The Creative Historian: The Role of Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder

The following is the text of  a talk I delivered at the June 2016 conference of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past? Continue reading


An Aristocrat Who Stood for Labor: Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler

What follows comes from my book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For more information on this book, please visit the site of the Catholic Textbook Project.


Clemens August von Droste-Vischering

It was silent night, November 20, 1837. By order of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, troops surrounded the archiepiscopal palace in Köln, on the lower Rhine in Germany. Escorted by police, the governor of the province entered the palace and arrested the 64-year-old archbishop, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering. After being taken from his diocese, the archbishop was imprisoned at the fortress of Minden, about 147 miles northeast of Köln. Such was the price Clemens August had to pay for defending the rights of the Church against the Prussian government.

Archbishop Droste-Vischering had insisted that children of mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants) had to be raised Catholic. The Prussians, who had taken control of the very Catholic Rhineland in 1815, insisted that in such marriages some children had to be raised Catholic and others, Protestant. This had been the custom in Prussia. The Catholic Church in the Rhineland, said the Prussians, also had to go along with this custom. But, no matter how long-standing the custom was, it violated the law of the Catholic Church—and in a contest between the king and the Church, Archbishop Droste-Vischering knew whom he had to obey.

The imprisonment of Archbishop Droste-Vischering was an inspiration to many German Catholics. It even influenced one young nobleman to change his career plans. The 26-year-old Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler had been preparing to enter the service of the Prussian government; but with the archbishop’s arrest and imprisonment, Ketteler decided he could not serve a government that committed such injustices. Instead, he ended up studying theology; and in 1844, he was ordained a priest.

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The Missionary Council — What Vatican II Was About


The following article, which I wrote a few years ago, was first published in New Oxford Review

Many are the opinions about the Second Vatican Council and its effects on the Church – some Catholics praising them and others deploring them. But, while many have discussed and debated what the council did, few seem to take interest in what the council said, and what it intended to accomplish.

Council Fathers

It is generally thought that the council set out to “update” the Church – and this is true, but not in the crude sense it which it sometimes is taken. The intent of the Second Vatican Council was to outfit the Church so that she could better promote and cultivate communion – a more intense communion among the members of Christ’s body, the Church, and between the Church and the world. In seeking communion with the world, the council called for some accommodation on the part of the Church, but not to confound the Church with the world; rather, the council wanted to better equip the Church to draw the world to herself, and through herself, to Christ. The council had an essentially missionary, evangelical thrust. Its inspiration was the Great Commission, not the craven and abject spirit of capitulation.

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Pope Gregory XVI: A 19th Century Environmentalist

Well, I’ll admit that the title of this essay is not just a little inaccurate – if we take “environmentalist” in the narrow sense we understand it today. But if we understand “environment” more broadly – as those conditions that surround us and influence us – then, I think, calling Pope Gregory XVI an “environmentalist” is not too far off the mark.

Gregory XVI.jpg

Pope Gregory XVI

Indeed, Gregory took the “environment” of his day very seriously; some might say, too seriously. One might think, in fact, that he fit well the stereotype of the modern environmentalist – that he lacked balance and perspective, confusing the essential with what is merely external and contingent. For, he vehemently opposed republican government and would accept no lay participation in the government of his Papal States. His 1832 encyclical, Mirari Vos condemned liberty of conscience and the freedom to publish any and all opinions. He stood resolutely against every revolution in his time – even the rebellion of the Catholic Poles against their persecutor, the Orthodox tsar of Russia. Why, Gregory XVI was so reactionary that he even forbade the building of a railroad and the installing of gas lights in the the Papal States! He despised railroads. He called them chemins d’enfer (“roads to hell”) – a pun on the French chemin de fer, “iron road.” (This, of course, suggests that Gregory had a sense of humor, which he did. Those close to him knew him to be jovial, friendly, and a lover of good conversation – thus demonstrating that even reactionaries can be fun.) Continue reading


The Supreme Court and Laudato Si’

When I first learned of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down statutes forbidding same-sex marriage, I felt neither surprise nor dismay. No surprise, for it was just what I had expected. No dismay, for I did not expect anything other from our society, or its government.

I did feel annoyed, however – for, like a vamp coming late to a party, the Supreme Court has drawn all eyes from the one who had been the belle of the ball: Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si’.

Yet, it is fitting, in a way, that the Supreme Court’s decision should so closely follow the pope’s encyclical, for the former brings into focus the major theme of the latter. That theme is not the threat of climate change, whatever those who want either to dismiss the encyclical or coöpt it say. A major – if not the major – theme of Laudato Si’ is that, both in the moral order and the natural order, everything is connected. How we treat the “environment” is how we will treat ourselves, and how we treat ourselves is how we will treat the natural world outside ourselves.

This point may not seem immediately obvious. After all, an industrialist who pours sludge into a river is not going to mix it into his coffee. And people will take the most assiduous care of their pets even while they ruin their constitutions with unhealthy eating. Everyone probably knows someone who lives with such contradictions in their souls – but this is merely to point out that human beings tend to be self-divided in a profound inconsistency between ideals and actions – or, even, between one ideal and another ideal.

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A Little Paganism for the Feast of St. John the Baptist….

