13 April 2010

History Through The Eyes Of Faith - A Valid Perspective


In writing the foreword to my book about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class, Professor James I. Robertson, Jr. included the following remark:



"Williams's analyses reveal clearly that nineteenth-century religiosity, which some writers and reviewers conclude was nonsense, was in fact very much alive."

I would add that 21st century religiosity is also "very much alive" and that it is a valid perspective when approaching the study of history, despite what some (not all) bloggers, academics, and historians say. Recently, I quoted Professor Steven E. Woodworth on the same subject:

"Our worldview makes a world of difference to the way we approach history. The world is a much different place if 'all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights' than it is if all that exists is the result of chance plus time."

The notion that a Christian should leave his faith out of his interpretation is quite ridiculous and, even more troubling, are those Christians who think doing so makes their ultimate interpretation "more valid." An orthodox Christian, by definition, believes in his or her heart of hearts that Christianity embodies truth and that Christ is the very personification of truth. How does one who holds to such beliefs leave them out of something as serious as the study of history? The notion defies logic. 

The secular academic or non-believer assumes that a historian who is a Christian will automatically twist or omit facts to make history comport to his particular belief system. In other words, he approaches history as a believer in Christ and will thus reject anything that appears to be in conflict with his beliefs. Interestingly enough, the opposite happened with me. Though I am not a professional historian, I've been fascinated by history since I was a child - in this order: Virginia history, WBTS history, Colonial period history, Church history, and the history of Western civilization. In my own experience, it was through reading and studying history that I began to question my belief system which, at the time, was Darwinist. It was partly through reading history that I became a Christian. And, I believe, it is what enables me to so easily see through those who approach history through a Darwinist, humanistic lense and apply their belief system to their interpretation, all the while claiming complete objectivity.

Of course, I'm not the only one who has had this kind of experience. One of the most fascinating experiences, and somewhat similar to mine, was the conversion to *Catholicism by the well-respected historian, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941-2007). Her background and story are a perfect fit for what is often discussed here on this blog. Fox-Genovese was, until later in life, an admitted Marxist and, by her own testimony, a strident feminist. She was a person of the left and made no attempt to hide or disguise her views. She was, in many ways, the epitome of the modern American academic. She was widely published and has written extensively on the antebellum South and slavery. Though she claims to have grown up a "nominal" Christian, it was not until late in life that she actually embraced Christianity as absolute truth and, in her words, took "Jesus Christ as . . . personal savior and, no less important, as Lord."

Her experience inside academia is instructive as to how academia, as an institution and environment, approaches history and how it looks at those who reject relativism, Darwinism, and humanism as a belief system, along with the political philophies that accompany those belief systems. (Yes, we all have a belief system to one degree or another, whether you believe it or not. Sorry, but neutrality is not an option.) While critics of those who - like myself - approach history from a Christian worldview suggest our views are invalid because we view history through the lense of faith; they, at the same time, would have us believe they don't bring a belief system to the study of history. Fox-Genovese's experience is just one illustration that proves otherwise.

In 2000, Fox-Genovese discussed this journey in a published piece titled A Conversion Story. It is a must read for anyone interested in this subject matter, regardless of which side of the debate you're on. Here are a few choice quotes (All emphasis is mine.):

". . . they [other religions] do not carry Christianity’s taint of having long figured as the religion of a male European elite that allegedly used its faith to cow others into submission."

For what group do so many academics seem to have the most animosity? You've already answered the question in your own mind. 

"For secular academics, the language and practice of faith belong to an alien world. Not understanding faith, they are ill prepared to understand conversion to it. Having long participated in the reigning discourse of secular intellectuals, I understand all too well where they are coming from . . . more important, however, my long apprenticeship in their world allows me to reflect upon their unreflective assumptions, for those assumptions cut a broad swath through our culture as a whole, challenging faith at every turn. So firm is their hold upon our culture that they are imperceptibly permeating the fabric of faith itself, constantly challenging the faithful to justify and rejustify our beliefs." 

Unreflective. Conformists who are locked in to their belief system and not as open-minded in "embracing diversity" as they claim.

"The story of modernity has arguably been one of the marginalization and discrediting of belief, or, perhaps more accurately, its relegation to the realm of radical subjectivity. Modernity, in other words, has systematically divorced faith from moral and intellectual authority."

