By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

- Page 4

  • The 'Meaning of History' and the Writing of History

    The title of a paper I found, written by E Harris Harbison and published in Church History in 1952 which sounds as if it pulls together some of my ideas and questions.

    The writer described a similar situation to the one in the Gilkey paper I posted on yesterday, then goes on to consider what this might mean for the writing of history.


    He begins thus...


    If we ask what effect all this has had upon the actual writing of history, upon those who make their living by historical teaching and research, or what effect it may be expected to have upon them in the visible future, the answer may simply be "none."  The ordinary professional historian is usually a practicing positivist.  If he has a philosophy of history, he feels uneasy about it, particularly in the presence of his colleagues.  Carl Becker once wrote that he would "not willingly charge a reputable historian with a Philosophy of History" - and a Theology of History would probably be an even an more heinous charge.  But historians are remarkably sensitive to what goes on across academic fences.  At one time or another they have owed much, both in the way of conceptual framework and of methodology, to Renaissance Humanism, Newtonian physics, Darwinian biology, Freudian psychology, and recently, the social sciences.  It is not beyond possibility that they may be influenced sooner or later by what transpires from the camp of theologians.

    Church History Vol 21, No 2, Jun 1952 p102-3



    He then offers four effects which he perceives as 'already becoming clear'


    1. A new interest in the history of the Christian understanding of history
    2. New insights into the history of Christian thought and institutions
    3. A more sympathtic approach to the treatment of Christianity by secular historians
    4. An increasing tendency by Christian historians to make their Christian presuppositions more explicit


    Half a century later, I wonder what he would say about these ideas.

    My recent reading on Bibilical hermeneutics (Murray Rae) suggested use of theological categories for interpretting history.  This idea - which was intriguing - seemed to be presented as novel, yet reading papers published 25-50 years ago, it is all already there.  I am not sure that an interest in the 'history of Christian understandings of history' is all that well established, let alone that there is all that much recent work (though obviously I'd need to check that out).  There is some interest, for sure, but not loads.

    I'm not totally sure what he means by item 2, but it seems to suggest studies in the theologies of the great and good - Luther is given as an example.  Certainly there is always this kind of thing going on, and the Paternoster series of Studies in Baptist History and Thought in name as a minimum, and I'm sure more so in fact, fits this category.

    Item three, I don't feel qualified to comment upon, though a recent conversation with a practising Christian Church Historian and theologian elicited a comment to this effect.  It will be interesting for those alive a century from now to see how sympathetic or otherwise historians are in recording events early this century, espceically where religious fundamentalism is involved...

    Lastly, I am far from convinced that his fourth suggestion is evident in the Baptist history I read, or certainly not in the sense of an evident eschatalogical viewpoint or use of theological language or concepts. 


    The paper ends with these sentences...


    Whether [a Christian understanding of the 'meaning of history'] will appreciably affect the writing of history in the next generation may depend upon the turn taken by world events.  A tragic turn will almost certainly increase the numbers of those members of the historical profession who seek the meaning of tragedy in the Christian understanding of history

    op cit page 106


    Post 9/11 and 7/7, post Rwanda, post tsunami, post the African AIDS pandemic... how much tragedy does it need?  And would it now be a Christian 'meaning of history' that would be adopted?  And if so would that be a western Christian view?  I guess Harbison could not have conceived the multi-cultural, pluralist, post-everything situation of the early 21st century.  I am not convinced that, beyond a few 'narrow shallows' who see all tragedy as 'signs of the end times' (or, in the fictional world of Messiah, create tragedy to endeavour to hasten the end) that this is so.

    So, overall, I am none the wiser on 'how' to write history that is more helpfully, overtly theological, only aware that there is a long line of others who think/thought it ought to be feasible!

  • History and Eschatology

    Or, how does your understanding of the End Times affect the way you read, write or approach human history?

    Oops, sorry, forgot to put the health warning first.  Normal readers, look away NOW!

    This question seems to me to be important in a variety of ways, and has arisen from a paper I was reading today with the snappy title of Reinhold Neibuhr's Theology of History by someone called Langdon Gilkey and published back in 1974.  The paper compares and contrasts Neibuhr's views with those of other C20 theologians such as Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gutierrez and a pile of others I'm too ignorant to have heard of.  It is quite a complex paper (or at least I found it so) but the key to it seems to be the way we relate our understanding of the eschaton to the path of human history, and how we we see God's relationship with creation in all this.  Threads of process theology run through the arguments, and words like 'grace' 'judgement' and 'freedom' abound.

