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Why History matters

It’s not surprising people aren’t that interested in history. The evolutionary perspective that’s dominated the West for decades now, undermines the significance of knowing our past.

How so? Well, if life started out simple and became more complex over time, then what exists now is superior to anything that came before, and what’s older is outdated and inferior. Now is much more important than anything recorded in the history textbooks, and thus there’s little reason to learn about our past.

A person’s worldview affects how he or she views history. This is a point made by Stephen Mansfield in his book, More Than Dates and Dead People: Recovering a Christian View of History. Those with an evolutionary worldview will have little incentive to study history aside from trivial interests.

Christianity, however, views history much differently. We know God controls everything, so historical events are not random and meaningless since they all have a purpose in God’s plan. As Mansfield puts it, “God has a destination for history that gives everything else in history its meaning.”

Your history shapes you

One way history affects our lives involves how we see and understand ourselves. Your own family’s past will influence your personal identity and if your ancestors were notorious criminals, that’ll impact you differently than if they were war heroes or great philanthropists. Mansfield writes,

“…the way you see your past has a lot to do with the way you see yourself now. And the way you see yourself, good or bad, determines the way you live. This is why we say that history has the power to impact a sense of destiny. Your view of your past will shape your view of your future, and this is not only true of individuals, but even of nations – in fact, of any group of people.”

Everyone’s parents are part of a particular nation and culture. Thus, everyone has a specific heritage from the time of their birth. Often this heritage will contribute much to their sense of identity, and to their sense of meaning and purpose.

History shapes our time

Studying history also provides perspective that helps people to better understand their own era. This can be an experience similar to traveling to a different country: seeing how other people live causes us to become aware of how our own society differs from others. It makes us conscious of things we haven’t thought about before, simply because they were so familiar. Learning history can provide us with a similar experience, because we see how differently people lived in the past, even within our own country.

In many respects, life is easier now than in the past. The higher standard of living today is due to the hard work of our forebears. However, we can’t truly appreciate what those people have done for us unless we actually know what they’ve done. The accomplishments of previous generations profoundly affect our lives today. Without victories in particular conflicts, for example, we would be living in completely different circumstances. Consider how things would be different if the Allies had lost the Second World War. As Mansfield explains:

“every generation is living in the wake of the generation that precedes it…. We all live in the world that our ancestors have left us.”

Religious history shows the why behind what happened

History shows what people have done in the past but a key question is, why did they do what they did?

Generally speaking, people are motivated by what they believe. Therefore, to understand history it’s necessary to know what a community believed that would lead them to do what they did. In other words, much of history is motivated by people’s religion. To explain this properly, Mansfield relies on a robust definition of religion as “ultimate concern.” As he explains more fully:

“A man’s ultimate concern is what dominates his thoughts and passions, what he regards with unconditional seriousness, and what he is willing to suffer or die for. This is his religion, his god, his faith – regardless of what he says he believes.”

Many think of religion in a narrower sense of believing in a particular god and attending some house of worship. They would say that they don’t have a religion and that society should be non-religious. In their view, people can practice religion as part of their private lives but should keep it out of the public sphere. However, when religion is understood as “ultimate concern,” it is clear that every society is religious because everyone has fundamental beliefs about the meaning of life that motivates their actions.

In recent decades, North American society has turned away from Christianity. But the secular or progressive ideals that have replaced Christianity are just as “religious,” even though secularism isn’t a traditional religion where people attend an assembly of co-believers to worship a particular deity. As Mansfield summarizes this point:

“When we look at the lives of people in history, we have to realize that each person’s life has been shaped in large part by faith. Whatever people believed – their ultimate concern – was their religion, even if they claimed to be completely opposed to religion.”

This point is important with regard to understanding history because, Mansfield writes:

“Faith is what powers the human side of history. Find out what people believe and you’ll know who they are.

History shows how God blesses countries that obey

One notable example of the influence of religion on history is how Protestantism led to the greatest degree of individual liberty among nations. While Christianity introduced the idea of a transcendent authority (God) above the state, the Reformation refined the concept of political liberty even further. This was particularly the case in Calvinistic countries.

