Historians and Religion -- Sightings
I am by training a historical theologian. I've done some academically oriented writing in the area of history, and I'm a member of long standing of the American Society of Church History. I happen to believe that history is an important subject, that does not get it's due in our educational system. There is some truth to the adage that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, in an age of standardized tests, history doesn't make the grade -- to our detriment, since it allows demagogues to twist history to their own uses. With that tirade finished, I turn the discussion over to one of America's most renowned historians of religion -- Martin Marty, who gives an accounting of his recent attendance at the American Historical Association meeting, with attendant ASCH and American Catholic Historical Association meetings, and tells us a bit about the place of religion in the study of history. Wish I could have been there! It's always a lot of fun!!
Here's to the historical study of religion!
Historians and Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
“Sightings” of religion in the academy, we are regularly told, are rare. “Secularism” is the villain. You wouldn’t know it if you attended programs or visited publishers’ displays at historians’ conventions, where, by all reports, religion never had it so good. That was the word at meetings of the American Historical Association and allied organizations which met in Chicago January 5-8. You would expect religious topics to preoccupy the American Catholic Historical Association and the American Society of Church History. Of course, of course. But there is much change within the latter two, and an annual opportunity to check in is valuable to provide background and perspective.
The timings of their meetings make my transition, after two weeks of non-sighting, fortuitous. While we were “off,” there was plenty of coverage of religion in public life, thanks especially to the non-stop headlining and prime-timing of political campaign religion. It is so over-covered that we think we do a service by under-covering it here. So, here is stuff for background and perspective. My vantage? I’ve been attending the ACHA and ASCH for fifty-five years, (having been president of both organizations long ago). And over coffee we older-timers like to reflect on change, of which there is plenty. We were also reminded that there is plenty of continuity, a theme stressed by Yale’s Harry “Skip” Stout, on a panel celebrating his influential work. An expert on New England, he came on the scene decades ago when Titan Perry Miller dominated with studies of “declension” on the religion-and-society scene as the decades passed in Puritan New England. Listen to the factional and fictional representations of that past in contemporary politics, urged Stout and others, and you will see how versions of that past are invoked and distorted today.
Hurrying on: what are some of the changes? Many of them have to do with the make-up of the casts of historians, as ambitious and innovative lovers of their craft as “we” were fifty-five years ago and remain today. Most obvious is a matter of the identity of the researchers, writers, job-seekers, adjuncts, and accomplished veterans. In 1956 almost the only women on the program rosters were Catholic sisters. Today Catholic non-sisters and non-Catholic women are “all over the place,” at breakfasts and in book display titles and on programs.
Topics also have changed, and for the better. A half century ago we chronicled comings and goings of bishops and pastors, denominations, orders, synods and seminaries. Today, in societies of people who are and want to be alert to their times but seek to shun faddism, words like these leap out: “Reports of Weeping,” “Repentant Bodies,” “Scrutinizing the Household,” “The Rhetoric of Place,” “History of Gender in Southern Baptist Battles,” “Stephen’s Relics,” “A Chinese Guest of the Pope,” “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Culture,” “Even If You Stayed Long, Who Would Have You for a Sweetheart—You are a Korean,” “Rescuing Prostitutes and Wayward Women,” etc.
The picture of religious faith and practice today, as chronicled by historians, will bring students and readers and viewers much closer to what religion really looks like “close to home,” “close to heart.” When asked why I am an historian, I like to quote a British historian: “I find the world very odd, and I want to know how it got that way!” All aboard as we go observing the oddments of religion in a new year, with the aid of quotes from journalists and their kin and kind.
The American Catholic Historical Association Annual meeting program can be found here and the American Society of Church History winter meeting program can be found here.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found atwww.memarty.com.
In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jonathan Wyn Schofer explores both how late ancient rabbinic narratives understand human vulnerability in relation to the environment, and the ethical instruction inspired by this understanding. Schofer proposes that "contemporary environmental ethics can learn much from considering these perhaps exotic rituals and stories," which "portray people as entrenched in natural processes."
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.