Perspective: Can History Be Hopeful?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the highly-acclaimed exploration of American race relations, Between the World and Me, doesn’t find hope in history. In fact, said Coates in a December essay for the Atlantic, “a writer wedded to ‘hope’ is ultimately divorced from ‘truth.’” Such a writer’s commitment is to “the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity,” not history.

The essay provoked a great deal of comment, raising profound questions of obvious centrality for Christian historians (and for the blogging experiment that I’ve titled History and Hope). Is “history and hope” a contradiction in terms? Should an enterprise that links the two continue in the world of 2016?

Coates indeed hits the bulls-eye in targeting “triumphalist narratives about US history,” as Peter Wirzbicki puts it in his response to Coates’ essay. Yes, exploitation and injustice have marred the American past, such narratives acknowledge, but the nation’s enlightened ideals have prevailed – the really bad stuff is way behind us now. Such storylines make it easy to dismiss the seriousness of current iterations of racism and oppression. The need for continued improvement may be acknowledged, but the assumption they underwrite is that decent, democratic, progressing America cannot be fundamentally flawed.

Coates is also right that the “practice of history” doesn’t allow for a commitment to writing hopeful things. “Historians are not cheerleaders,” I heard the great historian Arthur Mann say when I was doing graduate work at the University of Chicago, and I haven’t forgotten it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his bestseller, "Between the World and Me."

Yet, as Wirzbicki points out, if history is, on the hand, “one long march of oppressions” it “is also the study of the glorious moments—revolutions, social movements, elections—in which everyday people chipped away at the tremendous injustices that surrounded them.”

So, it is no soft-headed lack of rigor to point to the power of hope in galvanizing social change. Yes, dreams about the reign of enlightened progress have been repeatedly sabotaged by the persistence of human pride and the drive to write it large in empire – and that made all the more pernicious for its adaptation to new conditions. Yet, it has also been demonstrated over and over that the long moral arc of the universe keeps exerting its pull toward justice and that suppressed truth cannot be stopped from rising again.

Historians of Christianity may note how Christian hope has moved people to take on the powers that be against all pragmatic hope of success.

How often those who trusted the word of God, though in themselves utterly helpless, have withstood the power of the whole world . . . The Vaudois and the Huguenots, Wycliffe and Huss, Jerome and Luther, Tyndale and Knox, Zinzendorf and Wesley, with multitudes of others, have witnessed to the power of God’s word against human power and policy in support of evil. These are the world’s true nobility. This is its royal line" (Ellen G. White, Education, 254).

Moreover, hope (not to be confused with optimism about American progress) unavoidably influences how historians who are Christian select topics, gather evidence, synthesize it, and shape stories out of the unmanageable mountain of information about the past. More personally, my outlook both as a historian of Adventism and a Seventh-day Adventist historian orients me towards crafting evidence-based stories that bring to light both the best in the movement’s heritage as well as its limitations and the failures of those who have identified with it to live up to its highest ideals.

Hope as conviction doesn’t commit me to writing only hopeful stories or to triumphalist narratives about any organization—ecclesiastical or otherwise. But it does orient my perspective. Non-hope as conviction would do the same. Historian Chris Gehrz brings this out by reversing Coates’ language (the emphasized words are from Gehrz):

“I think that a writer wedded to the absence of hope is ultimately divorced from ‘truth.’ Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must not be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise.”

One of the beauties of the historical discipline is that it enables people of varying persuasions about hope and faith to talk each other in the same language. When we acknowledge the particularity of our perspectives, base our claims about the past on evidence accessible to all, and use the evidence as fairly as possible, the reading and writing of history mutually checks the distortions to which our commitments might incline us. And that’s just one way that the process can make us wiser, more humane, and—on the part of those committed to the Jesus movement—more faithful.

So, even though the prospects for 2016 may seem even less encouraging than usual, I enter it with hope about history, in two senses of the word. The gospel makes me hopeful about history as the trajectory of the entire human experience. And, I’m hopeful about history as a discipline—about how the process of crafting, experiencing, and discussing narratives about the past can both express and sharpen our witness to truth.

Douglas Morgan is professor of History and Political Studies at Washington Adventist University. He writes at www.historyandhope.org.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7273

Any history of man is bound to lead to depression… This election year is a prime example. but the is another history that gives us Faith, hope, and love. The centrality of the Cross marks the completion of the Everlasting Covenant and gave us the Everlasting Gospel. so in 2016 let us rejoice. even so come Lord Jesus. tom Z

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In discussions regarding the United States FOUNDED on Christian Principles there are lots of things we FORGET.

  1. It was the Christian Nation that killed off all the first settlers — the Indians and took their lands. And made them suffer great hardships BEFORE they finally died.

  2. It was the Christian Nation that kept humans in in-human bondage situations. It was Christians that insisted they would NOT be free.

