Here is an excerpt of a short talk I gave today to the faculty of the Messiah College School of Humanities. Readers of this blog will probably find some familiar themes here.
An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, selflessness, and hospitality. By studying history we learn to listen to voices that differ from our own. We lay aside our moral condemnation about a person, idea, or event from the past in order to understand it. This is the essence of intellectual hospitality. The act of interpreting a primary source with students becomes the equivalent of inviting a person from the past into our classroom. By taking the time to listen to people from a “foreign country” we rid ourselves of the selfish quest to make the past serve our needs. The study of the past reminds us that we are not autonomous individuals, but part of a human story that is larger than ourselves. Sam Wineburg sums it up well:
For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image. Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.
Are we willing to allow history to “educate” us—to lead us outward?
Wineburg’s reference to theology is worth further exploration. In his book, A Theology of Public Life, Charles Mathewes argues that Christians today are afflicted by the sin of escapism—the desire to flee from God and each other. God wants us to turn toward Him, but he also wants us to turn toward each other. In the process of loving our neighbor—for Mathewes such a practice goes to the heart of civic life—we grow as Christians. “Through the virtues’ cultivation through engagement with public life,” Mathewes writes, “the souls of Christians may be purified in and through their public engagements….”
What if we viewed the study of the past as a form of public engagement? Even if the person we engage is dead, we can still enter into a conversation with the sources that he or she has left behind. In a passage strikingly familiar to Wineburg’s thoughts on the discipline of history, Mathewes argues that when we encounter people in all their strangeness we
find ourselves decentered, we find that we are no longer the main object of our purposes, but participate in something not primarily our own. This confession then, is itself a turning to the other, not in the interests of mutual narcissism, which makes the other only a consolidation prize for having to be already ourselves—but as an openness to transforming and being transformed by the other.
If we take seriously the Judeo-Christian concept of the Imago Dei—the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God—then we should also take seriously the idea that those who lived in the past were also created in God’s image. The very act of studying humanity—past or present—can be what Mathewes calls an “exploration into God, a mode inquiring God….” An encounter with the past thus becomes an act of spiritual devotion. This kind of encounter “provides more than enough opportunities for humility and penance, recognition of one’s sin and the sins of others, and a deepening appreciation of the terrible awe-fulness of God’s providential governing of the world. Indeed, involvement in public life today may itself increasingly need some such ascetical discipline.”