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The paradigmatic value of “microhistories” in European Adventism – Ecclesiological Holzwege IV

European Adventism is numerically very small. In the Inter-European Division (EUD), based in Bern, Switzerland, there are 180,000 Adventists for 340 million people. In the Trans-European-Division (TED), based in Hertfordshire, near London, England, there are even fewer Adventists: 87,000 Adventists out of 205 million people. If we take, as an example, the case of only two nations, Italy and France, we perceive the numerical fragility of European Adventism. In France there are 11,000 Adventists for 68 million inhabitants. In Italy there are 9,000 Adventists for more than 60 million inhabitants, and without any educational or medical-health institutions. The only educational institution in Italy is the theological faculty in Florence.

Added to this fact is another important one. European Adventism is quite divided linguistically and culturally. So not only is the total number of members small, but that small number is further fragmented into various linguistic and cultural realities that interact relatively little and poorly. For a total population of less than 160-170 theology students across the division (EUD), we have 7 schools of theologies, and a unique situation in the world, two division schools: Collonges, France and Friedensau, Germany. For such a small universe of students, this entails a significant financial burden.

Yet, even this seemingly negative fact embodies a view of life and history that distinguishes European culture, and consequently European Adventism. This is the valorization (increase in value) of local areas, with a focus on small communities and “little stories” (“microstories”).

At a cultural level, this attention to “small local realities” is manifested, for example, in a movement of historical thought. Born in Italy in the 1970s and bearing the name “Microhistory,” its best-known representative is historian Carlo Ginzburg, who has been professor at the “scuola normale” in Pisa, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and UCLA. Prof. Ginzburg presented his book “The Thread and the Traces” in 2015 at the Adventist University of Theology in Florence[1].

In the face of great systems of analysis and interpretation of history, such as the Marxist or structural-functionalist readings, which stop to consider the great trends and orientations, Carlo Ginzburg and his school of thought pause to instead consider very circumscribed geographical areas. This provides opportunity to offer a meticulous and analytical reconstruction of the history of small local communities. It looks at their events, characters, and mental attitudes that inevitably are lost in large-scale history, or by general categories (state, social orders, economic systems, etc.) and conventional periodizations (Medieval, Modern and Contemporary Ages). The major contributions made by this line of research (for which the proposal of an autonomous historiographical genre has been put forward), are the ability to grasp elements of continuity and change hidden behind traditional social patterns. It can also introduce new sources and methods offered, on the one hand by the everyday, the small details of minor biographies, and on the other hand by the dimensions of behaviors, strategies, memory, beliefs, fears and collective doubts.

“Microscopic” observation, conducted with a particular procedure, shows things that from a distance and with standard methodologies, could not be seen happening. Consider five of these categories that “microhistory” enhances:

1) The relevance of the particular and the individual

Microhistory lets the particular, the individual, be the object of its own research. This is because the individual embodies the anomalous fact, the emergence, the exception, the cultural and historical asymmetry, that has enormous value in bringing us back to concrete reality as it happens in human experience. The possibility of grasping individual perspectives, however, does not lead to skepticism. That is abhorred by microhistorians. Instead, every social, cultural, and economic configuration is the result of the interaction of countless individual strategies. At a religious level this is manifested through the obligatory listening, of and to, singular individualities. The system cannot disregard the relevance of the particular, with its voice and needs, even as individuals speak their particular views on the global doctrinal orientation of a church.

2) The constraint of diverse contexts

The focus on the particular and the individual naturally gives rise to heterogeneous contexts. Each of these can be traced back to the various individual identities. However, this is not the main phenomenon. What marks the existence of the differentiated contexts is the convergence of these various contexts in the individual identities. Everyone is composite and plural. An identity does not belong to, and exhaust its profile, in connection to a single context. Differentiated contexts are also a reflection of a varied and diverse identity. It is as if everyone lives from multiple belongings. Each historical actor is thus inscribed in contexts of different dimensions and levels, from the religious to the secular, from the national to that of its immediate territory. There is therefore no opposition between local and global history. At the religious level this manifests itself in multiple belongings. One is not solely a member of a particular church. One simultaneously belongs to different instances, and cultural and social groups, with which religious belonging must be able to and know how to negotiate.

