Orthodox America

  Why Study…History?

Reader Timothy Shell


     In a society which is so concerned with being "up to date," "modern," "in step with the times"--as ours is today, it is little wonder that history is seen to be about as relative as the Egyptian pyramids. It is an unfortunate fact of our modern culture that, while a knowledge of history was once considered essential, today the serious study of history has largely been abandoned or relegated to the image of bespectacled scholars forcing upon school children the memorization of endless lists of dates and names of obscure kings. It is the conviction of this speaker, however, that the neglect of the study of history is no less than a crime against oneself and, even worse, an insult to our holy Christian Faith! It is the purpose of this lecture to demonstrate the various ways in which a study of history can be supremely edifying and bring far greater rewards than many pursuits popular today.

       A look across the barriers of time and into history first reveals a deeply human perspective, one which is sorely needed in this age of self-centeredness. In truth, denizens of our modern times no longer divide time into B.C. and A.D.; rather, it is B.M. and A.M.: "Before Me" and "After Me." Things that are "before me" are equivalent to ancient history; they are passe and quite irrelevant. Only those events occurring "after me", that is to say, after one's own birth, take on any true value and existence. For example, the overwhelming majority of Americans now living were born after the end of the Second World War. Studies have shown that most of this generation knows next to nothing about the details of that momentous conflict which has so shaped our modern world. Outside of possibly recognizing the names of Hitler, and knowing that the "enemies'' were Germany and Japan, most know little more about it than they would the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar two millenia before.

      What is the danger of all this? The overused but still truthful quote comes to mind: "Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." Even more dreadful is the result ignorance of history can have upon one's spiritual state. This self-centered concept of time serves only to encourage the natural human inclination to pride, to think of oneself as the center of all existence. The very first lesson of history is that there was indeed a time before we existed, and that during this time there exist ed countless millions of men and women who were, in essence, no different from us. They too had lofty thoughts and shared emotions of love, anger, ambition. Our Western society, however, has all but severed the memory of the past, allowing to spread the dangerous misconception that we are technologically advanced and therefore somehow different, superior. It is true that our proportions of work and leisure have changed, but history shows that human nature does not change, and in this sense we are no more unique than those hundreds of generations which have trodden the path of life before us. This realization can be a very humbling and healthy experience.

Thus says the Lord: Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths wherein the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16) 

A second glance at history and one is confronted by another essential fact: everyone involved--whether they be heroes or villains, saints or sinners, kings or beggars--eventually reaches the end of their earthly sojourn-and dies. No amount of wealth, wisdom, or good health will prevent the shadow of death from overtaking them. How then, can one expect one's own fate to be any different? The Holy Fathers teach emphatically that contemplation of one's own death is a good and profitable exercise because it leads one into a life of sobriety, of seeking the heavenly world rather than rooting oneself in this perishable earth. And it is certainly true that a person having faced the reality of his future death, begins to seek the answer to the question: "What comes afterwards?" Thus, a sense of even common secular history can catapult a person into an honest search for the meaning of life.

    Furthermore, through history we are able to learn of the truth of Christianity and that the Orthodox Church is the only pure embodiment of the Faith. It is unfortunate that today many people choose religious beliefs based on the aforementioned self-centeredness and pride. Either a person adopts the faith of his family or culture, with the unconscious but innate ethnocentric assumption of its correctness, or he adopts a religion based upon an attraction (often intellectual) to some particular facet. Some, for example, may be drawn to the aesthetics of nature and become Shintoists, others are seduced by the possibilities of reincarnation and become Hindus, while still others are moved by the masters of meditation and become Bhuddists. The issue, however, should not be which is the belief most agreeable to one's own preconceived philosophy, but rather ..."Which is true?"

     Most religions are structured in a manner which makes any type of objective examination ' impossible. They are based either upon traditional theories about the way things are-such as Hinduism, or upon one man's private "revelation"--such as Islam or Mormonism. Here Christianity stands alone as being a fully historical faith, one which has its complete inception within historical events. We believe that at a specific point in history, God became Incarnate and lived as a man. He taught the Faith and to show Who He was, He confirmed it with signs and miracles. As a lasting seal and proof of His identity and of His mastery of all things, He rose from the dead. The testimony of history shows that none of this was imagined, created as an : edifying myth, or based upon anyone' s private revelation.

Above all, it is Christ’s Resurrection which is the convincing proof of His Divinity. Many men throughout the ages have made bizarre claims; some have even appeared to have some type of supernatural power. Yet they have all gone into the tomb...and not come out. The truth of Christ's Resurrection can be supported by a careful study of history, even if those who author modern history books try to explain away the Resurrection as being a supernatural occurrence which cannot rationally be accepted as "fact". Such "atheistic scholarship", however, is easily seen to be grasping at straws in trying to create any alternative theory to the Resurrection. A professor at Cambridge in the last century summed it up nicely when he said:

    "Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the Resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it."

    If an impartial study of history provides sure evidence of Christ's Resurrection, it also allows one to ascertain which is the true Church that Christ founded. We know from history that Christ did set up a Church, promising that the gates of hell would never prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Where is this Church? Looking at Christianity through the pages of history, we find the Protestant sects beginning in the 16th century and fragmenting endlessly since then. Further back, we see the popes of the Roman Church taking upon them selves the authority to change the ancient faith until they thereby broke off from the original Church in 1054. When one is finished with an historical survey, only one Church can possibly qualify as the original: our beloved Orthodox Church. This claim is even supported by the famous Protestant Church historian, Phillip Shaft, who writes: "Orthodoxy is the grand historic stem of Christendom." Thus, history testifies readily to Orthodoxy's being the "one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."

    Finally, history contains a wonderful source of edification and inspiration in the lives of the saints--those men and women of various times and places who were So totally united with God, even in this earthly life, that everything about their lives was filled with God's grace. Three books which deserve particular mention here are: Eusebius; Ecclesiastical History, written in the fourth century, the Venerable Bede's A History of the English Church, written in the sixth century, and a sixth century text, The History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours. The saints were as human as we are, yet they successfully traveled the same road on which we find ourselves today, and through their examples we can learn what pitfalls await us and how to avoid them. Through studying their lives we can come to a humble realization of our own spiritual poverty and be motivated to strive a little harder to lead more holy lives ourselves.

     Aside from the examples of the saints, the study of Church history offers the comfort of the overall picture. Our world, filled with chaos and sin, is at times very depressing for a Christian. In studying the larger picture, however, it becomes very clear that ,God is always in absolute control. Just when it appears that the Orthodox people are being persecuted beyond their endurance, or that heresy is overcoming the truth, miraculous interventions change the entire course of history. There is no need for depression, only for spiritual joy, for history teaches us that we are not orphans. God is, always with us.

     The mere study of history, however, will be absolutely worthless to anyone on the Day of Judgment if it has not moved them to draw near to Christ. History should stimulate a person to incorporate into his heart and soul the spiritual messages which lie before him, and to change his life accordingly. It is to genuine seekers of the Truth such as these that the study of history will offer its full value and inspiration. 

(Slightly condensed from a lecture given at the St.Herman Winter Pilgrimage, Redding, CA, .February, 1984)