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Why Study Christian History? (Part 4)

We continue our series on history, encouraged by this praise from the venerable historian and bestselling author Thomas Reeves: “I have been speaking and writing about the study of history for more than forty years. But I have nothing at hand that is superior to the three selections you have chosen. Congratulations.” Tom blogs at History News Network. I hope you’ll visit him today.

The fourth installment in our series is the most profound meditation I’ve encountered on the problems of modern Christian history. “Things Hidden Since the Beginning of the World,” by James Hitchock of St. Louis University, first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Touchstone magazine. It is a synthesis of the thought of many great twentieth-century Christian historians, theologians, and philosophers of history — Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Martin D’Arcy, and Herbert Butterfield, to name just a few. (It’s also a mild spanking of Lord Acton.) Hitchcock’s argument is as intricately woven as a tapestry, and so I’ve found it impossible to reduce to representative quotations, as I’ve done with the other essays in this series. But I can’t resist giving you a few appetizers, knowing that they’ll make the feast irresistible to you.

[T]he disappearance of “Christian history” in the past thirty years, while justified as a sign of a new intellectual maturity, was in fact the opposite — a panicky impulse motivated by insecurity before the larger secular culture.

The ideal of historical “objectivity,” first formulated by the “scientific” historians of the nineteenth century, was always misleading, in that such objectivity, implying the complete absence of personal feeling on the part of the scholar, would be possible only with respect to subjects that the scholar found uninteresting, even perhaps trivial. Almost by definition, an interesting and important subject calls forth a personal response from anyone who approaches it…

On one level, “Christian history” proceeds from what Jacques Maritain called connatural knowledge — the understanding of his subject that a scholar possesses by virtue of its being in some sense a part of himself. Maritain noted that, whereas a scientist is wholly detached from the physical world that he studies, a historian approaches his human subject in terms of his entire personal disposition. Great works on religious history have been written by nonbelievers, but they are required to make a prodigious imaginative leap in order to do justice to their subjects, whereas for the believer, there is an immediate sympathetic comprehension of even the subtlest dimensions of religious history.

Thus, all things being equal, the believing historian should be a better student of religious phenomena, able to penetrate its inner meaning more profoundly…

Nevertheless, Hitchcock cautions:

A peculiar temptation for believing scholars (Hilaire Belloc, for example) is to deduce reality from their principles instead of studying the empirical evidence, a habit that more than once has embarrassed Christians when a secular scholar discovers inconvenient information that the believer had neglected…

Rather, faith allows the historian to approach his subject with a certain serenity, as capable as any nonbeliever of being shocked and appalled at “man’s inhumanity to man” but ultimately hopeful nonetheless. As Butterfield said, history is indeed the war of good against evil, but the exact progress of that war is hidden from human eyes.

And among his conclusions:

If evil produces good, although such production is often hidden from human eyes, the ironic view of history that Christians must espouse shows also that good produces evil. To deny this is not to defend the orthodox doctrine of providence but the reverse — a heterodox denial of the reality of human sinfulness, which is able to pervert the most sublime truths into pernicious errors. Drawing on the parable of the wheat and the tares, Maritain recalled, as all historically minded Christians must, that good and evil exist together in the world, and there is a constant double movement, both upwards and downwards. The work of redemption proceeds only slowly, against the inertia of human affairs.

Belief in human freedom finally provides as satisfactory an explanation of evil as men will ever achieve. Most of the moral evil in history can be explained in those terms, in God’s mysterious willingness to grant this freedom and permit its full exercise, even when it is used to thwart the divine plan. As Maritain said, God’s eternal plan operates in such a way as to anticipate these human failings. Butterfield saw the action of God in history as like a composer masterfully revising his music to overcome the inadequacies of the orchestra that plays it…

Belief in providence is once again crucial. History has meaning because Christians know that God chose to reveal himself through history and that his providence works through history. Thus, even though believers cannot understand exactly how this occurs, they cannot dismiss history as unimportant. As Danielou pointed out, divine revelation reveals little about the inner nature of God; it mainly reveals his actions in history.

The Incarnation itself validates history, as the eternal descends into the temporal, and men have no way of working out their salvation except in this life. If history were solely the story of the saints, it would already be infinitely valuable. But its value lies also in the story it tells of sinners, of the entire great drama of human life.

And this:

The fact that history is problematical for Christians is also seen in the fact that, as Danielou pointed out, there can be no “progress” beyond Christ. If Christ were merely a historical figure, he would then bring history to an end. However, he is also an eternal being whose reality permeates time, giving profound meaning to history, but a meaning that is hidden from the eyes of the historian. To D’Arcy, therefore, history is actually a kind of continuous present, although it does not seem that way to human experience.

As Dawson observed, the Christian approach to history is also perplexing to the secular mind because it is not completely linear, as all history is now assumed to be, but focuses around a central date—the coming of Christ—from which time is reckoned both forwards and backwards.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to excerpt much, and look what I’ve done! God forgive me. Dr. Hitchcock forgive me. I couldn’t help myself. It’s all too good. And just wait till you read the material I didn’t reproduce here. Please read the rest now.

In the same issue of Touchstone appeared an essay titled “You Have Been Brought Near”, by R.R. Reno. It’s another one you must read in its entirety, but especially the section titled “Biblical Time & History.”

I certainly hope you’re a Touchstone subscriber. If not, what are you thinking?

Again, this is the fourth in a series of reflections on history by historians. Previous installments featured works by Victor Davis Hanson, David McCullogh, and Rabbi Ken Spiro.