Jeffrey B. Russell
Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara
After a banquet, nobody would have the stomach, the gall, the spleen, or the brain to introduce a topic called Dissent, the Devil, and the Return of the Cosmos to God. It is enough to cause anybody indigestion. Just remember President Bush's trip to Japan and his contribution to the Prime Minister's attire, and, please, be kind to your neighbor. However, you are completely within your rights to ask What the Hell is this all about. Well, it isn't really about hell or the Devil, so you can rest easy and digest comfortably. I would like to welcome you, as this is my hometown--well, Santa Barbara is, not Montecito--Montecitans regard Santa Barbara as something of a slum, a spillover for the less desirable elements in town. To grasp something of this, those who like detective stories will recall the late Ross Macdonald and the current Sue Grafton, locals both, who clearly distinguish Montecito from its suburb Santa Barbara and the unspeakable sub-suburb to the west, Goleta. Woe unto you, ye Goletans and Santa Barbarians, for you shall not inherit the Kingdom of Montecito. But all this is too obviously my own pure envy, gall, and spleen, so I shall simply welcome you to those more general and romantic appellations for our home, namely The South Coast, or even better, The Tricounty Area.
And I would like to thank our Westmont hosts for their hospitality. As again locals know well, Westmont College is distinguished from my own school, UCSB, by Westmont's secularism, vulgar architecture, and unkempt landscaping. For visitors who do not catch the irony here, take a tour out to UCSB and see how one of the most beautiful natural sites for a campus in the country has been--well, esthetically unpotentialized. As for secularism, UCSB claims that perhaps half of our studentbody have heard of Jesus Christ, at least once or twice. The way to be a dissenter at UCSB, as in many universities, is to suggest--well not even that God might exist, or even that there might be a meaning to the cosmos--but only that there might actually be a meaning to meaning. Anti-Christianity is the last remaining respectable form of academic bigotry.
By the way, we all can help by recognizing the lines between theology and science. A lot of talk lately centers on the Big Bang and Creation. To say that the creation story of Genesis is evidence for the Big Bang is to impose theology upon physics; to say that the Big Bang is evidence for the creation story is to impose physics upon theology. Theology and physics are two different approaches to truth, like math and poetry. We make a fatal mistake if we hang any of our faith upon the current research trends in physics or in literary theory or in philosophy or indeed in history.
The cumbersome title of my paper intends only to suggest that topics that I have worked on in the history of Christian thought--medieval dissent, the idea of the Devil, and now, thank God, the idea of heaven--have caused me on many occasions over the last 40 years to reflect upon the interaction of my intellectual life and my Christian faith. And the relationship of faith and the intellectual life at my university. I realize that many if not most of you are teaching in Christian colleges and likely were also educated at such colleges. Your problems--and I know you have them--are different from ours in secular colleges, but I think they are more similar than dissimilar.
First tonight I shall briefly describe my own growth in thinking about the integration of the professional with the spiritual life. Along with that, I'll comment on how each of the main topics I have worked on--religious dissent, the Devil, and heaven, have developed my ideas. Second, I'll offer some reflections about the current state and future opportunities for us all in our teaching and research. Third, I'll conclude with some observations on reason as seen in the light of faith.
"My growth in thinking" is a pompous euphemism for my path of folly. If I am any wiser than I used to be at all, it is because I have been humbled by a recognition of my sin and stupidity. My ways are not your ways, the Lord warns through Isaiah, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, and as far as the heavens are above the earth are my thoughts above your thoughts.
Before I became a Christian, I sat proudly upon the steed of intellect, planning to ride directly to the Castle of Truth. The only trouble is that in fact I was mounted the wrong way, facing the horse's--rump. And the Castle of Truth proved to be just an idol--the idol of my own intellect. When I became a Christian, I thought I was doing so for intellectual reasons, though I hope that God was working something deeper in me. At that time I presumed to tuck Christ into a cart to be pulled along by my intellectual horse.
