Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ya Really Oughta Know …

“ ‘History never repeats’,
    I tell myself before I go to sleep.”

— Neil Finn, 1981

Well, that’s reassuring. We’d never want a second Black Plague, a second Holocaust or even a second Hurricane Katrina, would we? But if Finn is right, we should perhaps ask ourselves the obvious question: Why study history?

After all, if it never repeats, then knowledge of the past is useless to guide us for the future. What use is it to think about the South Sea Bubble or the Cold War when we know that the unique circumstances that made each possible will never exist again?

Is History Really ‘History’?

Postmodern historiographers make the problem even worse: for they insist that even the descriptions we have of historical events are really just the opinions of various power concerns or interest groups, each one trying to tell a story that favours its own narrative. So history is just a bunch of pernicious myths, really, and we’d best be permanently cynical about any of them, lest we find our own personal freedoms constricted by someone else’s false historical narrative.

But before we “go to sleep” on that, maybe we’d better consider this: if history never repeats and is, in any case, just a bunch of self-serving claptrap, then you and I have nothing but the present moment to guide us. Such wisdom as you and I may happen to generate between the womb and the tomb is all we’re ever going to have … and when we’re dead, we’ll just be someone else’s “history” — which would be no more worth remembering than our own history.

The Church and History

At the same time as all this is going on in academia, something similar is happening in many congregations today: Bible history is not being taken particularly seriously. In fact, a lot of Christians would probably think the New Testament is the essential stuff, and the Old Testament is the forgettable, obsolete, irrelevant Jewish stuff. So many of us are happy to own a New Testament, but if we even own a copy of the Old, that’s the part where all the pages still stick together.

Not a biblical attitude, that. The New Testament itself does not behave that way in regard to the Old Testament. Consider the honour Christ gave to the tanakh, quoting it authoritatively, referring to it as a collection of true and actual events, and flatly declaring that it would be easier for earth and heaven itself to pass away rather than for one of its precepts to fail. Even if you’ve read it but don’t take it seriously, you fall into stupid mistakes you could have avoided.

The rest of the New Testament takes up the same theme. We’re not just supposed to know the facts of the Old Testament: we’re to believe them, meditate on them, take them seriously, and apply them to the conduct of our own lives. Take Jude’s admonition, for example:
“Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe.”
“Remember” What?

Now, wait a minute, Jude: your book was written somewhere in the latter half of the first century A.D. Best dates put the Exodus in the mid-1400s B.C. That means that almost a millennium and a half had passed between the time you were writing this and the events to which you refer. What do you mean, “remind us”? Very clearly, neither we nor the audience to whom you wrote were anywhere near involved with those events. Not even close.

You sound like Paul. He wrote that the events at that same time “happened to [Israel] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come”.

But hey, bad news, guys … we weren’t alive then. Not even close. So how can you “remind” or “instruct” or “give examples” to us from things we certainly never experienced as if they should prove to us how we should live?

Their Point

Well, we’re not supposed to forget history. Especially biblical history. Because despite all the tommyrot going around today about history being nothing more than “a story told by the winners”, something did actually happen. There may be different versions of events floating around, and yeah, some of them may be twisted and revisionist, but amid the flotsam of human retelling there are true events.

Not only that, but in scripture these true events actually do coalesce into an integrated narrative — not a made-up one, like human histories, but rather a series of definite events that contribute to an instructive and truthful story, the story of God’s dealings with humanity. And if you want to squabble over the details, fine: but the one thing that remains true is that God so ordered these events that they would not just contribute to his plan for the 15th century B.C., but that they would afterward serve as instruction to generation after generation of people, so long as they grasped even the basic facts about what really happened … and especially that God was really dealing with people in the way the Bible describes.

It’s On Us

You ought to know. You ought to know who God really is. You ought to know how he does not endure wickedness. You ought to know how he does not spare those who despise him, and yet how swiftly his mercy comes to those who repent. You ought to know because you ought to have heard what God has said about those events, and you ought to believe it all as fact.

If you do, you get wisdom for life right now. If you don’t, you’re going to be a bit of an idiot. You remember what an “idiot” is, don’t you? It’s a person who thinks that he or she (“id-”, self) is all that matters, and actually lives by (“-iot”, dweller) that delusion. And if our present day society believes that their generation is the only one that matters and that the past is worthless, well then, what can one say but we are a whole generation of idiots? For the past is where we learn things. And while it may not be true (as Santayana is so often quoted as saying) that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”, it is true that those who cut themselves off from the lessons of the past are condemning themselves to make every mistake from now on first-hand, and to pay the full price of their own generation’s particular blind spots.

Not only that, but the dealings of God are opaque to those who look for them nowhere but in their own generation. God’s activities sweep throughout the entire span of time, and the revelation of his purposes is not to be seen in the ephemera of the present time. One sees the character of God far more clearly in the patterns of his providence and righteous judgment, and they pertain to all generations.

History Ain’t Just A Story …

To know God, know history — not merely the fables of man, but true history, the facts of what really happened and how the dealings of God interfaced with the whole narrative of the human race. For if, as today’s historiographers often tell us, history is perspectival, it is only possible as a perspective on something real. To seek the right perspective on the real events is to pursue truth. To abandon the search for this historical truth is to abandon history itself, to relegate the historian to become the mere spinner of fables.

So what our own day has made out of history is not what the Bible makes. In scripture, history is said to be essential to our knowledge of God and his will for us. For while its particulars may never repeat, its patterns — especially its patterns of human behavior — are as relevant to today as the any modern psychology textbook. More, in fact.

