Friday, 27 January 2012

'Seeing things their way'

One of the most interesting themes that has emerged from some of the recent online reviews of my Engaging with Lloyd-Jones has been the tension that exists between the way in which academic professional evangelical historians and more amateur evangelical writers of history go about the task of writing about the past, and especially about the Christian past. The professionals being suspicious of the ulterior motives of amateur histories, while the amateurs tend to be highly sceptical of the supposed academic reluctance to bring divine agency into their discussions

Alister Chapman, John Coffey and Brad S. Gregory (eds), Seeing Things their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), is a collection of historiographical essays, that while not addressing this precise issue, nonetheless provides a lot of help for those who write about the Christian past - and indeed persuasively suggests an approach of so doing.

What unites each of these eleven essays is their engagement with the approach to intellectual history developed by Quentin Skinner and his 'Cambridge School'. Put simply, and largely in reference to political thought and using largely political texts, Skinner's basic position is that: 'we should identify the precise intellectual and political contexts of the texts we are studying, in order to ascertain what their authors meant and what they were doing' (p. 2). One of the most obvious blind spots in Skinner's approach has been his lack of interest in religion and religious belief - despite being an early modernist. The authors of this collection suggest that adopting Skinner's approach to the study of religious communities in the past, in Skinner's words, 'appreciating their views and, so far as possible, seeing things their way' (p. 2), would enable us to histories of religion that take our subjects more seriously on their own terms.

On the surface it sounds a relatively simple concept, but in reality the past, and especially the religious past, has tended to be interpreted in the light of present beliefs and concerns, both among unbelievers and believers, indeed especially among the latter perhaps.

The chapters in the book explore the relevance of Skinner's approach across a range of historical periods and subjects. I won't comment on each chapter here, just a few that I found of immediate relevance to my own research interests.

I found Richard A. Muller's chapter: 'Reflections on Persistent Whiggism and its Antidotes in the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Intellectual History', really useful for my writing of a chapter on Welsh Calvinistic Methodism and the Reformed tradition. Muller suggests an alternative approach to the study of Calvin and Calvinism, criticising the Whig preocuppation with Calvin himself, and the extent to which those who came after him either agreed or diffiered from him. Muller suggests rather the evolution of a Reformed tradition following the death of Calvin that didn't necessarily measure itself against agreement with Calvin himself. 'Very few of the writers of the sixteenth and sevententh centuries now commonly identified as "Calvinist" would have described themselves strictly as followers of Calvin' (p. 147). The key then is too evaluate key thinkers within the context of their own time, not from the perspective of those who came after.

Also helpful was James E. Bradley chapters on the eighteenth century: 'The Changing Shape of Religious Ideas in Enlightened England'. Building on J. G. A. Pocock's conviction that the 'Enlightenment in England muct be distinguished from its less religious continental counterparts' (p. 175), Bradley explores the close relationship between religion and the age of reason. Indeed, in reference to evangelicalism, Bradley argues that they 'owned and disseminated the traits of optimism, moderation in doctrine, pragmatism, and devotion to experiment and investigation' (p. 180). Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment were inextricably linked - indeed they fed off one another in higly creative ways.

While there is a fair degree of repetition in the book, most chapters understandably begin with a similar discussion of Skinner's 'seeing things their way' quote, the way in which the essays in the volume show the usefulness of Skinner's approach across a wide historical timeframe is very useful indeed.

Mark Noll, in a chapter, explaining how he used this approach when writing his America's God (2003), a social history of theology in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, briefly addresses the tension between professional and academic evangelical historians, and suggests that the methodological approach developed by Skinner might 'steer between the Scylla of unabashed dogmatic triumphalism (or dogmatic denunciation) and the Charybdis of unabashed materialist reduction' (p. 219).

The concluding chapter in which David Bebbington responds to each of the chapters is a helpful summary of the position outlined in the book, and ends with the provocative statement that historians might now like to move well beyond Skinner's position by contending that 'the history of ideas is supremely about religion' (p. 255).

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