Wednesday, 10 August 2011

pandisciplinarity and christianity

Pandisciplinarity and Christianity

Elsmie writes:
Clearly the scientific status of history is central to your project. One question: you write that the study of history as a science is validated by the extent to which it is ‘rational, global and evolutionary’; would it follow that espousal of Christianity which was coherent, rational and saw history as process from Creation to the Fall and on to an end, would this be scientific? Or are there other characteristics required to make world views scientific?
The short answer is that it is up to Christians to demonstrate the scientific qualities of their faith, of concepts such as ‘Creation’, ‘Fall’ and ‘an end’. The Pandisciplinarity blog is secular, literally in ‘relating to an age or period’ to give the derivation of the word from the Latin ‘saecularis’.

But the question deserves a longer response. To quote the book that led to this blog:
Since they involve supernatural phenomena, theological considerations cannot be included in secular discussion, particularly if we apply to it the words of the progenitor of Christianity as reported by St Matthew: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). Caesar acts, God judges. The empire that Caesar helped to create attempted to impose its so-called Pax Romana upon as much of the world as possible, and to use this concept as an important part of its self-justification, confidently explaining phenomena by the purpose they served – might was right. A series of successors have acted in a similar manner, most of them making the additional claim of God’s support and sanction. Of course, Holy Writ is open to interpretation, and there has been no shortage of theologians acting as spokesmen for empire. Ultimately, however, as indicated by imperial decline and fall, Ecclesiastes would appear to have hit the nail on the head in the assertion that ‘all is vanity’ (Ecclesiates 1:2). Human history might well come to an end and God make his final judgement.
(Paul Dukes, Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era, London: Anthem, 1911, 8-9)
Christianity and other religions receive little mention in the rest of the book, although they are possibly included in its conclusion in an implicit manner: ‘At the present critical moment, from whatever quarter, we need all the assistance we can get, and it is therefore possible to envisage a pandisciplinary approach to our present predicament.’ (133)

Elsmie’s question prompts some further reflections. Unlike Christianity and other religions, science does not deal in certainties, but probabilities, especially when dealing with predictions of the future. Moreover, there are unknowns, even unknowables. Of course, the distinction is not that sharp since, as I understand them, Christians view Christ as ineffable, beyond words. Thus I hesitate to say more except that, essentially, religion is a matter of faith and belief, where doubt and the process of relentless questioning, which are the keys to a sound approach to the acquisition of understanding through both science and history, are not  normally to be found.

Instead, a few comments on the work of a historian who was also a committed Christian and wrote extensively about connections between his work and his faith. I happen to have had personal contact with him, too, listening to him on European history and receiving his hospitality. The overwhelming impression I formed of Herbert Butterfield was of his earnestness. However, neither in his lectures nor in his conversation did he say anything about religion. His writings appear to indicate a belief in three levels in the study of history: individual, social and providential. Great men like Napoleon, possibly lesser mortals too, could influence the course of events: individuals were more important than the political and economic aspects of history. The duty of the researcher was to scrutinise available sources to establish the social context in which individuals operated, always recalling that subsequent judgements were relative to time and circumstance. It was at this level, Butterfield argued, that the historian functioned in a scientific manner, which was for him above all technical. Beyond, there was the providential, about which, in his view, mere mortal researchers could say little. (See, for example, Herbert Butterfield, Writings on Christianity and History, Edited with an Introduction by C.T. McIntire, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, especially ‘The Christian and Historical Study’, 151-71.)

Like all individuals, as he himself had said, Butterfield was the creature of his time and circumstance. He was born in 1900, and his early outlook was no doubt influenced by the First World War, his mature output – by the Second World War and the Cold War. He died in 1979 before ecological problems came to wider attention, and global, if not universal, consciousness began to grow along with the ecumenical movement. No blame can be attached to him for this, and he remains an inspiration to some of his successors, just as he in his turn was influenced by predecessors such as Lord Acton. That is the way of the study of history.

Today, there are good reasons for being familiar with the three Abrahamic religions, Moslem and Jewish as well as Christian, in a world in which they all exercise great influence. Other systematic belief systems, notably Buddhism, retain wide adherence. However, the apparent death of Marxism-Leninism since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago should not mean the end of the attempt to consider history as a secular science. A version of it remains the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China, merging to some extent perhaps with Confucianism and Taoism, whose ways, including a reverence for nature, remain indicative.

I was born in 1934, and have clear childhood memories of the Second World War. For example, I recall how we were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ in gardens and allotments. All of us, however young or old, in whatever station in life, were adjured to do our bit for the great cause. Churchmen prayed for the triumph of Christian good over godless evil, often ignoring the fact that our staunch Soviet Allies were officially materialists (even though Stalin and his henchmen sought the support of the Orthodox hierarchy and their God against the Nazi Wotan).

Today’s slogan ‘Grow More’ echoes ‘Dig for Victory’, but we are faced with a greater challenge than that of 1939-1945: it may be less immediately evident, but the strong balance of probability supported by an ever more powerful body of evidence is that anthropogenic disaster awaits us if we do not radically change our behaviour. In this pursuit, we need help from whatever quarter.

So thank you, Elsmie, for your questions. I hope you find my answers helpful. Peace be with you!         

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps you miss my point which was simply that the criteria you gave for establishing a discourse as scientific (“rational, global and evolutionary”) seemed insufficient. Your response adds a bit more flesh, rejecting arguments dependent upon supernatural categories as non-scientific as well as seeing science as a never-ending quest or as you put it a “process of relentless questioning”. Without wishing to defend Christianity or any other religion I would say here that perhaps the history of Christian apologetics does show relentless questioning which in the case of the Reformation involved quite radical reformulations of ideas of duty and selfhood. This would not establish Christianity as a science, or scientific, but it might question the notion that only science and scientific history are capable deep questioning of beliefs and evidence.

    For at least one point in Butterfield’s career he was aware that scientific history was “not like natural science”; the former having a tendency to be “stubbornly local” which in the 1940s, as you point to in Minutes to Midnight, for Butterfield became a paean to the great strengths of the English tradition wherein “conservative Christianity” and “liberal thought” came together to produce a moderate and tolerant nation. As you say he was a man of his time and place and in his defence of liberal England he used his Christian beliefs and concepts to explain why his nation’s history was superior to the “secular” traditions associated with continental Europe. Hence when Europeans lost the “safeguard”, the “ballast” of the idea of original sin they were doomed to fall towards tyranny and “pagan forms of the state”. One can see that in the midst of war strong arguments (founded on Christian-liberal categories) were a way of serving the war-effort. This, if I understand you correctly, you applaud insofar as the historian was willing to harness the discipline of history, to “use” it against the fascist enemy.

    Following from this you want to harness history and historians for the larger task of saving the planet. An admirable goal but I find myself uncertain as to what this means for you. What is it that historians should do that they are not doing now? In following and extending the “scientific” approaches of the Enlightenment what will be specific to your scientific history which is not present at the moment? And it occurs to me if the saving of the planet is the primary “use” to which history should be put why not allow any historical approach which accepts the reality of impending ecological disaster, puts humanity at the core and articulates this, as it seems did Butterfield, with religious underpinnings? Or can only scientific history have good uses and consequences?