According to the Bible, when we read a historical narrative, the thing we are to be looking for is how people interact with God: How they respond well or badly to the Divine intentions, how they put themselves in trouble by ignoring God, or how they get out of trouble by his mercy. We’re supposed regard the narrative as true, take it to heart, apply it to our own situations, and change our behaviour based on it.

We’re not supposed to forget the past. And we’re not just supposed to know about biblical history in a detached way, or with a superficial “what-I-heard-in-Sunday-School” way. We’re supposed to soak in it, ponder it, plumb its depths, turn it over in our minds, and then act on the wisdom doing this imparts to us.

In Short

We do well to mistrust history — for history, particularly secular history — is indeed a difficult business, one troubled by the dishonesty and selectivity of man. Not so the word of God. The historical accounts it contains may not contain every detail of the past, but what is written there is the essence of what we most need to know, not just for now but for all time. It’s real history, true history, history with permanent value.
Remember the days of old,
       Consider the years of all generations …”


  1. What most people forget is that we are created to stand with one foot in the future and one in the past. Every moment we perceive is instantaneously history. Let me therefore suggest that. 99.9... % of all knowledge any individual has is historical (short term to long term) in nature. That knowledge is obtained through outside sources like reading history texts schooling, news, books, magazines, personal communication, and so on. The individual does not live long enough to experience everything. It is therefore of primary importance that one learns to differentiate between the quality of the information that is passed on to you from others, and to discern the quality of the source itself. Now, information flow is hierarchical, has a pyramid shape, with the top quality coming from fewer qualified sources of greater veracity and capability from the top part of the pyramid. For example, would your top quality information source for human conduct be a supreme court justice who has decided that abortion is an OK procedure, a president who has decided that homosexual marriage is equivalent to faith based marriage, a philosopher who has not made an iota of effort to search for a personal God in his/her life? Now, as far as my life experience and research has shown me, based on public and private moral teaching, the pinnacle of the information pyramid is occupied by Jesus Christ and his teaching, there simply is no other room there. If you can show me a president, a supreme court justice, a wise man, a news pundit, a senator, a judge, an expert scientist, philosopher, common man or woman who can, e.g., turn water into wine, heal instantaneously, raise from the dead, walk on water teach equivalently to the Sermon on the Mount, and gives his life for my and your sake, then point them out to me and I will consider if I'll take my information from them and perhaps effect changes in my life based on their teaching.

    1. What a good thought, Q. I agree with you completely that at the top of any pyramid of great teachers, there's only one spot, one inestimably high above even level 2: and that spot is unquestionably the place of the Lord Himself.

      Michael Polanyi has a great book on the many ways in which humans receive information. It's called "Personal Knowledge." He points out very astutely how much of our information comes from other people. For example, scientists do not ordinarily learn their trade in private: they first learn to accept the authority of a man in a lab coat (i.e. some science teacher) who promises them that if they trust him, he will show them a thing called "science," which thereafter they can practice themselves. But when they believe him, they do not do so because they tested him scientifically, but because they placed their faith in his authority. Only afterward did they confirm for themselves whether or not he taught them the truth about how to do science.

      We do not enter this world as little "truth testing" machines, capable of winnowing out the chaff ourselves and discovering pure facts. We enter with a mother and father, a larger family, a community, an educational system, a political apparatus, and a national context, just to name a few sources of our first information.

      "Credo ut intellegam," wrote Anselm. "I believe in order to know." Belief is the first thing we do. Any solid knowledge we have is a product of that first move of belief. And who is better to believe first than the Son of God?

  2. Thanks for the wonderful reference to Michael Polanyi. I did not know about him. Below I excerpted from a review of his book from

    This is exactly along my line of thinking evidently in a much more formalized way and I will definitely get that book.

    "Perhaps Polanyi's key insight is that there is no certainty--not in scientific facts, nor in logic, nor in rationality. Everything that we "know", we have actually made a personal commitment to accept as true. Sounds abstract, but unless anybody has actually met George Bush in person, we have all made individual personal commitments to accept as true that George Bush is currently President of the United States, for example. Polanyi shows that everything we superficially consider to be an incontestable fact is really a personal decision by each one of us to believe somebody else, something we have heard or read, or our own senses--none of which can be considered irrefutably accurate.

    Polanyi then shows that this commitment to evaluating the trustworthiness of a source and then choosing whether or not to accept its claims as true is, at heart, an ethical decision.

    Very interesting stuff. One implication is that science is less authoritative than we think, and art is more authoritative than we think, in our individual searches for truth. A second implication is that it is honourable to believe something that cannot be proven. Polanyi's main goal is to strip doubt and skepticism of their position as supreme ethical values in Western culture, which they have held since the time of Descartes; that is why the subtitle to his book is "Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy". Polanyi says that it is more noble and more ethical to believe on the basis of reasons we have chosen with good reason to accept, than to doubt because we are aware that proof is not available."

    1. Yes. I do really admire science and believe in being scientific. But being truly scientific means having a realistic understanding of what science is and is not, what it can and cannot do, and what its methods could and simply cannot reveal.

      Science is an activity that varies between the inductive and the deductive, between faith commitments and reason or evidence. (For most people, the latter is well understood, but the former is not.) Science starts with induction: with a human being who knows things only probabilistically and not absolutely. And it's findings end up being probabilistic as well, since nobody has ever done the entire set of possible experiments in even one area of inquiry.

      Science is good -- very good. But it's not the straight road to certainty that some of its proponents would like to believe. And that's something Polanyi handles at a level that even the most ardent scientist has to accept, so long as he actually has a commitment to science and not to his personal ideology instead.

      Underneath science! Tell that to Richard Dawkins. ;)