We Are Who We Think We Were: Christian History and Christian Ethics (Fortress, 2013)

[1] “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Requiem for a Nun (1950), William Faulkner was speaking to a particular context but this famous quote continues to speak far beyond the Deep South. This is because the American historical memory tends to be short. History is history; at best it is inconsequential and at worst it gets in the way of progress.

[2] The field of Christian Social Ethics arose, in part, as a response to this. These ethicists were sickened by the human wreckage that went part and parcel with the industrialized “progress” of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They recognized the dehumanizing conditions of the modern project and attempted to use the Gospel to seek justice within this context of injustice.

[3] Despite their good intentions and admirable work, they had a blind spot: their own historical-situatedness. And it is to this blind spot that Aaron D. Conley attends in his work, We Are Who We Think We Were: Christian History and Christian Ethics.

[4] Conley is a new scholar. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Social Change from Iliff School of Theology in Denver and currently is an Instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at Regis College. In this work, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, his guiding question is this: do social ethicists, and in particular Protestant, white, male, heterosexual social ethicists, take history seriously? In other words, do they disclose and account for the role that historical-situatedness and social location plays in their ethical theories?

[5] Conley thinks not. He is convinced that the mainstream of Protestant social ethicists is blind to the formative role that their own personal and social histories play in their work. In other words, social ethicists are not critically self-reflexive and thus do not recognize the implicit historiographies that undergird their work. His own way of expressing a similar insight as Faulkner’s is to quote the Christian historian Elizabeth Clark: “there is no politically innocent historiography” (61).

[6] We Are Who We Think We Were explores how this blindness often hinders the struggle for social justice. In Conley’s words:

…we ethicists must relax our grip on outdated and limited historiographic techniques in order to unveil the determinative ideological commitments fueling our interpretations of history. Once this work is underway, we must interrogate the ethical consequences of our historiographies to see how well they are shaped by and incorporate the voices of the poor and marginalized who have been traditionally silenced, neglected, and rejected from normative ethical-historical discourses (2).

[7] The core of this book is a critique of method. Conley interrogates the way in which mainstream Protestant social ethicists engage in their craft. He is concerned that even though they speak against social injustice, the product of their craft often validates and sustains social injustice, albeit unintentionally. Conley advocates for a “critical, self-reflexive historiography” as a method for social ethicists to employ to more successfully and authentically hone their craft. The tools that Conley employs are rooted in postmodern and poststructuralist literary theories and, in particular, the historiographical project of Elizabeth Clark.

[8] Chapter One provides an overview of the inherent connection between Christian social ethics and historiography along with his discussion of how this remains a blind spot for many mainstream Protestant social ethicists.

[9] Chapter Two provides an overview of some thinkers providing the tools for a more “critically self-reflexive historiography.” Conley contextualizes these thinkers by tracing the roots of modern historiography to the Enlightenment, beginning with Kant and moving on to later figures such as Adolf von Harnack. He finds the roots of his own position in the work of figures such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. These figures are then the backdrop upon which Conley examines the work of Elizabeth Clark.

[10] One of many concepts that he mines from Clark’s work is that of “political unconsciousness”—a concept that Clark borrows from Frederic Jameson. This means that in any text there are a variety of discourses and a history of construction that imbues it with an ideological bias, or, a quiet political unconsciousness. It is this political unconsciousness that provides the space for an author’s biases to contaminate social ethics and enable more oppression than liberation. The roots of a social ethicist’s unintentional nonresistance to, or complicity with, structural evils reside in this space. So, it is in this space that a critical self-reflexive historiography can shed light upon an implicit and unintentional collaboration with injustice.

[11] In Chapter Three, Conley examines and critiques the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Conley chooses Hauerwas because he finds part of a revised method here.

“[Hauerwas] is selected as a case study for review because he acknowledges the textual considerations of postmodern post-structuralism, yet resists their insights when it comes to calling for a normative Christian ethic. His historical approach is critical of modern liberalism, but fails the test of self-reflexivity on account of his church/world binary and his reliance upon the Constantinian master narrative” (72).

[12] In other words, Conley thinks that even though Hauerwas rightly takes the “linguistic turn” of poststructuralist and postmodern literary theory seriously he does not take it seriously enough. Hauerwas brawls with any and all opponents in his mission to dismantle the modern liberal metanarrative and its ethical priorities. But Conley thinks that Hauerwas’ work results in a fatal flaw for social ethics: he replaces one metanarrative with another. Instead of the modern liberal project undergirding and perpetuating the master narrative, the category of “Constantinianism” functions in the same way. Conley thinks that Hauerwas’ new metanarrative results in the universalizing of the concerns of Hauerwas’ own social location, namely pacifism, obedience, and suffering.

