This is the first entry of an ongoing series called “At the Intersection” that profiles the work of academics thinking and teaching at the intersection of two or more academic disciplines. We here at Christ & University believe that all branches of knowledge are naturally integrated. One of the chief tasks of the university is to explore these branches of knowledge in both their integrity and their integration with each other. We hope this series contributes in a small way to healing the fragmentation of knowledge that characterizes what Clark Kerr calls the modern “multiversity.”
Our first contributor is Dr. Timothy J. Furry. I am pleased that he took the time to get this series off the group. Dr. Furry is Instructor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, a preparatory boarding school, in Bloomfield Hills, MI. He completed a PhD in Theology from the University of Dayton in 2011, writing on the intersections of theology, history, and biblical exegesis in the Venerable Bede. When he’s not fishing, rooting for the Detroit Tigers, or trying not to fail at holiness in domesticity, he is working on a book influenced by and written in a Wittgensteinian spirit that clarifies the grammar of historical writing and thinking. His larger scholarly interest is to find ways to make ancient modes of reading Scripture intelligible and persuasive again in our contemporary world.
C&U: How would you define your project, both in Allegorizing History (AH) and your current research? What inspired this project? What questions and sources brought you to this project?
TF: My “project,” if that’s the right word, is pretty simple to summarize: my goal is to get clear on history, specifically as knowledge of the past. History is ubiquitous now; it’s reflexive for us to think historically; this strikes me as fascinating and a historical development itself. For example, you don’t see many early or medieval Christian theologians doing historical theology, at least not the way we do it now and seemingly must do it now, and many know of the figural and allegorical readings of Scripture that were popular for centuries. Questions regarding the possibility of recovering ancient modes of reading are a primary impetus driving my work, and part of that must involve reckoning with modern historical thinking and the rise of what we call historical consciousness, which, in short, is an awareness that we have a past that matters or shapes who are now; we tend to think historically about identity and community before anything else, even if it’s bad history.
Put another way: why are the first questions we ask when reading Scripture usually some version of: “But what did that mean in its original, historical context?” I’m asking, why is that our first question now? And why do we attribute so much importance to the answer to that question? I’m not saying it’s a bad or irrelevant question. I’m simply asking why do we ask this first and believe we must know the answer to it before anything else can get off the ground. The ecclesial and spiritual consequences of this position are significant. If that question must be answer before we say anything about the bible and what it’s saying, then, to speak provocatively, the new priests of modernity are historians who mediate God’s verbal revelations to ignorant laity and masses. One could call this as a new kind of elitism—a move from what has been considered to be clerical elitism to academic elitism. The question quickly becomes why trust these new experts over the old ones? Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. What’s important, I think, is understanding this needs argued, not merely accepted, which seems to me our current default position. When the academy assumes a privileged position of brokering revealed knowledge, Christian spirituality risks becoming primarily intellectual since we must get our cognitive knowledge right before doing anything else. This strikes me as quite different from the liturgical and ritual based spirituality of earlier Christian ages. I want to stress that while my sympathy lies with earlier expressions of spiritual practice, I’m not intentionally being polemic here. I’m trying to describe our situation and demand an argument for its support. It’s entirely possible that the current arrangement is better, but that would need argued, not assumed.
C&U: Why focus on Bede specifically?
TF: I thought that Bede, as a historian and prolific biblical exegete would be a good place to start. Scholarship on him has grown rapidly over the past decade. My interest in Bede was primarily about having a partner from the past, prior to the rise of historical consciousness, to think through some of these questions with and see how he handled relating history, Scripture, and theology. Of course, I could have gone to Augustine or Eusebius as well, but they’re better known, and, in truth, I wanted to ride the wave of surging Bedean scholarship, both to keep the secondary sources more manageable and to contribute to a growing niche of scholarship around Bede. In the end, my main interest is not Bede per se, but in a set of questions and problems for which I thought Bede would be a helpful guide to get me started.
