Can the study of history have value for the church? Reflections after the Kalamazoo congress

A few reflections on my experience at Medieval Congress 2010, dictated as I drove from Kalamazoo to Midway Airport (through Michigan Wine Country–and stopping at a few tastings!) to return to the Twin Cities:

Sitting in that last session [where I heard the paper “The Beauty of the Person in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas,” by Margaret I. Hughes of Fordham Univ] reminds me again of the apparent integrity and usefulness of Thomistic moral categories and moral analysis (this first came across me at the conference in Rebecca DeYoung’s session on vainglory).

I’m aware always of David Steinmetz’s off-handed dismissal, in a class one day, of virtue ethics as something, as I understood him, inherently Pelagian. But I think again that there’s a high value in an anatomizing of the heart as an ultimately spiritual as well as intellectual discipline, and I think Aquinas works in that mode do many other ethical thinkers in the medieval period . . . and as do the penitential manuals and so on and so forth.

Do they always do it well or in ways we can appropriate today? I’m sure they don’t. But to examine closely our personalities, who we are as moral beings, how we are tempted, how we sin, and how we recover from sins and become purified through a life-long process of sanctification—there is great value in this; it’s a value that was captured in the Methodist movement, has been captured by the Pietists, the Puritans . . . It seems it’s inherently and faithfully biblical and worthy of further study.

On a different matter, I admire the careful definitions and distinctions that are made in the better papers that I’ve listened to—as in the most recent one I just listened to, from the session on personhood in medieval theology & philosophy. This is something I don’t always do. I sometimes rush to be a “lumper”—to do category statements, general statements without having adequately defined and distinguished (or sometimes I work in a purely narrative mode). It’s a good reminder to hear these papers that there is that other work which is so essential in good scholarship.

It also occurred to me in one of the Cistercian sessions that it must be difficult over a lifetime of scholarship to come back again and again and again to those Cistercian themes of love and friendship—love both vertical (divine) and horizontal (social). Difficult because it’s so hard to be specific about relationships and emotions. There’s such complexity. But sometimes flashes of holiness and wisdom come through in that attempt to grapple with those difficult, intractable themes.

It has also occurred to me that what I’m doing now in plunging into medieval studies as an Americanist is only what I inevitably was going to do when I decided for my doctoral studies to focus on American Christianity for pragmatic reasons—essentially because it was easier, it was more desirable in the job market, and so on. That decision was a means to a longer-term goal: to teach more generally in church history and religion. But I was dissatisfied throughout my program with much of the material I was reading–as it had a more secular and modernist cast than I wanted it to have or than held my interest . . . whereas my first priority was always on the church.

And I think part of the flaw there, the fault, lies in American Protestantism and especially evangelicalism, which does not handle history as sacred history, but has learned only to handle it within the canons and the guild of secular American historians. This has meant for many historians subsuming theological categories to categories of political and social analysis. That’s been helpful I think. It’s been helpful for me to remember those other categories of social and cultural analysis. But it has not met my existential goal in returning to graduate school and studying in the area of church history.

How can I explain this goal and its thwarting during my doctoral studies? I remember a survey article on the ups, downs, and changes in the American Society of Church History. I forget who wrote that, but the author essentially said that with the advent in the 1960s or so of university religious studies departments (departments of comparative religion), the older churchly, theological focus of church historical study in America were, if not driven out, at least supplanted, challenged by other modes of analysis. This was largely because scholars of religion were trying to prove themselves to be not merely insider confessional scholars who were interested only in their own confessional criteria and their own theological biases. In other words, it seemed necessary to broaden one’s perspectives by a kind of devaluation or chucking out of theological or spiritual criteria of study.

So what I find so vibrant and stimulating about the Cistercian track, and the studies of Catholic students of Thomas Aquinas, and the studies of people who are interested in Western spirituality for personal reasons as well as scholarly reasons—I see a level of engagement and investment in these sessions and papers that is existentially more satisfying for the people who are engaging in that work, and finally more valuable to the church. It’s a bit of an end run around what has happened a half-century or so ago within the field of religious history as practiced in America–which largely neutered the study of church history from usefulness to the church itself.

I do have to remember that at Duke I studied under David Steinmetz, who really falls under that earlier category of church historians who care about the church and whose care for the church surfaces in many ways in his scholarship and teaching. I found his teaching tremendously stimulating, although sometimes more intellectually than spiritually. But even in the intellectual stimulation, there was in his teaching the sense that doctrines and creeds and theological thought contain their own value and do not need to be validated by outside disciplines. In other words, his was the old-style history-of-ideas approach to church history, which made more room for confessional commitment, I think.

And although I didn’t take from them, other Duke professors such as Karen Westerfield Tucker and Geoffrey Wainwright cared about the church and worked in a churchly mode. In some cases perhaps, for me, theirs was too much a Methodist denominational mode—too narrow in its interests and implications. I wanted to do something more general and more valuable to the church at large.

But certainly under Grant Wacker’s mentorship, as I told him at the end of my time at Duke, I felt I was not well able to integrate my historical intellectual studies with my passion for the church and my sense of the reality of the church and the potential importance of scholarship well-done to the church. I never really got that with Grant, except in the sense that his work and teaching provided a careful and helpful brief against certain tendencies within American evangelicalism. Of course  I hasten to add, as do all of his students, that Grant was in other ways the best mentor a doctoral student could ask for.

So now the question is, Can I recapture that earlier impetus from my own studies, which was reinforced by my studying with Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell—that the study of history can have inherent value for the church? Can I recapture that—the vibrancy of that earlier interest of mine—in my own explorations of the medieval period . . . as I begin to read for example such men of faith as Jean Leclercq, as Martin Thornton, and others who care deeply about the church and about God?

Can I recapture that in my project of writing Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants (Baker, forthcoming)? For that, I think, will be what is of real and lasting value in that book, if anything. The more deeply I am able to indwell and affirm that impulse in myself as I explore these materials, the more helpful I think the final book will be.

And as always when I begin to think in these directinos, I return to the question of whether I am willing to explore personally, for example, the disciplines and the theological commitments of medieval people. So for example, ascetic disciplines, spiritual direction, the sacrament of confession, the moral philosophy and theology that so pushed C. S. Lewis’s buttons and that I am now beginning to have opened to me (although Lewis felt that some Thomists in his own time were constructing unhelpful systems).

I think, if it works for Baker, that I’d like to explore such areas personally and be honest about that exploration in the book. Of course, that will require commitment to personal growth–always a challenging thing for a person such as myself who prefers to remain in his “spiritual comfort zone.”

2 responses to “Can the study of history have value for the church? Reflections after the Kalamazoo congress

  1. Explore away, my friend!

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