Doing Christian History

critical thinking history Feb 04, 2019

“Every day that passes should be lived in light of the past, in light of the future, and in light of eternity.” Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

History is so rich and so resplendent that there is not a single date that does not offer great lessons in heroism or ignominy, brilliance or foolishness, inspiration or admonition. There is not a single date that does not point us toward the remarkable cultural and spiritual legacy of our Christian inheritance in Western Civilization. And there is not even a wrinkle in time that does not bear the obvious impress of God’s own good providence.

Alas, you could hardly tell that by looking at the average history textbook these days though. If history is, as Stephen Mansfield has quipped, “More than dates and dead people,” you would never know it based on most of the printed evidence.

There are very few things that modern historians can agree on. But when it comes to God there is sudden consensus. The long-held notion that history is His story is fiercely resisted in our day. The once dominant view that history is not merely the record of what happened in the past but that it is a kind of moral philosophy has been superceded by a kind of narrow structural assertions by a handful of pretentious experts.

But, history is full of the indecipherable mysteries of providence, and thus any attempt to reduce the process of its legends, epics, movements, heroes, and villains to a mere mechanical or material science is destined to be more than a little ridiculous--as the sad legacies of Marx, Toynbee, Wells, and Wilson have proven. Alas, now many credentialed Christian historians are following unquestioningly in their footsteps.

It is true that certain undeniably fixed milestones emerge--like the battles of Hastings and Waterloo, the regicides of Louis XVI and Charles I, the triumphs of Bismarck and Richlieu, and the tragedies of the Hapsburgs and Hoenstauffens--and you can, from them, build up certain vague rules regarding the onward march of civilization. But for the most part, the events of history have the habit of coming up out of nothing, like the little particles of ice which float to surface of the Seine at the beginning of a frost, or like the little oak trees that crop up everywhere like weeds in the broad fields of East Sussex.

They arise silently and unpredictably.

And that surprises us. It is too easy for us to forget--or to try to ignore--the fact that the doings of man are on the knees of an inscrutable and sovereign God.

One of the most important and most neglected aspects of His story called history, is the fact that the story is not yet complete--and will not be until providence has run its resolute course. We can only truly comprehend the events of the past when we recognize them as part and parcel of the ethical out-working of God's plan for the present--and even for the future.

The irony of this is so large that it may be too large to be seen. Thus, the writing and rewriting of history is often, little more than the material preferences and prejudices of one age gazing into a distant mirror of another age.

Modern secular historians are especially prone to fall into this alluring trap. And so, they quixotically rail against the upstart evils of today by lambasting the tenured virtues of yesterday. They attempt to impose sanctions against some unacceptable form of behavior by instituting a kind of retroactive apartheid. It is the same odd impulse that induces certain politicians to attempt to cure the ills of Timbuktu by starting an agitation in Tulsa or to reform the administration of Montevideo by holding a referendum in Minneapolis.

Cultural paradoxes of that sort are clearly on the rise in our time despite the fact that they seem to be increasingly marked by an immobilizing hardening of the heart and a simultaneous softening of the head. The yammering hubbubs that the purveyors of politically-correct consensus-terrorism have raised--bemoaning in pious earnest tones the cultural realignment that followed on the heels of the establishment of the American City on a Hill--not only expose us to a kind of insulated hare krishna disregard for reality, but also make us vulnerable to the fierce tyrannies that petty prejudices inevitably engender.

Doing authentic Christian history not only enables us to recall many of the famous births, deaths, world events, and other notable anniversaries, but it provides us with tantalizing details of some of the most important lessons and profoundest inspirations that the long legacy of human civilization has to offer us as well. In other words, it practices that old discipline of moral philosophy without apology.

As Henry Cabot Lodge asserted,

“Nearly all the historical work worth doing at the present moment in the English language is the work of shoveling off heaps of rubbish inherited from the immediate past.”

This is precisely the kind of work that the great purveyors of Christian moral philosophy like Sir Walter Scott, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc did. Together, these men helped snap the spell of smothering modernity with a sane backward glance at the great Christian ecology that gave flower to the remarkable liberty, justice, and hope enjoyed by the democracies of the West.

Their aim was to preserve the practical lessons and profound legacies of Christendom without the petty prejudice of humanistic fashions or the parsimonious preference of Enlightenment innovations. They wanted to avoid the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable. They shunned the kind of modern epic that today is shaped primarily by the banalities of sterile government schools or the fancies of empty theater scenes rather than the realities of historical profundity.

They believed that the best sort of history is always a series of lively adventure stories—and thus should be told without the cumbersome intrusion of arcane academic rhetoric or truck-loads of extraneous footnotes. History from that perspective is a romantic moral drama in a world gone impersonally scientific—and thus should be told with a measure of passion, unction, and verve.

The record of the ages is actually philosophy teaching by example—and because however social conditions may change, the great underlying qualities which make and save men and nations do not alter, it is the most important example of all. Because the past is ever present, giving shape and focus to all our lives, it is not what was, but whatever seems to have been, simply because the past, like the future, is part and parcel of the faith.

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