A bit later I had the sense to want to really incorporate Christianity into a coherent worldview. Inspired by such models as Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, and Newman, I believed that faith and academic learning could be made to converge, and actually fuse, into a coherent, congruent pattern of truth that one could, like a proud chef, lay out upon the table of academe. My pride was not so great as to believe that I could get the answer, but I believed I could help to get there. Thirty years ago my folly included the assumption that each person could construct a worldview in which faith was promoted by reason and reason by faith. One could gradually shape a valid worldview that, though not of course God's absolute truth, reflected that truth in some small way. My folly also included the belief that the community of scholars, openminded and eager as we were to attain truth (bliss it was in that dawn of my academic career to live), would openly and fairly compare and dispute these views until at last we arrived at the best one. Now, I didn't think that one would be mine, but I am afraid I entertained the thought that mine was on the right wavelength.
Among my follies at that stage was thinking of faith as assent to a set of conceptual truths. The intellect was still foremost in my mind. I did not yet grasp that the deep meaning, the deep magic, of faith is trust in Jesus Christ not as a proposition but as a person. Romans 10.10: one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
Since God gave us an intellect as well as desire for him, he probably means us to use our intellect in searching for him. But had I read my authorities with more wisdom, I would have seen that Aquinas, for example, was acutely aware of the limitations of the intricate and beautiful intellectual system that he was constructing and toward the end of his life saw that his scholarly work was as straw compared with what God had shown him. He said straw, remember, not nettles or poison oak: straw after all is nourishing, if only for donkeys. The intellect can accomplish something for us donkeys. But the truth is deeper. Christ says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." The truth is not a worldview or a collection of propositions; it is Christ himself.
After God had whacked some sense into me, I gradually came to believe and understand, instead of simply professing, that Jesus Christ, not my intellectual structure or anyone else's, is the center of my life. That faith, in other words, has priority. As St Bonaventure says, unless you have the light of faith illumining what you know, then no matter how many facts you compile and books you write, your mind is in darkness and you comprehend nothing. And until you allow the Light of the World to illumine your mind you will understand nothing of what you know. I can only hope that, like Bonaventure's, my path of folly has at least been aimed in the direction of God. To plagiarize from Erasmus now as well as from Bonaventure, this journey is in praise of folly in the sense that one eventually realizes that one is a fool. One simply has the choice of being a fool for Christ, or being a plain fool.
Now I embarked on the first of my three main historical projects: the history of religious dissent in the Middle Ages. The study of dissent and orthodoxy gave me a great appreciation for diversity in expressing religious belief, a powerful respect for the creative tension between orthodoxy and heresy and for the way these views worked in a dialectic to develop Christian belief. Martin Luther King advised "promoting constructive tension." The study also gave me a deep appreciation for the honesty, zeal, and love, with which most people on all sides sought Christ. Let those condemn you, St Augustine said, who do not know with what pain and labor the truth is sought.
Still, as late as 1972, as I started working on my second major topic, the history of the concept of the Devil, I was still operating on a folly. I thought that I could contribute to solving the problem of evil by following a precise intellectual formulation. I thought that the problem could be sharpened to a focus that would bring us as close to the truth as we could get in this life. I argued that a concept such as the Devil was founded in experience and/or revelation, was expanded as various people thought about it and wrote about it, and gradually diversified as it grew. And then the Christian community and/or community of scholars gradually shaped the concept. That is, they extruded certain ideas as unworkable or wrong while pulling other ideas in toward the center of the concept. Eventually the lines would tighten and point in the direction of the truth about the Devil. The concept would be defined by its boundaries.
To see how I thought of those boundaries, picture two arcs starting from the same point (the original experience or revelation) moving apart from each other as different ideas about the Devil were brought in, and then gradually converging again as some ideas were defined out of the concept and some ideas were defined in. Though we would not get the absolute truth about the Devil, or even the final historical truth about the Devil, we would arrive, by historical definition, at a coherent concept of the Devil about which reasonable people could agree. The same method, I argued, could be applied to any human concept from Parliament to Communism to Industrialization to the Church and even to God. To the human concept of God, I realized, not to God himself, but still one could gradually approach the truth about God by careful narrowing and defining of the concept.
But as I worked through the history of the Devil, my mind was broadened; perhaps it was even a little illumined. Things no longer seemed so clear; views seemed irreconcilably divergent; it seemed harder to find the right wavelength, to home in on the answers. The scholar's academic life cannot and should not be separate from his personal life, and many things had happened to me, including a number of stupidities and sins that I committed along the way, to humble me. That helped me understand the weakness and limitations of my intellectual claims. Not only my moral will but also my intellect was definitely under judgment.