    So, I am going to try to note the things it's made me think about before I forget them again.

    Firstly, the eschaton, and eschatology.  How do we understand these terms in practical terms?  Do we have some kind of 'realised eschatology' (which I have to confess to never having really got my head around as a concept) or one that is still to come?  And whichever of these we have, is it about a perfect and/or new heaven and earth or something else?  You might think the answers to these are obvious, and perhaps they are, but they will affect the way you understand human history and human behaviour on a wider scale.

    If we anticpate that at the Eschaton (or the end of time, or whatever) that humanity will attain perfection, then we end up with something not a milliom miles from the 'myth of Progress' model of academic history.  In this model, later is better, and it is possible to argue that sin can be equated with devotion to present and past and a closing of minds to what is to come.  This, the writer argues is what theologians other than Neibuhr tend to do.  I guess this is a kind of Pauline 'forgetting what is past I press on towards the goal' approach to the past, which renders the past irrelevent because now we are more perfect than we used to be.  If I can caricature somewhat, this model seems to have God as a kind of divine coach standing just beyond the temporal finishing line urging us on and telling us not to look back.  If this is what we believe - and to some extent I suspect most of us do - then it cannot but impact on how we tell the story of the past and how much (or little!) import we give it.

    Neibuhr's approach is rather different, and centres on the idea of transcendence, and of God somehow involved all through human history rather than standing at the end of it beckoning us on.  Furthermore, even for humans there is potential to trasncend our own circumstances and reflect upon them.  In this model the idea of human experience getting more and more close to perfection as history (chronologically) unfolds is not inevitable, though it is possible, if only we are able to grasp it.  Rather than an inevitable end point, perfection becomes a horizon against which we can measure reality.  In this model, human sinfulness is part of our makeup and therefore no matter when, chronologically, we live, we have the same potential for sin.  Perhaps again with dear old Paul, we may find it to be a natural 'law' that despite our best efforts we foul up, failing to do the good we want to do and doing the wrong we don't want to do.  In this model, rather than sin being about being bound to the past, it is about being open to the potential of the future - which is full of possibilities, good, bad and indifferent.  If this is so, then our past is more obviously relevent to us in our thinking - as we 'transcend' it and reflect upon it, it can inform the choices we make as we go into the future, as (I think) God enables us to see and understand better.  Again depending on how much we relate to this model - and, again, I think that to some extent we probably all do - it will impact our reading and writing of our past.

    I suspect that it is never quite as easy as the 'either/or' constructed by someone way cleverer than I am (and it is highly possible I've completely misundertsood this paper!) but really more of a 'both/and.'  Why might God not be both beyond the end of time, beckoning or luring (or whatever) us on and breaking into time with what gets referred to as 'special revelation'?  Surely the concepts of grace, sin, justice, atonement, and resurrection used in the writer's detailed discussion of these models can speak into both views, albeit maybe in different ways?

    This kind of leads to the second area of thought, which relates to the use of theological language or categories in writing about church history.  The themes of sin and grace, especially, seem to crop up quite often in this kind of paper, but not in the history books I read.  In other words, it seems that there is some good confidence that such language can be used when history is abstract, a general term for the sum total of human experience perhaps, but when it comes down to particular, or specific, examples, we cease to be comfortable in so doing.  Intuitively this seems both a good thing and a bad thing.  It is good in so far as any human endeavour to identify what is 'sin' or 'grace' is fallible - indeed open to sins such as pride, judgementalism and so on.  On the other hand, it is  bad, because we get a story that is perhaps agnostic or a-theist in the sense of a 'lack of God.'  So is there a happy medium?  Maybe if the writer or reader can hold in mind such categories, consciously and with appropriate humility, then the hints of the divine will be evident or glimpsed.  I have to say, that whilst I'd love to find a way of writing God into the story that doesn't read like triumphalism or the ubiquitous 'Kingsway paperback', I am as yet far from convinced that it is achievable.

    I am still far from having a clue what a 'more useful for congrgeational theological reflection' hsiotry might look like, but it has been helpful to be reminded that our theology of history - however implicit and undeveloped (as I think mine probably is) that might be - is an important factor to bring into consciousness in our writing and reading of history.  I think if I am honest, I can't see a long path towards perfection in human history and am left with some kind of inbreaking of God at the end of time as we know it to 'make all things new.'  But that doesn't mean I can't be inspired to aim for that perfection, to seek for better self-understanding, to search for the mind of Christ in shaping individual and church life as I walk the chronological path of history.  Further, other concepts, such as 'kairos moments' may also have something to say in all of this.

