HISTORICAL STUDY: A CHRISTIAN APPROACH
(The original of this article was distributed by the Institute for Christian Studies [ICS] and the Association for Advanced Christian Studies [AACS] to their mailing lists in the late 1970s. At the time, the author was Senior Member in history at the ICS.)
We cannot escape the fact that the character of our world is already established before we arrive. I am born into this world and everything is already set up for me, for good or for ill. The buildings in my hometown are mostly wooden and white, rather than brick, or stone, or adobe, or straw. I am taught to eat with knife, fork and spoon, rather than with chopsticks or my fingers. My first four years are spent mainly with my mother, rather than with a larger kinship group, or in a public nursery. I learn to speak only English words, not French or Arabic. . . . Laws, more and customs of all kinds regulate my life from the start. . . .
Why is my world like it is? Where have I come from? Why do I face the sort of problems that I do? Why do I face this particular configuration of spirits shaping my world?
Historical study is a lot like a social and cultural memory. In ordinary life tradition provides continuity and stability from generation to generation. Historical study then probes the traditions that define our world and disentangles them so we can see something of what they are by means of why and how they came to be so. We can reach back behind the set-up of our present world and recall where it all comes from.
Historical study in a peculiar way has to do with time--historical time. Historians study rather systematically the movement of history from past to present to future. God's creation is so made that everything in it, from rocks and trees and animals to human life and culture, experiences this unceasing temporal movement. God's world is dynamic, not static. History is a process, not an event. We refer to this process of history when we use the words before, during and after, or when we say that something once was but is no longer, and that some event will soon occur.
Tradition and historical change interplay within this context of past-present-future. None of us starts our lives from scratch, de novo. The past is not simply gone; it remains in our present ways of life. The future is not simply made from scratch either; it depends on what we have and do in our present.
People have not always seen time in this way, and not all people do so today. The Greeks, before Christ, believed that time displayed a rhythm of repetition on the model of the sun and the seasons. Some tribes in East Africa today have no terminology for a future beyond the next sunrise or the next harvest. It was the Hebrews of the Old Testament who gradually, under God's leading, established the past-present-future time horizon that we in Western Civilization take so much for granted. Our perception of time is a biblical legacy . . . .
Within this movement of history, historians study human life and affairs and what is interdependent with human beings. We study the formation of culture. God has made all of us culture-formers. He has given us the ability, the will, and the calling to bring things into being and shape them by the work of our hands, by our activity (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 8). As culture-formers we fashion trees into houses, we carefully raise corn, wheat and barley for our food, we lovingly care for cats as companions or horses as co-workers in our fields. We form words into poetry, we cast steel into machinery, we shape proposals into laws. We establish families, states, industries, and clubs. All of these are acts of culture wherein we take what is given in God's creation, in our talents, in the very structure of reality, and form it into agriculture, technology, art, and social institutions and relationships.
The diversity of human culture is very great. When we travel overseas or view television we are impressed with all the many different ways to the divine call to form culture which God gives via the vary make-up of human nature and the structure of reality. Buddhist, Islamic, and traditional African tribal cultures, as well as Western cultures, display the richness of what is culturally possible in God's world.
Of all the cultural activity people have engaged in throughout millenia, not all of it has led to an unfolding of the creation which we call cultural development. A new generation of peasants in Eastern Europe or Asia may still live much as their ancestors did generations ago. . . . The ancient Egyptians continued their social patterns without significant development for over a thousand years until their culture disintegrated.
Tradition can petrify cultural formation so that little cultural development occurs over a long period. But given the right religious motivation, propitious times, and perhaps fruitful intercultural contact, normal cultural activity may come to discover new and fuller modes of doing things so that possibilities latent within the creation may be unfolded and developed. Historians are especially interested in culture-forming which leads to a development of culture.
It seems unmistakable that Christian faith has been especially conducive to cultural development. Secular humanism, historically a derivative of Christianity, is similarly inclined. A minimum requirement for cultural development is to be free of bondage to the natural world. . . . The classical Greeks and Romans, Buddhism, and Islam all came to realize the cultural freedom of human beings within nature, and so experienced remarkable cultural development over long periods. But it was the Christian commonwealth of the [M]iddle [A]ges and the secular culture of post-Christian Europe and North America which uncovered the immense created possibilities of natural science, industrialization, urbanization, the arts, and human intercourse on a world scale.
Once again, because of human sin, cultural development in Western Civilization has bequeathed perhaps as much negative result as beneficial. General Motors cars have contributed as much to the destruction of the quality of life in our cities as they have to our freedom of mobility out of the village. Our secular cities open up the range of choices in our lives even as they induce alienation and isolation of hundreds of thousands of city people.
. . . . Given my comments about culture, it would be . . . accurate to speak of time and culture as the theater of human history. Time refers to where we are in the movement of history from past, present, to future. Culture denotes the particular ways human beings have shaped their worlds. . . . If we study French history in the 19th century, we are interested in much more than the space we call France in that era. We may study all that is part of the French way of life--politics, economics, manners, the church, literature, and so on--in that particular century in relation to the French historical geography. Or, think of the year 1860. Think of what it was like then in the following places: Rome or Paris; Manchester, England; San Francisco; Denver or Edmonton, Alberta; Peking or Tokyo; the Gold Coast in West Africa; the islands now called New Guinea; Jerusalem. Although the calendar year is the same, the state of cultural formation and development in each locale is vastly different. Historical time means something different in each culture.
Historians have only recently come to realize that there is much more to historical study than political or church history. In God's world, every culture has many different aspects to it. . . . For example, in economic history we may look at such things as the formation and development of commerce, industry, banking, money. Art history may look at paintings, artists, and their patrons and public. Family history studies the House of Windsor, or working class families in Toronto. When we study American history, or the history of Chima, or the history of Western Civilization, we look at the interrelations of all these aspects [and more] in the totality of a culture. . . .
