Responsible Historical Inquiry

Openness to the outcomes of historical inquiry is a necessary feature of an educated person’s thinking. We may not be responsible for “what happened” (whatever that means), but we are responsible for how we interpret and respond to it. Historians, at a given time, write up what they believe to be “the facts” if we are to understand the past. But what are “the facts”? We have a duty to review them and, in the light of new information, rewrite the story. What we inherit is not an indelible, true, and unchangeable account of the events but a version of what happened looked at through the eyes of the historian, who in telling his or her version of the story brings his or her own perspectives to bear. In so doing, the historian is accepting responsibility; the past is a living tradition with which we must engage in conversation so as to develop it and reinterpret it.

Take, for example, the biblical tradition the books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles: they rewrite the same history. 1 and 2 Kings are included by scholars in what are known as “the Former Prophets,” together with the books of Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel. They form a unity; indeed the division between Samuel and Kings varies in ancient manuscripts, and the division between 1 and 2 Kings varies even more so. They are the product of the Deuteronomic tradition of the seventh century BC and probably were not by one author or editor, though that remains a possibility. The choice of material is theologically directed to explain how God’s Chosen People came to be in exile, notwithstanding the covenant Yahweh made with Moses at Sinai and the giving of the Law. The explanation developed was that the respective kings of both Judah and Israel were guilty of gross misdemeanor with respect to cultic fidelity.

The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, on the other hand, were written around 200 or 400 BC (scholars disagree on the date) in a different historical situation and largely ignore God’s covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai. These books confirm the genealogies of David and Solomon, underlining the importance of the covenant Yahweh made with them, which led to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is presented as crucial to the history and tradition of the Chosen People.

These interpretations of Israel’s history are different but not in conflict: the author(s) encourages respect for the Law focused upon the Temple. Faithful community life involves cultic purity, strict obedience to the Law, and the centrality of the Temple.

The biblical example I have taken could be replicated in every period of history. The history ofAnglo-Saxon England is being rewritten in the light of new evidence, much of which is archaeological. The so-called Dark Ages in Europe, we discover, were not Dark Ages at all: they were illuminated by a passion for scholarship, artistic creativity, and personal ambition. The European conquest of Africa was not the opening up of the “Dark Continent.” There were rich cultures and long-standing tribal vitalities that were destroyed; the imperial history of Britain is in the process of being rewritten to take this into account. Moreover, the history of Britain itself cannot be told as the emergence of a constitutional monarchy in a United Kingdom of parliamentary, democratic government. New historical interpretations take up the story of Britain not merely to continue it but to review it in the light of current challenges and living experience. By so doing, these interpretations influence the way that current decisions are made and shape the legacy left for future generations. There is no fixed point.

Take, for example, the current debate about the future of the welfare state in Britain. The Beveridge Report, published during the Second World War in 1942, identified five giants that Britain needed to slay. They were want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness. Beveridge proposed a safety net to support those who fell on hard times so that they would be able to contribute to the public good when their circumstances improved. No one questions the relevance of these concerns, but subsequent demands on the public purse have ballooned and are judged to pose a moral problem. Ought the present generation to leave a legacy of debt that will hamper the prospects of future generations? Politicians, ethicists, social scientists, medical professionals, taxation experts, theologians, and economists are looking for new ways forward that take account (for example) of the changing balance of the generations, shifts in public expectation, fiscal challenges, and ethical considerations.

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