a necessary skill, but it has to be cultivated.

Old Christian Histories

IMG_4156Part of my stay-at-home reading has been some old church histories. These have included Athanasius’s Life of Antony, Eusebius’s The Church History, and Bede’s A History of the English Church and People (normally titled Ecclesiastical History of the English People). In their own ways, each of these books have significantly shaped subsequent church history.

Eusebius is called the Father of church history based on his works, and The Church History is his most significant. Written in the early fourth century, this work chronicles the early church from the time of Christ through the time of Constantine’s consolidation of the Eastern and Western Empires. As you read through this book, a few things stand out: (1) The church survived truly terrible political leaders. (2) Those “who confessed unto death” were geographically widespread, were well-represented by all age groups, and were truly massive in numbers. These stories are not for the squeamish, but they are for all Christians. As Tertullian said, their blood was the seed of the church. (3) Devastating famines and plagues were regular. (4) The faithful were always ready to combat the heresies that were always close at hand. And (5) Eusebius is a careful historian who understood and utilized proper sources. These themes, his careful work, combined with his “triumphalist” attitude have made this an enduring work.

The Life of Antony is a very different read. Athanasius’s book is the archetypical Christian hagiography. This late-fourth century work was the first Christian work to lay out what a faithful life looks like from beginning to end. Antony was raised a Christian but looked for a deeper spiritual life. This book walks through his journey to find this deeper relationship with God. For Antony, the answer was living as a hermit and withstanding the incessant onslaught of demons by learning complete and total dependance on Christ and his resources. He sold all he had, denied all comforts and most food, recited Scripture (perhaps memorized all of it), knocked out Satan by the sign of the cross, and prayed constantly. He not only succeeded through these trials but he also helped others in their growth. The Life of Antony inspired countless Christians to take up the monastic life, which has proved to be one of the most important institutions in world history.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede is yet another kind of history. This fast-paced, eighth-century book is not only the earliest church history of England, it is the earliest history of England that exists. It chronicles the growth and development of Christianity in England from the first century up to the eighth as the local Celtic Christianity clashed with Celtic Paganism and with the Catholic Church. Names such as Alban, Aidan, Sigbert, Caedmon, and Cuthbert are all introduced here. As you read about the early inhabitants of “Albion,” the coming of the Romans and the Angles, the founding of churches, monasteries, cities, and kingships, recurrent plagues, and the struggle for Christianity as it fought paganism and syncretistic heresy it is easy to be drawn into the forests, mountains, and islands of a disunited Britain.

All three of these works are worth reading on their own merit, but together perhaps a few helpful thoughts can be drawn out. This brings me to a more recent book, Retrieving History, by Stefana Dan Laing. These older Christian histories, and others after them, were much more than simple presentation of facts and timelines, though they did that in highly accurate ways. According to Laing, these histories served two primary purposes. There was “a pedagogical intent to instruct the audience through the narrative by providing examples, and a providential purpose, as writers attempted to answer questions about what drives the action in historical events” (20). Laing then argues this was “accomplished via four characteristic features: narrative (narratio or historia), remembrance (memoria or anamnesis), imitation (imitatio or mimesis), and causation (aitia).” These old histories were written to help Christians in a tangible way. They were written in a lively manner (narration) meant to create a culture of remembrance leading to imitation of the good and learning from the bad. They were not afraid to explain what caused what, which could be natural or supernatural. God was not only in control, but also actively bringing about his purposes in the world.

Two things from these old Christian histories stand out: (1) the presence of the communion of saints that came before us and (2) the sovereignty of the God we worship. We don’t study history just so that we can claim that we know our history. These types of history are meant as examples to train us for future circumstances, be that everyday discipleship, plague, heresy, or even martyrdom. And, the God that proved himself faithful and made his church great through the ages is the same God we follow and worship. All things do work providentially toward his prescribed telos. Christian history is an essential. We must preserve this collective memory so that it will continue to carry forward our Christian identity. “As we remember our forebears, we ought always to look to their God, the God of history, of whom they bore witness, our great God who accomplished his work through women and men in every era to build up the church” (199). Amen.

Navigating Theological Retrieval

Much has been written on theological retrieval in recent years. I have written a little on it before as well (here). This subject is really broad and includes many intertwined issues. Because I find it helpful to work through the various issues at play on any subject and unwind them, I am going to attempt to put in writing some of this unwinding I’ve done mentally over the years. This is longer than a normal blog post, but I’ve found this a helpful exercise and I hope you will too. If you haven’t explored this discussion, you might be surprised to find so many different issues at play and you might be surprised to see how large the theological retrieval umbrella is. To help make sense of the terrain, I will lay out some of the background, definitions, motivations, and major issues at play. This won’t be exhaustive, but it gives an entry point.

motivational quote

Background

Theological retrieval is a close relative to the general practice of church history — or better yet, historical theology — so it has been around a while. However, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the use of the language of retrieval. Enough so that it is clearly not equal to historical theology. Understanding the background helps show this.

