The Wheaton College chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society, had its induction of new members last week, and as its faculty sponsor I was invited ahead of time to speak at the ceremony. I was happy to comply. My instructions were simple: be brief, and “say something inspiring.” I’m not sure which is harder.
After a little deliberation I decided that I would review with the new members some of the reasons why the study of the past is a high Christian calling. Americans tend to struggle with the question, “Why study the past?” Although there are lots of exceptions, on the whole, we tend to fall into two categories: those who don’t value history and those who value it for the wrong reasons. And so I thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing to remind my listeners why Christians, of all people, have cause to take history seriously. What follows is a sort of executive summary of what I had to share, with a few modifications:
1) I’ll start with the most important: “Christians are, by vocation, historians.” These are the words of Georges Florovsky, a Russian priest and historian who fled his homeland during the Russian Civil War and eventually taught at both Harvard and Princeton. “Christianity is basically a vigorous appeal to history,” Florovsky expanded, “a witness of faith to certain particular events in the past, to certain particular data of history.”
If you doubt him, look up the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed and note just how many of their assertions are historical claims. The verbs are predominantly past tense: Christ “was conceived” by the Spirit, “was born” of the virgin, “suffered” under Pilate, “was crucified, died, and was buried,” “descended to hell,” “rose again from the dead,” “ascended to heaven.” Do you see the pattern? History is utterly central to Christianity. Its core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events.
2) Just as particular historical events are foundational to our faith, our faith persuades us that the entire human story is worthy of attention. We believe that God has infused the human story with great dignity. To begin with, our understanding of creation tells us that God Himself set the story in motion and that its central characters bear His image. Next, our belief in the incarnation reminds us that the Lord of the Universe actually entered into the story, identifying with its characters and walking the earth as one of them. Beyond this, our conviction of God’s sovereignty teaches us that God is not only Creator but Sustainer as well. He is involved in the minutest details of the human story. It is an epic that is unfolding according to His design and decree. In this sense we should see the human past as a sphere that God has created—and thus a form of natural revelation—every bit as much as the physical world around us.
3) In striving to understand the past, we stand on holy ground. Human behavior is complex, 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. C. S. Lewis captured this reality with a memorable metaphor. Noting that “a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded,” he likened the past to “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.” But there is One, the Architect and Lord of history, who comprehends that incalculable expanse perfectly and exhaustively, and when we realize this it should cause us to drop to our knees and declare with the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6).
In an essay on “The Historian’s Vocation,” the late Arthur Link, Princeton historian and one-time president of the American Historical Association, reflected on what this realization should mean to us. “It means that historical truth exists not in [our] imagination or because of [our] whim,” Link wrote. As finite creatures, we “can know and understand truth only partially, imperfectly, corruptly, it may be. But by God’s grace [we] can at least honor, respect, and treasure it. . . . While readily acknowledging that only God knows all historical truth, [we] can now affirm, profess, and confess that [we] stand in the presence of something far greater than [ourselves].”
Humanly speaking, the past is gone forever. We strive to reconstruct the merest fraction, relying on shadows and echoes to piece together glimpses of a vanished reality. And yet, as Link marveled to contemplate, a perfect record of the past “is stored in its incredible totality in the mind and memory of God.” Yes, we need to take off our shoes.
4) Christian virtues are essential to sound historical thinking. The study of history is an inescapably moral pursuit, although not in the way that we often think. History is disfigured when it becomes a kind of Sunday School lesson for adults, a backdrop for superficial moralizing. History is ennobled when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, figuratively resurrecting the dead and allowing their words and actions to speak to us, even “to put our own lives to the test.”
But doing the latter successfully requires that we apply several Christian practices:
- hospitality, as we seek conversation with figures from the past;
- considering others as more important than ourselves, as we invite them to speak first while we listen;
- humility, as we acknowledge the brevity of our own lives and our need for the breadth of perspective that history affords;
- charity, as we remind ourselves that the apparent contradictions we perceive in others may have more to do with our own blind spots than with those of our subjects; and
- love, as we consciously ask ourselves what the golden rule requires of us in our encounter with “neighbors” long since passed.
5) Historical perspective plays a vital role in faithful Christian discipleship. The scriptures warn us not to let the world “squeeze us into its mold” (Romans 12:2), and yet the attitudes and assumptions that shape us are so often invisible to us. This is particularly true of questions about which our own reference group has long been agreed. We see these accepted values as obvious and natural, and then eventually we cease to see them at all. The upshot is that, without even knowing it, we can live out our lives “like bats, but in twilight,” to borrow Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s haunting image, blindly guided by values that we feel more than see.
We cannot study the past for long, however, without encountering peoples—including committed followers of Christ, not just non-Christians—who have looked at the world in ways that seem strange to us, even bizarre. Seen through their eyes, the cultural conventions that mold us come into sharper focus. Standing imaginatively in their shoes, it may actually become easier for us to pursue a heart of wisdom, for surely a vital component of Christian wisdom is seeing ourselves rightly. Our thinking can also be stretched, for as we discover that many of the truths we have viewed as self-evident were far from obvious to previous ages, we may be forced to think through, perhaps for the first time, the reasons that we hold them. This too is a blessing, for that is what “taking every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5) is all about.