Now, I will still argue that the historical definition of a concept is the best possible definition of that concept. But I am no longer so confident that the concepts point clearly toward the truth beyond. I am now rather convinced that if they do it is not by narrowing down definitions. I have become rather a Nominalist in my skepticism about the power of the intellect. Whereas I had believed that you could get the best definition of the Devil by moving toward the point where those definitional arcs converged, I now began to see things quite differently and to think in terms of an opening up rather than a closing down.
As I began research on my current topic, the history of the concept of heaven, Dante's contrasting images of hell and heaven kept recurring to me. Whereas the path to hell is an endless narrowing down into darkness until at last one can hear, see, feel, know nothing at all, nothing except the absolute terror of being forever deprived of God and of love, the road to heaven on the other hand
is an eternal opening upward and outward to light, joy, and love. And that is what I hope for the grace to do with my new topic of heaven.
The second main part of this talk attends to the general questions of faith and history facing us all, questions discussed yesterday evening by Abe Friesen, Steve Humphreys, Ronald Wells, and Shirley Mullin. Let's first put history in the larger context of American intellectual life as a whole. It is telling and depressing that Daniel Bell's recent perceptive and substantial article "The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965-1992" (WQ Summer 1992: 74-107), while discussing the infinite permutations of liberalism, neoconservatism, postmarxism, feminism, and all the other conflicting academic ideologies, does not even refer to Christian thought or indeed, except very much in passing, to religious thought at all. It is as if Christianity had ceased to be a significant player in the intellectual life of the nation. Perhaps it has. We should all feel that as a crisis. As Lenin said but Christ implies, "What is to be done?"
So how do we go about history as Christians mindful of both faith and intellect? Well, first very carefully. And also always with charity. Being a Christian in academia is difficult. But it is easier to be a Christian chemist than a Christian historian, especially one who is doing research in some aspect of the history of Christianity or teaching that subject as a whole. A Christian historian could probably write about the Battle of Antietam without grave difficulties in confusing faith and intellect, although even there he needs to be guided in whatever he writes or says by the spirit of Christian love, which involves empathy for those on both sides--or, better, on all sides, given the social complexity of the US Civil War. But it is harder to work on the history of a Christian institution and hardest of all to work on the history of a Christian idea. I have been accused, and justly so, in my work on the Devil, for crossing the line from history to theology and back again.
Let's reflect on that for a moment. It seems that the only way to avoid crossing that line is to compartmentalize oneself. In one compartment is Joe or Mary Ichthus the believing Baptist; in another compartment is Joe or Mary Ichthus the objective intellect. Now I will argue first that such compartmentalization is impossible and second that it is undesirable.
It is impossible because there is no such thing as a purely objective intellect. Any research on any topic supposes a point of view. It is important to discriminate between point of view and bias. Point of view is something both necessary and desirable. It means approaching the material with certain assumptions, assumptions that one has carefully examined and justified. It is, to be jargony, the well-thought out hermeneutic that one has chosen. Point of view is always open minded. That means that if, as one proceeds, one finds evidence that goes against one's assumptions, or even if one finds that one's hermeneutic is not working--if it is distorting the evidence, for example, then one changes one's assumptions and one's method. As Christians we should be clear about one thing: Christ never ever wants us to suppress, deny, or twist the evidence. In contrast, bias does exactly that and comes from the Devil. (I had to get him in somewhere.) Bias is all around us: in the media, in the educational system, in our own congregations. Bias is a point of view that is not open to modification and change, that is willing to suppress or distort evidence in order to fit it into preconceived patterns. Bias is intellectually inexcusable, because it is in violation of what God has created the intellect to do, namely perceive the truth to whatever limited extent it can. Bias is also morally inexcusable. C.S. Lewis argued that a lie is the worst of all sins because it distorts the entire framework of reality. You cannot be biased for Christ. Christ is the way and the truth, and we can never approach him through falsehood.
So a point of view is unavoidable in every research or lecture topic. Objectivity is impossible. Rather than objectivity, let openness to the truth be our goal.
