In the chapter entitled “Making History”, Rowan Williams sets out to necessarily complicate the methodology and philosophy of church history. His first goal is to make the reader ask the question “Why?” in reference to the project of history in regards to the Christian faith. Surely, there is more to church history than the simple relating of facts, yet even such a seemingly menial task has become obfuscated in the last century. Many secular historians regard even the simple endeavor to “know” the past as either impossible or misguided. Once the air has become thick, and the reader is put into a permanent fog, then Williams begins to ask the penetrating questions essential to any good work of theology.
Of the many responses given in our seminar, the most routinely mentioned concept was Williams’s idea of the “strangeness of the past” – the notion that all figures of history have a sense of otherness to them that refuses easy categorization. For Williams, there are two extremes to be rejected in this affair. The first is the extreme of an objectivist historicism. Often, those on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide resort to objectifying the past in the name of dialectical argument. Those on the right often “proof-text” in order to prove a point (I think of American evangelicalism’s picture of Augustine that seems to portray him as a 5th century R.C. Sproul). Likewise, those on the left often utilize anachronistic hermeneutical methodologies and critical theory in order to resurrect a kind of primal harmony in the ancient church (Williams mentions certain feminist theologians’ assertion that the first century church was completely egalitarian in regards to gender roles). In both of these circumstances, history is objectified, ripped from the context of its distinct otherness, and used until its utility has been completely dried up.
On the other hand, another extreme to renounce is that of utter historical nihilism. Some philosophers, fully comprehending the absurdities issued by the historical objectivists, have retreated into the despair of the black hole of historical alterity. In a Nietzschean sense, all remembering of history is fueled by the ‘will to power’ – behind every assertion of fact, there is something to be had, something to be claimed. While these critics are absolutely correct in their critique of many historical allegations, Williams makes the point that it does the church no good to simply retreat into isolation in regards to its history. To throw up one’s hands and claim that “history is impossible” does no one any good; not when the identity-forming nature of history is rightly understood. We are all shaped by our collective histories (something admitted by the nihilists as well), so we may as well figure out how to tell them!
Rather than fall back into either of these easy traps, Williams surmises that a third way must be found, a golden mean that accepts the strangeness of the past while still believing that it has a place in the church’s life. Since he is simply setting the table with this opening chapter, it is only the prompt that is given, as answers are to follow later in the book. However, a clue is given as to how the Christian is to understand this process to work. Again, how is the Christian church to do history when the validity of the entire historical project has been brought so convincingly into question?
My own thoughts as to how a proper Christian view of history is to be accomplished is along the same lines as Williams (and so the subsequent argument is an amalgamation of Williams’s arguments and my own cursory thoughts). I submit that Williams’s intention (i.e. his proposal for what makes good church history) is twofold: Good Christian historical writing is objective, but challenging; and subjective, but inspired.
History is dependant upon a historical object. No history is done without an object of its historicizing. As Williams argues early in the chapter, it is only when we are struck by the incongruence of the past with the present that we begin to see a need for history. History is always intended towards something, the object of its historical desire. While it may be correct to say that intentions are always frontloaded with prejudice, it is still true that without the occurrence of a given event, a certain history could not exist. It could be said that, even as the determinate dialectical struggle of history seems to leave no indeterminate points, every new event, however determined it may have been, resets the coordinates of the dialectic, creating a whole new history in its wake.
However, even though we can confidently say that history is objective, we achieve nothing in the act of historicizing until we understand that every object of history is to be a challenge. It is only when we accept the strangeness of the past that we allow it to confront us face to face. If our goal is to learn from the past, then this must be allowed.
As a complement to history’s objectivity, the subjective spirit of history is also to be noted. As argued earlier, there is a strong sense in which history is subjective. As much as history needs an object to historicize about, it also needs a subject to perform the historicizing. We always bring colored lenses to our historical object; this hardly needs to be said. We never reach a “God’s eye view” of historical events, and so theory-laden human finitude will always set certain limits upon us.
However, even though the inter-subjectivity of mankind is duly noted, and much postmodernist talk of being “spoken-by” language has its place, it is still the Spirit of God that makes up the space between us. In Williams’s words, “inspiration… is the present reality of a divine mediation that makes recognition possible as we now encounter the strangeness of the story” (pg. 29). This is as much true for the doctrine of Scripture as it is for the doctrine of the church. No human construct purporting to be divine revelation should be trusted on its own merits. Only if the Spirit of God intercedes is it then inspired. Likewise, human subjectivity is not to be trusted on its own merits (such a blind trust appropriately ends in nihilism). Only if God the Spirit mediates is love possible; and only in this charity is good history realized.