A new science

How does one reconcile the history of events and the practice of theology?  The one is, in contemporary times and terms, secular – a study of what happened with various degrees of purported impartiality or objectivity.  The other is in a complex relationship with faith, and at the least studies a theoretical existence of a more or less active transcendent realm.  Religious knowledge for the historian is usually something to be explained as a claim rather than accepted as an explanation in itself.  In other words, the question to be answered is something along the lines of  ‘how the belief that God intervenes in the world motivated humans’, not ‘how did God intervene in the world’.

This relationship is explored in different ways in a series of essays in the journal Modern Intellectual History.[1]  Entitled ‘History’s Religion’ the forum ranges widely over 18th, 19th and 20th century historiography and theology.  It is an immensely stimulating set of essays. 

My interest was sparked by two aspects of the argument, neither quite to the fore in the essays.  The first is what agenda this debate might set for the study of ancient history (and especially my own interest in early Rome) and the second, how to work through the consequences of the claims for the nature and genealogy of the humanities as currently practised.

Let’s start with the core argument, as laid out in the introductory essay.[2]

The challenge is to rewrite the traditional narrative that secular history replaced a divinely inhabited history.  In particular, this trend of enlightenment, it is argued, broke down specific sites of religious explanatory richness, apocalypticism, messianism, providence, and so forth.  Once God is no longer an actor in history, beyond perhaps a role as a ‘first mover,’ the study of God is also relegated to a part of our apparatus of study, rather than promoted to a pre-eminent position.

This traditional narrative has never been fully satisfactory.  A Weberian notion of the disenchantment of the world underpins this argument, but assumes a successful disenchantment as opposed to a shift in the objects of belief.  Karl Löwith argued instead that history had become a secularized eschatology, a shift which underpinned the catastrophic rise of ideological extremism.

So there are two interconnected myths about history involved in Geschichtsreligion, History’s Religion, one that a unified field of knowledge, theology, was fragmented into the modern humanities, and the other that the process of secularization (which the editors cleverly relate to the transfer of property) was effective.  The rather understated but very important argument here seems to be that the field of knowledge was never so unified and the separation from transcendent modes of thought was never completed.[3]

My own field of study, early Roman history, is intriguingly characterized by a number of competing interpretations at present.  Some revert to the fact that it was itself an essential site for the working out of the emancipation of history from myth.[4]  The recognition that the stories of Romulus and Remus and so on, as transmitted, could not be literally true was an effective shadow site for the more dangerous argument that other supposedly reliable history of early times, as contained in the Bible, might be equally problematic.  We remain in a rather unhelpful loop which asserts that the ‘evidence’ can be unlocked by an appropriate heuristic. 

What undermines this, it seems to me, is the assumption that we can emancipate ourselves from the conditions in which the discourse was created.  But the alternative assumption, that all one can study is the circumstances of an instance of transmission, for instance in Livy, is equally unhelpful.  Something has gone wrong if we cannot escape an opposition between ‘recovering what happened’ and ‘reading the text for what it says about itself as text.’  

I see this as analogous to the account which Daniel Wiedner gives of the crisis of historicism.  He draws on debates between Troeltsch and Bultmann over the distinctive temporalities of history (linear, regular and at least avowedly non-teleological) and eschatology (an overarching removal of the human from history by virtue of the expectation that history will end).  This uneasy set of arguments lead Wiedner to suggest that ‘the relation of history and religion is not only a question of narrative or of academic reputation but also deeply embedded in the various levels of method, of hermeneutics, of the way that history itself is configured, be it as an academic discipline or as a feature of human understanding. … By describing these entanglements, I hope to suggest that this problem is not merely a particular problem of the history of religion, but something that concerns history more generally, namely when history faces problems such as the relation between historical phenomena and their essence, questions about the meaning of history or the relation between values and metahistorical truth claims on the one hand, and modern historical method and the contingency of historical phenomena on the other.’

In concrete terms, this is driving towards the fundamental instability of history as a discipline that purports to objectivity.  But if history isn’t objective, and we all know it cannot be, what exactly is it?  What is the nature of the knowledge which has been so patiently built up over centuries of study?

Sheehan, Trüper and Wimmer give us a clue when they argue that history has been set asymmetrically against faith rather than symmetrically against theology.  ‘Historical scholarship, simultaneously transforming and abandoning the matrix of religion understood primarily as faith, reinforced the hierarchies and domination inscribed in the modern European concept of “religion.” For it elevated religion qua faith to the position of worthiest opponent, most competent negotiating partner, and favorite sibling to reason. That which did not have “faith,” the more pragmatic, ritual-bound, flexible, accommodating, non-doctrinaire bodies of practice that existed elsewhere and at other times, was worthy neither of an effort at appropriation nor of serious antagonism.’[5]

This is too simple a story, of course. but it points at an identity achieved by differentiation.  In some ways, mainstream history seems to have gone as far as to assume elements of faith and left that more pragmatic and non-doctrinaire world to others.  It is hard not to think at this point of Hilary Mantel’s famous words in her first Reith Lecture:

‘Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.’[6]

And this of course is why subaltern and postcolonial history has such an important role, and it’s also why the very notion of recovering what actually happened in archaic Rome, or from any other time or place, is hopeless, but also why only reading through the dominant discourse is a counsel of some despair.

