Today we wrap-up a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history.
The final essay in we will look at in this series is a chapter from Brad Gregory’s Salvation at Stake. This final essay represents the strongest set of arguments against a form of historiography dominated by what have variously been called, “the new historicism,” “the linguistic turn” or most simply, post-structuralism.
In the introduction to Salvation at Stake, Gregory describes his two-fold purpose: 1)
present an account of Christian martyrdom from the perspective of four traditions and 2) make a methodological contribution to how historians approach the early modern period. (2) For the purposes of comparing this essay to the others from this week, our focus will be on the section titled “On Understanding Early Modern Christianity.” Here Gregory addresses how poststructuralist theory “alleges a radical disjunction between representations and realities, rendering truth claims unverifiable.” (9) The “insights” of post-structuralism have “taught” us that the martyrs who died for their religious beliefs, in fact held views that are mere constructions. Post-structuralism has also “taught” us that these martyr’s beliefs were nothing but “strategies of domination” and that the literature which reported martyrdom was nothing but propaganda and political power-plays.
In light of these “lessons” Gregory calls us to declare a postmortem for poststructuralism “so that we may avoid its dead end.” (10) Instead we should take these martyrs and their storytellers on their own terms. (10) Instead of deconstructing early modern accounts we ought to be reconstructing these accounts. (11) When we do this we will have come up with an account which (hopefully) the subjects of study would have recognized as their own.
In order to reconstruct plausible accounts Gregory has to address two issues. First, that all claims, including religious claims, are embeded within social relationships, institutions, and other cultural expectations. Second, that people often act for covert interests and rationalize their actions. The second issue can be addressed without adopting a hermeneutic of suspicion. The hermeneutic of suspicion should be avoided because it “destroys the very possibility of understanding historical difference” and “undermines the sincerity and integrity of people whose actions fall beyond the boundaries of behavior enacted ‘in good faith.’”(14) Instead of a hermeneutic of suspicion we ought to adopt a hermeneutic of charity, taking sources at their own words unless there are reasons to believe that the source is being deceptive. In the case of martyrological sources, one can maintain a fine balance between suspicion and charity by checking martyological literature against literature produced by opponents. Surprisingly, both kinds of accounts tend to be very similar in what they report. Thus, it seems as though a hermeneutic of charity can give us adequate details of events as they are reported.
Out of the five essays we have examined this was the essay that I resonated the most with. I find myself agreeing with much of what Gregory has to say; especially as it concerns the problems of post-structuralism or “the linguistic turn.” The method he proposes does a good job of guarding against some of the realities that post-structuralism brings up, namely subjectivity and covert motives. His method does not dismiss these realities, however he refuses to let historiography be put into bondage by these realities. Instead he leverages these two points to develop an even more objective account of historical events.
In addition to the fact that this method has some payoff regarding research I believe that it also has another strength: it displays Christian virtue. By this I mean, that this method attempts to refrain from reading false motives into its subjects. In a sense you could say that this method attempts refuses to bear false witness against its neighbor and thus keeps 9th commandment. Also, one might think that this method is in line with Paul’s description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13: love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. For these two simple reasons I am drawn to Brad Gregory’s method over the method of the other authors we have examined thus far.