by: R.J. Moeller
“I am not urging a lop-sided idolatry of the past; I am protesting against a lop-sided idolatry of the present!” -G.K. Chesterton
“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.” --Paul Johnson
In the introductory essay to "Mere Conservatism" a few weeks back I referenced the famed British author C.S. Lewis and his devastatingly effective explanations of the core tenets of the Christian creed. In the first chapter of Book Four in Mere Christianity, titled “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps In The Doctrine Of The Trinity”, Lewis affirms his confidence in the intellectual curiosity and capacity of his reader by letting us know that despite warnings to the contrary from editors and colleagues, he is going to talk about heady, existential ideas regarding a complex topic. In his case, he meant talking about some of the theological basics of the Christian faith.
Today I am going to be talking about History and the importance of integrating the wisdom of the ages in both our private lives and the public square.
In that same chapter of Mere Christianity Lewis astutely identifies the skepticism (and apprehension) most people have toward any attempt to codify or verbalize big ideas and concepts. Many look at, for example, Christianity and see "a bunch of rules and regulations" written well before iPhones and Toyota hybrids that seem to have few practical implications on their modern life. Similarly, in the case of studying our past, our History, many are either bored or insulted by the notion that, for example, what men in powdered wigs said and wrote 200 years ago about government, economics, culture, and the law has any real relevance to our day and age.
Mr. Lewis references a comment that a Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) fighter pilot made to him after hearing one of C.S.’s lectures on the existence of God and the importance of studying theology and doctrine. The candid officer told Lewis that while he certainly believed in the existence of a Higher Power, and had “experienced God” while flying in the cockpit of his plane at night in the desert where he had been stationed, he simply could not bring himself to adhere to a list of “dogmas and formulas” that supposedly described who that Higher Power was and what His prescriptions for living as happy, fulfilling a life as is possible were.
Lewis was in total agreement with the general premise of this soldier’s statement. The real thing, in this instance a real encounter with God, will always be more intense and real than reading about it later.
Now think of this in terms of History. The things we experience every day, the emotions we feel, the gut-wrenching pain and suffering we see, the unexplainable compassion and kindness we witness, all seem to matter so much more than anything that happened last month, let alone in Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany, or even Ahmadinejad’s Iran.
And to a large extent, this is true. We have our immediate needs and responsibilities to look after, and our day-to-day experiences deserve the bulk of our attention and emotions. But there is a bigger picture to consider.
C.S. Lewis points out that the pilot’s first problem was that he held a wrong understanding of what theology even really is. The man was thinking of purely scholastic and theoretical study. Yes, looking at the ocean and then at a map is a different experience, but who would say that because they’ve seen the ocean a couple times they would now need no map to navigate its murky and tumultuous waters if they wanted to travel upon them?
“The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real ocean. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.”
History is a map.
Living history, making history with every breath you take (and, as my boy Sting would remind you, “move you make”), is abundantly more “real” and exhilarating. No one disagrees with this. History, because it is the story of mankind as re-told and recorded by mankind, is similar to the children’s game Telephone: it is susceptible to misrepresentations and misinterpretations. This is another unavoidable reality.
But think of the people you know who only live moment-by-moment with no thought or care of the future, and no interest in learning from past mistakes (or even successes). Are they really all that enviable? Is it really possible to live this way and maintain a job, friendships, or family? I would propose that it is not possible, at least not for long. It would rightly be understood as childish, immature and irresponsible to live in such a manner.
Now think of the times in life where you’ve relied upon past experiences, or the past experiences of others, to make a decision and it turned out to be the wrong one. Would any sane person gather from that incident that they should never again trust their own past, or the past of others, to help guide them in making a future decision? Everyone has had a bad meal before, but no one decides that as a result of your aunt’s questionable meatloaf you won’t be eating any food again.
History matters because it involves the creators of it: us. There are names and dates and places to learn, but learning History should be seen as the pre-requisite to the prized end-goal: understanding History. Wisdom comes from a healthy comprehension and appreciation of facts and realities that have occurred in the past. There is no area of study, no academic discipline, no political or ideological movement that is not completely reliant upon information collected from the past.
