I have been thinking a lot about the nature of belief recently. In particular, I have been thinking about the reasons why people arrive at their beliefs, and what makes people switch belief paradigms.
I know that Christianity is a religion that involves much more than historical beliefs, but to a greater degree than many religions of the world (such as Buddhism, for example), its premises rest on a set of beliefs about what happened at particular moments in history. For instance, as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” Anyone who becomes a Christian must find some way, whether by using a rational approach or some other means, to determine to his or her own satisfaction whether the historical events upon which Christianity is based did, in fact, really happen.
So, as I think about the nature of how people arrive at their own beliefs, I’d like to get some responses to this informal, unscientific, three-question survey.
1. When you initially decided to commit your life to Christ, how did you determine that the historical component of the Christian belief system (e.g., Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, or the biblical narrative) was historically true?
2. Right now, at this point in your spiritual journey, what do you think are the most compelling reasons for continuing to believe in the truth of the historical claims of Christianity? In other words, what is the basis for your religious belief system right now?
3. Do you think that there is any piece of information that you could theoretically be presented with that could cause you to abandon your religious belief system? If so, what is it?
I’ll be very interested to read the comments that I receive. Maybe this questionnaire will generate some good discussion.
I'm posting this from northern Virginia, where I'm attending a conference. Coincidentally, it happens to be in the same town (Chantilly) where I worked as an intern in the summers of '98 and '99. It appears to me that the traffic is somewhat worse than when I lived here eight years ago, and I guess that I had forgotten how far Chantilly is from the nearest metro station. When I traveled into D.C. today in order to do some research at the Library of Congress, the taxi fare to the Vienna metro station, which is the closest metro station to Chantilly, cost me $30. But it was definitely worth it, because I managed to find some great material at the LoC that will help me with the book that I'm writing.
Speaking of that book, I have a contract with Oxford University Press to publish Republican Faith: The Making of America's Christian Right in late 2009. I was very happy to get a contract with OUP, and so far, I have been very impressed with the way that that press treats their authors. I also feel like the revision process on my manuscript is going quite well.
In a moment of temporary insanity, I signed a contract last month to edit a book on the interwar years only a few weeks after I had signed my book contract with Oxford. I thought that I had carefully calculated how much work would be required for this editing project, but it's turning out to be a much more extensive process than I had initially envisioned. Right now, I'm working on finding contributors to write eighteen 2,000-3,000 word articles on specific topics related to American history during the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. Ideally, I'd like to find some professors to write those articles, but because of budget constraints, I can pay only $250 per article, and that's really not enough to attract scholars in the field, especially since a reference article doesn't count for much in the tenure process. Thankfully, a few assistant professors kindly volunteered their services for the project, but for the most part, I'm having to rely on Ph.D. students. I'm now considering giving out contracts to people who have master's degrees with no Ph.D. work. And I'm also getting applications from several professors in India who are eager to contribute to the project. As best as I can tell from their c.v.'s, they don't have the experience or language skills necessary to write a decent article, so I want to keep them off this project if at all possible. But I think that $250 goes much farther in India than it does here, and that's probably why even full professors in that country are so eager to contribute to this reference work, even if the article topics are completely outside of their field.
So, I'm working on two book projects at once. What was I thinking when I agreed to do that?
In other news, I have been teaching a summer course, and also traveling to conferences.
The conference that I attended in Kingston, Ontario last week could not have been more different from the conference I'm attending in northern Virginia. The Queen's University conference in Kingston was on the "global sixties," and it brought people together from all over the world to present research papers on the social and political movements of one of the earth's most memorable decades. I presented on a panel with a Quebecois from Montreal and two Dutch professors from the University of Groningen. In the audience were academics from South Africa, the US, and, of course, Canada, and during the conference I met people from several other countries. There seemed to be a fairly sizeable Scandinavian contingent for some reason. But what united most of these people was a strong affinity for the far left - that is, a political position that is considerably to the left of the Democratic Party, which most people at the conference would have considered a sell-out to big business and a patsy on the war issue. To give you some idea of the tone of this conference, one of the keynote speakers was the revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka. And one of the panelists was a Palestinian feminist who opened her talk by describing how much she admired a certain hijacker.
I had suspected that the conference was going to be somewhat left-wing and therefore decidedly casual, so I had left my ties at home, but when I walked into the conference on the first day, I realized I was still going to be somewhat over-dressed. On the first panel that I attended, three out of four presenters were wearing jeans, some were wearing sandals, and the chair of the panel was not only sporting a gray pony tail and jeans, but was also wearing a pink T-shirt that said "Workers Strike!"