The historian Herbert Butterfield reminds us how decisive an influence upon our thinking is our picture of the whole course of the cultural development of our own history. . . . The overview we have of the whole course of things provides the framework in which we locate ourselves and everyone else. When I say we live in a secular society in North America, I place us in Western Civilization, in an epoch since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment--themselves terms providing an overview--after the Christian civilization of the [M]iddle [A]ges, and after the pre-Christian Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern pagan eras.
When I use . . . the categories pagan, Christian and secular, I join the historians Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee in believing that religion is the crucial motive force in all cultures. It is a biblical point that how we live in relation to God determines the character of our whole way of life, and of a whole culture's life. When we search for the crux of any historical period, in any culture, we do well to look right away for the cultural ideals, the faiths, the convictions, the fundamental values, the ideologies which motivate the people, which animate their cultural work, and which shape the internal character of their institutions. Then we may examine in detail the inner structure of cultural development within any aspect of life or within the totality of a culture. For example, . . . to understand industrial capitalism in depth since the 1760s, we need to see it as a secular religious force which both derives its character from the secular values and norms of its proponents, and exercises great religious power over the activities of all of us in capitalist society.
In the most profound sense, the overview we have of the whole of human history determines how we view any point of detail in any historical period. For Christians our picture of the whole story is provided by the biblical accounts. From Genesis to Revelation we come to know that history moves from the origins of the whole creation to the fulfillment of it in the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus Christ is the Start, the Center, and the End of history. Because of sin, we men and women deform our world terribly and cause brokenness, suffering, tragedy, and alienation to intrude upon the peace, the fulfillment, and wholeness which God gives us and wants us to experience all the time.Human history is a vast theater within which sin and redemption interplay. Jesus Christ, who lived and died and arose from the dead in Jerusalem and the province of the Roman Empire surrrounding it, has by this incarnation and resurrection put an end in principle to all the evil we know in the process of history. At the Eschaton, the last-times, Christ will consumate human history, indeed the whole creation, with the establishment of perfect shalom everywhere. Whenever we experience shalom now--in justice toward the oppressed, in love of our children, in real learning and wisdom in education, in fruitful care of our fields and animals in farming--we share now in Christ's redemption of the earth. Christ gathers his people, the Ekklesia, as his special ones who may experience shalom now in unique ways, even as we are Christ's witnesses to encourage others to acknowledge Christ as their Lord in human history. Whenever Christians say the Apostles' Creed, we demonstrate our solidarity with all of Christ's people alive today and throughout the many centuries who have made that their confession of faith.
. . . . Christ, in history, is re-creating the world and men and women in bringing us back to God. To date all historical events B.C and A.D. is an act of faith, not a mere convention.
It can now be pointed out that the Christian view of history I am discussing provides a very different orientation and guidance in the study of history from that of the two leading historiographies in the Western world: the liberal-positivist, and the Marxist. Both liberal and Marxist historical perspectives are derivative of the Christian, but the process of secularization has transformed the Christian ideas dramatically.
The history of historiography discloses that all historians come to their studies with some fundamental rleigious-philosophical assumptions. The chief ones include these: some idea of the picture of the whole human story, an understanding of human nature, a notion of the character of evil and good, some view of the identity and interrelationship of social structures, and idea of knowledge, and some concept of what is basic in history.Marxist historians are usually very conscious of their assumptions, while liberal-positivist ones have usually denied they have any, at least not in their professional work. Only recently have large numbers of practicing historians come to see the functioning of such fundamentals a priori in their work.
In additon all historians have biases, likes and dislikes, limitations of viewpoint which influence their study. The fact that one historian is older, American, middle class, amusical, and 60, besides being unable to get certains types of evidence, may hinder him from appreciating the joie de vivre of some peasant villagers in the Italian countryside outside 19th century Rome.
Because of their religious-philosophical a priori, competent Marxist historians, however much they may have modified Marx, will likely approach their studies with a schema of the movement of history from agrarian to feudal to capitalist society en route toward a classless society. They may have a special concern for labour and popular history. They may tend to emphasize economic-social relations and thereby read all others aspects of life in that light. They may explain human actions and the process of history by referring first of all to class membership and class struggle.
Likewise liberal-positivist historians will tend to assume a picture of human progress from backward to civilized states, from lower to higher realms of culture, from ignorance to enlightenment, from violent to rational means of human interaction. No doubt the [D]epression and World War II shattered some of the more optimistic assumptions of this historical perspective, but the assumptions linger on, if only implicitly. They may stress political and diplomatic history, or economic and social history depending on when they learned their profession. They may regard "rational" and "irrational" as central categories for explaining human actions. They may divide on the merit and centrality of statistics, but agree on the criterion of value-free objectivity in their historiography.
This brief discussion so far has touched on many themes . . . . Perhaps enough has been said to indicate that Christian faith can illuminate both our systematic study of history and our ordinary understanding of our times and where we are in the course of human history.
Historical study is one limited field of investigation which can fulfill a few important needs. A Christian view of things ought to let us study history with the insight into reality that the biblical story provides. If we can learn to respect the integrity of the people and institutions we study so that we genuinely listen to them via the evidence, and we treat them fairly and with a sense of shared humanity, especially toward those with whom we are inclined to be unsympathetic, we may be able to succeed in achieving historical understanding.
Like philosophical study, historical study tends to see things in their interrelationships. Its special contribution is to examine human events, institutions, and products as cultural results of human activity in the process of time within God's created reality.
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