Where then does this leave the humanities more generally?

Sheehan, Trüper and Wimmer argue that ‘If we revisit the history of modern humanities as a continuing quarrel of inheritor disciplines, it would also become clear that the inheritance was never fully settled and that conflicts over bits of property unfold to this day. In both institutional and intellectual terms, these conflicts may be viewed as the common core that holds together the vast family of academic disciplines: the myth of disciplines as secular expropriators of theology within the Western university—as if this vast family of institutions truly had a unifying principle—continues to function as a framework of humanities thought. The university itself might then turn out to be a hybrid between institutional structures and this imaginary content.’

So they note that archaeology and anthropology have taken deep history, and philology the study of the ‘language of paradise.’  This account of the development of disciplines is provocative, not least because the implicit challenge is that if theology never was this single overarching holistic methodology which it was forced to be solely to be broken, the unity of the humanities is a myth.

Whatever one thinks of the way they get to this argument, it seems to me they have landed in an interesting space.  One reason whyy this is critical is that we are now all eschatologists once more, as we face the potentially cataclysmic end of the environmentally disastrous Anthropocene.  One does not need to believe that total extinction is a threat; it is simply undeniable that apocalypse is back on our minds.  In its meaning of revelation, what is being disclosed to us daily is a challenge to the capacity of humanity to control the consequences of our own action.  In Genesis, God gave humanity dominion over nature.  The grand arc of a newly eschatological history is revealing how badly we have played that hand.  What beliefs, revolutions and terrors this apocalyptic vision will unleash will be profoundly interesting to see.

The other reason why I find this argument intriguing is that it shows how narrow and exclusive any notion of humanities might be which insisted on some genuine value for an ‘original’ set of ‘real’ humanities disciplines, or refused to allow that conflict is a natural state of existence between disciplines – that conflict surely is what we call interdisciplinarity.  Thus it makes no sense not to permit disciplines of practice and performance, which in some ways mimic the myth of creation, to be of equal esteem, or to deny their equivalent rigour.  And it makes no sense to set up a division from scientific disciplines.

A better myth, then, is not of theology fractioning into humanities, but of the constant reinvention of science.  Reverting to that claim of history in competition with faith instead of bodies of practice opens up some interesting comparisons between the claims of science (objective and transcendent) and the contingent and embodied practices which Latour identified.[7]

Now if ever, the challenge of a global polycrisis does not lend itself well to a myth of fractioned and uncommunicative disciplines. Rather it speaks to the conflicts and discontinuities as being productive of a new forward-facing myth of holistic scientific endeavour – human centred insofar as it aspires to equitability, species agnostic as it aspires to being truly salvific.  After all, a world in which humanity is the only species left is literally unthinkable.

So this notion of History’s Religion has prompted me to reflect on the strange and I think inadequate constructions of history as a discipline in dealing with the myths that I am concerned with, an inadequacy which needs to be addressed more carefully. 

But it also makes me think about the challenge of history in a time that is newly eschatological, and how this should prompt us to face up once more to the work of writing a myth of the science we need.

Surely these are two utterly unconnected arguments?

Well, let’s look back at the story of Romulus and Remus.  The creation of a city required the most miraculous – and benign – intersection between nature and humanity.  The supposed wilderness of floodplain and wolf turns out to be the nurturing home that civilized humanity had withdrawn.  The most obviously ‘untrue’ part of the story of Romulus and Remus looks to be the most relevant basis for our own age’s new science.

William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments

[1] History’s Religion (cambridge.org)

[2] Sheehan, J., Trüper, H., & Wimmer, M. (2022). Beyond Secularized Eschatology Introductory Remarks. Modern Intellectual History, 19(4), 1182-1190. doi:10.1017/S1479244321000299

[3] Masuzawa, T. (2022). Theology, the Fairy Queen. Modern Intellectual History, 19(4), 1262-1285. doi:10.1017/S1479244321000287 comes closest to the first point, arguing that theology was not an especially important subject, even in the medieval university. 

[4] Momigliano, A. (1957). Perizonius, Niebuhr and the Character of Early Roman Tradition. Journal of Roman Studies, 47(1-2), 104-114. doi:10.2307/298573

[5] Sheehan, J., Trüper, H., & Wimmer, M. (2022). Beyond Secularized Eschatology Introductory Remarks. Modern Intellectual History, 19(4), 1182-1190. doi:10.1017/S1479244321000299

[6] reith_2017_hilary_mantel_lecture1.pdf (bbc.co.uk)

[7] See for instance Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts


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