Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Lessons of History

Occasionally someone from a news program or talk show will quiz those passing by on the street as to their knowledge of basic American history. Sadly many fail the simplest of questions. As a nation we are weaker for our lack of historical awareness, for without the past to illuminate the present, we are often no better than a man groping in a dark room inches from the light switch. The darkness offers no hope and no direction.

The Christian church, as well, is also weaker when it is ignorant of its history, or chooses to ignore its lessons. Yet many Christians are oblivious to their history, and the consequences of this void of knowledge is that they are forced to reinvent the church and its mission in every era. They are also captives to the current crisis with no way of looking beyond by looking behind. In our time there is a fascination with the present, and the tools we prefer are the social instruments of polls and surveys and questionnaires. What do people think? What do people want now? How quickly we become literal slaves to the whims of changing emotions and opinions.

Given this trend in the church today, I was quite pleased with the recent issue of Christian History and Biography (Issue 94, Spring 2007). The theme for their special 25th anniversary issue is "Building the City of God in a Crumbling World - How Christians from the Past Can Help Us Survive Today's Challenges." Utilizing a variety of writers and scholars they examine several modern issues in light of historical counterparts of times past.

The first article entitled "Love Amidst Brokenness" briefly examines Augustine's approach to history itself, especially in light of the traumatic events associated with the sacking and eventual fall of Rome in the fifth century. In his seminal work, The City of God, this father of the faith broke rank with popular views of history and after meditation on the Word itself came to a new conclusion. He rejected the cyclical and the progressive views, as well as the apocalyptic view, this latter one which is closely related to views held by modern evangelicals who are obsessed with the details of the return of Christ.

Many of Augustine's time closely linked the events of history and the status of the Roman empire. The progress or demise of one went with the other. Again we see a parallel in those who view the future almost exclusively through the political status of nations. Augustine, on the other hand, understood the political realities of his time, but looked beyond.

Writer Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School notes that:
"Augustine teaches us that Christians are those who live in time but who belong to eternity. he also teaches us that we must not equate any political entity - whether it be the Roman Empire, the American Republic, the United Nations, or anything else - with the Kingdom of God. This is one side of the Augustinian equation, but there is another. Christians hold a double citizenship in this world. Like the apostle Paul - who could claim that his true political identity was in heaven (Phil. 3:20), but who also appealed to Caesar as a Roman citizen when his life was at stake - so believers in Christ lives as sojourners, resident aliens, in a world of profound discontinuity and frequently contested loyalty." (9)

George also notes the two major mistakes that Augustine wishes us to avoid as we engage the present in light of the past and future:
"One is the lure of utopianism - the mistake of thinking we can produce a society that will solve our problems and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This was the basic error of both Marxism and 19th-century liberalism.

The other error, equally disastrous, is cynicism. This creeps upon us as we see ever-present evil. We withdraw into our own self-contained circle of contentment, which can just as well be a pious holy huddle as secular skeptics club." (10)

In light of our recent Memorial Day celebrations these points are well put. I participated in the parade and other ceremonies in my local town yesterday as part of our Boy Scout troop, including a dedication of a monument to those killed in WWI. It was an honor to be a part of these events, especially since my father was a 23-year vet of the Army. However, as a Christian I participated as one who gave thanks to God for the good he has given to my nation, while still recognizing that my full citizenship remains in heaven to come.

For those interested in history in a popular and engaging format that is not as heavy as a professional journal, would be encouraged to check out the Christian History magazine. They have covered many figures of history, both ancient and modern, as well as periods and events of the past. It is part of the Christianity Today universe of periodicals, and more information on subscription can be found here.

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