The Revival of the Participant Theory of History

Meanwhile, as over the centuries the witness view of history reigned in academic historiography and theology, for ordinary religious people the skies hung very low indeed, low enough for the Gods to be affected by history, as well as to affect history. Whether negotiating with God through prayer, ritual exercises, or moral behaviors, participants in popular Christianity tended to believe that they had real influence on the ultimate meaning of historical events. History was an arena in which people could interact effectively with God, Jesus, Mary, the angels, and the saints. In the twentieth century the trust in the effects of human participation was most evident in evangelical and fundamentalist sects and in the practices of the more literalistic laity in orthodox denominations. They kept alive the participant theory of history, even though its supernaturalism contradicted the naturalism of the rising scientific world view. When the theologians and church leaders rejected popular Christianity for its crudeness, they also ceded - unwittingly, it seems - the dominant biblical view of history to the popular Christianity they criticized.

Gradually, this underground participant theory of history gained currency in learned circles, beginning, most obviously, with the philosophy of history of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1813). For Hegel, history does not point beyond itself to an ahistorical (Platonic, idealistic) realm of pure ideas, but contains all that is real and important. There is an implicit purpose or Spirit in the world, and it works in and through the particularities of historical activity as they dialectically unfold, converting mere possibilities into settled historical events. People should participate in that unfolding; to see themselves as merely witnesses to history is to miss the real action.

Although Hegel took a giant step toward a modern, participant view of history, his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History claimed both too much and too little for history. For example, he claimed too much for history when he identified the Absolute Spirit, as it operates in a nation, with the actual historical spirit of that nation. In doing this, he put the actions of at least one state beyond the independent judgment of God or of the prophet, thereby paving the way for the religious nationalism that was later embodied in twentieth-century fascism. Ironically in his effort to emphasize history, he put history beyond the judgment of the participants in history. On the other hand, Hegel claimed too little for history, making it the passive instrument of a coercive dialectical logic. He denatured history by denying, in effect, just those arbitrary, accidental, free decisions of people or of God that were the genius of the Hebrew participant view of history (Hegel 1975:103, 28).

The strengths and weaknesses of Hegel's historicism were seen by Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) when in 1902 he announced that the "new world" was developing "an unreservedly historical view of human affairs." He turned to the "historico-critical" theories of Schleiermacher and Hegel as the only serious acknowledgments of the importance of historicity in religion, but then noted that when they made Christianity the historical husk of the Absolute kernel, they effectively absolutized one religion, making it independent of particular historical circumstances (Troeltsch 1971:45, 71-2). He went on to claim that "Christianity has . . . no historical uniformity, but displays a dif ferent character in every age." It is relative to "an immeasurable, incomparable profusion of always-new, unique, and hence individual tendencies" (Troeltsch 195 7:43-4).

But then, in lectures written just before he died in 1923, Troeltsch worried that to abandon the Absolute entirely would make religions "simply illusions or the products of human vanity." Without explaining how he knew, he asserted that all religions "are products of the impulse towards absolute objective truth," that they all share "a common ground in the Divine Spirit" (1957:61). Presciently, he objected to those extremes of the participant theory of history that would lead American historian Carl Becker ten years later to title his most famous speech: "Every Man his Own Historian." Troeltsch's limits to historicity and his unexplained trust in faith's access to the Absolute were to appear in the historical relativism of H. Richard Niebuhr and Gordon Kaufman, both of whom acknowledged their dependence on Troeltsch.

The fullest modern expression of the participant view of history, and of history for the Hebrews, is the "socio-historical method" of the "Chicago School" of theology. Among major developments in the history of modern Western religious historiography, it was the most neglected, even though it used the popular radical empiricism, pragmatism, and metaphysical naturalism of William James and John Dewey and the pro-gressivism and relativism of contemporary American historians. The Chicago School was neglected partly because its sociological approach to history, although resembling Emile Durkheim's, was ahead of its time, too American, and too mundane for most religious scholars.

The major Chicago School theorists, all faculty of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, were Gerald Birney Smith (1868-1929), Shailer Mathews (1863-1941), and Shirley Jackson Case (1872-1947). One effect of their sociological approach was their willingness to abandon Troeltsch's search for the One behind the Many and to take the religious risk Troeltsch was unwilling to take - not only rela-tivizing religious truth, even that of Christianity, but refusing subsequently to connect religion to the Absolute. Shailer Mathews believed there were many Christianities, each relative to a social context, none representative of an essential Christianity. "My studies," he said, "have convinced me that Christianity was the religion of people who called themselves Christian; that is to say, who believed themselves loyal to Jesus Christ, but that there was no static body of truth which was a continuum to be accepted or rejected or modified" (Mathews 1969:180). Mathews and the Chicago School theologians treated religious creeds and institutions functionally, much as John Dewey would in his 1934 A Common Faith. Religious institutions and creeds arose in response to the mismatch between a community's working theological heritage and the new religious needs implicit in a new social environment, and they invented a new harmony between traditions and the changing environment. This invention created new theological truth - hence, the Chicago School named its work "constructive theology." Clearly, the historian and believer is a participant in history, believing his or her construction would help shape future history.

For Case and Mathews, the New Testament and the early Church were constructive responses to religious crises. For Mathews, the major changes in Christian Theology (such as theories of atonement or of concepts of God) were, phase by phase, specific and creative responses to social or political problems in the course of Western social history. Smith reached the same conclusions through focusing on cultural rather than social and political history.

More than any previous movement in Christian thought, the Chicago School grounded theology in history. Historiography, rather than metaphysics or an authoritative heritage, was the foundation and justification for their theologies. Their distinc-tiveness led to their isolation, and they fought back. They claimed that fundamentalists and European neo-Reformation theologians - especially Kierkegaard and Barth - were ahistorical thinkers, bent on recovering pure New Testament beliefs and hauling them into the present, even though the present was immersed in problems quite unlike those implicit in the first century. Case turned and fought not only the conservatives, but liberal idealists like Paul Tillich. Despite the idealists' efforts to put doctrines in "forms acceptable to modern modes of thinking," he wrote, they wanted to retain a residue of eternally valid dogma and to discard the rest. They failed to understand that historical context changed the content, as well as the form, of all religious thought, eliminating any substantial continuity. Case went so far as to claim that such obviously false arguments invited the rise of fundamentalism and crisis theology (Case 1933:66-7).

For the Chicago School, then, past and present history was and is a function of participation. Past history was immensely important - not as a standard to be emulated -but as a record of the active interaction between past traditions, past circumstances, and the historical imagination. This interaction was creative activity, in that religious thought had continually to be actively revised to meet the new religious needs that arose in each historical era. Admittedly, this experimental construction carried the risk that theologies could be wrong and fail to work in the new environment - a risk that witness theorists of history sought to avoid by validating theology through reference to something beyond the flux of history.

The Chicago School's battle with the fundamentalists and idealists was costly, for it exposed its Achilles' heel, its tendency always to sell the continuities of tradition to the demands of the present and to see each transaction as one more step in a progress toward higher truth. Ironically, they became "presentists," making their present scientific and democratic belief the criterion for all past belief - the exact converse of Christian thinkers from Eusebius to Barth, who were "pastists," making Christian origins the criterion for all that followed. This presentism seemed to contradict the Chicago School's own claim that each historical act was sui generis, creative in its own right, and not subject to any fixed standard - not even the standard taken out of the present.

Finally, as the brutality and despair of the twentieth century mounted, the optimism implicit in the Chicago School's progressivism would look historically naive, even to the remnants of the later Chicago School: the optimism fell out of sync with a world that was increasingly pessimistic.

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