2 September 2022|Updated 6 Sep 22
Some years ago a theological (or anyway theologized) notion struck me that I continue to think of as probably a good development, big-picture, for my own getting to grips with things in my world, if not perhaps anything of much use to anybody else. This thought was, more or less, that the Christian view of time & universe is some kind of deep re-orientation of ontological sense (awareness?) to a flow not out from but rather in toward Jesus’ resurrection. Creation, history, redemption don’t so much depend upon that vertex event for their realization, for coming (in)to be(ing) or to fulfillment or what have you, as they converge on it, fold into it, in Christian conception, I began to put it to myself. A little abstract, that — what anyhow would one do with this twist of thought in practical terms? And not an idea I had the tools to examine or appropriately search out sources of (I did appreciate that I wasn’t experiencing anything like a flash of original insight) in any case. Not something I’ve managed to discuss much, accordingly. Still, it was a shift of perspective in various ways helpful to me, as I say. It’s provided a position of resort to go to to be apart (somewhat, sometimes) from a great deal of religious throng & current and hear differently, if nothing else.
I’m a lot more cautious today about the dream of being someone who formulates things for himself theologically than I was when this bit of turn of mind occurred, I expect, but I’m far on the other hand from wishing somehow to put out of mind the real-world concerns this sort of lay effort to think stuff through stems from. Very far from that, still and I guess until I’m dead.
So something like this will pretty reliably compel my attention when I run into it:
When I did run into this thread by Kathryn Gin Lum (whom I wasn’t then following and didn’t know much about), the day she posted it or maybe the day after, I didn’t have it in its context, since I’m not on the site consistently enough to have a good grasp of where ‘the discourse’ may be running from moment to moment. Thankfully I quashed an untoward impulse to answer, in reply guy fashion of long habit, in challenge to this characterization of ‘Christian view of chronology.’ Anything I’d have come up with in the way of comment or question would’ve missed much of what she was interested in just there.
What she’s interested in there has a great deal to do with consternation a bad column by American Historical Association president James Sweet that had gone up the day before had generated. (Aeon’s Sam Haselby, e.g., who on some level I can’t help thinking really would wish to find justification for defending it, manages only to say it’s bad. It’s bad y’all.) But I didn’t put the picture together until a couple of days later, when the consternation was becoming more general and when I happened to get back to checking Twitter again, in wake of Sweet’s (also frankly pretty bad) short apology post.
For what it’s worth, I don’t get the sense that Sweet in fact means to argue for ‘history as the study of change over time.’ My read is that (in this respect narrowly) what he means is just to insist on a real acceptance of the Other’s being other as basic historiographical standard. (If so, I think it fair also to say that he’s far too crude about it. Callous about it, I’d maybe even say.) That could be an inadequate read on my part. I don’t know Sweet or his material any more than I do Lum. But it does seem to me at any rate that he hasn’t misunderstood where his predecessor Lynn Hunt, whose two-decades-previous column he takes as excuse for a rant, is coming from or (for all the unholy hackwork hash he makes of matters — matters of his own moment — in this piece) that he’s really departed from Hunt, as some who’ve commented suggest, to adopt some new problematical attitude entirely.
Nobody here, in short, seems to be about outmoded facile progress-narrative-type ideas — quite the opposite — or for that matter in any very strong way a believer in historical linearity at all. Is Lum seeing difference of view with Sweet, in some respects, where there isn’t much (possibly because it would seem to highlight the significance of things she’s publishing on the subject of)? I can’t judge. What I want to draw out, that aside, is the objection she registers to thinking and speaking of our difference and distance from those we share the great historical fabric with in terms that have come into a certain apparent dominance in western and westernized societies only fairly recently. This I feel very sympathetic to. I want to make space for dwelling on the question just in the very straightforward way she levels it. ‘Why,’ as she says in one of these tweets, ‘do we need to keep reassuring ourselves that the past is a foreign country?’ Why indeed?
It’s something I’ve been asking myself around here for a little while, albeit clumsily and without much appreciation for debate historians deal in. It was very much the underlying, and finally the overt, question of the last written post of length here, a year and a quarter ago.
Roughly coinciding with this several-days’ round of social-media flare-out were a few things in my concurrent listening that have seemed to me so conveniently and provocatively adjunct in theme that they had to be collected and shared. This is basically what this post, or the rest of it anyway, is for.
First on the list is the latest in Sam Aronow’s Jewish history series, landing right in the thick of it there on Aug. 19, on the subjects of Moses Hess, Bruno Bauer and their German-Jewish Young Hegelian milieu (among them notably that one fellow Karl), progression from haskalah to (surprise!) ‘Jewish history [a]s world history,’ higher criticism, &c. I mean, what a mess, this European nineteenth century.
