Rightly pursued, history not only enables us to understand ourselves more rightly; it is essential if we are to understand our neighbors. Acknowledging their pasts, listening attentively to their stories, is integral to loving them. N. T. Wright has recently exhorted Christians to be “people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain.” The places where the world is in pain should also shape the questions that we ask of the past.
Americans are a present-minded people. In his wonderful new book Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs estimates that 98 percent of us “are wholly creatures of this particular intersection in space-time, and can’t be made to care about anything else.” I suspect the actual percentage is higher.
I’ve spent the last third of a century trying to convince twenty-year-old college students why they should care deeply about the past. Here I’d like to narrow my focus and make a case for why American evangelicals, specifically, should forsake our present-minded ways and devote ourselves to faithful remembering.
History and Ontology
It starts with the realization that, by design, God has made us to be historical creatures. Timelessness may be an attribute of eternity, but for now we all live in time. Take away our memory and we lose not only our identity, but our very ability to function. This is because we perpetually draw on knowledge of the past to make sense of the present. We have, quite literally, no alternative. In this sense we are all inescapably historians, and when we pay serious attention to the past, we are leaning into one of the defining characteristics of our humanity.
But history is even more integral to the identity of the Christ follower. We claim to stake our lives on a faith that, at its heart, is “a vigorous appeal to history,” to quote the late Georges Florovsky. The core tenets of our faith rest on theological interpretations of historical events, notably Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. As Margaret Bendroth puts it, the past tense is “essential to our language of faith.”
What is more, we claim to believe that God has grafted us into a historical Church that transcends the chasm of time, a “communion of saints” living and dead. In practice, this is much harder for us to wrap our minds around, especially to the degree that, as evangelicals, we have been conditioned to be suspicious of tradition and dismissive of most of church history. Add in the probability—significant and growing—that we worship in non-denominational congregations with limited histories of their own, and the predictable result is that we find it hard to think of ourselves as part of a story that began long before we arrived on the scene. In sum, our too-often impoverished conception of the Church—our gruel-thin ecclesiology—is inseparable from our present-minded “historylessness.”
History and Cultural Formation
Knowledge of the past is also essential for faithful discipleship. In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul warns us not to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he exhorts us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). These commandments are always daunting, but we make them immeasurably more difficult when we cut ourselves off from the past.