September 18, 2013

Modern Discourse and the Challenge of History

Fr. James Siemens
September 2, 2013

A good deal of our current malaise, both in the Church and in society more broadly, can be attributed — I think — to a certain disregard for history. In terms of contemporary history, this disregard might be more accurately called amnesia, but equally that might be to give too much credit to those who do not account for the past — as if theirs is a merely passive act. No, I think the problem is worse than that. The problem is much more conscious, deliberate, and even vandalistic. This is in spite of the fact that, to the credit of a few in the media, there have been some recent acknowledgments of the importance of history, not least in relation to Syria and the Middle East, but also in relation to the Church Herself.

The recent celebrations in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine around the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus’, however contentious, have at least served as a catalyst for historical debate, with Ukrainian memory serving as a counterpoint to the misappropriation of history by others with their own ecclesiastical or political agendas. Developments in the public conversation around human sexuality, meanwhile, represent an act of conscious disdain for history of the sort that has come to characterize most Western dialogue more generally. Saying nothing, for example, about the fundamental rights of people of homosexual orientation, the arguments proffered in the last year by David Cameron’s government in the United Kingdom in favor of same-sex marriage amounted to nothing short of historical sacrilege. Where attention was paid to historical witness it was seldom more than in caricature, while terminology distilled through the process of centuries was disavowed and redefined at the stroke of a pen, the strike of a key, or the sound of an offhand comment. Unfortunately, the voice of the Church — at least in Britain, and at least as it was communicated publicly — was no better. What the media picked up was often reactionary in tone, wholly failing to satisfactorily enunciate an understanding of types of human relationships, types of human love, and the genesis of marriage itself. This was in spite of more than two thousand years of thinking about the matter. Alas, neither politicians nor theologians have been able, in this debate, to corral the forces of history to present something resembling historical and philosophical truth.

The very notion of history and the power it holds over society is one that extends back to the earliest civilizations. No pharaoh of early Egypt, for example, would have been so bold as to rule in ways divergent from his predecessors. For them, what had been done before dictated what could be done in the present, the rule of Akhenaten being the only fleeting exception. Even as people became more critically engaged with events of the past, these events were treated with utmost respect: history, to the ancients, both set precedent and transmitted meaning, and was therefore to be considered among the most fundamental sources of knowledge. From Judaic apocalyptic texts, through St Luke, to Eusebius, to the late antique chroniclers and those engaged in paschal computation, what had once happened pointed to what would happen, and so indicated what should happen. To be sure, the approach of contemporary humanity — at least in the West — both in the religious and secular realms, represents a radical divergence from this worldview, and the worldview of every civilization since that of ancient Mesopotamia.

The reasons for this, I imagine, are manifold. Certainly, the ideological abuse of history by the various totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century is one, leading as it did to widespread exasperation with any hint of enthusiasm for the historical in the wake of the Second World War. This ideological abuse may not have been the first of its kind where history is concerned, but in a philosophically fragmented world, it provided the perfect pretext for building a new order without the need to acknowledge, reference, or defer to, precedent. The repercussions of this can be seen in post-war urban planning, architecture, visual art, composition, and dance, national approaches to education, and even the Church’s liturgy. Indeed, it is resoundingly clear that the intellectual landscape of contemporary Ukraine continues to suffer from the misappropriation of history by different factions. The fact that the post-war world is also post-Freudian will have some bearing on many of these things but, in essence, it is surely the rejection of the historical as any kind of reference point that represents the foremost factor in Western society’s disintegration.

As theoretical as all this may seem, it is vital that traditional Christians — and anyone else with an interest in the proliferation of well-ordered, well-educated, and well-grounded society — learn to engage with history: not as a mere repository of motifs for romantic fiction, nor as something to be cast aside out of ignorance, but as the source of truth as it has unfolded across generations. To this end, we must learn the difference between historical notions and what the sources actually reveal. We must learn to interpret evidence, and to set aside our preconceived notions. We must learn to identify those areas in which respect for precedent has been eschewed in favor of an existentially determined style. The implications if we do not do this include everything from the prospect of further global violence, to increasingly oppressive legislation, to the surmounting loss of our artistic, intellectual, and liturgical heritage. At this pivotal moment in human history, the aim of every able person should be to engage issues by casting them against their historical background, and reading them in relation to the sources from which they emerge. Ultimately, only an ad fontes approach to questions we face will give us the context we need in order to plot a way forward.