Historicism’s Dilemmas

At the beginning of her The Philosophical Question of Christ, Caitlin Smith Gilson sketches the multiple dilemmas of historicism.

Historicism “takes the historicist out of history,” which is not only paradoxical but, on historicist terms, impossible, since outside history “there is no place to be” (xiii). How does this happen? It happens because the historicist says that there is nothing more to history than just history, and this “nothing more” implies a “nothing at all.” On the one hand, “history as context is the essential, the absolute” but then, “as content, the purely relative, the purely accidental, the incrementally irrelevant – and thus an empty context” (xiv).

Gilson offers variations on the original dilemma. Culture, habit, traditions are “embodied manifestations of history,” and that, it would seem, should lead the historicist to show reverence for tradition. He doesn’t, but “unforgiving irreverence is his trademark attitude.” Tradition is “reverence for our finitude,” then the historicist’s irreverence for tradition is also hostility to finitude. Another variation: For the historicist, there is no end, history is “pure endlessness”; but in practice, the present always serves as a standard “to just the past guilty,” and thus the present somehow escapes the relativity of history – it occupies the place that cannot exist, the place outside history’s relativisations (xiv).

This doesn’t need to be. If history is “all and everything,” why isn’t history the “the very form in which truth comes to be” rather than a nullity, a “no-place where there is no truth”? (xiii). This, she claims, is the Christian faith: Truth embodied in “the unsought particular” that “claims to be the very essence of existence itself historically manifested.” Historicists, one would think, would be rather fond of the Christian claim about Jesus – since it assumes what historicists claim to honor, that history brims with “contingency, surprise, chance, and change, shot through with the mystery of time” (xiii). History’s particularities are as irreducible as Christ Himself.

But historicism has been friendly to Christian claims, but made various efforts to reduce, absorb, ignore, or reject Jesus – reduce Him to myth, absorb Him into a Hegelian progression, ignore Him as an unscientific article of faith, reject His claims to be the exclusive revelation of God (xiii).

As the Truth revealed in the particulars of history, Jesus challenges on every side: He challenges “Platonic” efforts to keep idea and sense neatly separated; He challenges historicist claims that history relativizes; He of course challenges nihilist claims that there is no Truth. The philosophical question of Christ is a big question indeed.

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