One of the challenges that we face in trying to think clearly about history lies in the inexact meaning of the word itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, history has at least twelve distinct meanings. Many of the listed usages are rare today, but a few are still common. Our tendency to use them interchangeably can get us into trouble.
Setting aside the revealing usage when we say that someone or something is “history,” i.e., utterly irrelevant to the present, there are two different phenomena we commonly have in mind when we refer to history. We are probably either thinking of (1) everything that has happened until now, or (2) what is known and taught about everything that has happened until now. These are not the same things, and the difference is not trivial.
To help my students differentiate these concepts, I encourage them to speak of all that has happened until now as “the past,” and to reserve the term history for our efforts to make sense of the past. (I like the wording of the Christian historian John Lukacs, who refers to history as “the remembered past.”) The first and single most important step to thinking historically is coming to grips with this fundamental distinction between history and the past.
Here I find C. S. Lewis to be a valuable ally. In my last post, I quoted from Lewis to make a case for the importance of studying the past. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis reminds us that we cannot understand ourselves by ourselves. If we want to think deeply, clearly, wisely about our own day, we must cast off the “chronological snobbery” of our present-tense age and strive “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
In another of his lesser known essays, “Historicism,” Lewis does a similarly masterful job of conveying this most basic distinction between history and the past. Midway through the essay, Lewis begins with this indisputable assertion:
Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled. He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore. A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived.
Lewis would have us understand that we use terms like “the past” far too lightly, never really stopping to realize what the term actually encompasses. Having concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend, he goes on to define “the past” in terms of a most memorable metaphor:
The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours. We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not time. The new moments are upon us. At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion.
What a marvelous word picture! By inviting us to picture ourselves near the base of an enormous, deafening waterfall (or “cataract”), Lewis offers us a way imaginatively to grasp the nearly limitless scope of the past. As you read his words, imagine yourself standing by the water’s edge with your arm extended, a Dixie cup in your hand. If the rushing wall of water hurtling by represents the past, the drops that you capture in your paper cup would be analogous to history. They’re not the same, are they? And the difference, as Lewis trenchantly observed, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”
This distinction between history and the past has numerous implications for thinking historically. We can delve into those at another time. For now, I want to stress how the distinction is critical to our ability to think Christianly about our efforts to understand the past. “As a man thinks, so he is,” the Psalmist wrote. It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but I think there is more than a grain of truth to the generalization.
I have come to believe that all authentically Christian education—whether in history or any other discipline—should promote the related qualities of humility and reverence. Regrettably, the way that history is most commonly taught—a set of discrete facts to be mastered—fosters intellectual arrogance by reinforcing our tendency to think more highly than we ought about our capacity to know. As Lewis’s metaphor helps us to see, the sum of all that humans have said and done and thought in the past is almost infinitely vast, and only a miniscule fraction of this immense expanse can be glimpsed in the flawed historical records that survive. Remembering this should surely humble us. As Lewis puts it, “when once we have realized what ‘the past as it really was’ means, we must freely admit that most” of the past “is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us.”
On the other hand, when we recall that there is One, the Architect and Lord of history, who comprehends the incalculable expanse of the past perfectly and exhaustively, our natural response should be one of reverence and awe. With the psalmist we drop to our knees and declare, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6). If we desire to think Christianly about history, nothing will promote that goal more than keeping in mind the distinction between history and the past. For the Christian student of history, no truth more powerfully promotes a dual appreciation of human limitation and divine power.