  3. After the Great War it was Christians who refused to recognize ALL MEN and WOMEN as equal, and have equal opportunities. Many communities had “hanging trees”, or were shot and left on the side of the road just because they were “too prosperous”. Equal rights to education is a relatively new idea the time line of America since 1620.
    Even equal rights to health care in any health care facility.

  4. Many groups of peoples had “Hopes”. But other groups of people decided those “Hopes” would never be realized and told them so, in many different ways and methods.
    Many of those persons claiming to be Christian.

  5. Today, in the History of Adventism there is a surge of HOPE among people groups here in American Adventism.
    There are masses of people telling those HOPE-FULS to be quiet, to go away, some even told to “Start Your Own Church.” As early as 2015 in San Antonio, the HOPEFULS were Boo-ed and Jeered.
    Booing and Jeering and telling them, they were NEVER equal from the 6th day of Creation, and will never ever be equal. Never to be allowed FULL INCLUSION into the Seventh day Adventist Church.
    Others have been waiting since 1976 to be recognized, some even to be recognized by their parents who created them.
    ALL OF THIS by a group who say THEY are the Remnant Church members. The CHOSEN of GOD. Marching on to PERFECTION. Members of THE CARING CHURCH.
    YES, we have AWFUL things happening to people groups perpetrated and carried out by other people groups in the Seventh day Adventist Church.

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There is both hope and despair, and while one may dominate at certain times and places, hope breaks through to offer encouragement of man’s better nature.

The Puritans, early settlers in this nation, were very strict and strait-laced on all who were not in their group, and even those within were often severely disciplined. It was such believers in demons and witch-craft who left us the ignominy of the Salem Witch Trials where reason fled and cruelty prevailed. And the treatment of the native Americans has always been a blot on our ancestors.

Our Founders were very wise in not creating a Christian nation, but based on those ideals as well as great influence of the Enlightenment writers whose work is still taught in all universities as timeless love of liberty. Any time religion and the state unite there has been persecution and we can read no further than the Bible to learn how those who are seen as “others” can become outcasts.

Adventist Christians, or all religious believers, should be the most loving and respecting of others; especially if they expect to receive the same deference for their beliefs. But anytime any group, either religious or political become the majority, there is always the possibility, often exercised, to "lord it over others.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is an intelligent person.
If one defines intelligence as the capacity to learn and the ability to articulate.
Te-Nehisi Coates is NOT a wise person.
If one defines wisdom as the right use of knowledge, Coates has failed us all. His writings are full of hopelessness. Coates thoughts are bordering on despair. I find no hope, inspiration, and no way of coping with reality, in reading Coate’s material. Let’s not pretend that greed, materialism, excessive industrialization, racism, and marginalizing others is exclusively a white thing. It’s a human thing. And there are a few very industrial, very non-white nations in the Eastern hemisphere that I find it hard to believe, were very far behind in terms of industrial progress.

To fail is a natural consequence of trying, To lose hope in the area of failure is to lose everything. To succeed takes much hope, time, and prolonged effort in the face of unfriendly odds. To think it will be any other way, no matter what you do, is the absence of hope, an island full of despair It is to invite yourself to be hurt and to limit your enthusiasm for trying. We need hope.

It’s also ironic how little Coates’s own worldview seems to invite change or reform on the part of those he criticizes. Coates has a very limited worldview. There’s no escape, no afterlife, no hope etc. Why change then? Why, under Coates’s vision of the world, would whites (or the rich, or men, or any historically advantaged group) give up their position of power? If human nature and existence in general is as Coates perceives it, then the only answer is violent response to the status quo. A logical solution if you buy in to Coates’s narrative, but not one that’s likely to find an enduring place in the hearts of those he needs to change.

Nope! IMHO, history is neither despairing or hopeful, it is the recitation of the facts, science, to be exact. However, it seems most ‘historians’ are not honest with their portrayal of the facts, but intend to lead the reader to agree with their conclusions.

This is the same problem many Biblical literalists have in determining the Bible is an historical document. Truly, the book was produced at some point in time, but the dearth of facts surrounding it’s production, and the scarcity of facts included in its stories and books, scream vehemently against it being an historical document.

Trust God.

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Of all the disciplines, “history” is the least reliable when it comes to reality based on facts. What history tells us is dependent on who is recording it. Like everything else touched by “man”, history is subject to interpretation. Whether we see hope or despair looking back in time also depends on interpretation. The best we can say is - “according to -----” this is what happened and this is what it means. The veracity of it depends on our interpretation - through our entrusted “experts”.

History (how ever we see it) is the past, but also a portent of the future - unless we learn from it. I state that in the negative because human history is riddled with human failures. The Bible tells us “there’s nothing new under the sun”. This tells us, each generation makes the same mistakes. Perhaps that is the biggest lesson we have to learn from the past as we look to the future. :disappointed_relieved:

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Thank you, Doug.

