Historians “get in the way of death”

Resurrection

And in the process we “practice resurrection.”

Yesterday was a long day of meetings about unhappy things.  I needed a reminder of why I do what I do and why I do what I do where I do it.

Chris Gehrz’s powerful reflection on the work of historians was just what I needed. Thank you.

Here is a taste:

…history can serve as both an academic and spiritual discipline, a way of getting in the way of death and practicing resurrection.

First, history gets in the way of death.

Not that history stops people from dying — neither its subjects nor its practitioners — but it resists the power of death. For if Paul is right that death is the “last enemy to be destroyed,” then death is more than an event: it is an active force, one among the rulers, authorities, and powers that oppose God. Death doesn’t merely snuff out the spark of life; it seeks to strip humanity of the dignity inherent to being made of the image of God. Resurrection may bring change “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” but in the meantime, death lingers: slowly, methodically seeking to erase the meaning of mortal existence from our memory.

So if we practice the discipline of history, we act as a counter-force to death. We are not standing passively by the grave, but actively protecting against the decay of forgetting. For not only do we help preserve the evidence the dead leave behind, but we make meaning of lives that death seeks to render meaningless…

I don’t mean to claim too much with that phrase: we are not emptying tombs. Nor do we do the practical good that Claiborne and other neo-monastics have done when they “practice resurrection” by working to revive urban neighborhoods left for dead.

But I also don’t want to claim too little. It is no small thing to breathe life into what remains of the past by teaching, speaking, and writing about it. History is harder than most will ever know; it must be fueled by passion and compassion. Indeed, such “resurrection” is one of the most common ways that Christian historians fulfill Christ’s command to love our (temporal) neighbors: dedicating our time, energy, and gifts to bringing them — however briefly and figuratively — back to life, in all their messy complexity. We read historical texts, argues Fea, “for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies” (Why Study History?, p. 131).

In the process, perhaps we might even bring some life back to our students and ourselves. Long before our physical demise, we suffer the creeping spiritual death of sin. Perhaps history can serve as a means of grace, reviving in us the ability to love God with our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Read the entire post at The Pietist Schoolman.