ON THINKING CHRISTIANLY ABOUT THE PAST

I apologize for being away for so long.  The beginning of the new school year is always frenzied, and it’s been hard to find time to rejoin our conversation.  Sorry about that.

In my last post, I had begun to share a series of reflections or meditations prompted by my trip to Gettysburg last month.  By way of introduction, I first tried to explain why I thought it was important to engage in such reflection.  (Don’t you hate it how academics take so long to get to the point?)  I shared my view that “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 understand both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and our sanctification.”  Toward that end, I suggested that we should strive to study history in a way that ultimately exposes our hearts.

One of the potential benefits of posting to a blog is receiving feedback from readers that helps to sharpen your thinking and how you express it.  That was the case with this latest post.  One comment in particular convinces me that I was not nearly as clear as I might have been.  Although I am not ready to agree with “clisawork” that my view “does a disservice to all of humanity,” her concerns are important enough that I want to interrupt my meditations on Gettysburg for this post and try to clarify what I had in mind.

As I understand her response, “clisawork” understood my post as arguing that the only legitimate objective for studying history is to understand both God and our own hearts more fully.  Any other motive is selfish, even sinful.  She rightly recoils against such a contention, and lists a variety of other motives for studying the past that are noble and generous.  I think she has read too much into my post–and rather uncharitably–but my wording was poor and she has definitely helped me to see that.

To begin with, I did not mean to imply that the three motives for studying history that I mentioned constituted an exhaustive list.  When “clisawork” alludes to the important role that history can play in helping us to make sense of the present, as well as avoid the mistakes of the past, I am right with her.  It is axiomatic with historians that the present is, in some sense, a product of the past, which means in turn that a knowledge of history can aid us immeasurably in understanding our own day.  I wholeheartedly concur.  (See my post “The Preciousness of the Past.”)  Similarly, I agree with “clisawork” that historians can play an important role in uncovering the stories of people who have “lived and died and suffered.” Giving voice to the voiceless can be an expression of love for neighbor, and history that broadens its focus beyond presidents and politicians and generals and celebrities can be effective in calling our attention back to “the least of these.”

Nor did I intend to disparage such objectives by placing them under the general heading of striving to “get what we want in the present.”   If I could step back and try again, here is how I would re-state things.  Please understand that I am speaking in very broad categories, and my goal is simply to give us some questions to ask ourselves about our own motives for studying the past:

To start with a sweeping generalization, I would contend that our motives for studying the past can be boiled down into two basic categories: we either seek knowledge that changes things or we seek knowledge for its own sake. Historians call the latter “antiquarianism.”  Antiquarians find the past fascinating, intriguing, or entertaining, but they don’t ask knowledge from the past to make a difference in the world.   Many of the Civil War “buffs” that I have met would fall into this category, to give one example.  These are the guys (and they are almost always male) who know Jefferson Davis’ middle name, the weight of the standard 1861 Springfield rifle, how many horses Nathan Bedford Forrest had shot from under him, and how many men were on the field on the afternoon of the second day at Gettysburg.  Let me be clear: I am not denigrating their interests, but I don’t think it is a stretch to liken this  approach to the past to a hobby, say stamp collecting or model building.  To the antiquarian, history is just a form of wholesome entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  There are certainly a lot worse ways to spend your time.

But what if we expect more from the past than entertainment?  What if we want it to “do work,” to change something, to somehow make a difference?  This is the second broad category of motives for studying history, and if you’ll allow me, I want to subdivide it further into two subcategories.  When we study the past in search of historical knowledge that changes something, we can either have in mind change outside ourselves–in the world around us–or change inside ourselves, in our very hearts.  These are not mutually exclusive–we could aspire to both–but my sense is that we almost never think of the latter.

So what would it look like to seek historical knowledge that might change the world around us? There are a range of possibilities.  In the worst case, such an approach might be self-interested and even manipulative.  I have previously written about the temptation we face to approach history merely as a source of ammunition, an arsenal of arguments that we can wield to persuade others to support our predetermined agendas.  At the opposite extreme, as “clisawork” pointed out, we might study the past with the most disinterested of motives, searching for clues about how to promote a more just world, bringing historical knowledge to bear  on behalf of the weak and marginalized.  Studying the past to understand the roots of racism or how best to combat discrimination might be one such example.

In between these extremes lie a host of pragmatic possibilities in which we honestly search the past for helpful insight.  One example would be the way that economists and government policymakers study history for clues about how to deal with economic fluctuations.  When the saving and loan industry took a dive in the early 2000s, for instance, experts reviewed earlier government responses in the 1930s and 1980s for evidence of what might work in the current crisis.

Another common example is from the field of foreign policy.  Historically, government policymakers have routinely looked to the past in determining the proper response to contemporary challenges.  Influenced by what was viewed as the futility of World War I, diplomats and statesmen responded meekly to aggression from Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1930s in the hope of avoiding a repetition of a costly and unnecessary war.  In the aftermath of WWII–and convinced that 1930s appeasement had been a disaster–American politicians called for a firm stand against Soviet aggression as the best way to preserve the peace.  And ever since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, policymakers and military strategists have sought to apply lessons from that conflict to avoid its repetition.

These approaches to the past have at least two things in common: 1) they view history as a storehouse of knowledge that can help us shape the world around us, and 2) in their focus on external results, they overlook the part that the study of history can play in promoting what one writer calls “inner work.”

Setting aside the history-as-ammunition approach, the approach to the past that emphasizes change outside of ourselves is not wrong in and of itself, but it is incomplete–badly incomplete, I would say.  If authentic education (as opposed to vocational training) changes who we are, then “education” that leaves the heart untouched is but a shadow of what it should be.

 

One response to “ON THINKING CHRISTIANLY ABOUT THE PAST

  1. Pingback: Tracy McKenzie on “Thinking Christianly about the Past” | The Pietist Schoolman

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