This week I’ve been privileged to spend time with two different groups of younger adults seeking to live missionally in their local communities, and spend time exploring the story (or rather stories) of the Christian church over the past two millennia. It raises big questions about the relevance or otherwise of history to how we seek to be ‘good news’ in the present. Some might say that churches are rather too burdened by their history, and certainly we’ve all come across unhelpful examples of that – ‘but we’ve never done it like this!’ and ‘we tried that back in 1973 and it didn’t work!’ being amongst the more familiar complaints heard about change in congregational life. But I can’t help thinking that history provides a huge resource for reflection on what we’re trying to be and do in the present and in this respect I’ve begun over the last few years to do some more sustained thinking about what ‘historical intelligence’ (my phrase, I think…) for Christian discipleship looks like. I may well end up trying to write something more sustained on this in due course, so for the moment, here are a few key reasons why I think we need to take history seriously when thinking about discipleship and mission:
1. Because at root we’re time-bound creatures, and our identity is fundamentally rooted (for good or ill) in the fact that as individuals and communities we have pasts, presents and futures (for more on the generality of this see the intriguing book ‘The Time Paradox’ by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd). To miss the fact that we exist in time means to miss the fullness of the fact that we follow Jesus in time.
2. This is particularly relevant for Christians, since we identify ourselves with a historical faith. The core of Christianity is not an abstract philosophy, but a conviction that God is interested in material, historical existence and intervenes in it – centrally in Jesus – to bring about his purposes for it. Gustavo Gutierrez puts it even better: ‘The God of the Bible is a God who not only governs history but who orientates it in the direction of establishment of justice and right’. For Christians history has meaning and direction, even whilst we need to exercise cautious humility with regard to discerning the ‘meaning’ of particular events.
3. With this in mind, Christians need to (as Martin Marty says) to ‘study history in order to intervene in history’. We are not primarily antiquarians who read history for the pleasure of being lost in another world. I frequently come back to Tom Wright’s nice allusion between history and the performance of an incomplete five-act play (summarised in the paragraph ‘the authority of a story’ atL http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm). We learn how to be disciples in the present day through immersing ourselves in the story so far, keeping in mind the clues we have as to the ending of the play, and engage in a kind of educated improvisation on a theme, with the Bible and history as our key source material.
4. In this respect, exploring history also helps us understand what’s distinctive about the present, and what’s not. Since our experience of the world is partial, our sense of how and how far things change can easily become skewed. Things we imagine are very contemporary can actually have deep roots, whilst things we imagine have always been this way are actually often comparatively recent developments. ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky’ says Jesus at one point, ‘but you do cannot interpret the signs of the times’.
5. Awareness of being part of a bigger story helps us to critique and challenge the ‘powers’ that hold sway in the present. As Paolo Freire noted, one of the key techniques by which oppression occurs is by the insistence that the current state of affairs is simply how things always were, are and will be. By contrast, writes John Arnold in his entertaining ‘History: A Very Short Introduction’, ‘History provides us the tools to dissent’. This is particularly true for Christians, for whom remembering (‘do this in remembrance of me’) is at the heart of worship and discipleship. I don’t claim fully to understand half of Johann-Baptist Metz’s writings, but I do rather like his contention that ‘Christian faith can… and must… be seen as a dangerous memory… that calls [the present] into question because it remembers a future that is still outstanding’.
6. If we read history to critique the present, there is also value in the reverse: we subject the past to the scrutiny of present values in order to discern whether our efforts at discipleship and mission through history have borne the kind of ‘good fruit’ which the Gospel should. We need to be honest and frank about the times when that hasn’t happened (rather too many occasions for comfort) but equally, against some of the less sophisticated new atheist criticism of the church’s record, we also need to take seriously the occasions on which people acting in Christ’s name have been a force for huge creativity or liberation. The history of Christianity is incomplete without both sides of the story.
7. Reference to ‘sides of the story’ invites another reason why we need as Christians to read history: there is not one single story here with self-evident ‘facts’ only needing discovery and narration. History is always written from the perspective of specific agendas and we need to be aware both of the stories we tell and those that others tell. Specifically, since we follow a God who has a special concern for the downtrodden, we need as Christians to be reading history to hear the stories of those who have been forgotten and marginalised (by others or by us), and working for a feast to which all are invited.
8. Finally, the ‘all’ in that sentence refers to the past, the present and the future. Whilst sometimes for us in can be a little difficult to relate to people in different times and cultures, God, I think, must see the whole story as one. We say ‘we believe in the communion of saints’ and if we take that seriously we must at some level recognise how we are brothers and sisters with people in times other than our own. As Rowan Williams nicely puts in in his book ‘Why Study the Past?’ ‘there are no hermetic seals between who I am as a Christian and the life of a believer in, say, twelfth century Iraq… I do not know, theologically speaking, where my debts begin and end’. Historical intelligence for discipleship is, in part, an acknlowledgement of that debt.
If that’s the justification for reading history for discipleship and mission, there remain plenty of practical challenges to overcome, which probably deserve a separate blog posting. How far can we discern specific lessons from history? How firm or provisional ought we be in according spiritual meaning to particular events? But for the moment, I hope the value of a critical conversation with history is obvious.