At this point it might be helpful to list several instantiations of theological retrieval. You will notice that they come from a lot of different starting points and have a lot of different goals. But it is what they have in common that we want to notice. Here are a few: Roman Catholic ressourcement, la nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and Maurice Blondel, the paleo-orthodoxy of Thomas Oden, the ancient-future Christianity of Robert Webber, the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank and Graham Ward, the many varieties of theological interpretation of Scripture, the Evangelical ressourcement of D. H. Williams, and even the post liberalism of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. Again, this is just a representative list.

If you are familiar with these groups, or if you are just looking at their names, you might notice that these are spread over a good amount of time, reflect a wide range of theological viewpoints, and do not do retrieval the same way. This variety is important to note. If you come out and say you accept or reject theological retrieval you are not necessarily identifying with any or all of these theologians and theological projects.

As I see it, the core idea is a pushback against the way that many have done theology and historical theology, particularly in modernity, which might sound like an odd place to find agreement. It pushes against the epistemology of pride that argues that individuals are most successful when self-reliant (individualism). It also pushes against the chronological snobbery (to use C. S. Lewis’s term) that insists what is newer is inherently better than what is older. This shows itself in those theologies and histories that neglect or outright reject much of historical Christianity. Within a lot of contemporary Christian thinking, chronological snobbery would not normally snub its nose at the apostolic era, but it would at much of the patristics, medievals, and perhaps even the Reformers.

Recognizing the variety of retrieval and their shared foil helps construct an understanding of the idea as a whole and move toward a definition.

Definition

John Webster has written about some of the common resemblances and differences. He argues that they are all diverse enough over both chronological time and theological confession that they do not really constitute a school or even a movement. More to the point, Webster sees theologies of retrieval as a “mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks.” The attitude of mind that Webster talks about is what brings them together. They see a problem, a need, and a solution. The problem is the way things have been done in much of modern theology as I mentioned above. The need is to better equip modern theology to be better rooted and thus more robust. The solution is retrieval of the sources, methods, and content of classic Christianity.

I find one more definitional aspect important. W. David Buschart and Kent Eilers highlight the fact that retrieval is not a simple turn to the past so that one can read a little here, put in a footnote of an old source there, or appreciate a quote on social media. Retrieval is an intensification of one’s attitude toward the past. This means that one will read the past responsibly, which means understanding context and spending time learning by letting them explain what they mean. Intensification points to the responsibility to receive the deposit of the past and transmit it on the future. It’s avoiding shallowness and intentionally drawing deep from the old wells. This is nothing new, and that is part of the point, but it is something that has been missing from much modern historical theology.

So for an attempt at a definition: Retrieval is an intensified attitude of mind toward the past with the hope of benefitting the present. Theological retrieval is applying this to the study of theology past and present. It points to a certain disposition of mind toward the past. The problems theological retrieval are combatting are not completely foreign to traditional Christianity. I would argue that much of our contemporary Christian culture could be described by individualism, relativism, and a thin understanding of history at best. Retrieval wants to help remedy this. Thus, I find this posture quite helpful and necessary.

Motivations

Lest you think this is much ado about nothing. Let’s not forget why this is important.

We’ve talked about this some, so let me sum up where we’ve been and add some more meat to the bones: despite the varieties of retrieval, three broad ideas are held in common. First, one must be careful to understand the history of the church on its own terms rather than through any preconceived notion of what someone ought to be saying (which is a real danger, succumbed to quite often). Second, this understanding of historiography is normally pursued based on certain biblical and theological convictions, particularly (1) the inadequacy of modern options, (2) the assumption of the reality and epistemic priority of a God who has revealed himself, (3) confidence and appreciation for classical conceptions of theology, their sources, and their language, as well as (4) the conviction that doctrine is meant for the church and is to be embodied there. Which naturally leads to the third commonality: retrieval must be done in order to bolster exegesis, theology, and practice today (for more on these commonalities, see the works by Webster and Buschart and Eilers).

Retrieval is worried about historical shallowness, distortion, and artificiality. It seeks to bolster self-awareness and rootedness for the sake of our current situation. Gavin Ortlund helpfully suggests that retrieval can function as schoolmaster, foreign guide, and outside eyes.

