Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Counting your blessings, if slowly

Comments by historian (and committed Christian) Herbert Butterfield (who coined the term "Whig history") on "The Christian and history", from the first of a four-part series in The Christian News-Letter, 1949: 

In fact what we are faced with in the twentieth century are the disciples of Marx on the one hand, H.G. Wells (shall we say) on the other, the Protestants and the Jesuits, the Fascists and the Liberals, all producing their selections from the complexity of historical facts and their different organizations of the whole narrative of the centuries – all feeling that there is the absolute explanation, and longing to see it established as the basis for a universal teaching and examining system.

In a cut-throat conflict between these and other systems for the control of schools and universities (in other words for predominance in society) it is not clear that a specifically Christian or Biblical interpretation would in fact prevail at the present day; and though it is a sad thing when any man rejects Christianity, still Christians can hardly have a technical ground of complaint in modern society if universities do not pour all their academic teaching into a specifically Christian mould as in former times. Considering their own record of intolerance and persecution where they had the power, Churches must consider it rather fortunate for them if so often their enemies have been less thorough-going – thankful that, if society is not Christian, it is at any rate not yet wholeheartedly anything else.

While we have Marxists and Wellsians, Protestants and Catholics, Whigs and Tories, with their mutually exclusive systems (historical assertion confronted by counter-assertion), many people, confounded by the contradictions, will run thankfully in the last resort to the humbler “academic” historian – to the man who will just try to show what the evidence warrants, and will respect the intricacy and the complexity of events. In the clash of interpretations somebody will sigh in the long run for an answer to the more pedestrian question, the purely historical question: What is the evidence, and what are at any rate the tangible things which demonstrably took place?

Men are slow to count their blessings but Christians might even be thankful for this “academic” history at the last stage of the argument – thankful so long as no authoritative interpretation of history and the human drama has been rigorously imposed upon our educational system by an increasingly non-Christian society.

– Herbert Butterfield, “The Christian and History. I. The Christian and Academic History”, The Christian News-Letter no. 333, 16 March 1949, 91-92. (Paragraph breaks added.)

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)

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