Regarding these questions and problems, the first issue one encounters when trying to think about history the way that I am is figuring out how not to beg the question. That is, a mere historical account of history will not do as this presumes the authority and persuasiveness of historical knowledge, which is precisely what I’m wanting understand and account for. Thus, my latest work is a grammar of history that is deeply indebted to Wittgenstein and Constantin Fasolt, a University of Chicago historian, who brought Wittgenstein and the philosophy of history together in The Limits of History in fascinating, important ways to show history functions as a specific form of knowledge with rules determining what counts as historical and not. I think Fasolt didn’t go far enough in his analysis, and I don’t agree with the way he uses Wittgenstein, but the idea of history and Wittgenstein definitely comes from him. As pretty much all my publications attest, my work has always been influenced by Wittgenstein, but my current revisiting and rereading of him is indebted to my close friend Ethan Smith and his recommendations of secondary sources like Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, and James Conant to name a few.
An example for what will be forthcoming, one argument I’m finishing right now is making the case that the sentence, “Octavian was the first emperor of the Roman Empire” is not a historical description that is subject to being thought otherwise (What sense does “Roman Empire” have in “Octavian was not the first emperor of the Roman Empire?”) but a grammatical claim and a necessary way of speaking both about Octavian and the Roman Empire.
C&U: The thesis of Allegorizing History, it seems to me, is that the writing of history is necessarily “figurative” because history itself is both “descriptive” and “representational.” If this is a good summary of your claims, can you 1) define these terms as they figure in your argument; 2) distinguish between an “allegorical”, a “figurative”, and a “typological” reading? How do you distinguish between geschichte and heilsgeschichte?
TF: Your description of my book’s thesis is on target. I use the work of Frank Ankersmit, a philosopher, to distinguish between historical descriptions and historical representations. A description is the kind of claim subject to truth or falsity based on historical evidence. That’s pretty straightforward and what most people think of when they think of historical writing: making claims about the past based on the evidence.
There are other kinds of claims that are necessarily part of historical inquiry as well. One of these Ankersmit calls representation, which is something that is rooted in the historian’s language, not the past, and therefore is usually not subject to claims of truth or falsity. I used a couple examples in the book, so I’ll use a different one here. “Martin Luther inaugurated the Protestant Reformation.” Few, if any, would find serious fault with a sentence like that. Even if one could and might want to nuance it to account for what led up to Luther and his conflict with Catholic authorities, it’s still a rather rudimentary historical claim for us now. “Martin Luther” obviously has historical content subject to truth and falsity. We can read his writings and read about others’ responses to him during his life. Thus, it’s tempting to think the initial sentence is a historical description. Yet the sentence as a whole is actually a representation because of the predicate “Protestant Reformation.” What would it mean to say the Protestant Reformation, historically speaking, is false? One can formulate theological objections to Reformation theologies, but it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to negate the Reformation historically. (Importantly, I could have said “…but it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to negate what we call the Reformation historically”). I use the language of temptation here purposefully (and from Wittgenstein) because we really want to go look for evidence to consider the Reformation historically. It is language used by historians not to describe the past but to represent it. Once we see this, our problems of searching in vain for historical content (subject to truth or falsity or something we can go point to, like Luther or the 95 theses) to the “Reformation” are not as much solved as dissolved.
So, what’s the lesson here? It’s certainly NOT that history is bunk and not as reliable as we thought because it doesn’t always offer us empirically based truths. Instead, the lesson is to recognize what we’re doing and saying when we speak historically. Representations are part and parcel of historical language and writing, and this is all fine; there’s no need to change how historians write and speak. The payoff for historians is clarity—to know the grammar of the language they use and therefore to be less prone to make mistakes. The mistakes I’m referring to here are conceptual confusions, not empirically based errors, which lead historians to not recognize how they draw boundaries on what counts as history.
