ON THINKING CHRISTIANLY ABOUT THE PAST–Part II

I am a Christian and a historian, and I began this blog out of a desire to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think “Christianly” about history.  I do this partly out of a sense of burden for the church, but also in part from self-interest.  Writing is how I think through things, and I freely confess that I am still trying to figure out what it means to think Christianly as we contemplate the past.

The adverb Christianly seems to be everywhere these days, and I am beginning to wonder whether it’s one of those words that we find useful without being able to define precisely.  I first came across it in a work that is little read these days, Harry Blamires’ 1963 book The Christian Mind.  Blamires, a student of C. S. Lewis, lamented a half-century ago that Christians had effectively succumbed to secularization.  The book is a clarion call to the church, calling us to regain a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.”  I’ve never been entirely confident that I understand what this calls us to, practically and specifically, but the book made an impression on me nonetheless.

There were two main take-away points for me.  First, I was struck by Blamires’ haunting allusion to “the loneliness of the thinking Christian,” and I was persuaded by his contention that the one who strives to think Christianly must expect opposition not only from unbelievers but from other Christians as well.  Second, I finished the book convinced that if my vocation was truly to be a Christian educator–a follower of Jesus called to pursue the life of the mind and facilitate the same for others–then thinking Christianly lay at the heart of that calling.  Figuring out what it meant to think Christianly might be a life-long quest, but it wasn’t optional.

This will explain why, as I walked the field of Gettysburg last month, one of the questions that I wrestled with is what it might mean to think Christianly about what happened there.  At this point, my understanding of what it means to think Christianly about history rests on a few key premises.  (I’m still working through how they all fit together.)  First, following the author of the proverbs, surely central to the practice is a desire for wisdom.  “Get wisdom,” Proverbs 4:7 exhorts us matter-of-factly.  “Wisdom is the principal thing.”

But the Biblical concept of wisdom is far more than the head knowledge of the Greek philosopher; it changes not only our thought but also our behavior.  It is knowledge that is transformative, life-changing.  This is why I am also convinced that thinking Christianly necessarily involves the heart.  In some way, it is a discipline that teaches us more clearly and convicts more deeply of who we are and of who God is.

Finally, when we engage in thinking Christianly, I think we should expect to see at least three results: It should bear fruit in reverence and awe, as we see God more clearly.  It should evoke greater  humility, as we see ourselves more clearly.  And because God blesses us that we might bless others in turn, it should enhance both our desire and our capacity to love others.

“This is all well and good,” I can hear you thinking.  “But what does this mean concretely?”  Good question.  I’m not sure.  But here is what I think.  Somehow, someway, when we study history, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.  We need to let the historical figures that we encounter ask us hard questions, put our lives to the test.

In sum, thinking Christianly about history may involve many things, but I think a salient feature is a scrutiny of the past that prompts scrutiny of the heart.

In my next post we’ll return to Gettysburg.

6 responses to “ON THINKING CHRISTIANLY ABOUT THE PAST–Part II

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  2. I have read history since early elementary school (I’m 63) and being from MD – VA with a mother from IL I’ve read countless volumes of Civil War history and walked numerous battlefields. I now regret much of the military history I’ve read for a number of reasons, one is that there is much else I haven’t read; I am now in a season of life where the carnage of the Civil War (and other wars) makes it difficult to read even well-written volumes. When I come to the Civil War I cannot help but look back to the Founding Fathers, many of whom were professing Christians, what did they expect to happen? Also when I come to the Civil War I have the same question for Christians in the South as I do for the Colonists of the Revolution, “What Biblical justification is there for rebellion?”

    I no longer see glory in war – too much of my life I have believed the illusion of glory in war. Acts of heroism? Yes. But I can find that in many places. It is complicated.

    My great-grandfather was captured during Picket’s Charge, he was with the 11th VA Inf., I am a direct descendant of Patrick Henry, and I volunteered for the Army when we were in Vietnam. History teaches us that there are those who go against the grain, against popular pressure, who transcend the moment and touch eternity – I’m learning late in life that one can be patriotic without going with the flow – I have questions I’d like to ask my ancestors as I ponder the Biblical text. I was raised to think being an American and being a Christian were synonymous – I was ill informed.

  3. Tracy, have you read Parker J. Palmer’s _To Know as We Are Known_? Some of his points — about truth and troth, and education as creating a space for the obedience to truth — remind me of where you’re going here.

    • Tom: Great to hear from you. Actually, I have been much influenced by Palmer. I read To Know as We Are Known maybe 20 years ago, and although I pushed back against much of Palmer’s argument at the time, I have gradually come to agree more and more with him. Tracy

  4. Amen to John Woolman (students and I have to wrestle with the last 3rd of his journal this Tu. morning). As to wisdom, two comments:

    1. The wisdom literature of the OT indicates quite a range for wisdom to work: Ecclesiastes and Job are two of the Wisdom books which I find myself referring to quite a bit as I wrestle with the past.
    2. As I Cor. 1:18-25 points out, Christ is God’s Wisdom. And Christ turns things topsy-turvy: The first shall be last, and the last first.

  5. I don’t believe God ever intended our hearts to be disconnected from our brains nor for both to be disconnected from our will. I am reminded of the Quaker, John Woolman, who saw that human slavery (black slavery) was an abomination to God. He reasoned in his heart that he should never in any way benefit from that institution and, while he was powerless to destroy it, he would do nothing to advance it either. His life was a principled life of constant protest against slavery that must have been quite a challenge to people around him who may have shared his dislike of slavery but failed to turn that dislike into action.

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