In an essay I wrote elsewhere (here) I mentioned another important motivation.

Not overlooking these qualifications, proponents of retrieval generally maintain that this use of history better handles our own limitations (sinfulness and finitude) and our responsibilities to the communion of saints. Further, as Fred Sanders contends in his book, The Deep Things of God, much that is “latent” in our own Protestant, evangelical, and conservative theology (Sanders looks specifically at Trinitarianism) received initial and extensive explanation in the earlier eras of the church. To retrieve these explanations is not just to be reminded of what we have forgotten or overlooked, but to enrich what we have tacitly accepted (such as Chalcedonian Christology or the classic explanations of the divine attributes). Oliver Crisp is correct that we have “a far poorer grasp” of the glorious realities that we already accept in our theologies than do our “dead friends.” Indeed, the rewards for having a more robust understanding of Trinitarianism, atonement theology, and worship (to name a few more loci) are great and ultimately lead to more and better doxology.

The history of the church is an embarrassment of riches that we neglect at our own peril. The Apostle’s Creed names the communion of saints and the holy catholic church as essential things we believe in.  I hope you see the historiographical posture of retrieval as a good thing. God has revealed himself in his Word. Our sin and finitude limit our ability and leave us in need of help. Yet God has continued to work in his church, despite its blemishes.

At this point, I’ve tried to shine a little light on what theological retrieval is trying to do. The point of spending this time is to then throw the door open to address the many issues that exist in this discussion.

Major Issues at Play

Retrieval operates in the areas of hermeneutics, metaphysics, individual doctrines, and various practices, plus it provides a general self-awareness of how we think and do theology and practice (epistemology and method).

One major issue is how we understand history itself and how we should practice history. This is called historiography. How one understands historiography will determine both if and how someone will participate in theological retrieval. Historically speaking, how do we balance the notions of change and continuity? Do we accept a doctrine of the preservation of the church or do we at least counter the charges of novelty? What does it mean to study church history on its own terms? Likewise, how we diagnose the contemporary situation has an effect on the shape of our retrieval.

It’s not hard to see that our ecclesiology, particularly how we understand the universal church and God’s preservation of it through time is important in this discussion. Our relationship to tradition, traditions, and the Great Tradition and the question of where the locus of theological authority lies is likewise an essential discussion. And, a person’s theological confession affects their historical retrieval.

It also results in some pressing questions. Will this posture toward church history lead one inevitably to the “deep springs” of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? In other words, can we remain Protestant and evangelical and be deep in history? I believe we can. And, along with the Reformers, I would argue that proper retrieval becomes an apologetic for our very existence as Protestants and evangelicals. Kenneth Stewart is correct that efforts to find historical roots will need to think through a variety of theological issues (none of which are necessary new) and find guiding principles to help evangelical Protestants. Which is part of yet another pressing question, how do we be small “c” catholic in terms of the “holy, catholic church”?

The historical retrieving of theology is a good thing, in my opinion. Though, it comes with a host of important questions and issues to address. How you answer these questions can place you all over the spectrum of Christendom.  In future posts, I’d like to work through many of the major issues in this discussion that I’ve only been able to briefly mention here.

On the Limits of Theological Knowledge

book shelves in a room close up photographyOne of the more important aspects of theology, in my opinion, is a healthy understanding of the limits of theological knowledge. There is a tendency for many to approach theology as something that can be mastered. This would be the feeling that once you get all your theological ducks in a row you will be set, or that you can approach theological controversy with an expectation that one side has all the answers. I find this problematic for at least two reasons: it is arrogant and it misses the entire point of theology.

I just finished reading an incredible book by Steven Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology. I’m not going to review Duby’s book. I’ll leave that to someone else. But, his chapter on the knowledge of God helpfully situates our knowledge within a greater superstructure.

From a human perspective, we understand that our understanding was marred by the fall (the noetic effects of sin). But it can be helped to understand the things of God by the Spirit through regeneration, illumination, and ultimately glorification. Also from this human perspective, we normally use the “crutch” of tradition (church history and the communion of saints) to help.

