Critical History and Sacred Tradition: Introduction

by Will Katerberg.

It’s basic to modern historiography to draw a line between “critical history” and other ways of relating to the past, such as heritage, tradition, and memory. Most people don’t make this distinction. History is history. When they encounter it, “critical history” sometimes violates what they hold dear, making them angry or shaking their self-identity. The same is true of scholarship on scripture and religious traditions. Evolutionary biology too.

“History–what trained historians do–is a reasoned reconstruction of the past,” explains David Blight. “It tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive, and therefore more secular than what people commonly refer to as memory. Memory, however, is often treated as a sacred text of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community.”

First Iwo Jima Flag being raised, a small flag carried ashore by the 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, being planted on Mount Suribachi February 23, 1945. The more famous picture, with a larger flag, was staged later. That image is copyrighted. This one is in the public domain because it came from the US Marine Corps. Both picutres can be found on Wikipedia. [Click the image to go there.]
First Iwo Jima Flag being raised, a small flag carried ashore by the 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, on Mount Suribachi February 23, 1945. The more famous image, with a larger flag, was staged later. That image is copyrighted. This one is in the public domain because it’s from the US Marine Corps. Both images can be found on Wikipedia. [Click the image to go there.]
Gabrielle Spiegel makes a similar point in comparing modern “historical” time to “liturgical” time. “Like modern medicine,” she contends, “the practice of history becomes possible only when a corpse is opened to investigation. . . . Historians must draw a line between what is dead (past) and what is not.” They must treat the past as separate from themselves. There’s something clinical and cold about modern historiography, she implies.

When we approach the past “liturgically,” on the other hand, we experience it as a living thing, a tradition in which we participate, generating habits, memories, and beliefs that make us who we are. We belong to it, and it to us. It has a certain authority over us. It’s something we love.

The most difficult challenge teachers and students face in the classroom is crossing the boundaries, back and forth, between critical analysis and love of things they hold sacred. For some, that’s national identity. For others, it’s a part of the past dear to their family. For many, it’s their religious beliefs, practices, and community.

The Enola Gay ground crew with the Hiroshima mission commander Paul Tibbets in the center.
The Enola Gay ground crew with the Hiroshima mission, Commander Paul Tibbets in the center.

An famous example of this tension was a planned exhibit in the 1990s by the Smithsonian on the Enola Gay, the American plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan in 1945, near the end of World War Two.

The exhibit did what historians do for a living: critical history from various perspectives. It presented analysis that complicated narratives of the “good war”: an invasion probably was not needed to force Japan’s surrender, so the bomb was not necessary; racism shaped the American bombing of Japanese civilians; the bomb was used to warn the U.S.S.R., the first shot in the Cold War. Worst, the exhibit looked at Hiroshima from Japanese viewpoints too.

Hiroshima street scence after the atomic bomb. Civilian casualties waiting for medical help.
Hiroshima street scence after the atomic bomb. Civilian casualties waiting for medical help.

Outraged veterans’ groups, politicians, and pundits demanded changes. The planned exhibit never happened, only a tepid, uncontroversial one. There was no room for critical perspectives or multiple viewpoints on the good war and the “greatest generation” that fought it.

The Enola Gay exhibit violated only memories of a war and the generation that fought it. You can imagine the reactions of many students who for the first time encounter questions, ideas and evidence that, as they experience it, threaten their faith and look like an attack on the Bible, Christianity, or other core elements of their worldview.

The Hiroshima Genbaku Dome after the bomb. The structure was later made part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

No Adam or Eve, only Y-Chromosone “Adam” and Mitochondrial “Eve”? Abraham, the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, even stories of David, may be legends, not history? The Bible is a complicated set of texts with an all-too human history? Brain chemistry and crowd dynamics explain religious experience? Just contemplating questions like these can be hard.

The issues that cut deepest vary among students. A few do experience a sense of crisis in a class. But it’s also important to remember that some students bring these questions to their classes. They find it liberating to explore these issues, as well as unnerving, their view of the world complicated but enriched.

It’s not just history, religious studies, and biology. Philosophy, psychology, sociology, art history, and more do the same, as students encounter critical analysis and diverse viewpoints on things they’ve always taken for granted:  the economy, sexuality, ethics, beauty, family life. If they’re paying attention, liberals arts education is exciting and unsettling.

Christianity Today cover story, June 2011.
Christianity Today cover story, June 2011.

It’s not just students. Their teachers face the same questions and bring their own loves and loyalties to their work. But teachers tend to be more practiced at dealing with the tensions, conflicts, and fears that come with critical study.

It’s also not a Right or Left thing. My examples here, drawing on experiences in the U.S. and Christian circles, imply that it’s a conservative problem. It’s not. Liberals and people across the Left have their own sacred heritages and sometimes find critical scholarship on them unsettling. Scholars have professional pieties–about what it means to be a scholar–that we often hesitate to examine.

This post is the first in a series I’m planning on the relationship between critical history and things people hold dear. Some posts will relate to Christianity and other religious traditions. Others will look to ethnicity, national identity, and political traditions, others to the way scholarship works.

Does boundary crossing properly go only in one direction? Should traditions bend to scholarship? Should scholars respect orthodoxies, whether about the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, or Das Kapital? Or should critical history and sacred traditions  influence each other? If so, how? What are the responsiblities of teachers? What about students, as they mature as undergraduates and beyond?

Whatever the ideal, how do critical scholarship and sacred heritages actually relate to each other in practice? What do Blight and Spiegel’s conceptual distinctions look like on the ground?

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are intellectual history, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

2 thoughts on “Critical History and Sacred Tradition: Introduction

  1. Caleb Lagerwey

    I look forward to reading these installments. This week, my students are finishing papers on the use of the Atomic Bombs on Japan, and earlier we discussed the Enola Gay exhibit and its implications for our study of history/memory/the past. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Will Katerberg

    I’m glad you found it useful, Caleb. I’ll probably being done a dozen or so short and regular lenght posts related to this over the next half year, connecting topics on environmental history, my world history course, American West stuff, Native American history, etc. Don’t forget to post the link on your Facebook page if you have one! (I’ve decided to be a shameless and self-serving self-promoter on social media today. That why it exists!)


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