Thanks to those of you who responded to my question last week about whether it would be helpful to reserve Mondays for lightly edited letters from undergraduate and graduate students. I’ve decided to do so. This young woman wrote to my alter ego Theophilus at the height of the Da Vinci Code craziness, but the problem she describes is still very much alive.
Actual Query: I'm a senior at a secular state university, and as I've advanced in my coursework, I've come to know my fellow students more closely. I have learned how to defend my Christian faith on many points, but one point continues to stump me.
Most of my fellow students accept without a shadow of a doubt the saying "history is nothing more than a lie agreed upon." They think that no accurate historical account has ever existed or could ever exist, because history is "only written by the winners." In their view, the only history that matters is each person's subjective experiences.
This view stymies me any time I try to discuss things like the events of Jesus' life. How can I logically and reasonably defend the fact that some history can be known with confidence? How can I make Christian scripture seem relevant to those who see all historical documents as biased texts written by "the winners"?
Your problem with your classmates is ridiculously easy in one way, but terribly difficult in another. Let's take the easy way first. Their proposition is that no historical claim has ever been accurate, and that no historical claim can ever be made with reasonable confidence. But wait! To say something about what has or hasn't "ever been" is to make a historical claim. So their own claim is historical too! Now if it's true that no historical claim has ever been accurate, then their claim that no historical claim has ever been accurate is inaccurate too. But in that case some historical claims may be accurate, which means that their view is wrong. Their opinion is self-refuting.
Here's another way to refute it. Their reason for thinking that no historical account can ever be trusted is that "history is written by the winners," and winners can never be trusted. But if it's true that the majority of the students at your school accept this view, then for the time being, they are the winners there. Their own premises prove that they can't be trusted. Who's left? Well, people like you, who say that reasonable confidence can be placed in some historical claims.
Still another way to demonstrate the absurdity of their position is to show that they don't believe it themselves. If they did, they would never place confidence in any historical account whatsoever. But they do. How do we know that? Because, as you said, they do place confidence in their own subjective accounts of the things that have happened. According to them, no other histories "matter," but these histories do. This is a good time to ask them what that means. When they say that their subjective histories "matter," do they mean that these histories can be reasonably accepted as true? If they answer "No," then they're claiming that it's reasonable to act on premises that it isn't reasonable to believe. That doesn't make sense. But if they answer "Yes," then they are admitting that we can place reasonable confidence in some historical claims after all.
The final way to undercut their position is more constructive. A lot of history really is unreliable, and we might as well admit it. But how did we find out that it was unreliable? We found out by examining the historical evidence. But if that's what we did, then not all historical reasoning is worthless after all. One has to proceed with caution, of course, scrutinizing the evidence and keeping a lookout for distortions, but that's not the same as utter skepticism. The moral of the story isn't that history is impossible, but that history is difficult. That shouldn't surprise us, because everything worthwhile is difficult. Patience is difficult, love is difficult, plumbing is difficult -- they all require sweat.
The same goes for talking with your classmates. The arguments I've offered may seem pretty obvious, but as I said at the beginning, your problem is easy in one way, but fiendishly hard in another. Since the view that reality can't be known refutes itself, no one can swallow it just by making a mistake; anyone sharp enough to understand it is sharp enough to see through it too. But this implies that anyone who does swallow it must very badly want to swallow it. Now ask yourself: What sort of motive could be strong enough to make someone want to shut out the claims of reality? I know of only two: Suffering so extreme that it produces insanity, and sin so impenitent that it produces insane ideologies. You're not just dealing with an intellectual problem, my dear. You're dealing with a spiritual one. So reason, reason, reason with your friends -- but pray, pray, pray for them as well.
One last thing. (Why am I always saying "one last thing"?) I'm glad that you want to evangelize, but I hope that isn't your only reason for defending the knowability of the past. All truth belongs to God; it's worth knowing for that reason alone.