How Do We Use History?

The most common attitude to the past – and the one adopted very frequently in preaching that is based on the canonical collection – is to see something which is jarring between then and now. Then there is the assumption that the position then is the norm, and we should adopt it now! This is like walking through a museum and making a list of the items you might want to take home with you. However, learning from the past is not the same as imitating it. It is a process of comparison that involves looking at how various elements fitted together in the past and seeing whether or not those elements fit together today. This is more like visiting a very foreign country and being struck by how different it all is: things we ‘take for granted’ are problematic for them, but what is a ‘big deal’ for us is seen as unworthy of comment over there. At the end of the process, we should know more about ourselves, more about the other, and have new goals for ourselves, more about the other, and have new goals for ourselves inspired by the other, but not simply adopted from them. Like the traveller returning from the foreign country we want to have new ideas for what we can do differently having gained new self-knowledge, not simply some curios that we put on the mantelpiece.

A central tenet of any such comparison is that we move beyond some of the very simple analogies of history that we commonly use. Take, for example, this analogy: ‘the might oak has grown from the tiny acorn’ – and we look on the past as the acorn and the present as the oak. However, form acorn to oak is a matter of genetic programming: only an acorn can lie behind an oak, and an acorn cannot produce a sycamore or fir tree! However, human affairs are not so predictable: there is the continuity between now and back then, but there are ups and downs as well! We cannot make the assumption that the present is the inevitable outcome of the past: people get things wrong, sometimes other things intervene, sometimes there are unexpected blessings and sometimes there are unwelcome accidents. One culture received a religion one way, another in a different way, and some virtually reinvented Christianity when it arrived among them. We can see these processes today, and they were also operative in the past. Comparison does not make one period, then or now, normative, but assumes that learning from comparison is a way of becoming more self-knowing disciples. There is a tendency to see the past as a ‘golden age’ and use terms like ‘in New Testament times’ (sotto voce: ‘all was lovely and pure then’), and then think that it can be just reinvented. Likewise, we tend to decide that our views, our practices, or our doctrines are not only true, but the only possible genuine Christian position, and we use terms like ‘authentic’ or ‘orthodox’ (sotto voce: ‘people who are not with us are wrong’) and then we only look back and see the bits that fit with our positions, and simply ignore the rest! In the first case we reinvent the past to image the future we would like, in the second case we reinvent the past to image the present we do like. So if ‘oaks come from acorns’ allows us to recognize continuities (and hence comparisons are meaningful) then it should be balanced by this, the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. Historical comparison may sometimes condemn the present or the past, but most times it should give us understanding for the task of acting in theological aware ways now.

-Thomas O’Loughlin, The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 146-147.


3 thoughts on “How Do We Use History?

  1. Of course, this is helpful so far as it goes, but it sounds secular to a certain degree. Let me explain. When, at the end of the first paragraph, O’Loughlin discusses what happens when we engage with the other (here I am taking this to mean a different/foreign context or person), he states that we come away with “new goals for ourselves inspired by the other, but not simply adopted from them. Like the traveller returning from the foreign country we want to have new ideas for what we can do differently having gained new self-knowledge, not simply some curios that we put on the mantelpiece.” This sounds very nice, but is not rooted in anything other than personal fulfillment or greater self-knowledge. Why should we not make too close a parallel between our time and the past? O’Loughlin would have us believe that it is better to defer making parallels not because there is some Truth with a capital “T” that deserves minute attention and obedience, but that we ourselves simply need to become better persons. Of course, I have not myself read him in context, but this analysis as an exercise in thought has been good practice for a certain test…

    And on I go. The second paragraph uses the idea of “religion.” Christianity is fitted into that category. Now, I believe it highly inappropriate to so abstract Christianity into a “religion” that can be “virtually reinvented” when it comes into contact with other cultures. It is, at least, inappropriate for anyone who actually claims the position of orthodoxy or of genuine faith, those at whom O’Laughlin seems to derisively shake his head! By taking this position, it would seem that God and His Church would bow at the mercy of “culture” and its impact on “religious” practice and belief.

    Other than those things, I think it great to remember that human affairs are more complicated than an acorn and an oak. Stating that does not necessarily move us to a place of being able to do the work of generating parallels in a constructive way. That’s what I want to know! How do we actually do the hard work of that? What are the questions for determining what is or isn’t to be considered contiguous enough to work back into the present?

    • Edit: I realize that my critique of his second paragraph is weak because he is not really critiquing those who call themselves orthodox, but only those who use the term with an ambivalent attitude toward proper historical method. So, for the most part, ignore paragraph two because it misrepresents O’Laughlin.

      • I agree, I felt his final solution to the problem was too focused on personal individual advancement. That’s a benefit, but the goal. The goal is, as you said, to determine the Truth to which we then conform ourselves. It seems he wants diversity for diversity’s sake, which is very J.S. Mill, and you know how I feel about Utilitarianism…

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