In 17th century Britain, individual liberty became a key emphasis of political theory. As the British Empire expanded across the globe, these ideas were carried with emigrants who settled new lands that became the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These countries, along with some of the Protestant nations of continental Europe, have offered their citizens the greatest degree of freedom in history.

Capitalism – the economic side of individual freedom – generated tremendous prosperity in these countries as well. Thus, both liberty and relatively high standards of living were the direct fruits of Protestantism.

Legislative history reflects the heart of a nation

Although there is a popular slogan that “you can’t legislate morality,” the opposite is actually true: all law is the enacting of morality into legislation. Murder is illegal because it is considered to be immoral; theft is illegal because it is considered to be immoral, and so on.

Therefore, examining a community’s laws will reveal what that community values most strongly. Mansfield puts it this way:

“Laws, all laws, are statements of value, of belief, of higher principles. This is why we might define law as ‘religion codified’ or religion set into a series of statements about right and wrong.”

With this in mind, it is possible to see when a particular society’s religious beliefs are changing. Any substantial change in laws reveals a substantial change in their religion

Just such a legal and religious change was noticeable in North America during the 1960s. For example, Mansfield notes that:

“the United States Supreme Court, in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale case, told 39,000,000 American school children that the twenty-two word prayer with which they started their day was a violation of the Constitution.”

This was one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in American history, and it indicated that the country was moving in a sharply secular direction. A few years later, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 legalizing abortion throughout the U.S. contributed further to this change.

The 1960s were also a major period of change in Canada. In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau legalized abortion (to a certain degree) and homosexuality at the same time. Clearly, the country was moving away from its Christian foundation.

Trudeau went even further by adding his Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the constitution in 1982. That document would ultimately lead to the elimination of any restrictions on abortion whatsoever, as well as extend homosexual rights to the point where the federal government legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.

Again, the change in law reflected a change in religion. Canada was becoming less Christian and more secular. We can see this from the history. We can understand the present political and cultural situation of our country only by learning this history.

Conclusion

Contrary to the evolutionary view that learning history has little value, the Christian perspective recognizes that history is the outworking of God’s plan that provides meaning to our lives. It affects how we view ourselves and our purpose in the world. Without some knowledge of history, we cannot properly understand our own society and the significance of major cultural and political events.

Given that religious beliefs are the primary motivator for people’s behavior, history provides a record of how different religions have affected the world for better or worse. What history also teaches us then, generally speaking, is that those countries most aligned with God’s Truth – Protestant Christian nations – have been the freest and most prosperous.


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Christian education

Why study History?

Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. – Psalm 78:3-4 ***** History is important for day-to-day life in ways that most of us don’t know. A shared history unifies communities, and knowing history can inspire individuals to be better people because they can learn from previous generations what to do and what to watch out for. Recently history professor John Fea of Messiah College in Pennsylvania wrote a book about the importance of history called Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. While an aim of the book was to encourage college students to major in history, what he shares would be beneficial to all Christians. Shared history binds us together Fea points out that historical accounts are important to the identity of communities: “We need the stories of our past to sustain us as a people. History is the glue that holds communities and nations together.” The history of our community (whether as a church, ethnic group, or political unit) creates a perception of shared experience with other members of our community. This helps to bind us to one another. The kind of experience we share with other community members will be influenced by how its history is presented. In a national context, competing groups may emphasize different aspects of the past and thus offer different versions of history. In the United States, disputes of this nature have arisen in public schools. Fea writes, “The battle over what American schoolchildren learn about the nation’s past has been a significant part of the ongoing culture wars in this country.” “Past” versus “history” Fea makes an distinction between what he calls “the past” and “history.” The past consists of all the events that have occurred before the present time. This includes the dates and facts about what happened. History, on the other hand, involves the creation of a narrative using information about the past. History is always written by a person, and each historian has to determine which information from the past is important and how it fits together. In this sense, history always involves an interpretive framework provided by the historian – all history is written from a particular perspective or worldview. The right worldview is key That being the case, it is very important to determine whether or not a particular historian works within a good worldview. For example, when a Marxist writes a history of the sixteenth century, he sees economic forces as the primary factors leading to the origin and success of the Reformation. He will discount the specifically “religious” aspects of the Reformation as window dressing for the real action which he believes is in the economic sphere. The Marxist does not even believe in God, so how could he attribute any facet of the Reformation to spiritual activity? It’s completely outside the realm of possibility in his worldview. Thus a Marxist interpretation of the sixteenth century will inevitably miss the most important aspect of the Reformation, namely, the work of God in restoring His truth to the church. A Reformed historian will look at exactly the same information as the Marxist and see an entirely different picture. The Reformed historian will focus on the religious and spiritual nature of the Reformation. Economic forces do matter at various points throughout history but they cannot account for genuine spiritual occurrences and the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people. While there are many learned and thoughtful historians of various persuasions who have written important books, if they didn’t approach history from a Biblical Christian perspective it is possible that they missed important features of their subject. Like a Reformed historian, a Roman Catholic historian may also see the Reformation within a spiritual context. However, his analysis would likely be the opposite of the Reformed view. To him or her, the Reformation involved a schism from the true church. Clearly, the perspective held by any historian will provide the interpretive framework through which he or she evaluates the past. All historians operate within a particular worldview that determines what they will consider to be worthy of including in their account. Leftwing history Leftwing historians, often known as “progressive historians,” understand the importance of history in the life of a community. They also understand the power of historical interpretation as a method of promoting political change. Particular historical accounts can be used as the justification for political action. As a result, they interpret history through an especially leftwing framework as a means to advocate for socialist solutions. Fea explains: As these historians began to speak out against the injustices that they saw in society, they began to articulate a method of approaching the past that was concerned less with objectivity and more with activism. They looked to the past for antecedents to contemporary social problems that might help point the world in the right direction. Their accounts of American history, therefore, focus on the negative aspects and largely ignore the positive aspects. Fea notes, “They wrote books calling attention to the nation’s long history of injustice. Such works were largely one-sided, but that was the point.” If the United States is historically based on racist oppression and capitalist exploitation of the poor, then the way to improve it is through socialism. Government planners can enforce “social justice” through state coercion. This is the leftwing ideal, and it appears more plausible when backed by historical arguments about pervasive evil in the nation’s past. If individual freedom has led to oppression and exploitation, then it must be sacrificed to government control in order to achieve justice. History motivating politics In other words, a particular historical perspective becomes the underlying basis for an associated political agenda. History conducted in this way provides the driving force for a program of political change. The example of the “progressive historians” demonstrates the use of history in a powerful and negative way. But history can also be used to undergird a positive agenda. Fea points out that some American Christians have written history books to boost the case for Christian political activism. For example, if Christianity held a privileged position in earlier periods of American political life (and it did), then Christianity should not be expelled from American political life today. However, Fea also notes that some of these efforts by Christians have been so lopsided as to turn history into political propaganda, much like the progressive historians have done. This is certainly an error to avoid, but it does not discount the possibility of the proper use of history to buttress Christian activism in the culture wars. Sanctification Besides the political role of history mentioned above, history can also motivate us to improve ourselves as individuals. As Fea explains it, The past has the power to stimulate us, fill us with emotion, and arouse our deepest convictions about what is good and right. When we study inspirational figures of the past, we often connect with them through time and leave the encounter wanting to be better people or perhaps even continue their legacy of reform, justice, patriotism, or heroism. Used in this way, history can actually be an aid in sanctification. Conclusion History is important for the role it plays in binding communities together and in motivating political action. It can also help to encourage individuals to improve themselves or inspire them to become involved in a cause. The value of particular historical accounts will be heavily influenced by the perspective of the writer of the account. Only a Christian historian can truly appreciate the role of God in history. It’s hard to love something you know little about. Learning the history of your country can help you to love your country. Learning the history of your church may help you to appreciate your church more too. Whatever the case, it is certain that studying history is a valuable activity. This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition....


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