Periodizing the History of Christianity and Methodological Pluralism

I’m a historian of Christianity.  One of the things historians like to do is divide history into periods.  If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably gotten a sense of the periodization of history I’ve been using, but I thought I’d summarize it here and then share some reflections on the process of periodizing church history.

I’m working with a division of Christianity into four periods: Early Christianity; Medieval Christendom; Modernity; and an emerging new, yet-to-be-named period I’ve been calling “what comes next”.  In between each period, there are hinge points: the Constantian and Gregorian transformations between early Christianity and Medieval Christianity; the Reformations between Medieval and modern Christianity; and postmodernity between modernity and what comes next.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Early Christianity in this blog yet.  In part that’s because it’s the era of church history in which I’m weakest.  But probably more to the point it’s because this blog has mainly been interested with contrasting modernity and postmodernity, and early Christianity is a bit removed from that.  There is a lot of interesting and exciting new historiography on this period that I think reflects current scholarly trends related to modernity/postmodernity, but one can’t really make Origen into a modern or postmodern figure without doing some violence to him.

I’ve talked in my last two posts about medieval Christendom, but only to help provide a series of contrasts with modernity, postmodernity, and what comes next.  I expect medieval Christendom will continue to make similar cameo appearances in this blog.

The blog’s been a lot about modernity, postmodernity, and what comes next (hence the title), so I’m not going to try to say anything new about those periods here.

Instead, I’d like to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of periodizing history.  Periodizations are analytical tools that scholars use, but they aren’t by any means God-given.  There are numerous other ways I could (and in other contexts do) periodize the history of Christianity, and others besides me use more schemes still.

If there isn’t agreement on how to periodize the history of Christianity, why do it?  There are several reasons.  Periodizing, like all scholarly tools (including classification schemes, theories, and even intellectual disciplines) help us recognize and understand certain things about the world.  Classifying classical music by time or country-of-origin helps us hear differences and similarities between pieces and composers.  Source-critical theory in Biblical studies helps us realize that texts come from contexts and have relations to those contexts.  Physics helps us see a realm of the world that we don’t with our everyday eyes.  The periodization I’ve been using has helped me see and understand (or at least reflect on) certain changes I feel going on in the culture around me.

But the problem with all analytical tools is that at the same time they help you see some things, they distract you from seeing others.  If you’re paying attention only to the time period in which a piece of classical music is written, you might miss the similarities between a Mozart sonata and a Hindemith sonata, which, different as they are, still exist.  If you’re only using source-critical theory to analyze your Biblical text, you might miss how it functions as a literary piece or the allegorical potentials in the text.  If you’re only thinking of the world in terms of physics, love is a difficult term to understand.  I’m aware, therefore, that the periodization I’m using conceals some things (and perhaps some very important things) at the same time it reveals others.

But I’m still going to use it.  I think the quest for us as scholars and humans should not be to develop one super-dooper, does-everything, Swiss-army-knife of an analytical tool that we can use in every situation.  Any attempt to do so ends up being reductionist, no matter how sophisticated or complex the classification scheme, theory, discipline, or other analytical tool is.  As the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  I pride myself that there are a lot of things I can do in terms of handywork with just a hammer, pliers, flat-head screwdriver, and knife, but I recognize there are usually better ways of doing those things that involve better, more specific tools.

Instead of trying to develop universal tools, I think our task as scholars and humans should be to embrace methodological pluralism.  I think we should try to develop a range of tools we can use to understand different aspects of the world at different times for different reasons, and even sometimes different tools that can legitimately be used to understand the same aspect of the world at the same time.

Even more than that, since there are only so many tools one person can know how to use, I think we need to recognize the legitimacy of other analytical tools for understanding the world, at least in certain situations and sometimes even for the same situation.  I want plumbers to have different tools than I do as a handyman.  I also recognize that some handymen will use a different tool for doing the same task as I do, and both tools will get the job done.  Often, it just boils down to a question of personal preference.  True, sometimes there is a better tool with which to do things, and when that happens, I hope that I will be able to talk reasonably about it with the other handyman or woman and one of us will learn something.

Recognizing the validity of other tools goes against the grain a bit for scholars.  Instead of recognizing as chemists the validity of the English department or vice versa, academics often want to make out their way of understanding the world as the best, the truest.  Academics are slow to recognize the role of context or personal preference in determining which tools to use.  They are often quick to assume that there is a right tool to use, and it is the tool they themselves use, and all others much learn to use it, too.  But if we are honest with ourselves as academics, I think we need to recognize that the world – both in its physical and human manifestations – is much too complex for any one approach to be a satisfying explanation of it all.

So, even if it’s not always enjoyable, especially in academia, to recognize our limitations, I think that academics (and people in general) need to recognize not only their own personal limitations but the limitations of the analytical tools they use and appreciate and approve of the fact that others have other tools that they can use well and in a way that also contributes to the understanding and functioning of the world.

One Comment

Sydney handyman posted on March 28, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Really very nice blog and great discussed to Periodizing the History of Christianity

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