While it is helpful to think about human understanding within the large timeline of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification, this is not the only perspective from which to view human understanding. This is where Duby is helpful. His first chapter discusses knowledge of God within an even larger theological superstructure. These are the layers he provides, each of which builds on the previous:

  1. Theological knowledge has the divine purpose of communion with God. The divine purpose of theological knowledge is communion with God, which recognizes that God is complete in himself but yet wills that created beings can know something of him, which is primarily made known in Scripture;
  2. God is known in self-revelation through wisdom. The object of theological knowledge is God himself and is dependent on God’s initiative in revelation. Importantly, this revelation is not just to give bare information but to bring glory to God and restored fellowship between God and his creation. The way this looks in the life of the Christian is wisdom.
  3. The limitations of finitude. The limitations and incompleteness of theological knowledge are important to realize. Where one sits on the timeline of the history of revelation will affect theological knowledge (we sit between what the OT saints knew and what the blessed in heaven know). Likewise, where one sits in regard to redemption will affect theological knowledge (unregenerate, regenerate, or glorified).
  4. Not hidden but a pilgrim understanding. Despite limitations in knowledge, God is not a hidden and unknowable God (Deus absconditus). Rather, a recognition of the pilgrim nature of our understanding can lead to a healthy understanding of the knowledge of God.

In other words, Duby’s work locates theological reasoning within a divine framework, not just the human perspective (which is encompassed in Duby’s third point). The greater superstructure Duby points to is God’s being (the divine ontology). Duby is not the first to do this, others such as John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Barrett, and Scott Swain have done similar work recently. And this really points to the much older “basic theological principles” of principium essendi (principle of being), principium cognoscendi externum (the external principle of knowing), and principium cognoscendi internum (the internal principle of knowing).

In a blog post I can only drop this bit of theology. To comment and explicate how these all fit together would take a seminary-level theology course. But I hope you can see at least the skeleton of what is being said: The Triune God in himself gives the base meaning to all reality, which is ultimately found in God alone. Thus, God has a purpose within himself for humans knowing him. To accomplish this purpose God has revealed himself through various means, and scripture is our primary access point at this time. It is at this juncture that the limitations of human understanding enter. Yet, we are not left alone because the Spirit works through regeneration, illumination, and the communion of saints to help us have theological understanding. All of which, of course, is so we can have a relationship with the Triune God.

When we understand theological knowledge within this greater framework, at least a few observations can be made.

First, we should lay aside the prideful notion that we can build an impregnable theology. This is not to say that we cannot be firm in our convictions, but we must realize that there are serious limitations to our theology. Which is nothing less than what many wise theologians will say. The three most comforting words in a theologian’s arsenal that they can give in response to tough theological questions are: “I don’t know.” And that is a good thing because we worship a God who is altogether different than we are. Yet he has made himself known, and for a reason.

Second, God makes himself known for us. As Duby pointed out, the purpose of theological knowledge is communion with God. The point is not merely to get your theological ducks in a row. The point is to grow in communion with the object of theology, which is God himself. Theology is no less than head knowledge, but it is so much more.

Third, from our human perspective, an understanding of historical theology helps here, both to give a robust theology and to guard from painful wandering. The categories put in place by those who came before us are not simply dry, scholastic bones. They are careful reflections on the way we can understand God. We do not have to constantly reinvent the wheel. And we neglect these carefully constructed safeguards at our own peril. The character of historical theology as memory is essential.

Fourth, the theological disciplines should all be done within this framework. Systematic and historical theology along with biblical studies are all encompassed by this overarching reality. That has often given me much food for thought, especially as I consider what a theology of historical theology looks like.

All that to say: Duby’s book really got me thinking. That is what the best books do. And these are only a few meditations on one chapter. Yet hardly anything is more important in theological reflection than remembering our own limitations and that the point of these reflections is to bring us to closer communion with God.

Review: A Little Book for New Historians by Tracy McKenzie

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Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History (IVP Academic, 2019), 115 pages.

In this little book, Tracy McKenzie contributes to IVP’s “Little Book” series by giving a helpful introduction to the study of history from a Christian perspective. On the one hand, this short work can be read as a classroom textbook in the sense that its readers will be challenged to do history and do it well. In part one, McKenzie walks the reader through a basic definition and understanding of history before discussing the need and the benefits of historical training. In part two, McKenzie walks through the best practices that accompany history done well.

On the other hand, this book can be read as an invitation for transformation. In a sense this is the well-discussed difference between getting training and getting an education. I’ve completed a lot of school and one thing that has helped is my test-taking ability. True and false questions, multiple-choice, short answer, and fill in the blank can all “be beaten” in my thinking (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them). I learned at an early age that being good at taking tests will translate quickly into getting good grades. But that doesn’t always mean that I’ve learned as much as my grade shows. It’s also why essay assignments were more difficult, they force you to think and show that you are thinking. In history class, it is easier to discuss dates and names than it is to discuss what we think went on, how we can defend our understanding of the past, and what wisdom can be gleaned from our endeavor.

