History Seeking Understanding

On Monday I wrote about the deep sense of humility and possibility for understanding one can derive from studying the past.  Now, a continuation of those thoughts:

Such claims are by design rather optimistic and expansive, yet have often reflected my own experience.  Where my ecumenical vision falters, however, is when historical research reveals not just differences in practice or theological perspective, but unveilings of the past that seem to—despite my relative distaste for such normative claims—call into question the moral rectitude of the Church and its members in places where 1) their actions are either clearly un-Christian or reprehensible and/or 2) their theological or chronological proximity to my own life and faith call into question aspects of my own perceived story.  Of the first category, numerous episodes such as the religious violence of the Crusades, heresy and witch trials, Church corruption, intra-Christian wars of religion, the sad story of Christian misogyny, and religiously justified racism all underscore the problem at hand.  While the facts of each of these situations are certainly more complicated than the popular imagination allows, each nevertheless points to a morally or ethically questionable aspect of historical faith and practice.

A sense of historical humility may allow me to understand why Christians may have arrived at these positions, but I yet have great difficulty in sympathizing with certain of these positions.  This said, giving my spiritual ancestors the benefit of the doubt is nevertheless easier the farther back one goes, chronologically speaking.  With regard to more recent developments with which I disagree—say, for instance, questionable anti-intellectual tendencies or damaging theological developments within Pentecostalism, the broad perspective I hope to convey is rather more difficult to enact—but no less important.  No matter the situation, the insight and understanding provided by a balanced and humble historical way of looking at things is always helpful.

Ultimately, I would like to think that my study of history has not only impacted my faith, but that my faith has had an impact on my scholarship as well.  Foundationally, it has directed me towards particular paths of research as I have sought out conversational friends, theological sparring partners, and sage guides throughout the past two thousand years of Christian history.  Quite really, I can say that the study of Church History has had for me an important devotional element.

My faith also reminds me that God is not absent from the historical narrative, despite how difficult it may be to see Him.  As my faith both informs and enriches my study of history, it keeps me from despair at the dark points of the human story and reminds me that there is a God who holds all of it in His hand.  That history has an “end” is a distinctively Christian understanding, and one which I hold dear.  Maintaining this faith perspective affects my scholarship, even as my scholarship affects my faith.  Constant dialogue with historical landscapes both local and foreign involves both continual growth and a deepened faith.  In the end, if a primary Christian enterprise is indeed as Anselm of Canterbury phrased it “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), then in my estimation the task of history to which my scholarly career is oriented is a constituent portion of that vital journey.

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