Fifth Annual Notre Dame/U Chicago Joint Graduate Student Conference: The Use and Abuse of History for Theology and Ethics: Mining the Past for Present Norms

Location: Swift Hall, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Confirmed Speakers

Prof. Willi Goetschel (University of Toronto)
Prof. Tisha Rajendra (Loyola University of Chicago)
Prof. Susan Schreiner (University of Chicago)

Conference Rationale

In grounding normative statements, we often – some would say, we must – refer to the past. This is especially the case in theological discourse, which paradigmatically grounds itself in some revelation of the divine within time that is then historically mediated through a tradition (more often, competing traditions); these privileged histories norm subsequent discourse about the divine, inevitably with implicit or explicit corollaries for human conduct. But the same is true in many cases of non-theological norms: law courts ground their decisions in historical documents, such as statutes and case law; political theorists and economists make prescriptive recommendations on the basis of past successes and failures; critical race theorists derive ethical conclusions from historical narratives documenting the integral connection between past and present injustices; doctors prescribe remedies on the basis of both the patient’s history and their own experience; and environmental scientists make recommendations to Congress on the basis of historical climate patterns documented in Antarctic ice. In short, the ethical question 'What should we do?' is never far removed the historical question, 'What happened?'

This conference seeks to address the necessity and fragility of historical grounds for theological and ethical norms. How can we responsibly engage historical texts or voices without allowing our ethical commitments to distort that history? How can we at the same time ensure that our historical research meets our ethical standards and is conscientious of the uses and abuses to which it might be put? What sorts of historical criteria ought we appeal to in formulating ethical principles or in crafting speech about the divine? To what extent does or ought our own historical context determine those norms? What are some historical instances in which actors have appealed to history, with good or bad results? What are some changes which shaped the remembrance of historical events as they in turn became divinized by theology, and how did these shifts charge the past as constitutive of norms in the present?

Further information

For further information, contact the Lumen Christi Institute.

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