At the Bradford Literature Festival this week, Bishop Nick chaired a discussion on the tensions between historical narratives and faith narratives. Historian Tom Holland and journalist Abdul-Rehman Malik were invited to consider such questions as How can we tell the difference between truth and interpretation? What happens to the accounts of different faith figures when held up against historical documents and archaeological records? How can the conflict inherent in these comparisons be resolved? Does it need to be?
Bishop Nick said, “In history writing of any sort, no one can be neutral. Most modern historians leave God out of their account; but the assumption that God is not involved in history is as much an ideological position as the assumption that he is”.
Tom Holland said that a historian needs to guard against a rigid search for what they consider to be ‘true’. He said, “There were periods of mythic history such as the Trojan War and King Arthur that I desperately wanted to be true, but the more I read I realised I was asking the wrong questions. These narratives were fascinating for what they said about the people who fashioned them, and their potency conveys a truth that transcends whether or not King Arthur or Helen of Troy existed.
“Instead of the temptation to sift for flecks of reality, we need to get into the writer’s mind set, to understand their understanding of reality, not to try and reveal, by our exacting documentary standards, what actually happened. The fascination of historical study is discovering the multiplicity of ways in which the world is and has been seen and understood.”
Bishop Nick agreed that the understanding of context was crucial and recalled a New Testament professor telling him that to really understand St Paul (and the thought world he was addressing) you need to read Cicero’s ‘On The Nature of the Gods’.
Tom Holland also said the fact that Islam is now beginning to undergo the sort of historical scrutiny that Christianity has undergone, shows how Islam is being normalised. “Unlike in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars are now interested in Islam and its origins.” And in response to a question about Islamophobia, he said it was Islamophobic not to want to investigate and understand the origins of Islam.
The panel was also asked about the need for religious teaching in schools. Tom Holland said that sometimes the way that comparative religions are taught rids them of life for students - "it's akin to pinning the butterflies of the various species of faith to a board", and Bishop Nick said, “Faith can’t be taught as a commodity or an object, it needs to be inhabited”.
Abdul-Rehman Malik, who has taught history in Canada, said he had been criticised for teaching Hinduism as if he believed it - betraying his Muslim faith - but he felt proud to have been mistaken for a believer in wanting to get inside and respect the experience of the other’s faith.
Tom Holland also argued that Christianity should have privileged position in RE because it is crucial to the understanding of so much literature, history and art.
The Bradford Literature Festival continues until 29 May.