It was a friendly crowd, though, and I enjoyed the conference and learned a lot. I especially liked being in Kingston, which is a really beautiful town. I had been to several eastern Canadian cities before this, including Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa, but never to Kingston, and I was blown away by the charm of its architecture. The whole town is built in a neo-Gothic style of the late 19th century, which gives it a decidedly quaint anglo feel. I almost felt like I was in Europe. Kingston is not nearly as continental as Quebec, but I think that it might be equally charming. And the lake was beautiful, too. I also couldn't complain about the weather; we had sunny skies and temperatures in the low-to-mid 70s throughout the conference.
Anyway, now I'm in a decidedly different place. The foreign policy conference that I'm attending has attracted hundreds of policy-oriented scholars, and they're completely different from the New Left crowd that I saw in Canada. When the scholars at the Kingston conference were marching against the Vietnam War in their younger student days, the scholars at this conference in VA were probably polishing their resumes for service in the Johnson administration. Instead of having Tom Hayden as a scheduled keynote speaker, we listened to General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, speak at a luncheon. Most of the men here are wearing navy blue blazers over an Oxford shirt, and the women are neatly attired in suits; I'm definitely not in Kingston anymore.
That doesn't mean that the people at this conference are conservative. Actually, probably nearly all of them are Democrats, but what differentiates them from the people at the Kingston conference is that they are part of the "establishment." Tomorrow I'm scheduled to have lunch with a former colleague from Brown who is also a graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and who interned in the Clinton White House. That's the sort of person that this conference seems to attract - a smart, ambitious academic who maintains a certain fascination with Washington. Frankly, I'm not all that comfortable with this group. But I am meeting some interesting people.
Well, this is turning out to be a longer post than I had intended, but I guess that it's hard to summarize nearly two months' worth of activities in a short space. If you're still reading at this point, thanks for listening. I could promise to update more often in the future, but I've learned my lesson from the book contract with Facts on File; I'm resolving not to over-commit myself, if at all possible. So, no promises. ;-)
"I have "senioritis" so bad. I have never in my
life wanted just the bare minimum... but I am completely at that point." - Email from a student
When T.S. Eliot wrote that "April is the cruelest month," he probably didn't have academia in mind, but the statement would apply nonetheless. April is always the busiest month of the year for me. Two years ago, it was the month in which I was frantically trying to finish my dissertation in time for the defense while simultaneously teaching a class and grading papers. A year ago, it was the month in which I presented a paper at a conference in D.C. while also processing papers from over 100 students in two classes. This year, after attending a conference in Minneapolis, I presented a paper here in Georgia, and then immediately turned my attention to grading papers (again for about 100 students) for most of the rest of the month. In my 80-student section of a history survey class, I assigned two papers, and most of my students turned them in this month. In my upper-level class on American politics, the students had to turn in their research paper this month, and most of them also waited until now to submit book reviews. So, I have been grading more or less continuously for the past three weeks. Plus, I have graduate students and seniors turning in theses for me to read and asking me for recommendation letters. Professors may not have to engage in as many late-night cram sessions as their students, but I think that we stay almost as busy as they do.
Tomorrow, though, I get to take a short break. After our department meeting, I'm going to take a two-hour drive to Macon, where I'll serve as a judge for the GA state National History Day competition. When I was in middle school and high school, I competed in National History Day for five years, and that competition, more than almost anything else during that time period, set me on the path to becoming a historian. NHD is a great competition, because it allows students to pursue their research interest for a school year and then present that research in a format that best suits their personality and interest - whether that interest inclines them to writing, media, projects, or drama. As you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of National History Day, so I welcome opportunities to help out in any way that I can, especially if it involves judging a competition.
Last night I sang "How Great Thou Art" and "Revive Us Again" with a group of over 3,000 other people. That was the first time that I had been in a gathering of that many people who were singing spiritual songs, and it was an interesting experience. In fact, I'd have to say that my entire week at Bob Jones University was interesting, to say the least.
Every time I go to BJU (this week-long research trip was my third visit to the campus), I feel like I'm entering a different world - one with which I'm intimately acquainted, based on my background, but which seems increasingly unusual to me every time that I think about it. Once again, the familiar sights were there. I always parked about as far away from the library as I could so that as I walked there I could take in all of the sights on campus - the immaculate grounds on which students are allowed to sit during only one week of the year, and the neatly groomed students whose sharp dress and clean-cut looks reflected the rest of the campus's image. Each morning at 9:00, I passed dozens of male students neatly attired in coats and ties, carrying Bibles by their sides, as they walked briskly from their dorms on the northwest side of campus to lectures, where they would meet their coed counterparts, who were all wearing long dresses or skirts as they walked at a somewhat slower pace from the opposite end of the campus. Some of the students were even whistling hymns as they walked by. For students who are forbidden to listen to rock and pop music while they are on campus, hymn singing makes up an important part of their musical repertoire.
