On numerous occasions, people have asked me for a reflection about my life as an historical theologian. On June 26th my wife and I celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary. Maybe now is a good time.
History examines the evidence of the past; but the process is not so simple. There are facts and there are beliefs which are not always based on factual reality. I remember my excitement, now many years ago, when as a young man I visited Germany’s Cologne Cathedral and stood before the “Tomb of the Three Magi.” Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 to house these important relics. In my later education, however, I learned that there could be old bones in the ornate Cologne reliquary, but the “Three Magi” story is more post-Constantine mythology than historic fact.
History and facts. History and truth. Today of course there are big questions about history and truth. Right now almost two-thirds of US Republicans believe that the 2020 presidential election of Joseph Biden was “stolen.” And a quarter of those people believe that our world is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Documentation? Truth?
I remember the US astronomer and author, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), writing a year before he died: “when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority, (with)……critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
Are we now in a post-truth state of mind? Certainly the internet is a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion. Facebook and Twitter are hardly the sources of always reliable truthful statements. What are the criteria for making reliable judgments about truthfulness? I look for reliable reporters, trustworthy news sources, and well-documented reports. I don’t trust undocumented reports. Primary sources are crucial. We need to discern and help people discern the difference between fabricated stories and reality. We need to steer clear of fake history and fake news, but it is not always easy.
My own truth-seeking journey has taken a number of turns. As a small child I was a curious research examiner. One of my first explorations, when I was about four years old, was taking a small screw driver and tearing apart my Dad’s pocket watch to see how it worked. As an adolescent I tore apart old telephones, radios, old clocks, etc. My Dad thought that was fine as long as I didn’t touch his watch. I was good at taking things apart. Reassembly was more difficult. But I could see how things worked. Or used to work.
In high school and college, I spent eight years – 180 miles from my home — at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. The country boy became quickly urbanized, and his intellectual and socio-cultural world expanded tremendously. In high school I reached the point at which I could write a term paper in Latin. I then moved on to learn Greek and Spanish. I studied German for a year but couldn’t warm up to it. I also learned how to play the seminary pipe organ, with hands AND feet. It felt great. If he could have seen me, Bach would probably have laughed.
Seminary was a new world of experiences. I got used to showering every day with a bunch of naked guys but never found it a turn on. I did wonder however about some of my fellow students who had very strong “particular friendships.” Some of those guys were also among those seminarians who mysteriously disappeared, usually while the rest of us were at morning prayer and mass. After breakfast we would see their clothes lockers open and empty. In the dormitories even their beds would disappear.
Philosophy intrigued me, especially existentialism. The search for the authentic. I had to study Thomas Aquinas of course but read as much as I could about Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980). At the same time I was very religious. My classmates called me “Pious Dick.” I resonated with William James (1842 – 1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience. In many ways I was – for a while — a Catholic fundamentalist. I had questions but my spiritual director stressed that I should never question and never doubt. Those questions would later bombard me.
In the 1960s the “generation gap” was also very real for me. I was strongly opposed to the then developing US involvement in Vietnam. My parents supported US engagement. At one point my parents feared I was becoming a “pinko,” a communist like so many “university people.” It was all so very strange. My parents were alert and well-read people. Their WWII history played a big role here as well. They later saw the foolishness of the US war in Vietnam. Difficult times. Many of my friends died in Vietnam. I saw them as victims not heroes. Their parents thought I had betrayed them. Deep wounds last a long time. The Vietnam War, from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, tore the US apart much more than the nineteenth century Civil War.
When I graduated from college, my bishop, who had gone to The American College seminary in Belgium at The Catholic University of Louvain (founded 1425) sent me to Louvain, better known today as Leuven. For me it was a tremendous eye-opening and mind-expanding experience. My Dad would often comment, with a chuckle, in later years: “Jack was never the same after Louvain.” I began to question everything. It began in my first year when a dogma professor, Gustave Thils (1909 – 2000), asked: “If tomorrow archeologists in Jerusalem would find the bones of the historical Jesus, would that destroy your belief in the Resurrection?” I thought it would, but asked him how he would answer that question. He said: “Of course not….Resurrection is not resuscitation.”
And so the questions began. It was in December of my second year in Louvain (1966) that the British theologian Charles Davis (1923 – 1999), whom I greatly respected, announced he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Davis explained that the church had become too powerful and too dehumanizing: “a vast, impersonal, unfree, and inhuman system.” I went back to Professor Thils. I told him how upset and how very sad I was and that I had always considered Father Charles Davis an excellent theologian. Thils smiled and said: “Yes and he still is an excellent theologian.”
