MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART I

The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience.  As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well.  History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that.  Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before.  It alters the way we think.  It challenges our hearts.  It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan.  We shouldn’t settle for less.  Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26).  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher.  Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.”  We must seek them persistently, insistently.  Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past.  This summer I have been re-reading the “God’s Plan for America” series by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel (The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet).  I have lost track of the number of times that they claim God’s supernatural intervention in their historical research: “The Holy Spirit gave us insight after insight . . .”; “The Holy Spirit reminded us that . . .”; “thus did the Lord bring to our attention . . . “; “the Holy Spirit went on to show us why . . .” etc.

I do not question their sincerity.  But note that Marshall and Manuel are not just saying that God blessed their research by sharpening their minds.  In his prayer “Ante Stadium” (“Before Study”), the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas regularly asked God to grant him, among other things, “keenness of mind” and “skill in learning.”  The Christian historians I know would all readily echo that prayer and long for the Lord to grant it.  Marshall and Manuel go much farther, however.

Repeatedly, they identify particular moments when God supernaturally intervened to direct them to just the right source at just the right time , in the process leading them to a more accurate understanding of American history.  I don’t doubt for an instant that God could do this if it pleased Him, but I find no scriptural basis to expect this sort of revelation.  When such insight comes, if it comes, it is a form of special revelation, and those who receive it are really exercising a prophetic role.  This is why books like The Light and the Glory are not really historical at all–they are works of prophesy.

While I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us, the Bible is clear that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).  So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts.  Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present.  Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom.  As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word.  That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg.  They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind.  You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions.  For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring.  As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago.  I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that).  As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event.  The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference.  For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we?  The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church.  We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more.  It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule.  And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small.  That’s a good thing.  If an integral component  of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them.  I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there.  That’s not a message we care to hear.  We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it.  “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.”  The difference between the past and history, then, “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 is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg.  Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge.  As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses.  We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective.  We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back.  (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”)  We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge.  (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent.  As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems.  Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward.  Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope.  Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience.  In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews.  To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals.  As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know?  The author of Proverbs  provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).  It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth.  From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and  unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance.  Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.”  Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.

5 responses to “MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART I

  1. Uncertainty in any historical or other scenario is a critical fact that all need to realize(e.g. what were the causes of the recent Great Recession) which is contested by both economists, other academics, and various polemicists on all part of the macro political spectrum. We also as Christians need to remember the reality of our fallen natures and finite minds when reviewing any matter.
    This is a very good post.

  2. How refreshing it would be for a history teacher in a public school to confess to his/her class that they really know next to nothing about the history they teach. We are so used to being “the font of all knowledge” that we overplay out hand badly. Here is the basis for student inquiry – let’s together try and find out all that we can about this event knowing that even our wildest success only brings us marginally closer to a realistic knowledge of “the past.” Why is it that humility is not usually the lesson learned in history class?

  3. This was a wonderful, even beautiful, post, Tracy. Your students are blessed. I feel the same way when I go to a battlefield or other important historical place: close to the participants, but also distant. I’ve been to many places, but Gettysburg does something to me each time I go. So much to reflect on. Again, marvelous writing.

  4. Dear “clisawork”:
    Thank you for your comment. I may have expressed myself poorly, and it may be also that you have helped me to see a serious omission or blind spot in my thinking. At the same time, I think you have read too much into my post. I never indicated that I was providing an exhaustive list of possible motives for studying the past, nor did I say that studying the past for its own sake or to get what we want is necessarily sinful. Indeed, I never used the word “sin” at all. I think you quickly (and incorrectly) concluded that I was condemning all other motives but the desire to understand God and ourselves more fully. I was not.
    Indeed, I suspect that we agree on a great deal. I fully concur that one of the reasons we should study the past is to understand the present more clearly. I can also wholly endorse your desire to uncover the stories of people who have “lived and died and suffered,” inasmuch as giving voice to the voiceless can be an expression of love for neighbor. I did make a strong claim that our engagement with the past is incomplete as long as it leaves the heart unchanged.
    Where we will have to agree to disagree is in your implication that part of the function of the historian is to “bring those who committed horrible crime in the past to justice.” I am far from convinced that this is the proper purview of the historian. As a teacher, I’ve found that moral pronouncements too often become a substitute for serious thought; rather than facilitate understanding, they get in the way of it. As a Christian, I am doubtful that moral judgment of the past does much good unless our study also leads us to the conclusion that WE could easily have committed the crimes from the past that we condemn. This is what I mean by historical study that exposes the heart.
    Thanks again for your challenging response.–Tracy McKenzie

  5. ” So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts. Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present. Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.” I appreciate your wisdom, your obvious years of study so I want to tread lightly. I think you have missed something with this – what about studying history to understand the present, to not repeat the past, to bring those who committed horrible crime in the past to justice? Is that “getting what we want”? You make that sound like a sin. Those are not sinful reasons to want to study the past. Watch the movie “The Act of Killing” a documentary that just came out. You will hate it it. It is history and it needs to be told for the people that lived it. If history happens and no one tells it, then it becomes meaningless to those who continue living. God wants us to know the history of those who suffered as surely as he wants us to reach out a hand and pick them up. That’s not revelation, that’s a gut feeling, a human emotion and not a sin either. I’m not trying to “get what I want” out of history, I’m trying to become to person God intended to me to be. History happens to those who are not Christian and surely as it happens to those who are Christian. History is not simply to edify your relationship with Christ – it is about the people who lived and died and suffered and felt joy and were lost and were found and if you boil it down to simply edifying your relationship to Christ you do a disservice to all of humanity. I’ve written in anger and will regret this but your words sent discord through my whole being.

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