Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Liberal Arts 3: The Value of History

Third post in my series on the importance of the liberal arts for civilization. Previous posts include:

A Vision for the Liberal Arts
The Value of Philosophy

1. If you think about it, every single bit of knowledge and experience is part of history. Every truth about God that has ever been known or experienced by the creation was a part of history. Much as philosophy reflects on everything, history encompasses everything.

Salvation unfolded in history. Science and math developed in history. Literature was written in history.

2. Perhaps the most valuable gain from history is a sense of identity and self-critique. The history of political rhetoric is bad history, propaganda. That's not history well taught. That's not history taught by expert historians. That is skewed history taught to rouse or manipulate the masses.

Hitler taught history that way. History taught rightly shows us our blind spots. History taught rightly reminds us when we are acting just like "your fathers who killed the prophets." History shows us when our practices are not as eternal as we think they are. History shows us the cultural influences on our thinking and practices and pops the bubble of our self-ignorance.

History shows us the warts of the "greatest generation." History shows us that there were prostitutes and the vilest of men alongside the revivals of the Old Northwest Territory and the Wild West. History shows us that the US is only one among many great nations. History is self-knowledge.

I often affirm that God can speak to you through the Bible wherever you are in your knowledge, whether you know what the Bible meant originally or not. But having a sense of the Bible's meaning in history changes you. It lays bare a thousand ignorant interpretations you thought were God but were really looking at yourself in the mirror or the burrito you had last night for supper. The deeper the sense of the Bible in his historical context, the less embarrassment we are likely to bring to God and the less abuse we are likely to bring to others.

History shows Protestants that the doctrines they see in the Bible sometimes took centuries to unfold, that there would scarcely be a canon without the church. History shows catholics that the Pope was once merely the bishop of Rome, not even first among equals at the beginning. History deconstructs the fairy tales we tell ourselves to make ourselves surer, smarter, and better than we really are.

3. "Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it" (Santayana). There is another utility to the past. There is a reason why generals study the wars and battles of the past. There is a reason why great leaders read the biographies of leaders of the past. There is a reason why aspiring businessmen read the stories of past businesses.

There are great lessons to be learned from the successes and mistakes of the past. Why try to reinvent the wheel? In my own field, the history of biblical interpretation has the power to make me a better interpreter than anyone who has lived before me, because I can build however feebly on the best insights and mistakes of the past. I do not have to build an aqueduct or a dome from scratch. The feat was accomplished in history, thousands of years ago.

History is immense power. Those who know it can see into the souls of men. Those who know it can anticipate their opponent's next move. Those who know it can rule as kings and queens--or become them. History wins elections. History conquers enemies.

4. Why? Because history is full of examples, and humanity in the end is still the same humanity it always was. From a moral perspective, history is full of examples to emulate and examples to shun. Isn't this what Hebrews 11 is all about, a crowd of historical (and literary) examples meant to spur us on? And what is the wilderness generation of Hebrews 3 but a bad historical (and literary) example meant to dissuade us from a bad course of action.

History is full of heroes and villains. Perhaps most of the time they were more complex than the flat characters we make them out to be. Was Richard III a fiendish child murderer or the loser whose story was ultimately told by the winners?

5. It is a sin for history to be boring. There are too many delights here, too many insights, too much to be gained. The professor of any history class that is boring should be shot.

History is power. History is immensely useful. A knowledge of history is key to the perpetuation of civilization.

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