Historical Humility

The seminar conversation I am having with fellow second-year faculty colleagues has continued on, and one of the questions we were recently asked is this: “How has the study of your academic discipline impacted your faith?”  My thoughts regarding my study of Church History are as follows.

The British writer L. P. Hartley once wrote that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Within the bounds of the academic discipline of history, I have found this to be true again and again.  The sheer disjuncture between my life and those whom I study is often vast, and the study of history has provided me deep insight into the realities of both life and my own faith.  In so doing it has simultaneously challenged and chastened a faith that simply would not be as rich were it not for my historical pursuits.  With a faith so blessed and emboldened by the shared realities of the past, the circle of insight continues on and on as my historically enriched faith continues to impact my scholarship and vice versa.

My study of history (especially my doctoral specialization in Church History) involves a continual probing of sources, evidence, and interpretations of the thought, beliefs, actions, and daily lives of those who have gone before.  Historical inquiry constantly reminds us that there is a real “foreignness” to the past; it does not, however, leave us there.  Truly academic study of history deconstructs these other “countries” in an effort to understand why they were the way they were.  In so doing the discipline points to a shared human experience that can at times be rather strange even as it is alarmingly familiar.  On a personal level, as I study the lives and actions of Christians throughout history, I constantly marvel at how we could be so divergent in worldview yet share so many spiritually foundational things in common.

Far from alarming or damaging to my faith, I take great comfort in the fact that others have lived authentic lives for Christ in ways vastly dissimilar from mine.  Too often our lives can remain bound to the tyranny of the “now,” and history reminds us that we need not be so encumbered.  In other words, just because I constitute my faith in this particular fashion and the contemporary Church looks as it does now does not mean that it need always be so.  The Christian historian, therefore, needs a great sense of humility and a deep appreciation for her spiritual ancestors as she prosecutes the work before her.

In so doing, one’s faith cannot help but be impacted and constantly reminded of Christ’s command to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1).  If, in other words, history gives us the ability to see the past through others’ eyes and appreciate their perspectives in a new way, it also provides us the opportunity to transfer these very skills towards life in the present.  The more we understand the past, the more we can understand the present.  In sum, then, the study of history has impacted my faith by taking a nascent interest and turning it into new humility and insight, from which it will hopefully continue to produce a deep ecumenical sense and desire for service and understanding in the contemporary world at large.



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