Saturday, May 30, 2015

Different Kinds of Truth Claims

Are there? Yes, I believe so. I'm back writing for "Ordinary Times." My first post explores the difference between making an historical claim and believing in something because you have faith in the notion.

A big taste:
I’m known for my research that meticulously scrutinizes the claims made about religion and the American Founding. I reject the “Christian America” view. That view holds, among other things, that God was on the side of America, against the British and so directly intervened.

Two notable examples offered to prove God’s intervention include:

1. An incident where George Washington was shot at and nearly missed (and my understanding of the history is that it was, or at least Washington claimed it was, a near miss in the Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent sense); and

2. As my friend John Fea tells it,
On the evening of August 29, following a day of defeat at the so-called Battle of Long Island, the American troops found themselves healing their wounds and trying to regroup. The British army was entrenched in the earth only yards away from the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, hoping to deal the final blow to this so-called war for independence. As nightfall came, Washington’s troops began to abandon their posts in order to parade to ferries that would take them across the East River and to the safety of Manhattan. Between 7:00 p.m. and the following morning Washington had evacuated nearly 10,000 Continental troops. The commander was aided by a dense fog that lingered over the East River long enough to shield the American ferries from the sight of the British navy.
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, the authors of a wildly popular work of providential history entitled The Light and the Glory, have argued that the fog was a sign of God’s providence. It was “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.”
Dr. Fea notes a problem with the claim:
Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether many English Christians would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?
Indeed Christianity is a much older religion than America and America is not, according to the creed, the center of the Christian God’s concern.

But still, if one wishes to have faith that Providence sided with America for, among other things, the above mentioned reasons, I can respect that. (The Founding Fathers themselves believed Providence was on their side.) Just don’t write and publish these claims as non-fiction history.

10 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Peter Marshall and David Manuel, the authors of a wildly popular work of providential history entitled The Light and the Glory, have argued that the fog was a sign of God’s providence.

If it's a book of "providential history," it is what it is. No, it's not scholarship in the common sense today, since we must proceed as though God is not a reality.

I'm a little more troubled by presumably neutral [and "recognized"] scholars start to inject their theology into their history.*

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2011/05/mark-noll-when-historians-attack.html

This goes for our friend Gregg Frazer as well, whose religious beliefs are synonymous with his historical conclusions. Noll here and Frazer are as valid [or not] as "providential history," for they are of the same stripe.

As for the concept of a "Christian historian," I'm perplexed: I question the premise of one.

http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2012/janfeb/newdirection.html

_____________
*Noll writes:
"...neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation, that, especially, in tandem, their volumes make possible..."

But is it the historian's job to make such moral evaluations? And by what standard?

"Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right..."

Who decides "what is Christian?" The historian? The theologian? Which theologian? Ratzinger, Barth? Pat Robertson? Jim Wallis?

I realize Mark Noll is becoming the go-to gold standard for religion and history, but where is his theological authority in such matters?
"It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment."

Art Deco said...

I've contented myself re Noll to reading reviews and the occasional article. I think it's been his shtick for 20 years or more that everyone is a disappointment to a man of his refinement. Fr. Neuhaus offered sometimes back that if your concern is not being associated with 'them', sooner or later you will abandon 'them'. I subscribed to The New Republic for 12 years while Jack Beatty and Leon Wieseltier edited the back of the book. I think I remember a review by Irving Kristol from those years, but they seldom commissioned pieces from authors who might have been considered 'unsound' and the two identifiable protestants on their masthead were almost never assigned book reviews.

With regard to faculty anywhere (and that implicates Fea in this discussion, and Warren Throckmorton) is with regard to what you allocate your limited time and verbiage for instruction, and what that indicates about your self-concept vis a vis the people who pays the bills. S.M. Hutchens offered the opinion some years ago that Wheaton College (Noll's old institution) was doomed. Seemed too categorical, but I would not take the bet re Wheaton or Messiah or Grove City. Noll's now at Notre Dame, which used to be a Catholic university. At least that's what I heard.

Tom Van Dyke said...

“Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”--Neuhaus's Law

“All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.”--O'Sullivan's Law

Notre Dame will survive. Georgetown. Useful idiots for the New Order. Wheaton, Messiah, Grove City, them too, once the proper...evolution...takes place.

http://www.dennyburk.com/division-on-wheatons-faculty-about-obamacares-contraceptive-mandate/

Daniel said...

I think a reader can distinguish between "due to fortuitous events, George Washington won this battle," "Washington believe God brought him victory," and "God brought about those fortuitous events." The first two are provable historical claims while the last is not. But an intelligent reader understand that.

If a biography of Washington refers to him as a great man, or as a monster, that reference does not take the biography out of the category of non-fiction history. It reveals an ideological bias of the writer, and the reader is free to decide whether that particular bias renders the statements of fact suspect. A statement that God favored Washington is not different -- if the footnotes indicate that the writer interviewed God, that probably renders the other footnotes suspect; but if it simply reveals the fact that the writer believes in Divine Providence and thinks such Providence can be found in verifiable fact, the historical claims are no less valid.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Since "providential history" is explicitly written for believers, it's obtuse to hold it to standards it doesn't embrace, hold it to a neutrality it doesn't pretend to have.

A "Christian" anti-providential history would be funny, though.

"Washington believed God spared him for some great purpose, but actually God had nothing to do with it, just like when Hitler survived the von Stauffenberg plot. It was just luck."

JMS said...

The best secondary source I've encountered on the role of divine providence in the Revolutionary War (which is not quite the same as the founding of the USA), is James Boyd's "Sacred Scripture, Sacred War." On p. 42 he recounts how Washington wanted his chaplains to stress to the soldiers that, "the revolution needed both human and divine weapons." If the Whig cause was to prevail, it needed heroic soldiers and God's blessing. "Washington ordered his soldiers and officers to attend 'divine service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense'." Boyd's reliable sources are massive.

Tom Van Dyke said...

1776:

Washington wanted his chaplains to stress to the soldiers that, "the revolution needed both human and divine weapons." If the Whig cause was to prevail, it needed heroic soldiers and God's blessing. "Washington ordered his soldiers and officers to attend 'divine service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense'."

2015:

A veteran discharged over ignoring an order to remove a Bible verse adhered to her computer might have her say shortly; her case may be heard by the military’s highest court.

The Washington Times reported that former Marine Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling received a bad-conduct discharge and was reduced in rank to an E-1 private after refusing to comply with an order from her superior while stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 2013.

The Bible verse, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” was taped on the side of Sterling’s computer in triplicate. She refused to take down the variation of Isaiah 57:14 when ordered by a staff sergeant and was eventually discharged. The violation of a lawful order and other low-level offenses led to the decision.

In February, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeal said the verse “could be interpreted as combative and could easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline.”

Sterling lost her appeal, but the case has been taken on by the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit organization.


http://usmclife.com/2015/05/marine-veteran-discharged-over-bible-verse-may-appear-before-militarys-highest-court/

Gregg Frazer said...

Tom:
In what way are my religious beliefs "synonymous with [my] historical conclusions?" Do you even know what my religious beliefs are? Have you ever read my book to know what my historical conclusions are?

Gregg Frazer said...

And ... why am I contacted by secular scholars I've never met from Colgate University to the University of Texas to do historical presentations? Perhaps it is because they've actually read my work and the evidence I present.

For that matter, how CAN religious beliefs be synonymous with historical conclusions?

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