I have been to a lot of archives and libraries, but I'm not sure that I have ever seen a library staff that is as helpful and kind as BJU's. Some librarians spent several hours of their time helping me track down material. They also used their campus meal points to buy me dinner or lunch on several occasions. They may have done some of that because they wanted to influence me for good - to convert me from merely being "saved" to being fully "obedient," as they might have seen it. But I think that a lot of their kindness is a reflection of their genuine concern for others.
I have a strong disagreement with Bob Jones University's theology, politics, and perhaps above all, its approach to academics. I think that the school has a terrible history of anti-intellectualism and, until quite recently, racism. But I'll always appreciate the kindness of the people who staff the place.
Outside of campus, Greenville was a great place to visit. I love the city's downtown, with its long row of restaurants and small shops on Main St., and its Falls Park, which I made a point of walking through almost every day that I was in town. If I weren't already living in the South, I would have been highly impressed with the warm temperatures and clear skies that I experienced for much of the week. In fact, even though I now live in the South, where such weather in more common in March than it is in the North at this time of year, I was still thankful for such beautiful weather.
Next week, I'll be traveling to Minneapolis. I'm not expecting to find such beautiful weather there, but I'm sure that it will be a rewarding trip in other ways.
Since it's President's Day, it seemed appropriate to talk about the presidents, and particularly, our current one.
I've been teaching a course on modern American political history this semester, and recently I discussed with my grad students some historians' ratings of the presidents. Since then, I have been thinking about how historians (and the public) will rate President George W. Bush thirty years from now. It seems fairly clear that the rating will hinge almost entirely on the war in Iraq, because there really are not all that many domestic issues that have dominated this presidency. (What are the contenders for historically significant domestic issues? No Child Left Behind? Medicare's prescription drug coverage? Faith-based initiatives? The failed campaign to privatize Social Security? The tax cut enacted in his first year in office? I think that few people would step up to defend any of those as a defining issue of the Bush presidency. So, we're left with the war on terrorism, and, more specifically the war in Iraq).
It seems to me that there are only a few possibilities for the way in which historians will rate President Bush:
1. Bush as Reagan. This, from the Republicans' point of view, would obviously be the best case scenario. Many people considered Reagan's deficit-ridden military buildup foolhardy and his Star Wars program outlandish, but after the Soviet Union collapsed and the US entered a decade of prosperity, many people gave Reagan more credit for foresight than they had in the 1980s. So, in this best-case scenario, the war in Iraq proves to be a victory for democracy, and Bush is hailed as a heroic president who defied Congress and the naysayers, and brought peace to the Middle East. But all of this is highly unlikely to happen.
2. Bush as Eisenhower. This is the "could've been worse" sort of assessment of a presidency. In the 1950s, many pundits viewed Eisenhower as bumbling and incompetent, but in retrospect, they came to appreciate the fact that the decade had been one of peace and economic growth. Even though the Eisenhower presidency did not produce any great achievements, some people have taken the "could've-been-worse" approach to the Eisenhower years, and have given the former general favorable ratings. After all, we didn't end up in a nuclear war with China or the USSR, and we got out of Korea, right? So, if people look back at the Bush years and say, "Hey, at least we didn't get hit with a second terrorist attack," maybe Bush can land in the Eisenhower category - if he's lucky.
3. Bush as Truman. Truman left office with the lowest popularity rating of any modern president - even lower than Nixon at his nadir. The reason was that the US was enmired in an unpopular war in Korea that Truman seemed unable to win. So, at the time, most Americans thought that Truman was incompetent, but in retrospect, historians have decided that the Korean debacle was not nearly as serious as Americans thought at the time, and they have begun to appreciate Truman's straight-talking candor and his achievements on other fronts - particularly in shaping American foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War and in gaining some victories for civil rights. This would probably be President Bush's best hope - that in retrospect, people will decide that the Iraq war, even though it doesn't result in a clear American victory, wasn't so bad after all, and they'll remember him for his achievements in other areas.
4. Bush as Johnson. Lyndon Johnson left office permanently scarred by the disaster in Vietnam, and even today, the titles of books on the Johnson presidency suggest failure: Flawed Giant, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, etc. Only his phenomenal legislative record in the first two years of his presidency has saved Johnson from being rated as a failure in office. If people remember Bush's presidency in the same category as Johnson's, that would not be good news for President Bush. Unlike Johnson, he does not have a prodigious domestic legislative record to offset the negative aspect of his foreign policy.
5. Bush as Harding. Harding is usually rated as a total failure, because he took a country that was in pretty good shape and squandered every opportunity that he had to make it better. If people view Bush as Harding in the future, they'll probably note that he turned a surplus into a record deficit and waged two wars simultaneously, one of which turned into a quagmire. I don't think that Bush will end up looking quite as bad as Harding, but at this point, some people would like to think so.