Keeping History in Its Place
Over the past couple of years Conciliar Post has published several articles advocating for the study of church history. David Doherty has lamented that many Protestants seem to think that “Christianity lies in biblical interpretation and spiritual discipline…and forays into Church history are optional adventures for restless wanderers.” But this ought not be so, he replies. Church history teaches and inspires us to live well, and studying church history is actually an act of Christian charity.
Adding to Doherty’s reasons, Timon Cline has argued that “Historical knowledge and consciousness are indispensable to the health of the church,” for it preserves the faith once for all delivered to the church, it greatly aids the development of church leaders, and, he adds, it greatly aids in the development of wise citizens.
I wholeheartedly agree with David and Timon. They have written well, but they have not written all. So, to their accounts I wish to add the following.
On the Disadvantage of History
Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation, titled “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” was aimed primarily at what he saw as a smug and inflated sense of ‘cultivation’ among the German bourgeoise. Phillip Schaff, though not among the German bourgeoise targeted by Nietzsche, may be taken as a representative of the German enthusiasm for historical scholarship when he said that “history is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s word, the richest fountain of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.” This may be correct as far as it goes, but it is too vague and undiscerning. Goaded by such a belief, German historical scholarship in particular in the nineteenth century had reached a level of productivity hardly matched prior to it. “Historical knowledge streams in unceasingly from inexhaustible wells,” wrote Nietzsche (78).
But, he quipped, contrary to the Germans’ own self-conception, this had not in fact translated into life or culture. Rather than refining German culture, the obsession with historical information was killing it. “There is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of historical sensibility, that injures and ultimately destroys all living things, whether a human being, a people, or a culture” (62).
The “oversaturation of an age with history,” Nietzsche claimed, “is hostile and dangerous to life” (83). Underlying the reasons Nietzsche gives for this claim is his notion of the Übermensch. In brief, such historical obsession stunts the development of personality, aesthetic maturity, justice, self-awareness, and it turns its practitioners into servile epigones. For some, these reasons may be unpersuasive.
But surely he hits the nail head when he argues that the one schooled in a “scientific” approach to history, whereby history becomes the collection of vast amounts of data and historical reality is reduced simply to ‘what really happened in the past,’ is the one who, “probably…attains to cleverness, never to wisdom” (115). Indeed, “the mass of the influx [of historical data] is so great, the strange, the barbaric and violent things that press upon the youthful soul do so with such overwhelming power, that its only refuge is in intentional stupidity” (98).
Nietzsche was not opposed to historical scholarship: “the ahistorical and the historical are equally necessary for the health of an individual, a people, and a culture” (63). But historical learning must be appropriately balanced with forgetfulness. We must aim in our historical studies for what he called the “suprahistorical” perspective, or—perhaps better put—for discernment.
The ‘suprahistorical,’ he says, is a set of powers that “lead the eye away from becoming [i.e. the realm of historical flux] towards that which bestows upon existence the character of the eternal and stable, towards art and religion” (120, emphasis original). Put differently, to be the slaves of an historical science is to be trapped in the shadowlands.
Here Nietzsche’s explicit Platonism shines through. And no doubt he thinks of Platonism as its pre-Christian version. But by my lights his point stands: excessive preoccupation with historical data, either for the purpose of arguing ‘what really was’ or proposing ‘what surely will be,’ confines one’s knowing to the realm of truths and inhibits its movement thence to Truth; it trades historical wisdom for cleverness.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress, the main character John becomes entranced by a vision of an Island that he eventually sets out to find. After a long and harrowing journey, feeling lost and quite dismayed, he meets a hermit, occupying a little chapel in a cave. The hermit’s name is History.
Lewis describes him thus: he was “so old and thin that his hands were transparent and John thought that a little wind would have blown him away.” And yet, for all the fragility of his appearance, he had a strength that John had not hitherto come by: he had a particularly decisive know how. So many of the characters that John had met along the way had given him their opinions about the journey and about the island, History spoke with authority. John’s journey had uncovered what were for him many novel challenges. History, who had travelled far and wide, knew them all well. In a long (and delightful dialogue) History helps John to understand his journey thus far.
He then instructs John that “what is universal is not the particular” that the particulars of his pilgrimage arouse desire that, when properly followed, “lead him at last where true joys are to be found.” History could assist John in understanding the particulars, and that the particulars pointed to the universal. But it could not help John know the universal. That wise hermit understood his place, though he could assist John in understanding his journey thus far, he could only point to the journey’s end; he could not take him there.
And so, History passes John on to Contemplation, who took him onward further in his search for the island.
On Discernment for History
There are, then, two points I wish to add to David’s and Timon’s strong and persuasive arguments for the benefit of studying history—which, again, I heartily affirm. First, historical knowledge, even if justifiable by its practical uses, is not an end in itself. History, church history, historical theology, and the like, are all but hermits in a cave along the pilgrim’s way. Such disciplines provide needed clarity and direction, and as the companions of the pilgrim save him from much needless wandering. But the pilgrim is not meant only to achieve clarity and a good sense of direction. The pilgrim is meant to attain the fatherland.
Second, not just any historical knowledge is worth having. One wishes to be precise here. Any knowledge had by a human is a good had by a human. But not just any knowledge had by a human being is had in a good way, nor is just any knowledge the ultimate good. So the historian needs be careful to follow the path laid from historical and natural causes to the highest causes. That is, there needs to be movement from historical knowledge of this or that past event to wisdom (See, Aquinas, SGC, I.1). This is a process of discernment. And because human knowledge is gained slowly, by much labor, and always limitedly, it will inevitably be a process of selective forgetfulness as well.
All this is really to say that history is not theology, but for the Christian lay or professional historian, it ought to become theology. Let’s keep history in its place.
 Philip Schaff, What is church history?: a vindication of the idea of historical development (Lippincott, 1846), 5.
Image is “A Hermit Praying” by Gerrit Dou, 1670. In the public domain. May be found at: https://collections.artsmia.org/art/3540