Saturday, August 15, 2009

Musings on History

Some thoughts on history.

Why do we tell history from past to present? It makes sense, of course, because that's how it happened, so we can best follow it that way.

In the process, we develop a sense of history as story. But such stories are usually more a reflection of who we think we are than of history itself. Such stories may cover significant portions of history, excerpting one little thread. The greater amount of time they cover, the more heavily they are likely constructed.

The question of God's plan through history is a special instance of history as story and requires significant faith. Differing Christian traditions have different understandings of how extensive God's direction and involvement in history is. A certain kind of Calvinist, for example, may believe that God is directing every minute thing that happens, such that nothing happens by coincidence and everything has a reason. Certainly many non-Christians have a view something like this as well.

As a particular kind of Arminian, I believe that God is much less of a micro-manager. God signs off on all that happens, but perhas isn't always involved in whether I choose strawberry or lemon ice cream (ok, maybe once in a "blue moon"). Perhaps God allows most of history to unfold according to the patterns we call cause and effect, including most human behavior, and only occasionally altering the flow of things?

At the same time, I have concluded that for Christianity to be true, it is necessary to believe that God has steadily yet patiently revealed Himself throughout history. I have to believe He has met each human being in history where they were at in their understandings. The fact that He has unfolded understandings so slowly implies He is far more interested in relationships than in understanding.

Christians must believe that there is an overarching story of salvation that is intrinsic to the flow of history, despite the fact that most of history probably does not have any flow of this sort.

Normally, it is history as immediate cause that is most real and most relevant to us at any particular moment. What are the circumstances that lead to current situations? The relevance of history diminishes drastically the further back we go. We experience points before the immediate causes of our situation through those immediate causes. And the points before those prior causes we experience only as they have passed through the prior causes into the immediate causes. Of course our interpretations of history near and far can become in themselves immediate causes, self-fulfilling prophesies of a sort.

It would be interesting indeed to write some localized history backward, an idea Keith Drury once posed. A few movies have explored this.

One final use of history, history as example, one of the most important reasons to study history. "Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it." History is the most exhaustive source of case studies in real life cause and effect. Certainly our understanding of such things is fraught with interpretation. Real life is unendingly complex and our conceptualizations of it draw on only the smallest fraction of it, implying that there is a fundamental skew to all conceptualizations of reality vis-a-vis actuality.

But nevertheless, we seem to find in history profitable example after profitable example. Those with a detailed knowledge of history have an uncanny power at their disposal.

Some thoughts...


Anonymous said...

I agree in the importance of history, and the fact that God has used it to reveal Himself. It is one of the strongest aspects of Christianity. And although various traditions can see historical events and causes through certain perspectives, the overall big picture is agreed by all.

One does wonder if we read the historical events God used to reveal Himself as different than the rest of history. Do we see it kind of as an "Intellegent Design" in which God mentions the times in which He is present and needs to guide certain things, but rest of history is on its own.

Or do we take a more "Theistic Evolution" view in which God is guiding all the time, He reveals some high points in Scripture, but we just don't see it in the day-to-day.


Mikey said...

As a former history major, I always thought it would be interesting to teach a history class in a backwards format. At least for the previous 100 years.

Typically what happens, at least in a U.S. History course, we start with pre-Revolutionary War and then end the course about the time we get to the Vietnam War. I always felt shorted because, though my parents and grandparents lived through those decades, I did not and I believe a better examination of those years would bring a wealth of understanding to present day global issues.


Ken Schenck said...

This past week we had a one week course on contexts of ministry. One day students traced back their traditions until they joined with those of the rest of the class. The pre-course assignment involved reading the last 100 pages of an American Church History textbook. Then they flipped backward from there to the front of the book, tracing themselves back.

I'd love to get a handful of church historians together to write a fully backward text through American church history!

Keith Drury said...

I tried teaching the history of worship once "backwards." It was a totally different course started with the current church then moving "backwards" upstream like you would trace your "roots" up a family tree... the students saw the flow in a totally different way in that course... and they loved it!