Revisionism in American History
Adapted from The Nature of the American System
Revisionism is long overdue in American history, and in historical studies generally, lest history as a discipline disappears into the abysses of the social sciences. Ostensibly having arrived at a new level of maturity in the hands of some practitioners as a science, history is instead becoming a fertile area of myth-making and quackery because it lacks any awareness of epistemological self-consciousness. It is assumed, first, that an objective history is possible, and also a valid science of history, and, second, that if no objective history is possible, then history as a discipline is destroyed or else is reduced to propaganda.
Both assumptions must be rejected. Behind the writing of history is a philosophy of history, and behind that philosophy of history are certain pre-theoretical and essentially religious presuppositions. There is no such thing as brute factuality, but rather only interpreted factuality. The historian’s report is always the report of a perspective, a context, a framework; man is not, like God, beyond time and circumstance, condition and place. Man is neither a prime mover nor a prime viewer, but, to deny to man the status of a first cause and a first view is by no means to deny the validity or function of secondary causes and secondary viewers. To recognize that man is neither a first cause nor a first viewer is thus to deny the possibility of an objective history, but it is not thereby a denial of the possibility of a valid history, unless we proceed on the assumption that the ordination and determination of first causes does violence to secondary causes and removes the liberty or contingency of second causes rather than establishing them. It is the insistence of orthodox Christian thought that the validity of history is precisely in its secondary status, and man’s liberty is grounded on ultimate and transcendental order rather than on the myth of his own autonomy and ultimacy.
The writing of history, then, because man is neither autonomous, objective, nor ultimately creative, is always in terms of a framework, a philosophical and ultimately religious conceptual structure in the mind of the historian. Thus, in U. S. history, we are told that certain data constitute the true history of the United States because they point to the conditions in the present which make up the true moment of history. If Jesus be the Christ, the Messiah of history, then Abraham, Moses, David, and John the Baptist are His forerunners; if Jesus is not the Christ, then the significance of these men recedes. If our philosophy be Marxist, then certain men and movements become the forerunners of the moment of truth. If we hold to the Liberal or Fabian Establishment, then clearly all preceding history must point forward to this blinding light, or be seen in reference to it. For earlier historians of this era, the light of Reason was the key to history. All of these historiographies have their incarnation towards which they strive, or in terms of which they move, and present judgments as well as their Last Judgments are in terms of this incarnation. There is no neutralism. To assume neutralism is to assume the equal validity of all data, for their relative significance cannot be assessed until history is finished, all the reports in, and the consequent conclusions of the clash of data made apparent, if indeed conclusions are possible in a bland and meaningless world.
To the orthodox Christian, the shabby incarnations of the reigning historiographies are both absurd and offensive. They are idols, and he is forbidden to bow down to them and must indeed wage war against them. A Christian historiography and a Christian revisionism are thus for him moral imperatives.
For Christian revisionism, there is thus an incarnation that stands as the central point in history, Jesus Christ, and, as Chalcedon clearly stated, this incarnation was without confusion of the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human. This requires a denial of any coming, continuing, or possible incarnation in any historical order or institution. The divinization of church, state, school, or any other institution, or its absorption into the incarnation, is thus a sign of paganism. Man and his institutions are truly temporal and historical; they can move towards epistemological self-consciousness but never into the incarnation. The great gulf which separates strictly Christian historiography from all heresies, humanism, and paganism is this denial of the confusion, even in the unique incarnation of Jesus Christ, of the temporal and the eternal, the human and the divine. All other historiographies posit not only the possibility of an incarnated order of this confused sort but also the absorption of all history into that order. It is held that autonomous man, as the historical ultimate, will both create that great historical moment, that incarnation of history, and arrest and absorb history into that self-created eternity. Gnosticism is thus the end result of all heresies, and of Voegelin himself, for any hope in “the leap in being” is a hope in ultimate incarnation.
The purpose of Christian revisionism is to call attention to those aspects of American history currently neglected, namely, the Christian foundations which still militate against the present Gnostic and messianic movements. As noted in This Independent Republic, John Cotton was instrumental in giving to this country an anti-universalist and anti-perfectionist character. The promise of a “good” state was to him “the smell of a Leopard,” of the beast, for the state was not the order of man’s salvation. For Cotton, moreover, both liberty and power had to be limited, for man, as a secondary cause, could not claim the primary and total liberty and power of God. Against these premises war is being currently waged.