University of Notre Dame church historian George Marsden has stirred the latest round of discussion about the relationship of faith and learning with his provocatively (and ironically) titled book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Writing in the July 16, 1999, Times Literary Supplement, Robert Darnton, professor of history at Princeton and a leading scholar on eighteenth-century France, treats one example of such scholarship as anything but outrageous. Darnton is reviewing the two-volume Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford, Clarendon) that caps the extraordinary scholarly career of John McManners.
McManners, now Regius professor emeritus of ecclesiastical history at Oxford, is probably best known to nonspecialists for his work on modern church-state relations in France, as well as for the Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, which he edited. Darnton convincingly illustrates how McManners has transformed the history of what might appear to be one of French Catholicism’s most lackluster centuries into nothing less than the sort of thing a reader might want to curl up with and savor. But Darnton goes further. "There is an additional quality in McManners’s work, which lifts it above the standard variety of English erudition," the reviewer declares. "It is faith."
McManners, you see, is also the current chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford, and Darnton quotes a moving 1996 sermon in which McManners described how the stark sight of slaughtered German soldiers during World War II’s fierce North African campaign fixed him on the path to ordination.
"It does not follow that the leap of faith will provide an answer to the inadequacy of empiricism," Darnton continues. "But faith helped McManners approach his subject with a capacity lacking in ordinary academic history: sympathetic understanding. Perhaps Christians can write the history of Christianity with the sort of insight that has inspired some Marxist histories of the working class. In McManners’s case, at least, spiritual engagement balances empirical erudition and carries his work beyond the limits of conventional academic writing."
Sympathetic understanding will not substitute for the lifetime of study that went into Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France, Darnton is quick to add. But together they can produce passages like the one he cites: "Groping on the underside of ecclesiastical history, we come into touch with rural France, and with the peasants, the vast majority of the population. Their role was to pay. Along rutted lanes, paths through cornfields, and sheep tracks in the mountains, we meet continually a multitude of weather-beaten figures, a spectacle of broken teeth, gnarled hands, rags, clogs, coarse woolen stockings, and homespun cloaks. These folk not only support the church; they constitute it and justify its existence. If we can discover how they believed and felt, and what charity and hope religion brought into their living and their dying, this would be the quintessential ecclesiastical history—a history which, alas, will largely remain unwritten, though on a plane not accessible to terrestrial historians it is recorded and will not be forgotten."