I have long been fascinated by folk customs arising out Christian Europe — in part, because their origins often were not Christian, but pagan. The genius of evangelization (I think) was how the Faith could take pagan practices and incorporate them into a Christian ethos. Of course, all elements of pagan superstition were not expunged, for the process of Christianization of whole culture was never complete — how could it be?

An example of such a pagan remnant was the customs surrounding the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). The Church, it seems, placed the feast near the spring equinox, when the days reach the apogee of their lengthening. A most fitting moment for the one who said, of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In my novel, A Song for Else, I describe the protagonist’s memories of the bonfires ignited on the feast. Here is the excerpt from the book:

Lorenz took the bottle and moved just outside the firelight. He sat down on the cool ground. He drank. He could hear the students wrangling, but he paid them no heed. The wine that now warmed his body was withdrawing it from everything around him. He was there but not there, hovering as it were in a sphere of air that his spirit filled with its own life, forcing out all that was not its own.

       He cared nothing for what happened to Holzhaupt. Instead of the tawdry drama working itself out only a few feet from him, Lorenz found himself considering the fire. Its strength was declining; it was beginning to settle itself down in its coals. The orb of light about it was contracting. The fire was losing its battle against the night.

       It had only been a fortnight since Lorenz saw fires – far larger than this – burning on the hills that rose above Erfurt. It had been Sankt Johannes’ Eve. The Thuringian peasants danced about the fires, he knew, just as his own people did.

         The fire kindled memory. He recalled a Sankt Johannes’ Eve now, it seemed, so many years ago. Inge had placed a purple-flowered garland of verbena and mugwort about his neck; he recalled his delight in the sweet scented blossoms. She handed him a sprig of larkspur. “When you stand before the fire, look at it with this flower before your eyes. It will keep them from failing.” The verbena, he knew, would protect him from witches.

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Were Medieval Germans Secret Pagans?

Many years ago I read, in a history of the Holy Roman Empire (I think it was Friedrich Heer’s History of the Holy Roman Empire) a startling claim. The claim was that medieval Germans of Saxony had never abandoned paganism – and it was their fidelity to paganism that was the source of their infidelity to the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

According to Heer (if Heer it was), the conversion of the Saxons to the Christian Faith had never really taken. In the centuries after Charlemagne had made them pass through the waters, Saxon fathers had passed on to Saxon sons knowledge of where the ancient idols lay hidden, deep in the forest. Along with this lore, they had instilled in their boys a profound disdain for the Catholic Church, the religion they had been forced to embrace. So, when Luther came along, they were quite willing to cast off the old religion for the sake of the new.

Thus went the argument.

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The Humility, and Glory, of Water: Thoughts on the Baptism of Christ

“I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3.14)

Thus, John the Baptist, when Our Lord sought baptism from him. It is no wonder that John should shrink from this act; it so ill accorded with this man, whom John had proclaimed the one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” For John’s ministry had been toward sinners — a mere symbolic washing with water, an earnest of mercy and forgiveness. This One, however, would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

“I need to be baptized by you…”

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The Imperfection of Christ: the Role of the Church in the Fulfillment of Man and God-Man

 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:14, 16)

“…and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)

These verses confront us with mystery; or is it perhaps a contradiction? An absurdity? Paul says the Church is the fullness of him from whom John says we all receive grace. The Church is the fulfillment of him who is the fulfillment of all. How can this be?

We readily accept the idea of Christ as our fulfillment; Christ is the fullness from which we receive our fullness— our union through love and faith (and, one day, knowledge) with God. Yet, as Church teaching and Sacred Scripture attest, we we partake of the divine life through Christ, not as individuals but by incorporation, by baptism, into the Body of Christ, the Church (I Cor. 12:13). Jesus ChTree-of-Liferist, thus, is our fulfillment in and through the Church.

Nevertheless, how the Church serves as the instrument of human fulfillment in Christ is not, perhaps, readilly apparent. After all, is it not the individual intellect that perceives God through faith? Is it not the individual will that loves him? The Church may appear, then, as a temporary expedient, a mere instrument of the soul’s union with God, not a constituent aspect of it. Christ is our fulfillment; but how does the Church figure in this fulfillment?

And how is the Church, as Paul says, “the fullness of him who fills all in all”? The Church lives the divine life because she is joined to God through the instrumentality of Christ’s human nature. The Church receives her all from Christ; how, then, can Christ receive aught at all from the Church?

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Thoughts Conceived During a Long Walk through a California Oak Savannah after Reading Too Much Teilhard de Chardin

The following is not Teilhardian; I am not Teilhardian. Teilhard merely presented a challenge that stimulated a train of thoughts, and these took the form of the following propositions. I hope to develop them in more detail in the future. 

1. Genesis presents the creation of the cosmos as a process of unfolding, a moving from the less perfect to the more perfect, from the good to the very good.

2. The six days of creation suggest a temporal sequence, not an instantaneous creation.

3. The order in Genesis 1 reflects the natural order of priorty among creatures. Mere animals have all the perfections of vegetative life as well as sensistive life. Man has all the perfections of vegetative life and of sensitive life, but is endowed with reason. From Genesis (assuming a temporal sequence), we can say there was a time when the highest perfection of existent life was merely vegetative, then came a time when the perfection was sensitive, then followed the perfection of rationality. Even if the creation were instantaneous, vegetative life is still prior (as a prequesite) to the formation of animal life, and animal life prior to the formation of rational life.

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