The Value of History (King, Kingdom, and Kingdom People Series #5)

One of the more dangerous lies we can believe in our day is that time inevitably leads to progress. This idea that our present day is smarter, wiser, and more advanced than previous cultures simply on the basis that we have come after them has been termed “chronological snobbery.” Lewis was once accused by a friend of chronological snobbery, and he obviously learned his lesson for Lewis later gives one of the best explanations of progress in Mere Christianity. “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”[1] Similarly, in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation Lewis argues for the value of reading old books. Lewis writes:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.”[2]

Reading old books is thus one way of ensuring that we do not uncritically accept the worldview of our own time and culture. Old books will help us see the errors of our ways, but it may also help us see the errors of their day and how we can ensure that we do not fall into similar problems.

Faithfully educating students in classical Christian schools would mean taking seriously the fact that we are an historical people. The Church was not born yesterday, and we would do well to consider regularly how the Church has sought to live out its faith in various contexts. Whether it is Christian worldview, history, literature, science, mathematics, or the arts, a faithful Christian education will approach the subject from an historical perspective. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “it is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.”[3] Learning from history, particularly from the great ideas and the great books, removes us from isolation and helps us hear the consensus of common human voices throughout history, voices that transcend specific eras, cultures, and languages. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun,” and we would do well to heed that advice and recognize that whatever issue we encounter in our day has likely had numerous precursors in history from which we can learn. It is precisely because there have been precursors in history that looking to the past is so helpful. Stratford Caldecott argues that “for every great change, every rebirth or renaissance in human culture, has been triggered by the retrieval of something valuable out of the past, making new, creative developments possible.”[4] If we want to encounter faithfully the specific problems of our day, looking to history may help trigger in us a recognition of a common problem that spurs us on to creative solutions appropriate to and necessary for our context.

There is yet another point regarding history worth mentioning. Louis Markos argues that “one of the main roles of education and the arts used to be the instilling of stock responses.”[5] Whether in the name of progress or some other reason, this no longer seems to be the case. The abandonment of stock responses seems to be a product of postmodernism and the relativizing of truth. If there is no universal truth binding for all people in all cultures at all times, then stock responses would indeed be worth discarding. Yet as Christians we fully affirm universal truth, arguing that all truth is God’s truth, that there is objective and knowable truth, and that we ought to seek truth and embrace it once found. From a Christian perspective, then, we should expect that there are indeed stock responses, and we would do well to accept, discuss, learn, and repeat them, not abandon them.

An example of a stock response that classical Christian schools should revive is the Apostles’ Creed. James K. A. Smith says the Apostles’ Creed “functions like the church’s pledge of allegiance.”[6] The Apostles’ Creed provides a unifying message, a statement of faith and allegiance, an organizing principle for theology, and a constant reminder of the God we love and serve. I would argue that it is therefore a great example of a stock response that should play a vital role in Christian education, and I would propose that both faculty and students should memorize and regularly recite the creed together.

Once again, some cautions are in order. First, chronological snobbery can work both ways. While it is a particular danger in our culture to elevate the present over the past, it can be a peculiar danger of classical Christian schools to elevate the past above the present such that we never read or discuss modern works. We certainly must be careful, and we also want to recognize that modern works have not yet had the chance to stand up to the test of time, but part of engaging our culture and living as Kingdom People in the present means we must be familiar with the thoughts and ideas of the present. Yes, classical Christian education rightly emphasizes old books and primary sources, and they are right to do so, even to the point of reading far more old books than new ones; but it must remain at the forefront of the mind of the educator that he or she must not dismiss any modern book or idea out of hand, much as other have discounted the past as outdated or disproved merely because they are old. We must be equally charitable and critical of new and old books and ideas alike.

We have already identified one problem, chronological snobbery, that leads some to ignore history and old books altogether. We have also considered the caution that this can work in reverse. A second caution, however, is for those who study history, yet do so simply as a thing to be studied. Markos suggests that “to defend the past merely as a thing to be studied is like defending Christian doctrine as nothing but a set of rational propositions.”[7] Even for those who study history, they may do so as though it is something lifeless, merely a collection of old information to be dusted off and used as necessary. Rather, history is a living and breathing reality. When one opens an old book, say Virgil’s Aeneid, we ought not say that Virgil said this or that; Virgil says it, he is still saying it, for we are (or should be) still hearing it as if the words had just been uttered. The beauty of old books is that we can still encounter them as living, as capable of speaking directly to us today as they did to their original audiences.[8] That is why Chesterton is correct when he says that “the man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare tomorrow at breakfast.”[9] I am reminded of this kind of reality in Out of the Silent Planet, the first novel in Lewis’ space trilogy, when Dr. Elwin Ransom first enters “space.” He thinks of space as emptiness, but he soon realizes that it is teaming with life and energy.

“But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.”[10]

As Christian educators, we must teach history and instill stock responses in students, but we must not do so as something dead, but as something alive, something more like an “empyrean ocean of radiance,” for only something alive can go beyond information and lead to formation.

[1]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 28.

[2]C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1944), 4.

[3]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading (New York: B & N, 2007), 39.

[4]Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009), 12.

[5]Louis Markos, Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Colorado Springs: Biblica, 2010), 27.

[6]Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 190.

[7]Markos, Restoring Beauty, 161.

[8]We of course must keep in mind when interpreting that we are in a different cultural context, but I speak here not of interpretation but experiencing the work as an act of communication.

[9]Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 147.

[10]C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003), 34.

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