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The Ethical Implications of Writing History

Thomas Whitley

I've just finished reading Karen King's What is Gnosticism? It is a thorough work that systematically shows how the category of "Gnosticism" is bankrupt and how modern histories of "Gnosticism" have done the work of reinscribing notions of "orthodoxy" and "heresy." There are, as King makes very clear, implications to the work that we as historians do. First, though, she reminds us of the political nature of writing history (i.e. that which makes the ethical necessary):

In short, the enterprises of academic analysis are thoroughly involved in politics, whether acknowledged or not. Insofar as academics and religious adherents alike claim the right to say how the world is, enterprises designed to defend those claims are as much involved in politics as are those designed to contest them.

Thus "ethical, self-reflexive critique ought to be a necessary part of all historical writing." There are implications to our work and our writing and, as such, we have the responsibility to be accountable, ethically, for it. King explains as much in a passage worth quoting at length.

In writing history, we construct not just the past but our own ethical, social, and political relationship to it. Our own ethical practice is at stake in that we unwittingly may be reproducing elements we consciously abhor - such as Christian anti-Judaism or colonialist and racist relations of power. I say "unwittingly" because the notions of habitus and doxa fully imply the limits of consciousness and intentionality. It is precisely because of such limits that we must no think it is always "safe" to internalize and appropriate religious traditions; rather, we must explore critically their past and potential implications in violence as well as liberation, in injustice as well as justice. Critical practice necessarily involves accountability; it involves asking to whom one is accountable. Whom do historical reconstructions and theological beliefs and practice serve? Whom do they exclude or harm?

History itself (the practice of it and the writing of it) - not to mention that which has been done in the various names of "God" and "religion" - has done enough violence to its subjects and does a fine job marginalizing voices. It is our job as critically engaged scholars to "insist on the ethical dimension of the pursuit of truth," as King says. Further, especially in the case of ancient Christianity, we must be careful not to reinscribe the categories and accusations of one's opponents (i.e. labeling something as "heresy" or someone as a "heretic" simply because they do not line up with some constructed notion of "orthodoxy" or because someone called them such). Not only is that academically suspect, but it does harm to that which we study and further aids in allowing such discourses to persist today, both within the academy and without.