The wisdom of history

In the movie “Shadowlands” – which dramatizes a particular time in the life of C.S. Lewis – one of his students mentions a phrase in conversation, which C.S. Lewis reflects on: “We read to know we are not alone.” Apparently, it cannot be attributed to C.S. Lewis, but is a line that screen writer William Nicholson thought would fit the story of C.S. Lewis’ life. I was reminded of the phrase today, when I came across a passage that expressed my own thoughts so much better than I myself would have put them.

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The book is Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright. In the first chapter, he also talks about the role of history and makes this observation (p.54):

One of the reasons we do history, in fact, is because it acts as a brake, a control, on our otherwise unbridled enthusiasm for our own ideas. This is a normal human failing, but one elevated to an art form within certain parts of post-Enlightenment western culture, where our discoveries, our political insights, our egalitarian view of marriage and the family, our architecture, or whatever, are assumed to be superior, and are made to form a canon, a yardstick, against which we can and must judge all other times and places. Wait a minute, says history, supported by exegesis: ancient Athenian public architecture knocks most of today’s efforts off the stage altogether, ancient Roman houses (for those who could afford them) could still teach us a thing or two, and the ancient Israelites knew more about how to write poems of praise or lament than we will ever learn. And the early Christians? Well, that is the point at issue. What history demands, and exegesis facilitates, is suspension of judgment in order to learn wisdom.

But we really must do history, must have a thorough and sympathetic approach, to be able to learn wisdom. For otherwise a judgmental distortion of history is put in service of a modern ideology that uncritically reaffirms our own prejudices: the ideology of progress. Since the 18th century this has provided a powerful narrative to glorify our own thoughts and discount what has been before, from architecture, political thought, moral judgments, to economics. While there may indeed have been radical technological advancement (at least in some areas), the transfer of that apparent progress to all spheres of life has resulted in a distorted, narrow evaluation of our own situation. Equally, it has robbed us of serious engagement with the past and options for the future.

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