Recent gaffes by public figures who display their lack of historical knowledge provide easy entertainment. Most of the time they provide a good opportunity to clarify facts and refine assumptions.
Amusing as these little embarrassments are, they have reminded me of how easily history can be used, misused, misrepresented and “re-written” to serve different agendas.
Quite beyond the short-term historical amnesia that is affecting much public reflection and discourse on a range of issues, especially the condition of the economy, there are good indications that a deeper understanding of our historical foundations is lacking in that conversation.
Our tradition has always been susceptible to a “message in search of a text.” If not found, one can impose a current idea on an available one, be it a 19th-century defense of slavery or a 20th-century prohibition of women speaking in church.
And we call what we do both “biblical” and “historical.”
Recent efforts to connect contemporary agendas with our nation’s founding events and principles have illustrated a practice of historical “proof-texting” that seems somewhat parallel to biblical proof-texting.
And, just as a good correction for using the Bible in this way is a broader understanding of it as a multidimensional testimony of the faith of a people on a covenant journey, I wonder if a similar broadening of an understanding of history might lead to a more responsible use of and participation in it.
I enjoy the benefit of working in a learning community with history colleagues who have helped me understand the difference between “knowing history” and “thinking historically.”
One is a matter of information, which is certainly essential; the other is a matter of how that information is understood, connected and used.
Parallel distinctions can be made between knowing theology and thinking theologically, knowing science and thinking scientifically, knowing ethics and thinking ethically.
That distinction has led me to think that the Bible may offer us a way of thinking about history that can be faithful to both the Bible and history.
Biblical history has three dimensions: past, present, and future – each intimately related to and functions of each other.
The past is the arena of God’s disclosures of God’s nature and agenda through acts of creation (both of the world and of community) and of liberation. The prophets continually point to this way of seeing history and its implications.
The future is the arena of God’s possibility for the fulfillment of the covenant partnership as outlined in ancient Israel’s covenant and in Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom.
The present is the moving boundary between these two, where decisions are made that reflect either a stewardship or an abandonment of that heritage and an embrace or a rejection of the hope that is the essence of God’s creation.
The ethical teachings of both testaments affirm the critical importance of faithful choices and their role in the shaping of history.
In a recent series on the world’s religions, Bill Moyers asked Professor Huston Smith for a short statement on the essence of Buddhism.
He responded by citing the Buddhist mantra: “Infinite gratitude for all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility toward all things future.”
Jim Wallis, in last year’s book, “Rediscovering Values,” observes a Native American perspective that evaluates decisions on the basis of their impact not just on tomorrow but on the lives of people seven generations out.
Interesting and profound parallels to a biblical perspective.
Think how good it would be if communities of faith and politicians could encourage at all levels of our culture this kind of historical thinking.
It would embrace a holistic view, not raise moral storms over hot-button issues for the next election cycle, and not proof-text them with connections to events that had and have little to do with them.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).