The study of history is an opportunity to unite faith and reason and to recover a distinctly Catholic perspective that sees God acting in the past, present and future, the authors of a new book say. “From its earliest centuries, the Church understood itself as possessing not simply a faith with a history, but a historical faith,” Christendom College history professor Christopher Shannon told CNA Oct. 13. “That is, Church Fathers such as Eusebius and Augustine understood God as speaking to his people through history, and not simply Church history proper. The rise and fall of nations were to be understood in terms of God calling his people to himself.” Shannon is the co-author of “The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition, and the Renewal of Catholic History,” from Christendom Press. Through the book, he and Christopher Blum — a history and philosophy professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver — aim to cultivate the awareness of “a distinct, Catholic approach to history” among both professional historians and the general reading public. “Catholic historians, like non-Catholic historians, use reason to discern facts and establish relations of causality in history, but they also draw on their faith to discern the meaning and significance of events,” Shannon said. Blum explained that “The Past as Pilgrimage” aims to aid “the recovery of Christian memory” that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have called for. The scholar said that Catholic approaches tend to avoid a “critical” history that debunks ideas or a “scientific” history that aims to be “encyclopedic or technical.” Rather, Catholic forms of history should be “reverent” and seek to be “challenging and meditative.” Blum said the exemplars of this approach to history include Sts. Athanasius, Augustine and Gregory the Great, as well as Blessed John Henry Newman. Studying historical Christian figures, he said, “provides us with an opportunity to measure our lives against theirs: the lives of the saints are a tool for the examination of conscience.” Blum said that the modern educational system has been constructed to make the student “a good worker and a good citizen of the city of man, rather than a good son or daughter of God.” “That doesn't mean that modern education is all bad, just that we should expect it to be stunted in its moral vision,” he added. Shannon said that the modern education system has virtues, “but the best secular education will only give you half of the story.” “The uncompromising separation of faith and reason in modern education has contributed to the deformation of both faith and reason,” he said. He questioned the dominance of an ideal of “secular objectivity” in the field of history, saying this approach imagines the historian as “a detached, neutral scholar who approaches history in the same manner as a physicist would approach the natural world.” “The problem is that historians do not simply uncover and analyze facts, but also tell morally charged stories about those facts,” Shannon said. “In an earlier time, historians rejected the authority of religion yet simply ended up submitting to the authority of politics, transforming history from the story of the journey of the church to the story of the rise of the nation state. In more recent times, the state has given way to other organizing principles, such as race, class and gender.” “If you are not telling the story of the Church, then you are telling the story of something else, and those stories all carry their own faith commitments.” The book draws on the thought of Alasdair MacIntrye, now a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame. Shannon said MacIntyre “shows how Enlightenment reason has failed in its own quest to achieve certain knowledge apart from faith and argues that some faith-based, traditional community of interpretation is necessary for rational knowledge.” He said MacIntyre has “provided the most compelling argument for the kind of relationship between faith and reason articulated by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.” The authors of “The Past as Pilgrimage” recommended several writers as examples of a Catholic approach to history. Blum noted the work of Eamon Duffy, Brad Gregory, Robert Wilken and Father Augustine Thompson, O.P. Shannon additionally praised William Cavanaugh, Brad Gregory and Eugene McCarraher. “All of these writers have succeeded in combining scholarly rigor with a commitment to the Catholic faith,” Shannon said. He said Duffy has been “the most successful” in making his scholarship accessible to the general public. Duffy has written on the history of the papacy and authored “The Stripping of the Altars,” a pioneering history of the English Reformation. Shannon said that Catholics can stay engaged with the best of non-Catholic thinking by reading “as widely as possible” in mainstream opinion journals. Despite the presence of “a lot of secular boiler plate,” they are “the only place to find people of good will with whom to dialogue.” He said that efforts to include Catholic historical traditions in public education “would only be seen as an attempt by Catholics to take over the public schools.” “I am more concerned that we get our house in order in our own institutions first.”
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