Objectivity is also undesirable. Imagine perfect objectivity. The all-knowing seer records each event exactly as it occurs without weighing their relative importance or their connections. Can you imagine writing a history of the Vietnam War that way? Can you imagine even writing the history of one hour that way? 7:58 AM: Mary brushes her teeth. 7:59 AM: Joe brushes his teeth. 8:01 AM: China invades Russia. 8:02 AM Joe relieves himself. And so on. And we've just been talking about Joe and Mary, not the 5 billion other inhabitants of the planet, or the non-human environment. How many people in Somalia or Bosnia or indeed California have died while Joe and Mary brushed their teeth? And consider if every detail were recorded: Joe brushed his teeth for 21.672 seconds, using up and down motion with a medium grade brush of 1,252 bristles while removing .1327 milligrams of plaque and increasing the reflectivity of his lower left incisor by 2.1% while improving his halitosis from 9 to 8 on a scale of ten. Need I say more? We're not talking just a long book, or even a long series, for a history of that hour; we're talking information greater than all the computers in the world could store. And what junk it would be. A point of view brings order out of chaos.
Rejecting bias and setting aside objectivity, then, we are left with a hermeneutic that is based on three primary, irreducible principles. The first principle is self-examination. What are the bases of our beliefs and our assumptions; are they valid? Without such introspection we cannot be honest with ourselves or our readers. The second principle is openness, willingness to modify our plans, our views, even our method, if the evidence requires. The third principle is Christian love. Many historians might agree with my first two points--though some would not, because they believe in history as a vehicle for righteous propaganda. But most academic historians would stumble on the third point. What is the principle of Christian love doing here, they ask? Isn't that faith rather than intellect? What about the separation of church and state?
So before developing the notion that charity or Christian love is one of the three basic principles of historical research, we return to the larger issue of the relationship between faith and intellect in research. What did Teilhard de Chardin mean by saying that research was close to adoration? The fundamental question that this presupposes is compartmentalization. Can Joe or Mary compartmentalize their historical research from their Christian life? I think not. Actually, no one but a psychotic can seal off sections of their lives. It is particularly difficult for a Christian to do. For a Christian, Jesus Christ is the center of our life, the light by which we are guided every moment (never mind that we often fail). One cannot be a shoemaker, baker, insurance salesman, CEO, actor, or anything else, including a historian, unless Christ is the center of our life. How can we possibly say to the center of our souls: go away while I write this article or plan this lecture? It just isn't possible. So faith, in the deep sense of commitment to Christ, inevitably is present in our historical work, and should be present in it.
Not only is faith unavoidable, but it is positively desirable. If what we are searching for is truth and not simply information retrieval, the light of Christ permeating our faith in Christ illuminates our intellect so that it can understand. For no matter how much we may know about the Napoleonic Wars or the policies of Charlemagne, we will understand nothing unless we see these and all historical ideas in the light of faith. How do we do this without bias? We do it with honesty, openness, and Christian charity.
Let's get to specifics. Let's get down to earth, though since I am working on heaven, that probably isn't the best word. How do I go about writing a history of heaven without objectivity, without bias, and according to the principles I've just set forth? Here are the ideals, which I often fail to fulfill.
First: honesty. I examine my own worldview. Is it coherent? Does it speak to others? Have I opened my ideas to advice and criticism from others? Have I allowed what has happened in my life or in my research to change it? Is it vital in the sense of being central to my life?
Second: openness. No bias: no insistence that my denomination's view of heaven in 1992 is the correct one, or that anyone else's is, or that my reading of the Scriptures or anything else on the subject is correct. The point of view I use springs whole and intact from my soul, in which the Holy Spirit is the Light. Through broad reading and discussion I have an idea of what both Testaments say about heaven and what Christian theologians and writers have said over the centuries. I explore the questions that they raise and develop a plan emphasizing the most important ideas. I show the historical development of ideas and motifs through time. I am open all the time to new evidence: to a different angle, a different perspective, a different interpretation of a well-known text and the excitement of discovering a little known text. I modify my research as I go along, and I also modify my personal idea of heaven as I explore how others have perceived it. Thus there is a constant open interplay between what I believe and what I learn; each affects the other in a dialectic that never ends. Now, if I am engaged in such an open dialectic, how am I able to draw a strict line between my history and my theology? I am not able. I must be aware that the line exists, smudgy and porous though it is, and I must be aware when I am passing back and forth across that border. But the modern tendency to split topics, subjects, departments, everything, has got to be overcome. What each of us seeks, if we seek anything valid, is understanding of as much as the cosmos we can with the help of our intellect illumined by faith. Within this context, I want my history of heaven to accomplish a number of things. I want it to be accurate. That is: I want it to contain as few errors of fact as possible. I want it to advance knowledge. That is: I want it to advance a coherent thesis and expose it competently, bringing to light new ideas or new perspectives. I want it to be as complete as possible. With almost any topic, be it as huge as heaven or as tiny as you like, one can be only as complete as the time God allows you and the space your publisher grants you permit. So as complete as possible. And I want it to advance not only knowledge but love.