Gradually I also came to a better understanding of “faith” as it appears in the Bible. It means first and foremost trust and confidence in God. That understanding of faith still sustains me.
After three years in major seminary, and just one year away from priesthood ordination, I decided I wanted to become a non-ordained theologian and did not want to spend my life as a celibate priest. I informed my bishop. He was not happy. A couple of his priest friends sent me advice-letters to help me “think more clearly” about my vocation. They stressed that many married men were basically unhappy and that even as a priest there would always be ways for me to “have sex” when I “needed it.” I was disappointed and angry; and I was amazed that they could be so blind to human love and intimacy. I wrote back to the chief letter writer that love and marriage were much more than just having sex “when one needed it.”
With the friendly help and support of professors Gustave Thils, in Louvain, and Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) at the University of Nijmegen, I began my journey toward becoming an historical theologian. I have never had any regrets.
In Louvain my classes were in French. Going to Nijmegen, however, I had to learn Dutch. I went to a Dutch language school and there I met a charming young teacher, who has now been my teacher and loving wife for more than 51 years. A remarkable human journey.
Historical theologians ask what was the life experience and belief of people back then and how do we best understand that today. One has to distinguish fact from folklore, fake news, and fantasy. One has to understand the local cultures and languages that shaped people’s understandings.
Doing historical research it is also important to understand that those who report “facts” often report just the facts they want people to know. They narrate only part of the story. Recent contemporary and unsettling revelations about the fate of Indigenous children in Canada certainly show a selective presentation of Canadian history. Critical and careful historians need to consult and report many voices from various points of view. Even when unpleasant and disheartening.
Historical narratives are often interpretive narratives. What, for example, relatives in Michigan call the “Civil war” is what my relatives in Virginia call the “War Between the States” and the “War for Southern Independence.” Those narratives shape perceptions of truth and shape what and how people think and believe.
I have done a lot of genealogical research about my paternal family line. I discount much family folklore, because it is often a confusing mismatch of facts and fantasy. I rely on birth records, marriage records, property deeds, last wills and testaments, etc. I have documentation and know that a couple of my gr gr grandfathers were slave owners in Virginia. No historic records told me, however, that my gr gr grandfather, John Dick (1787 – 1865), had at least one Afro-American mistress. I discovered the truth about him when I discovered an Afro-American relative who was also doing genealogical research. Her gr gr grandfather was also my gr gr grandfather John Dick. DNA research confirmed the family link. She sent me photos of her family….all very, very dark. When I mentioned this to my white Virginia relatives, they said “well yes he had a slave lover but we did not want to mention that.” Historical narratives are often interpretive narratives. And DNA research greatly helps one find genealogical truth.
Historical theologians need to listen to all versions of what happened and then make wise decisions about what is truthful. It is not always easy.
Historical theologians need to be attentive as well to the role played by myth in religious history. Not all religious narratives are strict historical narratives. Prime examples are the “Infancy Narratives” found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Here myth is used to convey theological belief about Jesus Christ. In the Hebrew Scriptures of course we find religious myths about Adam and Eve and of course Noah and the great flood. A few years ago, one of my relatives sent me a photo of a chunk of wood which she said was part of Noah’s Ark. I asked her if she also had photos of the six years old George Washington chopping his mythological cherry tree. No response. These days we don’t talk about religion anymore….
There is absolutely no scientific evidence that Noah’s Ark ever existed as it is described in the Bible. There is also no evidence of a great global flood. Most scientists agree, in fact, that it would be impossible. About George Washington, the cherry tree myth and other myths about him were invented by the nineteenth century traveling minister and bookseller Mason Locke Weems (1759 – 1825).
Myth and understanding the use of myth is important. Some myths are pure fantasy. Other myths do convey human and religious values. I find it too bad that the word “myth” is too often understood negatively.
Historians should pursue serious open-minded research, in conversation with other historians. When they discover falsehood or purveyors of falsehood they need to report that as well. And…if and when historians make mistakes they need to humbly acknowledge that. Some historians are bright people but they are not infallible.
When it comes to the history of Christianity, I do have a recommendation, for those looking for a reliable history. It is A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by the British church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (b 1951). The book begins – for important background information — a thousand years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford.
In his Introduction, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes: “There are two thousand years’ worth of Christian stories to tell …. I have given the book a subtitle which invites the reader to consider whether Christianity has a future (the indications, it must be said, can hardly be other than affirmative); yet it also points to the fact that what became Christian ideas have a human past in the minds of people who lived before the time of Jesus Christ. As well as telling stories, my book asks questions. It tries to avoid giving too many answers, since this habit has been one of the great vices of organized religion.”
And so we continue our historical explorations, with faith, moving ever closer to ultimate truth.