This difference between training and education is the key to good history. McKenzie calls this historical consciousness. “Historical consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice, It’s a mindset that changes how we see both ourselves and the world” (39). If we do history well we better ourselves by learning to loose ourselves from the tyranny of the present and listen well to the wisdom of the past. The personal takeaway is that the skills learned in this sort of education easily transfers to nearly every other endeavor we can imagine. “The academic study of history is less a gateway to a particular occupation than a stepping stone to lifelong learning” (35).

This leads me to think about of how this impacts Christians, which McKenzie discusses in a couple chapters. Studying church history means that we will learn dates and names from the Christian past, but it is more important that we learn to think better and learn to learn from the deceased among the communion of saints. They will seem odd and hard to understand because of our distance from them. We need to learn patience, humility, and the need to suspend judgment until we can weigh the various pieces of data within the suggested interpretive scheme. One simply cannot do history well without the famous “five C’s of historical thinking” of change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity (88). These critical thinking skills prove helpful in many arenas. They make one a better and more conscious thinker in general. It is no surprise that history majors in college go on to a great variety of successful careers. And for the Christian-would-be-historian, McKenzie says the one who employs these skills well “should expect to increase in historical knowledge, thinking skill, and consciousness, but you should also hope to grow in humility, charity, and wisdom” (105-106).

Sound thinking about the past means that “hot takes” or the “gotcha” quote tweet are not what we are after. Patient thinking, humble wrestling with people and ideas very different than our own, and cautious conclusions are just a few of the traits we are after. For someone interested in learning what history is all about, this book is as good a place to start as any. Its wit, brevity, and smooth prose make it easy to read through. And for the more experienced historian, the same qualities make this truly a refreshing refresher course. I will return to this book again for sure.

My Reason for Writing

Like many others, no doubt, I have thought for some time about having a blog. It’s up for debate, but I think starting a new one makes sense. And so here I am. But before I go on, I feel a need to explain how I’ve worked through my reasons for starting what many others seem to be stopping. This apology is more directed at myself than anyone else, but you are welcome to join the ride.

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One reason often given for writing a blog is publicity and/or extra income. I don’t think these are bad things at all. In my PhD there were many classmates who did this sort of thing to showcase themselves for potential jobs. The job market for theological studies PhDs who want to teach is pretty dire so anything that helps your chances makes a lot of sense to me, though showcasing one’s ideas can also turn off potential suitors (I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing either). In the publicity vein, I also had a friend encourage me start a site like this and build my visibility so that I could get free books to review. I like free books and everybody needs to work, but those aren’t really my motivations (though you can still send me free books).

On a couple occasions I spent time looking into blogs and seeing how to do them well and weighing different options and features, etc. I found that sort of exploring tiring. Which will probably explain the many blogging “errors” that this site has and will have. I am also a fairly inconsistent and finicky blog reader. Some blogs that write regularly are still part of my habitual reading, but most are not. Same for most blogs that rarely or irregularly post. I’m looking for content and so I evaluate certain blogs (or journals or websites or papers) that I feel I can trust to give good content. If I get something from it, then I keep reading. When it comes to friends’ blogs I generally follow irrespective of content because I simply want to know what their minds are up to. All that to say: I am not really starting this so that I can become anyone’s regular read, but I hope some will read this. Also, I have no intentions of following a regular schedule. Posts will appear for other reasons.

A better (for my defense) reason often given for blogging is that it helps encourage regular writing, which is an excellent exercise in and of itself. In this regard, I am indebted to my dad who saw a similar need in his own life as a pastor several decades ago (well before blogs were a thing) which led him to write and disseminate a monthly paper. He would often quote Francis Bacon who said: “Reading makes a broad man, writing makes an exact man.” I find the sharpening value that only regular writing supplies the most convincing reason to start a blog.

But I haven’t started before. Probably the reason that pushed me over the edge has more to do with the station of life I find myself in right now. I’m done with my schooling (theoretically), which has left a hole. While I get the opportunity to teach and write on occasion, I don’t get to sit in a classroom (or library or office) with my prof and classmates like I used to and digest material regularly and, more importantly, informally. That is what I miss the most, especially in the areas of my specific academic interests. I still have research projects along with teaching and smaller writing opportunities, but I’m looking for something a little different. My hope is that a blog will help to fill this perceived need. I work at a seminary right now and so I get some opportunity to do this, but my primary responsibility is to recruit students, not to teach. And so, I hope it gives me a good place to do some informal (though hopefully still serious) musing. And having my own blog gives me freedom from various constraints. Which is good, because I would rather make this open ended.

And so, in an effort to force myself to sharpen and in an effort to create space for cogitation I am giving this a shot.