History – general

One of the things I’m trying to write this month (and there’s worryingly little of this month left) is an introductory chapter for a textbook on long-nineteenth- and twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century theology. (“Modern theology” to its friends, except that, as I’ve just spent a long time writing, it’s really difficult to decide when “modern” starts and whether it ever stops). The introductory chapter, at least the one I’m currently working on, has to set the scene – so it has to give the reader a whistlestop tour of the (long) eighteenth century. This, I’ve decided, is very hard. And it’s forcing me to learn a skill that I’ve somehow failed to acquire in all these years of academic life – the skill of writing history.

My normal mode is making mountains out of molehills (“here’s one short passage from a theological text, let’s see all the complicated things that might be going on here…”). Writing history is making molehills, or at least navigable foothills, out of mountains. I can easily turn some apparently trivial detail into a feature; writing history (at least the textbook-introduction, whistlestop-guide type), you have to decide which features can be relegated to trivial details. I’m trying to work out how to write narrative, when I’ve spent all this time writing argument and explanation.

The fictional character of the enterprise strikes one very forcibly. I guess when I’m just discussing a few texts I fool myself that I’m doing justice to the writers by reading carefully what they’ve written, and then admitting it when I know I’m going beyond what they’ve said or intended (or reading them against themselves, or making them have conversations they’d never have had in real life, etc). Writing history – what’s the nature of the responsibility there? Hundreds of voices, thousands of lives, any number of different versions; what’s “doing justice”, when have I stopped telling a historical story (suitable for undergraduate students on a whistle-stop tour) and started actually lying?

I’m aware, even more now than when I’m on my home turf, of the dubiousness of the enterprise of intellectual history. The feminist and egalitarian in me says: how much did, or does, anyone (other than his friends) care what he thought, anyway? Why should the blokes in the coffee-houses (or even the women in the salons) get to write the history books? Why does the intellectual pedigree of this particular word matter? And then the intellectual says: but ideas do matter, and this is an age when ideas come to matter, and creativity is real, and clever people do sometimes make a difference.

And there are particular complexities to writing the history of modernity. I’m aware of a set of very popular narratives of “how we got here”, and who the heroes and villains are supposed to be, and I could happily write ideological critiques of lots of other people’s histories of modernity; and here am I trying to write mine, and wanting certain things to be true and others not to be.

It’s fun, some of the time.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by David Anderson on 20 August, 2010 at 9:56 am

    As a non-specialist, vaguely aware of the history of theology as received, the eighteenth century doesn’t seem to feature at all, the nineteenth century only for philosophical theology (Hegel, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard), and Harnack, and then theology starts again in the twentieth century with Barth saying No.
    Presumably this is quite unfair?
    PS Am reading Mike Higton’s SCM text, which is I think pretty good.

    Reply

    • So glad you asked (and if you like Mike Higton’s books, you may be interested in this textbook on modern theology that he’s co-writing. The introductory chapter on the eighteenth century may not be much cop, but I promise it gets better…)
      Yes, funnily enough that’s about the view of the eighteenth century I came away with having done a theology degree. We intend to change it. A bit.

      Reply

      • Sorry, was interrupted. At the moment my story of the eighteenth century does involve a lot of problems being set up (like the idea taking root that “religion” means “believing a collection of variously improbable things”). On the other hand, e.g., revivals on both sides of the Atlantic made at least some difference to the history of theology, and are an interesting bit of the story to try & tell…

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