Thursday, August 23, 2018

How the modern view history. . .


Fr. Hunwicke, always a good read, once noted that the modern attitude toward history sees the past as simply the present dressed up old clothes.  Wow.  What a quote!  I wish I has said that.  But as pithy as his observation, even more is the truth in it all.

The sad truth of it all is that we don't want to hear the past speak.  We treat history as if it is the child to be seen (really tolerated) but not heard.  We want a past that supports our present but even then we are unwilling to go past the most shallow reading of history.  We refuse to admit that the past was anything of truth, certainly not the truths we affirm as modern people.  If we see the past as prejudice, we honor history only by pointing out all of its foibles and faults -- measuring it against the enlightened view of things in the present.  If we see the past as error, we presume that we are above error and that our view of the subject at hand is correct, right, and the only way to see things.  If we see good things in history, we see the history only as precursors of our modern ideals and nothing of its reality or struggle.  So by this perspective, statues must be torn down if they offend the present with the history of the past and texts must be rewritten so that they honor the oppressed we deem worthy of a larger view even if it comes at the expense of those whose roles are larger and impact greater.

History has become a foreign country to us, a strange land filled with alien ideas and people whom we barely know.  We go there occasionally for a visit the way we might visit a historical setting but we do not leave changed by what we saw.  It is history, the quaint past that we tolerate unless it is determined to be intolerable and then we change it.  While it is surely true that few people in each generation can look into the future, we shared a common identity and past and, at least in the past, we all had equal access to that history.  Now, that is not so.  We have different histories and different stories and it does not matter to us if they conflict.  We are all allowed to have our own perspectives -- at least as long as those perspectives are not allowed to challenge or cast doubt upon our cherished modern tenets.

This has been done in secular history for a long time -- removing references to religion and ignoring the religion of those who led us, among other things.  Now the Church is learning the skill of forgetting the past or rewriting that past or only using the past if and when it supports the views prevailing in this moment.  We do this in the way we look at Scripture and what it means, at the way we judge tradition and give it value, at the fathers we affirm and those we ignore, and a host of other ways.

The point is simple.  It is only what is being done to our past but who is doing it.  History is never fully objective and there is always some bias in the record of the past but this is the price we pay for being human and having perspectives and experiences to inform those perspectives.  Yet once we turn this liability into an asset and buy into the lie that we know better than all those who went before us, we not only dishonor our past but risk our very identity.  For example, we all judge the past and the future on the basis of our own experience.  I know how many times it is said that is not the way things were when I was growing up.  But this anecdotal view of history could always be squared against the often unpleasant truth that the way things were when we were growing up was not the way things were before then or the way they should have been.  Once we are distanced from this norming power of the past, we are left with only the present and our often flawed memories of how things used to be. 

4 comments:

Joseph Bragg said...

So true... and so many Christians ignore the history of the Church such as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Seven Ecumenical Councils and numerous local Councils and Synods.

B. Todd Granger said...

In his book, Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church, Rowan Williams characterizes these two views of history, viz. as the present in fancy dress or as a foreign country whose customs and language we cannot understand, as the conservative and liberal ditches respectively into which we can erroneously fall if we don't rightly approach history.

Gerhard Kraske said...

We study the PAST since it explains the PRESENT which will define the FUTURE.

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