Greetings to all,
Are we sure that History matters?
This was the question I posed to the students the first day of school.
A few students pointed out that we should study History to learn from the mistakes and copy the successes of the past. This is the answer most frequently given to the question, “Why History?”
But why should we accept it? What on earth could anyone who has been dead for thousands of years, living in a completely different part of the world, have to teach us today? “Perhaps,” I suggested to the students, “I am wasting your time, serving as part of a vast conspiracy of the old to occupy and distract the young.” Is this what school really means? Is the study of history merely an exercise in the “vain repetitions of the heathen?”
It’s fun to play devil’s advocate, but in the end we provided two key reasons why History does matter.
“Begin at the beginning,” said the King in Alice in Wonderland. The study of history rests on a few key Christian assumptions:
- We assume that what happens to people depends in part on choices they make, and these choices must in some sense be “free” choices. If we have no ability to choose then whatever success of failure we experience has nothing to do with anything we can call “ourselves” at all, but merely instinct, environment, and so on.
- We must believe that genuine communication across time and space can occur. Believing this, in turn, rests on the belief that much more unites us as humans than divides us. Otherwise, either communication would be impossible (because we would not understand one another), or meaningless (if our differences would be so extreme the experience of others would have no relevance for us).
Such things may seem so commonplace that they do not need to be defended, but in fact, those who buy into certain postmodern assumptions about identity and language would likely not agree with the above propositions.
In Genesis we read that God made mankind in His own image. I am not capable of exhausting the richness of what this means for humanity, but we established a couple key concepts in class:
- In Genesis 1 we see God bringing order out of the void. He could have created everything in an instant, but He chose six days/periods of time (whichever you prefer), each with a clear progression and pattern. In Genesis 1 we see God separating night from day, dry land from sea, and so on. He then separates mankind from the rest of His creation. So too, we can find order and patterns in our surroundings. History need not be “one thing after another” with no distinctions or meaning.
- God acts with will and intentionality, and so too we act from more than mere instinct. If we had no ability to choose and act with purpose, History would have no meaning because we could not learn from it or apply what we learned without it.
God gives all people who have ever the lived the gift of His image, and this is the good side of the coin regarding humanity. But in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture, with terrible consequences.
- Adam and Eve attempt to alienate themselves from the very Source of Life itself and hide from God. While mankind retains the stamp of God’s image, I think it no coincidence that Genesis 5:3 mentions that Seth was born in Adam’s image.
- Adam and Eve turn away from each other, refusing responsibility for their sin
- Humanity experiences alienation from creation as a whole.
History rightly examines many facets of various civilizations, and the collapse of various people groups have political, economic, cultural, and geographic explanations. But sin lies at the root of all misery, and since we are all sinners, all of us share responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Both the image of God and the fall of man mean that there is far more that unites, rather than divides, every person who has ever lived. Even an Egyptian god-king from thousands of years ago and our next door neighbor still share these same characteristics. Our differences remain skin deep. Rod Dreher (an Orthodox Christian) recently interviewed Louis Betty, a scholar of the work of the modern French author Michael Houllebecq. Neither Betty or Houllebecq profess any allegiance to Christianity, but Betty’s observation about the belief of the image of God in man are revealing. He commented,
More concretely, you don’t get white supremacy if you believe that every human being has a soul fashioned in God’s image. Neither do you get far-left racial and ethnic identitarianism. Both are symptoms of a metaphysical deficit. It’s very easy to start dividing people up into tribal categories; after all, humans vary massively in just about every imaginable quality. It’s really something of a miracle that we ever came up with a notion of common humanity at all! We have the Judeo-Christian heritage to thank for this in the West. This is something secular people ought to consider before making glib criticisms of traditional religion.
The full article is here for any who are interested.
We see the confluence of the image of God and the Fall in every life and in every civilization. We all seek order and coherence. We all seek to create distinctions (just as in Genesis 1) in our lives, giving precedence to some things over others, and so on. In this way we image the God who made us. Yet we also see that we often choose to embrace death to create our personal/civilizational kingdoms. We will hate others to make the kind of order we wish for our own lives. Nations may literally kill and destroy others to achieve the peace they desire.
1 Corinthians 15:56 states that, “the sting of death is sin.” This order might surprise us–we might expect it to be reversed. Adam sinned and brought death to himself and his descendants. In many ways, it is our fear of death, of the diminution of the self, that leads us into sin, as 1 Corinthians states. We cut each other off in traffic, grab the last cookie, and declare war to obtain resources in order to preserve and extend our earthly lives. We obtain life only through surrender to death, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it” (Luke 9:24).
Other areas of Scripture show the importance of History. Much of the Old Testament simply records events without editorial comment. We can read of various kings of Israel, for example, and the Biblical authors do not always insert, “And God thought ‘x’ about the king.” No doubt God means for us to figure it out on our own from the context, and from what we already know from reason, observation, experience, and other parts of Scripture. If History is important to God in Scripture, we can conclude that History itself serves as a kind of revelation, a revelation that will teach us much about ourselves, and God Himself indirectly.
Apart from a Christian context, History, however interesting, would have no real meaning for us beyond mere entertainment. We will keep returning to these foundational truths, for History makes no sense without them. I told the students that this class may have started in an unexpected way for them, but we cannot understand History without understanding mankind, and we cannot understand mankind without understanding who God is. Next week, we will attempt to understand what makes a “civilization,” and how civilizations function.