[13] In his final assessment of Hauerwas in Chapter Five, Conley writes:

While Hauerwas makes room [for] narrative, he over-generalizes continuities that link his conception of church with the diverse church of the Christian tradition. His focus on continuity flattens out the history of Christianity according to predetermined plots that gloss over the gaps and silences in the church’s wider historical sources …The resulting depiction of Christianity ends up looking remarkably similar to the expressions of Christianity that that corresponds with Hauerwas’ social location, or to those churches who adhere to the parameters set by Constantinianism. (144-145)

[14] Chapter Four engages with the writings of Tertullian of Carthage and Tertullian’s writings that champion the virtue of “patience.” This chapter is well-researched, clearly presented, and accessible and enlightening for those like myself who are unfamiliar with the majority of Tertullian’s work. Conley then moves from history to contemporary critique and again he returns to Hauerwas. The crux of this chapter is Conley’s exegesis of Tertullian’s assigning great importance to the virtue of patience and how this influences Hauerwas to do the same.

[15] Chapter Five concludes with some preliminary thoughts on where Conley’s proposed historiography can lead and what he hopes it can accomplish—opening a space for marginalized voices to rise to the center of Christian social ethics. Phrased differently, and again in reference to Hauerwas, “To the extent that we fail to dismantle the master narratives that categorize the world according to our own ideological commitments, we condone the present power structures granting us privilege. Unfortunately, so long as Hauerwas clings to his master narrative, his ethic will remain impotent in the face of structural evils” (160).

[16] The audience for We Are Who we Think We Were is narrow. This book is best suited for academia and, in particular, scholars, professors, and graduate students. It is a revision of Conley’s doctoral dissertation and this means that it is highly technical in its argument, style, and analysis. Those willing to engage with Conley’s argument will find this work insightful, if sometimes unnecessarily complex. Also, his persistent engagement with Hauerwas sometimes takes center stage away from Conley’s own argument—so much that a more accurate title would include Hauerwas’ name as the target of Conley’s criticism—but his argument finds its way back home. Conley’s discussion of Elizabeth Clark (who is probably unknown to most Christian ethicists), Tertullian (whose work on patience is probably little known to most Christian ethicists aside from Hauerwas’ interpretation) and his thorough engagement and critique of Hauerwas’ work on its own terms are very well done. He solidly makes his case that historiographies are not politically innocent and that all ethicists must account for the blind spot of unconscious bias in their historiographical assumptions.

[17] In the end, Conley argues:

A critical self-reflexive ethical-historical analysis will clear a path necessary for identifying the ideological commitments of our social locations and our alliances within local and trans-local power structures. It is also capable of dismantling the master narratives that normalize some conceptions of reality and not others and codify structures of oppression. As such, this analysis illuminates the stratifications of our social relationships that require a resolute engagement with issues of justice and injustice. If Christian ethicists are so attuned, it will lead to the reconfiguration of our stories to better accord with justice. (158)

[19] This very well may be the case. But a question arises: how do mainstream social ethicists move from deconstruction to reconstruction to goal of all social ethics worth their salt—concrete action? The fact that Conley does not address this question is a weakness in this book.

[20] In his defense, this question is beyond the scope of this work. Conley acknowledges that the subsequent move from theory to action is of great importance and that he is unable to account for that here. He writes, “this present volume is one of the first sustained explorations of historiography in Christian social ethics” (69) and an author can only do so much in one book. In this pursuit, Conley has covered quite a bit of ground and offered a sound contribution.

[21] As he also writes, “for the social ethicist, justice remains the highest standard upon which to judge the effectiveness of its historiography” (71). This means that a continuation of Conley’s thought that elaborates upon this connection between historiography, social ethics, and action for justice is needed. And I have little doubt that Conley is up to the task. For him, the past is fully alive and always functioning in Christian theology and ethics. May he continue on this road.

Kevin Considine

Kevin Considine is Assistant Professor of Theology at Calumet College of St. Joseph (Whiting, IN). He is the author of Salvation for the Sinned-Against: ‘Han’ and Schillebeeckx in Intercultural Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015). His research has been published in Black Theology: An International Journal, Horizons, New Theology Review, and Tijdschrift voor Theologie (online).