Adventist eschatology is premillennial just for the reason that the evidence of history does not support sheer optimism: the liberal Protestant vision that came to full flower in the nineteeenth century was deeply wrongheaded.

Still, evidence from regions of the world deeply influenced by Christianity also undermines the case for sheer pessimism (I refer readers to the writings, e.g., of Rodney Stark). The poets now, after all, are not as inclined as they were in Roman times to simply celebrate imperial conquest; generals now do not (routinely) engage in what Stark called “killing for the Hell of it,” a feature of Alexander’s lifelong passion for conquest; critics now at least object to sexual trafficking and other ongoing forms of slavery.

I have not yet read Ta-Nehisi Coates–I am aware of him, and see that I should read his book–so I am not sure whether his point may simply be a criticism of hope as a kind of ideology, where the historian overlooks evidence just to maintain his conviction that, say, the arc of history bends toward justice. Thoughtful Christians would surely agree that we must NOT overlook evidence just to maintain a sunny outlook.

Chuck

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I have not read Coates’s book, but I was a close reader of his blog for years and have enormous respect for his thinking (and his moderating skills -the man knows how to run a blog!). My impression is that he is not hopeless. He is frustrated by the process of improvement and the overly optimistic view of others about that improvement, especially around race relations.

I learned so much from him about the systematic (and I do mean systematic) ways our government and our society oppressed black people, even recently. So much of this is lost to history. The common understanding of how black and white people related in our country is so very wrong, and he sees that even when change happens, it is understood through a pervasively filtered lens. He is realistic about the motivations people have for changing, and how they will remember things in a way that makes themselves look better and others look worse.

It’s not that he denies the possibility of change for the better at all. He easily acknowledges it. He is just more realistic about the reasons for it and how people will interpret it.

One thing I admire so much about him is his ability to listen to other people and grow and learn from it. He is one of those rare public figures who puts stuff out there just to have the opportunity to learn even more. I am thrilled for him that this book is doing well and he is sparking important conversations - he is so very good at that.

He and another writer present this topic in the recent Atlantic Monthly.

The enigmatic Protestant group — a 19th century American Christian revival movement —Its founder, Baptist preacher William Miller, was convinced he knew the exact date of Jesus Christ’s prophesied Second Coming, or return to earth. When several of Miller’s suggested dates passed without incident, however, swaths of his followers abandoned the tradition — including many who had given away all their possessions to be a part of the group. Still, a sizable portion kept the faith while fracturing into several subgroups of one church group the Seventh-day Adventist Saturday worshippers, not Sunday. History of many pens broken many inkbottles consumed of William Miller’s writings that have never happened. A William Miller’s history of hysteria postponed Jesus Christ’s Second Coming? Of hopefuls, today, around 18 million enigmatic SDA members worldwide fracture more odds?

History has engraved two words into he attitude of Adventist leadership and the Lay membership.–patronizing contempt. Two stories by way of illustration. To achieve accreditation Loma Linda had to revise its Board of Trustees to include lay leaders and alumni. I was appointed to represent the School of Dentistry. As new member were added do to appointment as conference officers, they would approach me and ask if I was a “worker” in jest, I would reply "well I ain’t the Queen bee!

My wife’s grandmother, was converted to Adventismlate in her married life. As part of her new life was to remove her wedding band. her husband took that to mean a rejection of him. As a farmer,he just quit. They were thrown into deep poverty. the house fell into ruins. Finally in his old age he attended Camp Meeting and was baptized. so after he died. His widow, in several successive years of attending camp meeting, married a widower. by now the farm bourse was near total collapse. Betty and I took out a second mortgage and bought them a mobile home and placed it on Betty’s father’s farm. we had all the utilities connected, added a storm porch. The new husband soon fell into early stages dementia. At that time a New York conference officer paid them a visit to collect offerings for some grand project. the husband said, we would like to contribute, but my eye sight is bad, here is my check book,it includes our entire life savings. Choose an appropriate gift, write the check and I will sign it. the conference officer wrote out a check, it was signed. the officer left. At that moment, Betty!s mother returned from grocery shopping and brought some staples into the house trailer. She was soon told what had just occurred. she quickly looked at the Check book. she found that prior to the Check writing the balance was $3,385 and the check had beenwrittenfor $3000. Leaving a total balance of their life savings at $385. Betty and I sent a monthly check to pay for the utilities, Eventhen they tithed our gift.

We had to chuckle when Davenport scammed the scammers. Tom Z

Years of attending “tent meetings” and other evangelistic endeavors had left me with the dreaded “hope” of Armageddon and a “time of trouble such as never was”. Giant hurdles to cross before Christ’s coming.
Not very salubrious expectations!

But at eighty, I will probably live to see neither, and hopefully I will awaken to the glorious Second Coming.

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It seems that even a lifetime is unable to erase all doubt of awakening at the Second Coming. Is this the legacy the church has left? Doubt and not assurance? Just asking.