William Dean

In Western thought there are two principal theories of history, which I will call "the witness theory of history" and "the participant theory of history." The first makes the historian an observer of the past, and the second makes the historian an improviser on the past, who not only observes but creatively shapes the past.

They focus on history, not on some ideal world beyond history. They refer to contingent, unrepeatable, spatial, and temporal events in order to explain why societies and their meanings change, rather than to eternal things to explain why societies should become what they ideally are.

When the witness and participant theories of history turn to religion, they both see religion as historical and claim that God is known primarily in the events of history.

The choices between the witness and participant theories of history have greatly affected the development of religion in the West. The witness theory has prevailed (at least in Christianity), but the participant theory of history, like a dog at the heels, has continued to challenge the witness theory.

I will comment informally on the unfolding story of the contrast between these two theories as it anticipated and then guided the history of Christianity; but initially, I should warn that my discussion is limited. I leave out rationalistic and mystical accounts of religion, on the grounds that - no matter how popular they are today -they refer primarily to permanent ideals located beyond historical flux, and thus do not belong in a discussion of theories of history. When I discuss history I discuss what it has meant to various civilizations (Hebrew, classical, modern, postmodern), rather than to what it has meant to individuals. I accept the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's definition of history as "the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past" (Huizinga 1963:9). Also, I discuss theories of history, people's ideas of the nature and consequences of historical change. I include enough historical evidence to define and relate those theories, but not enough to justify either theory.1

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