So why then is there generally such a divergent view between conservatives and liberals as to what role History ought to play in making personal and collective decisions? Why is it that no matter if we are talking about History in a theological, political, or economic sense, liberals tend to downplay the credence we should pay to the wisdom of the ages, and conservatives usually call for an embrace of it? Why is one side so enamored with sweeping “change” and perpetual “progress” and the other so much more focused on maintaining and modifying what has been proven to work?
I believe the ideological divide comes down to one word: authority.
The strand of progressive-liberalism produced by the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s that typifies the thinking and values of our media, academia, and current president recognizes, I believe, no real authority save itself (and themselves).
The Constitution does not allow for the type of all-encompassing change the Left’s good intentions compel them to push for, so the “living, breathing document” myth and a rabidly activist judiciary are foisted upon a misinformed and/or disinterested America. The Bible does not condone the bulk of the Left’s secular-progressive social values, so it is either rejected outright, marginalized, or annexed into the government’s control (see: Europe). History confirms the Left’s penchant for centralized power and a government-run economy to be (at best) a fool’s errand, so the History of the Christian West, especially the History of the United States, is re-cast as a harrowing tale of how benevolent, science-minded collectivists founded and developed the freest, most prosperous civilization in human history despite the racists, sexists, homophobic, bible-thumping xenophobes who believed in things like free markets, personal liberty, personal responsibility, and a Creator whose authority supersedes the whims of a corruptible, power-craved State.
The reason I put Theology first in the “Theology-History-Economics” triumvirate that most clearly defines Mere Conservatism is because I believe that when first things are first, everything else will fall in place. As soon as the Theology I outlined last week is in place, as soon as you acknowledge a Creator (who bestows purpose and grants rights) and the reality of mankind’s fallen state (e.g. sin), History’s relevance and importance becomes self-evident.
History is important because our Creator thought it worth the time to create and put us in it. History is relevant because it is the collection of all that the things that have worked and failed as long as we’ve been on the earth.
History is an imperfect source, but matters a great deal because there is a great deal more of it than anything else. How does one study the present? The future? We go to our grandpa or grandma for wisdom not because they know how to Tweet, but, in large part, because they’ve been around since before the inventor of Twitter was born.
The Left confuses the need for a “trust but verify” attitude towards the authority of History with a regrettable disdain for, and flat out rejection of, it. Shortsighted axioms such as “Don’t trust anyone over 30” were ingrained into American culture and society when they should have been saying to one another, “Don’t listen to anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with what happened in their own country beginning 30 years ago and working backward to its founding.”
Or how about, “Don’t trust anyone who hasn’t read a book published at least 30 years ago”?
I realize that for some, this talk of History and authority will either blow over their head, or anger them. To those liberals offended, I mean no personal disrespect. Conservatives are not perfect; we simply ascribe to better ideas and truer values. And to those who see little point in this whole discussion, I apologize for not mentioning my thoughts on who you should start in Fantasy Football, Kanye West, or even just one of People’s “50 Sexiest People Alive” in this essay.
For the rest of you, to those interested in accepting the call to confront the socio-political challenges of our time, please understand that the writer of Ecclesiastes was right when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Anything and everything we don’t like about what is happening to our country and culture, and in our churches and synagogues, is a direct result not of unforeseen occurrences or unpredictable challenges but unpreparedness and a pervasive inability to reinforce those same weak links in our spiritual, intellectual and moral armor that consistently allow us to be struck where the most damage can be inflicted.
Not knowing, and more importantly, not understanding, our past is helping to cripple America. Mere Conservatism seeks to help change that.
“In other words, [History] is practical: especially now. In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about [History]. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not [spend time investigating History], that will not mean that you have no ideas about [History]. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.
For a great many of the ideas about [History] which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real [Historians, Theologians, and Economists] tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular view of [History] in modern [America] is retrogression – like believing the earth is flat.”