theophiletos (theophiletos) wrote,

History in the churches

I can grant that not everyone needs to be deeply interested in history. You may not believe me, given my fixations, but I can accept this as a principle. People are different, have different interests, different needs, even different callings, and if everyone was a historian, what would we eat? So my question of the day is what the churches should be doing with history, given this diversity even among the members of the churches.

This question is distinct from the question of what Christian churches are doing with history. In my experience, most Christians (of whatever sort) want to be told that history confirms that they are right, a few more perverse souls want to find out that others are wrong, and a very few want to find a big cover-up, some explosive historical scandal which has been "covered up" all these years. In all of these cases, of course, history is irrelevant, because it only says what the people already believed for other reasons: they're right, those they disagree with are wrong, etc.

(A note for traditionalist Catholics and eastern Orthodox readers: although on this occasion it was a discussion among Protestants which occasioned this post, I have found these same problems among parishioners of your traditions as well, so please do not consider this a complaint unique to Protestants. If you like, I can provide citations. I believe these phenomena are in essence found among all churches, just in different ways and expressed differently.)

Now, when I've heard people talk about how Christians should be using history, I have most often heard some aspect of the past held up as a standard for imitation or appropriation in the present, or I have heard the appeal to explore the history of Christianity to overcome the current divisions between branches of Christianity. These are both laudable goals, and I wholeheartedly support them! But I wonder how this ought to work in practice. It seems that everyone who appeals to some past model for imitation has a very different idea which elements of previous Christianity should be imitated. How does one determine what to imitate from the past? Clearly all the important bits, but how does one determine those? As for the ecumenical use of the history of Christianity, how do we avoid simply mining the past for historical proof-texts to force everyone else to agree that I am right and they are wrong? This is very easy to do even among well-wishing participants, and I have caught myself playing this game, perhaps only a little more subtly than the vitriolic polemicists of a previous generation. Are there other ways in which the Church ought to benefit from the study of history?

So my question is very broad, and I would like to solicit your feedback, oh readers: as Christians collectively, in view of our (wide) individual differences and our sinful human tendencies, what ought we to be doing with history? I have a few thoughts, which I may post another time, but I wanted to solicit your ideas.
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