    As I have typed away I have found the words of a hymn coming to mind...

    The Church of Christ in every age

    Beset by change, but Spirit-led,

    Must claim and test its heritage

    And keep on rising from the dead.


    This hymn, by F Pratt Green seems to me to express hints of both strands of theology Gilkey discusses in his paper; whilst it is quite political and liberation focussed, echoes of both atonement and resurrection can be found in later verses.

    So, at the end of all this, what have I learned?  Probably that I need, at some point, and not too far in to the future, to think more carefully about my 'theology of history' and how it impacts, for good and ill, upon my work in this field.

  • United?

    The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is 100 years old apparently.  This year I attended the most - apologies - monotonous and boring united service for this purpose I have been to in many a long year.  The ecumenism extended to the readings being done by myself and a retired Methodist, whilst the current Methodist preached and the vicar did everything else.  The service itself was incredibly wordy - printed liturgy at its worst - and the creativity and mutli-sensory activities we've used in the last four years were conspicuously absent.

    Looking at it another way, ecumenism was lacking in terms of numerical representation - around half a dozen Methodists, half a dozen Anglicans (in their own building for goodness sake) and a couple of dozen Baptists.  That's sad too.  My people are starting to comment quite a lot - and rightly - that everywhere we go we out number the hosts.  What does that say about us and about others?

    I'm not an advocate of organic union (i.e. one single church with one way of doing church organsiation) because I'm not convinced that at this point in history - if ever (I'm not convinced it existed in Bible times) - that is helpful or healthy.  But I am quite passionate about ecumenism, I do think that we honour Christ more in unity than division.

    Overall, then, I am disappointed in today and not at all convinced we made any inroads in answering Christ's prayer of John 17.

  • Health & Safety for the Perplexed Person!

    In my capacity as almost tame risk assessor type person, I came across a useful document on fire risk issues for 'small and medium places of assembly' - which includes churches.  It is downloadable free - or you can buy a real copy for £12.  It's quite a big thing to plough through, but for all that it is in normal English, and has some pictures!

    Should you want to check out, for example stuff around room occupancy, how many fire exits you need or how your chairs need to be fixed together, it is helpful.  Not worth losing sleep over, but at the same time helpful for those odd occasions when you need to cram people in (when I checked retrospectively the needs for our carol event last year I found it was compliant because it eventually becomes intuitive and is, at the end of the day, just good old common sense).

    Anyway, if it is helpful take a visit here or, for other issues that might face you and your church check the main website here

  • When it's all worthwhile

    Anyone who has read this stuff for any length of time will know that our church's children's club on a Friday has been a source of concern and frustration for about a year.  For quite a lot of the autumn term I gave up my Friday evenings to go as the 'parent' helper because the parents simply would not volunteer.  The children were incredibly badly behaved and discipline was a real problem at times.

    Since Christmas one of the regular leaders has been unable to come along because of serious health problems, so I have been acting as No 2 leader, with one of my deacons taking on the 'parent helper' role.

    Tonight we had thirteen children, and what could so easily have been a disastrous night with a fair amount of name calling and refusal to join in.  Then, after the drink break, I sat them down to make cards or write messages for the leader who is ill.  This was when it all felt worthwhile.  Every one of them industriously set about making something - cards, pictures, collages, poems - expressing their love and concern for the absent leader.  Sometimes last term they psuhed her almost to breaking point, and it was really touching to read in one of the messages "sorry for all the things we've put you through."

    We are just beginning to have real conversations with the children, starting to do a few activities that allow us to build relationships rather than simply containing and channelling their energy.  I don't claim to understand boys - despite growing up with two brothers and always working in male dominated environments, virtually all my children's and youth work experience is with girls - and I am still learning that, as a rule of thumb, they need to loud and boistrous.  Yet one of the most beautiful sights tonight was to see one of the lads sit down, announce 'ooh colouring, I LOVE colouring' and create a super three-dimensional card with a 'boingy bit' and a kind-hearted message.

    I think these children know how far they can push me, and I had to smile when I overheard one comment to another "it's a good job Catriona didn't hear you say THAT word" - nice to know I am still head dragon (my old GB Camp nickname) after all these years.

    I really hope that more church folk will choose to get involved over the coming weeks or months, whatever it turns out to be, because for most of these children  this is the nearest they ever get to church.  I'd love to begin to introduce something more in the God-slot line, but it isn't yet the right time.  For all that, perhaps tonight, when for 15 minutes they thought about someone else and expressed love and gratitude for what they receive, they were closer to prayer than they - or I - realised.