Marginalizing believers and claiming they are "anti-intellectual" is a favorite tactic of moderns in academia. In doing so, you don't have to give any serious weight or consideration to their arguments.
"In the postmodernist universe, all claims of universal certainty must be exposed as delusions, leaving the individual as authoritative arbiter of the meaning that pertains to his or her situation. Thus, what originated as a struggle to discredit pretensions to intellectual authority has ended, at least in the American academy, in a validation of personal prejudice and desire."

You can read the whole piece by Fox-Genovese here. Her experience, along with her stature as an academic, presents a strong argument that worldviews have great influence on our approach to history and that much of academia is as committed to their worldview as many Christians are committed to theirs.

*As a Baptist, I have fundamental doctrinal disagreements with Catholicism, but Fox-Genovese's experience is nonetheless instructive and illustrative for the purposes of this blog. Her honesty and openness is quite refreshing.

5 comments:

MSimons said...

Well Said Mr. Williams your finds by Fox-Genovese are very accurate for all who hold our view of History being guided by the Hand of God.

It is so sad in a day of PC/ Multiculturalism that a Christian worldview of any topic is open to being dismissed and derailed by others who are our academic peers.

John Stoudt said...

Mr. Williams:

Greetings, and thank you for your comments and also for the Fox-Genovese testimonial.

I want to add this for consideration: a well researched and crisply written non-fiction piece should provoke interest in the subject, and it should analyze the subject within the social, political, economic, and/or religious setting of its time. The worldviews of a person and his/her society should be clearly identified and examined.

The religious beliefs of the author are helpful but not paramount for me. I can learn from, though not agree with, an atheist author as compared to a Christian author.

For me, the key is the analysis. If the subject is either praised or condemned with no analysis, then I don't see the worth of the volume. (Peer reviewed analysis would be better, but not every author has or desires to use that option.)

I empathized with your portrayal of Thomas Jackson as a pious, devoted Christian gentleman who risked possible imprisonment or social ostracism by teaching God's word in a "colored" Sabbath school.

I really wanted to like your book, but I came up short. While your research (especially with the descandants) was quite commendable and your writing style was readable for a popular audience, I felt that your treatment required more analysis of Jackson within his society: why did he have to break Virginia law to teach the Christian faith? Why would politically and socially conservative Christian Virginians balk at the teaching of the Holy Scripture to free blacks and/or enslaved persons? How does a pro-states' rights position fit into the denial of freedom of religion by statute? Did any antebellum white Christian Virginians follow Jackson's lead or suffer persecution for their attempts?

You have provided a great service in researching and presenting these detailed aspects of Jackson's life. But where did Jackson fit into the larger picture of antebellum Virginia, or by extension, the South? That was my question at the end of your book.

Two other volumes have helped me to fill those gaps:_Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life_, by Sean Michael Lucas and _The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia_, by Charles F. Irons.

By reading the comments of Confederate heritage writers, I note that Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson are most often listed as the epitome of Christian leaders and, for some, as theologians. I would offer that Robert Dabney exercised a greater theological influence than either Lee or Jackson. And Dabney, whether we like it or not, advocated black slavery and white supremacy based on the Bible. So, too, did James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin Palmer, and Thornton Stringfellow. Lee and Jackson were Christian men, but they were not leaders within the Southern (or Confederate) Christian churches. How does Jackson's "colored" Sabbath school square with the public statements made by the Southern theologians?

Irons points out that in the 1820s white evangelical Christian Virginians sent missions to the slaves in Virginia, and they advocated the colonization of free blacks and former slaves to Liberia. These missions were curtailed after the Nat Turner Insurrection. Security took precedence over spreading God's word. When black ministers were allowed to preach, they were closely monitored by whites, and understandably so. Some Virginia whites proposed making it a crime to teach the Bible to slaves. Irons' book helped me to situate Jackson's risky action into a better perspective. A risky action, indeed: should Jackson have followed the world of Virginia society and lawmakers, or should he have been led by the Holy Spirit?

I offer these comments in friendship and, while agreeing to disagree with a great many of your posts, I hope that this might be useful.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Mr. Stoudt. Thanks for taking the time to post such thoughtful comments. Allow me to respond to just a few of them.

