FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK–THE HISTORIAN’S VOCATION

Hello, All!

I have been away for far too long.  Somehow, the beginning of a new school year always seems to catch me off guard, as if I didn’t see it coming.  I have been struggling to get on top of things–trying to find the emotional and physical energy for the new year–and was also away for part of last week paying a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas.  I was down there to tape an interview for “Family Life Today” on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  It felt strange to be talking about Thanksgiving at the beginning of September, but I enjoyed the interview, and I also had the opportunity to experience some fine Arkansas cuisine–first at a restaurant named “Slim Chickens,” then at a swanky establishment called “The Whole Hog Cafe.”   Great beans and cole slaw.

At any rate, I’ve missed writing for you and hope to make more time for that from here on.  To get back into the swing of things, I thought I would share a favorite quote from my commonplace book.  My commonplace book is my “life thickener”–to use a phrase that I first heard from Mark Edmundson in his book Why Teach?  Writing in it helps me to slow down and reflect on enduring questions of calling and purpose, questions that are immensely important but too easily crowded out by the demands of daily life.

I like to re-read regularly the quotes that I have written down, especially at the beginning of each semester.  In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.”  In a figurative sense, my commonplace book embodies something like what Bonhoeffer was describing.  When I open its pages, I encounter numerous Christians who encourage me by reminding me of what is true.

Below is an example from someone you probably haven’t heard of unless you are an academic historian.  Arthur S. Link (1920-1998) was a long-time historian at Northwestern University and then at Princeton University, where he served for more than three decades.  During his lifetime, he was widely recognized as the leading authority on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  He edited Wilson’s personal papers and also authored a five-volume biography on the president.  Overall, Link wrote some thirty books, and along the way he twice won the Bancroft Prize, which is essentially the “book-of-the-year” award given annually by the American Historical Association.   In 1984 he received the highest honor that a U. S. historian can receive by being elected president of the that organization.

Link was also a man of faith.  In 1962, he wrote a piece for the journal Theology Today titled “The Historian’s Vocation.”  As you read the excerpt below, try to imagine such a nationally prominent, Ivy League professor making a similar claim in 2014.  In context, Link is reflecting on the difference that belief in God makes for the historian’s sense of vocation.

The historian will no longer say with Descartes, “cogito, ergo sum” [“I think, therefore I am”].  He will now say “Deus est, ergo sum” [“God exists, therefore I am”], ergo creation, being, truth, history.  Think what this means to the historian in so vital a matter as his methodology.  It means that historical truth exists not in his imagination or because of his whim, but because God himself, the Creator of the universe, has brought human history into being and has himself lived in human history.  Man, a finite creature, can know and understand truth only partially, imperfectly, corruptly, it may be.  But by God’s grace he can at least honor, respect, and treasure it.  That is to say, the historian, while readily acknowledging that only God knows all historical truth, can now affirm, profess, and confess that he stands in the presence of something far greater than himself, something that gives meaning to his life and work.

P. S.  In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write that “Christians can survive only by supporting one another through the countless small acts through which we tell one another that we are not alone, that God is with us.”  Thanks to the many of you who responded to my last post with kindness and encouragement.  I appreciated it greatly.

2 responses to “FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK–THE HISTORIAN’S VOCATION

  1. First, I hope your trip out here to Arkansas was excellent! Whole Hog is one of my favorite places when I’m in the big city of Little Rock.

    Thank you for sharing your commonplace book finds. I am adopting the habit, based on your example.

  2. I first encountered this selection in Historiography. Thank you for reminding me!

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