In an age when ‘truth’ is increasingly difficult to identify, and ‘orthodox’ theology has become increasingly literal, it is more important than ever to develop skills of discernment and critical thinking.
When I began reading history at the University of Queensland in 1966, I was introduced to EH Carr’s What is History? It was compulsory pre-reading for history studies and I am so glad I was introduced to Carr before I went too far into any critical studies, especially when doing theology and doctoral research into adult learning.
In 1955, it was Professor G Barraclough (History in a Changing World) who said “The history we read, though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgments.” Barraclough was a trained medievalist.
Carr reminds me of the challenge we are faced with in the current retreat to conservative and fundamentalist use of the scriptures to address the world’s problems. This has really emerged in the nineteenth century and now strongly influences politics and legislation. It is also a major cause of a great division developing in all forms of religion. He describes the nineteenth century heresy that history consists of the compilation of a maximum number of irrefutable and objective facts …. “Anyone who succumbs to this heresy will either have to give up history as a bad job, and take to stamp-collecting or some other form of antiquarianism, or end in a madhouse.” Carr said this in 1961.
History and Theology both experienced the emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century and reflected a society’s new interest in science and the social sciences. But they both continued to be sources of moral judgment on public actions and worked as conservers of political authority and power. It has taken a major opening up of the scriptures to critical analysis, contextual and historical criticism, to find deeper understandings beyond the literal and the fundamental to serve a world desperate for ways to address the imperatives of life on earth rather than irresponsibly “leave them to God.”
The way in which theology is often used as a set of historical documents and facts that claim to be accurate without bias, and flawlessly presented as a set of truths, is of great concern. It does not allow for establishing relevance with an educated world that is sceptical of knowledge that it is not permitted to challenge. But all history is the history of thought….it is dependent on the empirical evidence available at the time and the writer’s world view. One needs to study the writer before studying the facts! History means interpretation and theology needs to be examined in that light also. So for Carr, (and myself!), history (and theology) is a continuous process of interaction between the writer and his or her facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.
But not only is the material under examination influenced by the viewpoint of the writer, it is also rooted in a social and historical background. This is now the growing focus for the writers of alternative histories who, often, tongue in cheek, paint a picture of a world that would result from certain events occurring differently. For example, what if the Roman Empire had not fallen … would it have been the model of a well-governed, prosperous, cosmopolitan society, moved beyond the economic problems that dogged it? Perhaps the world would have been more technologically advanced sooner as the stagnation of scientific enquiry achieved by the Church would have been avoided, Instead of the intelligentsia putting so much effort into Christian religious doctrine and hoarding knowledge in closed monasteries there would be a freer circulation of information that allowed engineering to innovate much faster (Jerry Glover, historical researcher, UK). Reading for enjoyment some of this material (example pictured above), I can’t help but think that attempts to grow a following for ‘orthodox’ theology has employed similar techniques….imagine an alternative future and make the narrative build a consciousness of it.
The study of history has been liberated by making it more scientific – with demands on those who pursue it to be more rigorous and seek to explain and respond to the incessant question Why?. It has become relevant to a bigger audience. Theology needs to eschew the tendency to move inside the fortress walls and open itself to critical examination. Instead of being a field of study for ‘insiders’ it could, as some are already doing, shed doctrinal and institutional constraints and be a science of enquiry and critical thought that relates to everyperson. This would cast a new optimism on the Church where change is not to be feared, where reason is no longer subordinate to the existing order and progress in human affairs once again is on the agenda.
Paul Inglis 17th November 2018.
Feedback/comments welcome at “Reply” at the beginning of this article. Good to share thoughts with everyone rather than just to me as many have done.