In my book, one notices that I don’t seek to correct the empirical record on Bede in any way. Instead, I try to argue that Bede is a historian in the same sense as modern historians, despite Bede scholars wanting to distinguish Bede as theologian and historian. This is a conceptual issue, which is included in the realm of historical thought and writing, but historians often equivocate on what counts as history by focusing on strict empirical matters and failing to notice that conceptual matters, like representation, constitutes historical thought as such. Therefore, historians don’t need to change what they do or write, the language game of history is fine insofar as describing and representing the past is what they do. Yet, by being attentive to what they’re actually doing, historians can see the broader conceptual and philosophical side of that game and avoid assuming the superiority of modern history over against earlier historians like Bede. I’m demanding that historians give an account of why Bede narrating history according to the world ages is categorically different from using the representational language of “Reformation,” “revolution,” or even better “classical, medieval, and modern.”
Here, your question of history versus sacred history comes to the fore. I’m asking under what conditions such a distinction even makes sense and what is conceptually in place to have that be an intelligible distinction. My argument basically calls that framework into question by showing how such a distinction is conceptual, not empirical. If I may go further than my book does, such a distinction only has sense when one believes there is something like pure (i.e. secular) history that doesn’t rely on representation, which I’ve tried to show is deep confusion. All historical writing and thinking is representational. Again, I want to demand (and I repeat that word intentionally) that historians say why one representation is more historical than another? That needs argued, not assumed based on so called disciplinary boundaries.
On the theological side, I find the reality of how historians are pressed by evidence and human language in general to describe and represent in their work theologically and philosophcally interesting. On this score, I’m impressed with Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words and have found myself returning to it. I find it incredibly profound as I continue to wrestle with what he’s up to. And now I’m getting into your question about nature and grace.
C&U: Much of your argument seems grounded in Henri de Lubac’s controversial claims about nature and grace. Lubac (in)famously said that nature is already graced. He was criticized for collapsing the order of nature into the order of grace. To defend his theological position, Lubac (and others) maintained that nature has a “porous integrity.” It had integrity in itself (i.e. it was not grace), but it was open to grace. How do you understand your project in light of this theological debate? How does your book contribute to an analogous Lubacian position viz. history both as “events that occurred in the past” and as the academic narration and construction of that past?
TF: If nature—or creation—is prepared for or open to grace—or is a different kind of grace, which I’d prefer to say—then we should be able to find places of this openness or analogues to salvific grace in our world, ways of life, and modes of speaking. In other words, what is it about historical ways of speaking and narration that show this openness? Put differently again, if time and history are indeed gifts, which is to say a kind of grace, then our ways of speaking about and with them should reflect that giftedness, and we should be able to find particular kinds of necessity in our ways of speaking that reveal our timely and historical existence as gift.
C&U: What would the “pedagogy” of your book’s argument look like? How would you apply the insights of your book to the concrete practices of teaching history and theology?
TF: Regarding pedagogy in the classroom, I see two main benefits. One is clarity. That is, to be able to articulate in precise ways how the language of our descriptions and representations function in history. As a result, students (and teachers for that matter) can see something of the limits of historical knowledge and how historical knowledge itself isn’t neutral or objective since it’s a specific language game itself with very specific purposes and rules. Again, this isn’t to dismiss history, only to get clear on what it does. Nowhere have I suggested that historians or theologians must alter their language in doing their work. I’ve simply inquired into what we already say and write. Wittgenstein’s comments on philosophy as being descriptive have influenced me on this. Consequently, and to loop back to what I’m working on now, I’m also trying to show how our ordinary ways of speaking about the past logically precede history as a discipline and why that’s important. I’ve been spending some substantial time in On Certainty to help guide my thinking. A second impact on teaching is teach students to pay attention to language—to focus and think for more than say 3 seconds about the mystery of language. The fact we can communicate at all strikes me as miraculous. That I say some sounds or draw some lines on paper and other people know what I mean and that all this happens, most times, without problem and instantaneously is downright mind blowing. So, I guess, I’ve stumbled upon a third upshot for teaching as I write this: inspiring awe in students regarding the existence and our use of language.