- Faithful Narratives: Historians, Religion, and the Challenge of Objectivity ed. by Andrea Sterk and Nina Caputo
In the introduction to Faithful Narratives: Historians, Religion, and the Challenge of Objectivity, editors Andrea Sterk and Nina Caputo write, “It is fair to say that many of today’s historians of religion find the task of writing as well as teaching religious history an increasingly precarious endeavor. On the one side, seeking to be sensitive to religious experience and conviction while, on the other, maintaining intellectual and scholarly integrity, historians of religion require almost supernatural navigational skill” (2). Presumably, these are aspects of the “challenge of objectivity” of the collection’s subtitle. What is less clear, however, is whether, in the high-stakes, high-risk scholarly exercises described by Sterk and Caputo, the “challenge” in question is that which is (still) posed by the discourse of scientific, “secular” objectivity—the alleged ideal of objective “distance” in historical writing—or the challenge to actually be objective in treating potentially provocative religious topics. To be sure, these different ways of interpreting the titular “challenge” of objectivity are closely related, if not inextricable, but they are not precisely the same. Furthermore, one may well ask of the book’s main title: narratives faithful to what? To the past and its various traces—per the professional, ethical duty of a historian as such? To the theological commitments of a given religious faith? Or is it possible (or, for that matter, desirable?) to aspire at once to both of these types of fidelity, while meeting at the same time the discursive or disciplinary challenge(s) of “objectivity”?
These are among the most pressing questions addressed by the twelve contributors to this volume, sometimes only implicitly, at other times quite explicitly. Their essays cover a very wide range temporally—three chronologically-ordered sections treat Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Early Modern period, and modernity, respectively—although they focus almost exclusively on the major Abrahamic religions, a decision that allows studies of the fourth and fifth centuries to speak productively to those concerned with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This review will focus mainly on the first two sections, moving from the newly Christianized later Roman Empire to the Protestant Reformation. These eight essays are frequently centered on premodern subjectivities, ideas, and experiences firmly rooted in the discursive structures of particular historical moments and distinctive communities. The authors attempt, with remarkable nuance, to unpack these subjectivities, and the diverse texts that they yielded, while asking what these distant voices and texts might have to offer for the present. Premodern texts demand this type of sensitivity, particularly when the focus is religion, where the tendency toward presentist teleology is a constant threat. Kenneth Mills’s study provides an illustration of that tenuous balancing act. In examining the Andean travelogue of Diego de Ocaña, a Spanish Hieronymite missionary of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Mills argues for (and impressively demonstrates) an approach he terms “near-immersion”: “immersion” in that Mills attempts to enter the experiential [End Page 231] thought-world of his early modern historical actors, but “near” because “such entry is always an unreachable aim” (115) (though it is not necessarily clear here how relative distance or proximity ought to be judged). The unavoidable distance signaled by the qualifier “near” allows Mills both to contextualize Ocaña’s experience within the diverse corpus of missionary narratives and to acknowledge his own subjective position in the twenty-first century. Consequently, Mills is able to insightfully explicate Ocaña’s “faithful narrative,” showing the deep spiritual significance that the rigor and uncertainty of travel held for Ocaña, while at the same time crafting a historical narrative that is faithful to the spirit of Ocaña’s text and the spirit in which it was read by like-minded contemporaries.
Although few other contributors to this collection attempt anything like Mills’s “near-immersion,” they are no less successful in demonstrating the sense of difference in the past, while enabling the...