MHT: Perspectivism

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Bernard Lonergan

Bernard Lonergan

To satisfy both the postmodern critique and need for epistemological clarity, I suggest epistemological and methodological perspectivism. Perspectivism acknowledges the limits of the historian and their information, the selectivity of historical presentations, and the variability of the context and selections which historians are able to employ. In the words of Bernard Lonergan, perspectivism admits that different standpoints exist and are “(1) not contradictory, (2) not complete information and not complete explanation, but (3) incomplete and approximate portrayals of an enormously complex reality.”[40]

There is a past and it is recognizable. Yet the past is so complex that our individual recognitions of it will be necessarily fragmentary. History and meaning are accessible; but only partially so. Perspectivism allows room for making judgment calls in history—thereby retaining ethics—by emphasizing “common sense” interpretations based upon the principles common to a community which are grounded in either history or theology. Interpreters of history provide overarching pictures of the past, noting the interconnections and interdependencies which create developments, and then proceed to offer arguments stemming from that understanding of historical realities for present life.[41] An appropriate dictum for this viewpoint is, “Context is king, and rules the meaning of everything.”[42] That is, we can know things about the past, but only through the lens of context, both that of the past and that of ourselves. Thus perspectivism pushes historians toward the study of the contexts of history while simultaneously advocating that conclusions be held humbly.


 

[40] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 219.

[41] Ibid., 153-66.

[42] An aphorism of one of my mentors, Kevin James Bywater of the Summit Oxford Study Centre.

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