3) The value of paradoxes

Microhistory is wary of the usual uses of seriality, which take into account only comparable homogeneities. Instead, it uses anomalies (traces, clues) to shed light on otherwise conformity-based, and therefore opaque, documentary series. Through the “normal exceptional,” the inconsistencies of reality and normative systems emerge. Then, within this context, the strategic paths of historical actors are constructed. Their creativity, ability to manipulate, to bargain, is thus highlighted, not the mere responsiveness and obedience to the context, as functionalism had instead suggested. At the religious level, this implies the discomfort of believers with theological and ecclesiastical models, which are excessively monolithic and compact, precisely because they do not take into account the irregularity and exceptions in the life of faith.

4) The need for reasonable strategies

However, the concept of strategy, as used by microhistory, is very different from that associated with optimizing rationality. For microhistory, strategies are options within possibilities, driven by feelings, beliefs, and motivations. They have in themselves the characters of the project. The processual and generative character of historical contexts, are constructed by interweaving partial visions, limited rationalities, provisional transactions, conflicts, and negotiations. These would normally be read, from a functionalist perspective, only on the basis of their conclusive outcomes. So too, the analysis of the social categories (classes, corporations, the market, kinship) cannot be posited by adhering uncritically to one of their final representations, but must be reformulated and complicated by following the process of their construction. At a religious level this implies that faith and ethics match, in a tensional way, consistent with flexibility, and conviction with reasonableness.

5) The value of incompleteness, partiality, and distortions

Therefore, any kind of historical narrative, according to microhistory, is necessarily incomplete and partial. It finds gaps and distortions of documentation that become part of the narrative. Micro-historical construction, however, is not incompatible with proof, and with the reality principle. Every narrative is like a map that then has to be compared with the territory. As a map it will have gaps and inaccuracies that will gradually be corrected by this very comparison with the real territory. At a religious level this means that in the believer there arises an awareness that the medium (church, institution, Bible) must never become an end in itself, that the medium is not absolute but relative (relational), and that it retains its worth only in honest comparison with the territory of life and history.

All of these five characteristics used by Carlo Ginzburg to construct “microhistories” are actually not created by him, but he takes them from European culture. This is a culture that is attentive to the particular, and by virtue of this, distrusts monolithic, compact, totalizing and excessively pragmatic and functional systems. Europe has had to learn this fact from his own history, with extreme pain.

Consequently, European Adventism, conditioned and shaped positively by this sensitivity to the particular and this focus on the exception, looks sometimes with surprise, sometimes with bewilderment, at the compact militancy of “mainline” Adventism. This “mainline” approach instead makes “universal” the reference category of its theology, its eschatology, and even its administration. In fact, the “one rule for all” formula is as deterrent and alienating as the opposing “each with his own rule” formula.  This is what Seyla Benhabib means, in her analysis of the work of three European thinkers,—Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno—when she says that public and social administration, is always arduous and demanding work, precisely because one cannot proceed by standard measures in the face of human groups, secular or religious, because of what she calls “The Elusiveness of the Particular” is articulated in them.[2] There is thus always an excess of the particular over rules, of life over regulations, of persons over doctrines and ecclesiastical programs.

[1] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces. True, False, Fictive, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012)

[2] Seyla Benhabib, “The Elusiveness of the Particular: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno,” in, Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration, Playing Chess with History from Hannach Arendt to Isaiah Berlin, (Princeton: Princeton university Press 2018), pp. 34-60.

Part one of this series, “Ecclesiological Holzwege,” is here: “ Is these a European Adventism?

Part two of this series, “Ecclesiological Holzwege,” is here: ”The Unbearable Lightness of European Adventism

Part three of this series, “Ecclesiological Holzwege,” is here: “European Adventism: a ‘Reasonable Adventism’”

Title image: George Bakos on Unsplash

About the author

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy. More from Hanz Gutierrez.
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