The Historian and Imago Dei

The Historian and Imago Dei October 17, 2012

Two weeks ago I wrote in this space about the relationship between the historians work and the reality of human sin.  This week, I want to focus on the historian’s work as it relates to the Judeo-Christian belief in Imago Dei.  Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God has created humans beings.  In the opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis we learn more about what that means.  One central theme in the Genesis creation story is the affirmation that human beings are created in the image of God (“Imago Dei” in the Latin).  Consider Genesis 1:26-27:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our own image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The fact that God created us in his image, as the most beautiful and highest form of His creation, implies that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior.  Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred.  There are no villains in history.  While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has inherent value in His eyes.

If life is indeed sacred and valuable, then Christians have a responsibility to celebrate and protect it.  Scholars debate the particular meaning of Imago Dei for our lives, but most would agree that it provides a foundation for Christian social teaching.  The belief that we are created in the image of God should translate into our convictions about war, abortion, capital punishment, and the care of the poor.  It also informs the Christian’s understanding of human equality.  If we are all created in God’s image, then discrimination based on race, color, social condition, language or religion violates God’s design for human beings.  And the Imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history.  This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the human beings who we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.

An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of Imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer.  Let me illustrate this from my own sub-discipline, the study of colonial American history.  Lately historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.”  Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase.  For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “13 colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States.  For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation—as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications.  Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies?  Since the United States survey has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contribute to the forging of a new nation.  In this view, the worth of particular human beings living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these human beings will have in the stories we tell about the period– is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than the dignity in which they carry with them because they have been created in God’s image.  For example, we might give short shrift to human beings living in North America who do not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic.  We all know the usual suspects:  Indians, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies.  But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period in the North American past worthy of study on its own, then these historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002.  For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they serve as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution.  Rather, they should be studied as the story of European imperial expansion in North America and the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves.  The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, is the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century.  For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776.  This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basins brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves,  and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places.  Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world.  And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt.  All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, they were profoundly influenced by global economic trends.  Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas.  Indians and their wars had an effect on markets for Europeans skins and furs even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities.  Such engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land.  European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.  As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story.  The British colonists and their gripes with Parliament and the King are only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than good historical practice.  By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, according to this view, Taylor is engaging in political correctness.  He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies.  According to these critics, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history. But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history as portrayed most forcefully in Taylor’s American Colonies from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth.  If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell.  To put this differently, everyone’s voices count, regardless of whether they contributed to the eventual formation of the United States or not. Now of course certain white Europeans—such as the “Founding Fathers,” will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often celebrates the winners– the beneficiaries of liberty and progress or the most privileged figures in the history of Western Civilization.  It neglects anyone who does not fit this mold and it fails to consider Imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” (Italics mine). What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?  Upon closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and still have influence today.  A history grounded in a belief in Imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

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