Thursday, December 28, 2006

Looking at the past with cautious sympathy: or, Reading history with grace

When we look back on the years that have gone before us, what do we think of them and the world they lived in? It is a peculiar and pervasive American phenomenon to look back on our mothers and fathers and think them quaint, backward, and ignorant—caught up in biases and prejudices that (thankfully) we no longer share. The New World colonialists began this national experiment with a desire to leave all of history behind them, and their descendents have lovingly—even fanatically—embraced that aspect of Enlightenment thinking.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a recovering history-hater myself. And while I am thankful for an old coworker who offered me a work of history worth reading, the decisive blow to my view of history came in seminary. At the beginning of my first church history course, my professor Dr. Michael Weed took a moment to share a bit of perspective. We would be approaching the subject of the past with a cautious sympathy, beginning with the assumption that had we been there, had we been products of the times we would study, we too would very likely had made similar choices (and similar mistakes).

This stance of cautious sympathy guards us against our culture’s prevailing “progressivist” view of history, which looks down its nose at the preceding generations, naively assuming we have risen above their petty mistakes with a superiority born of the inevitable progress of civilizations. This progressivist view makes it impossible to take seriously the circumstances of the past, refusing to empathize with those in situations too complex for such easy dismissal.

When choosing my history books, I now look for those authors which share a sympathetic view of history. Not that I desire ones that are sentimental or that turn a blind eye to the evils or foolishness of the past, but rather ones that are fair-minded and that avoid the revisionist impulse to judge the past by the values of the present. This last month I have been reading just such a book: Robert Lacey’s The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millennium. Lacey’s book is one of the most even-handed books written recently on the subject of European history—specifically, the history of England around the year 1000.

Lacey takes great pains to describe what that life was like, and one detects a subtle mixture of wonder, puzzlement, admiration—with never a hint of condescension. Even difficult topics like the slavery-like system of serfs and lords called feudalism is seen through the lens of the times. Though he does not shy away from the evils and injustices created by such a system, he is one of the few authors in recent years which have clearly outlined the reasons why such a system developed and the numerous positive effects it had in a difficult and dangerous world. Interesting reading to say the least.

What’s more, from a secular journalist and historian, I was not expecting such an even-handed and fair treatment of one of the most prominent features of the times: the pervasive presence and profound influence of the church. When dealing with issues as wide-ranging as the dating of Easter, the competing theologies of the Eucharist, and the veneration of saints, Lacey is lucid, fair, and detailed. Not a whiff of condescension mars his study—which is an accomplishment, given modern Europe’s refusal to acknowledge the good in their religious heritage.

I could only wish such even-handedness in the younger generation of Christians who are beginning to take up leadership across the denominations. These days, it is all the rage to stand with Christianity’s cultured despisers and condemn the history of the church for all its abuses, vowing to champion the currently vogue values of the secular society as though they were the very words of Jesus. Perhaps a little more careful reading of the errors made by our fathers—and more so their faithfulness and triumphs—would lead us to a more sympathetic view of those who have gone before us. And perhaps such a sympathetic view will reveal to us the planks in our own eyes and lead us into new fields of history. After all, isn’t the future Jesus promised us forged from a redeemed present and past?

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