Faith and the Historian: Catholic Perspectives is food for the soul of historians who are also Catholics, whether practicing or non-practicing. In eight autobiographical essays, the contributors describe how their Catholic faith or Catholic upbringing has impacted their scholarship. This is also a volume of value for scholars of other faiths or intellectual commitments, including scholars of religion, intellectual historians, scholars of immigration and, indeed, anyone who thinks systematically about how his or her faith or worldview impacts his or her intellectual work. This reviewer had an emotional response to many of the essays, a feeling of gratitude for learning so much about other historians' intimate experiences of faith and how these experiences have shaped the histories they have written.
Each of the eight essays is, more or less, two parts memoir to one part philosophy of history. Without exception, the essays lay bare the authors' encounters or attempted encounters with God. All of the authors were born into devout Catholic families. Some of the authors have remained devout Catholics ever since then. Others have "drifted away" (134) or become "distant" (115) from the Church. Another, dramatically and engagingly, left and returned. Yet another is "caught betwixt and between" (163). Almost without exception, the autobiographical sections of these essays are riveting and written in dashing narrative styles, and are often full of surprises. The essays are short – an average of twenty-three pages including endnotes – and read very quickly.
The autobiographical sections are meant to lead to each author's consideration of how Catholicism has impacted his or her philosophy of history, which will be defined here as the basic assumptions with which an historian approaches the reality of human experience and the making sense of the past. To give just one example, essayist Nick Salvatore has found that the concept of original sin has informed his historical writing. He writes that this idea of "the inherent fallibility of all human endeavor" brought him "an exultant relief from the arrogance of thinking that I, or indeed we, actually directed in toto this existence we inhabited" (101). Although Salvatore does not further tease out the connection, it seems apparent from his published work that this sense of relief has left him free to engage labor history and African-American history with a sort of playful curiosity, a willingness to follow human experience wherever it might lead, that other basic worldviews (Whiggish-liberal-progressive or Marxist or deconstructionist) might not.
Indeed, connecting these personal essays to the authors' published work is one of the main ideas behind the collection. Salvatore, who is also the editor of the volume, explains that one aim of the essays is to encourage readers to reflect on the authors' published works anew, putting them in conversation with these very personal reflections on how Catholicism shaped these works of history. For that reason, as Salvatore, explains, none of the authors in this volume were born after 1959. The idea is that a reader should be able to read a number of publications by each author in order to follow the impact of faith on the author's career. This makes sense.
Nevertheless, the absence of younger historians make the collection feel oddly circumscribed. Authors' formative periods range from the 1940s to the 1970s, and thus make it appear that the 1960s are still the great hinge of contemporary intellectual life, marking the major distinction between those who became adults before this period or during and after. This reviewer is an historian born in the 1970s, and the natural narrative that these essays represent, arranged as they are from oldest author to youngest author, feels like a narrative with a too abrupt ending. What happened to Catholic historians afterwards? This collection cannot begin to tell us. For what it's worth, this reviewer's experience, though finding much that is familiar in all of the essays, feels closest to that of the eldest author in the volume, Philip Gleason. A couple of essays by younger historians would only, I think, have added to the richness of this collection.
This objection notwithstanding, the essays collected here are valuable exercises in the philosophy of history, and also much more. They are personal, moving, and should be considered a mix of spiritual reading and academic reading. They are ideal both for Catholic intellectuals and for anyone who would like to reflect on the connection between faith and intellectual life.
—Gabriel Loiacono (G '04)University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh