In my reading today, I came across a quote that clearly and concisely summarized one of the reasons why I appreciate history. I have tried to explain this idea verbally to others but for some reason it has never come out in these terms (nor as concisely as these writers put it). This quote is from a book entitled “Colossians Remixed” by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat (while they have differing surnames, they are actually married-pretty awesome!). In one chapter they write this:
This story has come from somewhere and is going somewhere [referencing the last paragraph], and we can truly know where we are going only if we know where we have come from. In order to have vision we must have memory. Indeed forgetfulness or amnesia is precisely what strips us of vision-without the past there can be no future. So our contemporary improvisation must be informed and directed by both profound indwelling of the biblical vision of life and a discerning attentiveness to the postbiblical scenes that have already been acted out in the history of the church.
Their argument about the necessity of remembrance (history) for any sort of vision is intriguing and I think extremely significant. I don’t think that this is an argument for a particular philosophy of history, whether cyclical or linear, but rather a proposal for the purpose and necessity of history in the present and future.
In an attempt to illustrate their point, let us imagine for a moment that you and your spouse (imagining you have one if you don’t) adopt a young boy. The child is rather old for adoption (maybe 13 or 14) and his parents left him at a young age and since then he has been in and out of a number of foster homes that were not always actually “fostering” him in a manner that was positive. You don’t really know the details of his story, but just have a general idea of what his life has been like. You and your spouse are ecstatic about this adoption and have always wanted a young boy of your own. Together, you have dreamed about what school he should go to and who he should marry and what his vocation will be, but you have done this without knowing much about the boy you are soon to adopt. You have very much enjoyed carefully crafting a vision for his future. As you drive this boy home from the courts, while hardly being able to keep your eyes on the road because you constantly want his eyes to meet yours from the backseat, you realize that he has a story of his own that is not quite what you expected. As you ask questions, he meets you with answers that you weren’t at all prepared for. He has more wounds than you could have imagined and peculiar passions that you never would have guessed. Thus, his story begins to change what you thought adoption would look like. It not only changes your view of adoption, but also your vision for what you thought his life would become. Slowly you realize that his story is going to affect all the dreams that you had for his life and they are going to have to change. You realize that you were ignorant to who he was and where had come from and as he spoke you came to see that his story was shaping the present circumstance and your vision for his future in your midst.
Simply put, when we are attentive to the past, we tend to see the future differently. How are we to know where we are going if we are ignorant of our own history or the history that shapes our context, community, and/or character? We can have no vision for where to go next if we don’t know where we’ve been and thus don’t know where we presently are. There can be no vision for reform if we have nothing to re-form.
The writers who provided that quote hone in on church history and I think that this is particularly important yet forgotten in the church. Church History is vital for the church, but alas we are fighting against a postmodern age that Hauerwas aptly describes with a saying that he has become known for:
America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.
In essence, Hauerwas is saying that our culture has forgotten and been severed from any semblance or remembrance of History. We are a culture of wanderers without any concept of how we fit into the history of the world. Without history (whether someone’s personal story or a global history) we lose deep appreciation for stories of the past (and how those affect the present), an understanding of where we fit in, and a vision for where we are going.