"The religious beliefs of the author are helpful but not paramount for me. I can learn from, though not agree with, an atheist author as compared to a Christian author."

As can I. I find myself often agreeing with Christopher Hitchens, whom I like to refer to as "my favorite atheist."

"why did he have to break Virginia law to teach the Christian faith?"

Actually, he did not break the law "to teach the Christian faith." That was perfectly legal and quite common. As I pointed out in the book, many Southerners did so to, in their minds, make the slaves "more obedient." Others, like Jackson, did so out of a genuine concern for their souls and in obedience to the Great Commission. The law which Jackson allegedly broke was the one which forbade teaching blacks to read as well as to gather with them in a meeting at night. Again, there was no law against teaching the Christian faith to slaves or free blacks. Jackson's effort were not even the first in Lexington, though they were the most successful and had the greatest impact. Beverly Tucker Lacy and Henry Ruffner also conducted a black Sunday school in Lexington, as did Francis H. Smith (VMI's first commandant), prior to Jackson's efforts.

Since you misread the law and are mistaken on the actual facts, the rest of the questions that follow in that paragraph are irrelevant.

". . . where did Jackson fit into the larger picture of antebellum Virginia, or by extension, the South? That was my question at the end of your book."

I believe I answered that question in the book, at least to some extent. But, since that was not the primary emphasis, perhaps not to your satisfaction.

"By reading the comments of Confederate heritage writers, I note that Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson are most often listed as the epitome of Christian leaders and, for some, as theologians."

I've never read anyone who considered either men "theologians." Both faithful churchmen, yes, but not theologians. They were soldiers by profession.

"I would offer that Robert Dabney exercised a greater theological influence than either Lee or Jackson. And Dabney, whether we like it or not, advocated black slavery and white supremacy based on the Bible."

Theological, yes, but primarily within the Presbyterian church. There were very few 19th century Americans (North, as well as South) who did not advocate white supremacy - for a whole host of reasons. And, there was much more to Dabney than his views on race.

"How does Jackson's 'colored' Sabbath school square with the public statements made by the Southern theologians?"

As I've already stated, teaching slaves and free blacks the Christian faith was common. I gave ample evidence of that in my book. It's common knowledge. Are you familiar with the work of Samuel Davies?

"These missions were curtailed after the Nat Turner Insurrection."

I mention Turner's impact in my book as well.

"A risky action, indeed: should Jackson have followed the world of Virginia society and lawmakers, or should he have been led by the Holy Spirit?"

The Book of Acts answers that question for believers.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

Best,
RW

John Stoudt said...

Mr. Williams:

Thank you for your comments and corrections. I violated a cardinal rule that I try to follow in my research: I did not have your book in front of me. I relied on my memory, and I was mistaken in describing the Virginia law.

I forgot to mention, too, that you illuminated a facet of Jackson's life (his Sabbath school teaching) which I find inspiring. I think that Jackson acted within a paternalistic society, but paternalists, too, can be led by the Spirit to inspire others. Perhaps my comments indicated more of a negative review: I meant to state that your book was inspirational, but I wanted to add some constructive criticism as well.

Likewise, I do not have Lucas' excellent (sympathetic but critical) biography of R. L. Dabney in front of me. I agree that there is more to Dabney's views than those which focus solely on race -- but I would contend that those views are critical to understanding his worldview, especially his defense of Virginia. Still, perhaps your views differ from mine in terms of emphasis. Fair enough.

Your comments stirred me to re-read Thornton Stringfellow's "A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery" (1841), and I remain convinced that the Biblical justification of slavery represented a greater, pervasive worldview by antebellum white Southern Chistians than many commenters (left and right?) today would allow.

Not that I agree on race with Stringfellow, mind you: but I think that Stringfellow, and others like him, believed that they were following God's Law -- period, end of discussion, and no compromise with any dissenters, especially Yankees (like me :)).

An anlysis of tough issues and an empathy for the people who faced those issues -- that is a challenge for an honest historian, amateur or professional.

Thank you again for your comments and your time.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

John:

No problem. I appreciate any constructive criticism. "Iron sharpeneth iron."

Thanks for taking the time to offer your opinion.

Best,
RGW