I’m listening to a lot of Yale Divinity course lectures this year. Most recently I’ve been on Bruce Gordon’s History of Early Modern Christianity, recorded last fall. Just about when Sweet was getting his rant on and setting off a little media tempest, I was coming up to mid-course there with Gordon, where he looks a little bit into various dimensions of the Jesuits’ vigorous educational-missional project, in strict service to the pope, with its unlooked-for effects and concomitants — first, in particular, Matteo Ricci embedded in the Beijing court, and then immediately the traumatic episode with pious and learned Galileo, in which the western church finds itself needing both to make its commitment to an anciently coherent idea of the ordered cosmos firm and also start coming to terms with Copernicanism obtruding in form increasingly not just mathematical and abstruse.
Seventeenth-century western-Christian conflicts as they happened and nineteenth-century and subsequent telling of those seventeenth-century events are two different things, Gordon is at pains to remind you. But we can flip this around and remind ourselves also that if you want a working account of history’s politicization (and professionalization) in the nineteenth, these Church struggles back in the seventeenth both to keep pace with all that was burgeoning and to stay oriented profoundly to putative roots in the way the intellectuality and patterns of authority of the day demanded are plainly core subject matter.
(In the background throughout, of course — and another set of figures obviously being contended over in nineteenth-century re-framings — are Luther and an array of other preachers of the freedom of the Christian, themselves by contrast unconcerned with the Church’s urgency about keeping pace, reading recourse to roots and affirmation of cosmological order instead through the lens of an imminent end. Luther calls the pope antichrist not to throw barbs at Rome merely but to tell you where you are in the story of the world — at the last act.)
Third on my list because I didn’t come to it until a couple of days afterward, but maybe most interesting, here, in the way of accompaniment with Sweet’s column and Lum’s thread alike, is a 2012 book-tour talk by the late Alan Brinkley about his biography of Henry Luce, with generous panel discussion.
The coincidence in finding myself listening to this just as the business about Sweet’s column had hit is especially nice, because it’s a wide-ranging consideration of the journalistic meeting the historiographical and of where responsibility for abuses and failures might be assigned, discussed by historians — indeed, ah, by historians of the quite recent past (in the case of one of them, Perlstein, almost really an historian of the present), the sort Sweet and Hunt would seem to warn an excess of these days is leading us into treacherous new cultural territory. Came to this by way of having become acquainted with Jackson Lears a very little bit, just this year, and of having been looking out for items by which to hear him in lecture mode, or failing that as participant in conversation, as in this case. I queued it up without having Sweet &c. in mind, but could hardly miss the fit once under way with it.
There is here, moreover, something possibly of real value for thinking about the Christianity Lum means when in her comments she refers to a Christian understanding of time and ‘chronology.’ Henry Luce, brought up the child of a Presbyterian missionary in China no less, is in his person a very pure distillation of that (exceptional?) form of the Christian thing, you can begin to think as you listen to this exchange about him and his publications — his flagship weekly particularly.
Another historian of the recent past with whom I’m only recently acquainted is Federico Finchelstein. I’ve been listening to him on the subject of fascism and its cousins and friendly relations. He takes up historiography of events within living memory and the political abuses of historians’ work in this one. I spotted it a few days following the Sweet excitement, not looking for something in this vein from Finchelstein but by this point already planning my little list here. It belongs.
The last item I’ll throw on the pile is the Know Your Enemy episode up the week before the Sweet column’s posting. I’ve had a lot of listening to recorded stuff going on, it will not be necessary for me to point out if you’ve read this far, and had not in the last few weeks been keeping up with Matt and Sam. I only got around to checking on what they’d been up to during August yesterday, in fact. And here, I find, they’d just done a show on Lasch, a fellow of large reputation whom I’m reasonably well acquainted with — and whom if I really knew I suppose I would also have had some knowledge of Jackson Lears before this summer.
Anyway, this is a good light companion listen alongside the panel talk about Brinkley’s book, not for reasons of comparison between Lasch and Lears (or by the way of friendship between KYE hosts and the other two guys on the panel!) but rather, maybe, for the good there’ll likely be in mulling over further the rapid twentieth-century exhaustion of right-liberal Christian idealism embodied in a figure like Henry Luce — a liberal idealism it seems safe, again, to say that James Sweet would strongly prefer not to have pinned to him but whose odor we might not want to rule out a Kathryn Gin Lum’s with time demonstrating to us will persist in hanging about people who approach problems of the work they’re both about as he does.
update (sep. 6)
A read of modest length pretty well concordant with the KYE discussion of Lasch and mentioning Lears, moreover, as a sort of inheritor of Lasch’s mantle is this 2013 blog post by Michael Kramer, who like them is in the cultural history of modern era game.