And here is where the third point--the point that most historians will not accept--enters in. Why are you a historian? Why are you academic? All motives are mixed. But the good motive is charity or Christian love. You want to increase love by loving yourself and your students and readers. And also by loving your subjects Christ loves the historical people that you study, from whatever time and place, and since Christ is your center, you too love them all. You are not asked to judge them but to enter into loving dialogue with them. You may not agree with them, but you can love their own desire for truth and their own desire for Christ.
The basis of all knowledge and all scholarship is love. First, love in the sense of empathy: understanding the thought and the feelings of all those whom we encounter personally or historically.
Second, love in the sense of intentionality to truth. Third, love in a sense of honest and open dialogue with those to whom we are writing or speaking.
In this dialogue between our selves and what is "out there," we recognize our selves--who we are--in a never ending process of deepening understanding that is intentional toward loving union in ourselves, with others, and with God.
History is the study of the communion of saints--by which I mean the whole flawed, failing, loving, human race past and present through space and time. The whole point of history, and its great joy, is to encounter people in the past as real people, to rescue them from oblivion, to restore them as living, four-dimensional people. That means confronting them in their own terms, unblinkered by any modern ideology or academic fashion. The historian--to use the language of ancient Greece--rescues the dead and buries them honorably as an act of piety. To use the language of thirteenth-century Christianity, the historian enters the communion of saints, the unity of all God's people throughout space and time, everywhere and always, and he or she enters it with reverence and love. The people of the past are not mummies, nor are they statistics. They are our living brothers and sisters.
History, along with anthropology, is the most subversive of all subjects. It wrenches us out of our complacency about our own personal and contemporary worldview and brings us face to face with ways of thinking that are completely different and in some ways equally valid.
In this love we come personally--and even to a degree professionally--to a voluntary (not coerced) surrender of self through love. And this voluntary surrender brings real power, the power of our authentic being, the power rooted in Love, which is God, and this power is the opposite of false, oppressive power. It is actual power, and it is liberating.
It is in love that we are able, with humility, clarity and charity, to find a way to understanding. Any worldview is an act of faith; the tests of it are: coherence, humility, charity, openness, and diligence. To the door of truth the intellect has no key. You stand pounding on it, beating on it until your knuckles bleed and your knucklebones show white. And the door does not open. And that is the job of the intellect: to stand at the door, calling and pounding. If you do not knock, and you do not call, and you do not stand there, then your intellect is without meaning or sense. But then when you least expect it, the door will break open. It will break open like a flower whose petals are light and the light is love. The door disappears; it breaks away like the husk that hides the truth. And the flower opens up unboundedly wider in a garden of knowledge that is now understandable and meaningful because the intellect is now lit with love.
The purpose of a university is to proclaim for ourselves and others the mystery and glory of God, of the cosmos, and of the human mind and spirit opening ever more widely and deeply to the beauty of reality and the celebration of life. Deuteronomy: "The learned will shine like the brilliance of the heavens, and those who train others in the ways of justice will sparkle like the stars for all eternity."
Love is the beginning of understanding, and love is also the goal of understanding. In the end there is no wisdom but love, no knowledge but Christ, no sense in anything but abandonment to the Holy Spirit. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole mind and your whole soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the great commandment upon which hang all the law and the prophets and the libraries and the classes and the speeches and the discussions. Insofar as we open up to that love, our writing and our teaching are blessed and point toward truth; insofar as we are stumbling blocks for that love with our sin, selfishness, fear, idolatry, and pride, our voice is empty and without meaning. May our Savior and Friend and Lover and Lord Jesus Christ grant us fewer obstructions and more openness so that his love may flow through us to our students and colleagues and friends and families. However we have blocked him, he can remove those blocks and he will remove those blocks and he does remove those blocks. All we need do is let him. We make ourselves fools; but he can make us fools for Christ.