As I announced earlier on this blog, today I delivered the inaugural Messiah College Faith and History lecture. The topic of my talk was “The Power to Transform: A Christian Reflection on the Study of the Past.” I was pleased to see about 70 students and faculty in attendance at the lecture. Here is a very brief snippet from my talk:
…In other words, history is not only a discipline, in the sense that philosophy or literary criticism or sociology are disciplines. It is also a discipline in the sense that it requires patterns of behavior, such as the denial of the self, that are necessary in order to meet the “other” in a hospitable way. Doing history is not unlike the kind of “disciplines” we employ in our spiritual lives—disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others. If this is true, then prayer, a reliance on the Holy Spirit’s power, and other spiritual practices should provide help in the pursuit of the kind of self-denial, hospitality, charity, and humility needed to engage the past in this way and allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of it transforming us. How often do we pray over our scholarly historical work? And I don’t mean a prayer for help in getting the paper done on time or a prayer that we keep our sanity amid the heavy work load. I mean a prayer that the Lord would use our encounter with the past to transform us, to help us to live what theologian Scot McKnight calls the Jesus Creed–loving God and loving others.
Like any type of public engagement, an encounter with the strangeness of the past “inevitably leads to contemplation of the mysteries of providence, the sovereignty of God, and the cultivation of the holy terror that is integral to true piety.” It forces us to love others—even a nineteenth-century slaveholder–when they at first glance seem to be unlovable. Failure to respect the people in the past is ultimately a failure of love. It is a failure to recognize the common bond that we share with humanity. It is a failure to welcome the stranger.
Moreover, when we uncover sinful behavior in the past it should cause us to examine our own imperfect and flawed lives. This kind of engagement, as Mathewes puts it, “brings us repeatedly against the stubborn, bare there-ness of the people we meet in public life; it teaches us again and again the terrible lesson that there are other people, other ideals, other points of view that we can see and appreciate, even if we cannot inhabit them and remain ourselves.”
The discipline of history requires us to apply James 1:19 to our lives. We must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This does not mean that we have to agree with every idea we encounter in the past. Sometimes we cannot “inhabit” an idea and still “remain ourselves.” But education–“to be led outward”– does require a degree of risk. Without taking a risk, without being open to transformation, liberal education cannot happen. “Self-denial,” writes historian Mark Schwehn, “is a willingness to surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion. Wisdom is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.” A Christian who studies the past must be prudent. She must be slow to speak and quick to listen to the people she meets in the past. And she must pray for wisdom.
I'd love to read this lecture.
Tom Van Dyke says
We can learn when the men in history followed their better angels [seldom]. But mostly I think we can learn from when they refused to listen to their better angels, and lied to themselves to justify their actions [very often].
If we assume they were no better or worse as human beings than we are, nor morally stronger or weaker—as you say, not judging them from on high when they were weak, nor unnecessarily “worshipping” them when they seemed strong—then, with a proper humility, we just might be able to learn something from them, from their errors and rationalizations, and from their all-too-rare moments of genuine courage.
Tom Van Dyke says
I dunno if you read old comments, John, but this is that sort of thing:
I just read some John Adams
and America was founded on The Black Legend.
I don't like Adams much, BTW. The more of him I read the less I like him. A silly man.
John Fea says
I hope to publish it one for or another.
John Fea says
We put. I am glad we agree on something!! Thanks again for reading!