“Ecumenical History”

“Ecumenical History” January 5, 2005

In a 1985 Presidential address to the American Historical Society, William H. McNeill has advocated a form of historical writing that he calls ?mythistory,?Ewhich, in McNeill?s view, should take the form of ?ecumenical history.?EScientific models of history, McNeill argues, are no longer persuasive. Indeed, not even science could live up to the standards of scientific proof and method: ?Facts that could be established beyond all reasonable doubt remained trivial in the sense that they did not, in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past.?EInstead, historians must engage in a form of ?pattern recognition,?Ein which they pay ?selective attention to the total input of stimuli that perpetually swarm in upon our consciousness.?EPattern recognition foregrounds certain features of a situation and backgrounds others, and only in this way ?can what matters most in a given situation become recognizable.?EIn fact, this is what natural scientists have always done, and it is ?what historians have always done, whether they knew it or not?E(William McNeill, Mythistory and Other Essays [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986], pp. 5-6).

Given the collapse of scientific models of historical study, historians can no longer afford the ?luxury of such parochialism?Ethat has ?no need to pay attention to ignoramuses who had not accepted the truths of ?modern science.?? The historian faces ?multiplex, competing faiths.?EThere is no longer a consensus among historians that they should facilitate ?the consolidation of a new American nation by writing national history in a WASPish mold,?Ebut the alternative of concentrating ?on discovering the history of various segments of the population that had been lift out or ill-treated by older historians?Edoes not provide an ?architectonic vision?Ethat can give purpose to the historical profession.

In this pluralistic and confused situation, McNeill suggests that historians think again about the category of myth, but he recognizes a danger to historiography as myth-making. Myths generally draw the boundaries between the group and the outsider, between us and them, and as a result ?may mislead disastrously.?EEspecially in the atomic age, drawing these boundaries could be catastrophic. Great historians ?have always responded to these difficulties by expanding their sympathies beyond narrow in-group boundaries.?EThe alternative, then, is to pursue a history of ?humanity entire,?Ewhich would ?diminish the lethality of group encounters with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole.?EIt is thus a ?moral duty of the historical profession?Eto develop an ?ecumenical history?E(Ibid., pp. 16-17).

As with many proposals for global history, this is simply a call for a false catholicity, one which interestingly employs theological/ecclesiastical terminology to express its aims.

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