Guest Post: History That Matters by Daniel Cooley
Daniel Cooley is a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He was kind enough to accept the invitation to reflect on CFH President R. Tracy Mckenzie’s Presidential Address from the conference at Gordon College. Please take a moment to view his family’s adoption page.
History that Matters
Recently, I learned that some members of my church were concerned about the growing balance of our benevolence fund, which is devoted to assisting members in financial distress. It seemed as though the rate of distribution of these funds was slowing. I spoke to a former member of the committee that is responsible for distributing the money, and she shared something revealing. She told me that
no one with a legitimate need was ever turned away; however, the definition of legitimate need had changed. It had narrowed. This former committee member felt that the process was designed to protect the church against being taken advantage of rather than for increasing access to these funds. As I reflected on Tracy McKenzie’s address from our recent CFH meeting, I wondered if Christian historians might sometimes be guilty of an analogous practice. I wonder if we historians who posses a wealth of knowledge are sometimes guilty of a similar practice of narrowing the definition of need?
Through the course of the professionalization of history writing, the definition of what a historian can legitimately say has narrowed. So the sort of history that finds at least part its raison d’être in moral example is no longer a “legitimate need.” A famous example would be Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which suggests that superstition and religious belief are dangerous to society. It brought down Rome, and it can bring down Enlightenment rationalism too.
This professionalization, of course, has afforded tremendous advances in the field, but this has also changed the definition of “legitimate need.” What I mean by this is that the sort of projects which are deemed significant, useful, and helpful has changed. Up until the modern period, it seems that historians were more likely to view their task in relation to their own real world context rather than an academic ghetto. Their task was to help their community to make sense of their identity, origins, purpose, and morality. At the same time, I suspect that nearly every professional historian working today would agree that they too want to make sense of questions related to identity, origins, purpose, and morality. If that is so, why does it seem that “public intellectuals” rather than professional historians are answering these historically minded questions for the general public?
To take this one step further, exactly how am I supposed to write history that matters? Who decides what is significant, useful or helpful? As I reflect on the conference this past week, these questions have been circulating in my mind. In the last few weeks, I obtained approval from my committee to begin writing my dissertation, and so these questions take on a new urgency for me. When I began to form my proposal, I did not sit down and think about these questions. My immediate concern was to write a dissertation that would satisfy my committee. My next concern was to write a dissertation that could get published. As I think back on this, I am not sure this was the best start in writing something that mattered. What do you think? How do we determine which projects are significant, useful, and helpful?
I think this question ought to compel us how we might “advance the field,” but I also think that it moves us beyond the world of the academy and into the realm of the world and the realm of the Church.