May 16, 2022

critical assent

When I was in grad school the first time around—for European history, long before design ever entered my consciousness—one of my classes was held in the UCLA faculty club lounge, where the professor held court among six or eight of us around a big wooden table. His comments, fueled by multiple glasses of white wine, were minimal and sharp. We were properly afraid. But the fear didn’t stop us from frequently pulling a classic seminar move in a history class, which is to dodge the actual historical text in favor of the historiography — commenting on how the book was positioning itself in its time, and how, in turn, it might have been received by its audience. The week we tackled Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, our professor raised his voice for real and demanded: yes but what does he actually say??

Historiography is important. But the issues around a text help you avoid contending with the ideas in front of you: with ideas that you might have to let change you. To do that, you have to take on the vulnerability of the beginner, and no one in the grad seminar likes to imagine herself at the beginning. Seminar-itis shows up in these two main symptoms: one is wholesale criticizing the text for its pitfalls, the better to demonstrate one’s knowingness in spotting faults. And the other is the way we treated Strauss: as the maker of an artifact, which we could conveniently manage by historicizing, and therefore containing its threats to our intellectual equilibrium.

Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture just reissued some short podcasts on the future of theology, and I enjoyed this one with the late theology scholar Tyler Roberts. Roberts called for “critical assent” in his classroom, where he advocated for the worth of theology even as someone who professed no faith. Podcast host Matt Croasmun cites Hans-Georg Gadamer’s observation that “the text which is read historically is forced to abandon its claim to be saying something true,” and Roberts agrees, calling on students (and the rest of us) to spend the larger part of our brain power letting a text find its way into our understanding, to let ourselves be challenged, at least, by its claims. Critical assent is surely another version of Eve Sedgwick’s “reparative reading”—enjoining our inner skeptic, sure, but also making room for a kind of provisional “yes” that is the only way we grow. The very simplest form of critical assent might even be: I hadn’t thought of that before.

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