The Christian Historian and Common Humanity

Part 4 of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.

World map with silhouettes of people on each continentWhile I make no claim that Christian faith gives me supernatural insight into the subjects of my research and teaching, it does predispose me toward certain answers and makes me suspicious of others. I take it as a given, a literal article of faith, that all other human beings are fundamentally like myself in being creatures with thoughts and emotions and aspirations and moral attributes, even if these characteristics can take very different forms from my own because of differences in culture, circumstances, personal endowments, etc. Hence, I believe that I, along with other historians, can make plausible inferences about the motivations of people in other places and times based on an understanding of myself and the people I have known personally, with due allowance for the impact of different cultural and historical contexts. I reject on principle racist or nationalist interpretations of the past which claim that some people are more worthy of love or respect or that other people are less worthy of the neighborly love which I owe to every other human being and I am suspicious of historical explanations that reduce the motivation of any human being to a single variable such as economic interest or social conformity.

Indeed, from my perspective as a Christian, the subject of history is always “we” in one sense or another. One meaning of “we” is the whole of humanity who were created in God’s image.[1] The other meaning is the family of God, those who have been chosen by him to manifest faith in Christ. All other senses of the word are secondary to these. God teaches me that everyone in the first group is my neighbor whom I am to love as I myself want to be loved, and he teaches me that I am to be even more attached to the welfare of those in the second group, regarding them as my very own brothers and sisters, which in Christ they are. As I read the Bible, there exists no category of people called “them” whom I am entitled to despise or ignore or misrepresent. I owe to all people, and all other historians, the fair-minded consideration that I myself desire and deserve as someone created in God’s image and loved by him.

Columbus-Exchange-New-World-arrival-631.jpg__800x600_q85_cropTo make these notions as concrete as possible, let me describe my approach to several topics which arise in the class room. Because I answer the question “who are we?” in a Biblically inclusive way, I try in my teaching to present other people and cultures as empathetically as possible so that students are encouraged to see them as part of the human family. When dealing with pre-Columbian societies, for example, I avoid romanticizing them as naturally pristine or demonizing them as uniquely savage. Neither approach adequately reflects the historical record which indicates that they were capable of astonishing achievements in writing, architecture, and horticulture, and awful cruelty in warfare and religious ritual. I judge that these qualities mark them as members of the human family to which we all belong.

I try to offer a similarly “sober” portrait in describing one of the “tribes” to which I belong: the United States. When answering the question, “How did we get here?” I think it is vital to acknowledge that the U.S. came into possession of its current territory by violently dispossessing the prior inhabitants of this place. Hence, some of its citizens are descendants of conquerors while others are descendants of the defeated. And while some North Americans arrived here in search of economic opportunity or to escape persecution, others were brought here against their will. Many in the first group eventually found America to be a land of personal opportunity and political freedom but for many in the second group it remained a cruel and oppressive police state until a time well within the memory of living Americans. I tell my students that the relative importance of these differing experiences depends on whether their sense of “we” includes both winners and losers. If conquest and enslavement only happened to “them,” then those events will probably remain merely “historical.” On the other hand, if they happened to “us,” then they probably seem more consequential and may even prompt some sort of personal response. Likewise, if we distance ourselves from the Euro-Americans who pressed Native Americans to the brink of annihilation, we miss an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and our society.

marshall-planThis notion that all people are “my people” makes it impossible for me to embrace a purely nationalistic perspective when considering relations between the nation of which I am a citizen and other nations. Instead, I try to evaluate the actions of the United States in light of their effects on all of those affected by them. When I do so, I find instances of great generosity, such as the Marshall Plan, and hospitality, such as the phenomenal and long-standing openness of the United States to foreign immigrants. I also find much to criticize such as the U.S.-inspired military coups that overthrew popular governments in Iran and Guatemala in the mid-1950s and the aforementioned dispossession and near annihilation of the Native Americans.

In sum, my aim is not to offer an “objective” perspective but rather to offer the most subjective perspective possible: because everyone is my neighbor, I try to give an empathetic understanding of all who were involved in the historical process in hopes that my students will adopt the same expansive sense of who “we” are.

 

[1] Christians confess that all humans “bear the image of God.” The meaning of this term has been hotly debated but Reformed Christians such as myself generally see it as referring to the human ability and obligation to act as “God’s representatives on earth” by loving each other and exercising benign authority over the created world. This principle explains and justifies the human impulse to create culture. Of course, human agency and creativity are often used for very un-Godlike purposes. Reformed Christians see the human propensity toward evil as a result of “the fall” of humanity into sin. The traditional theological terms for the unpleasant side of humanity—“original sin” and “total depravity”—have gone out of fashion, but the reality they describe is widely observable: all people tend to despoil the planet and treat other people less fairly and generously than they themselves would like to be treated even though they—we—know that such failures are somehow wrong. More happily, Reformed Christians also believe in “common grace,” the notion—also widely observable—that despite their defects, people are capable of doing good to others and displaying amazing creativity. Hence I, as a Reformed Christian, believe that all people as individuals and as communities are capable of both amazing good and horrifying evil. Indeed, that is what is most distinctive about humanity.

This post is the fourth in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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