Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Is History Important?

Lincoln's Tomb
Springfield, IL

Is History really important?  Why is it important to attempt to understand and reinterpret our past, to sift through dusty old documents, to dig up ancient graves?  Why can't we just leave history's skeletons to safely moulder away in their peaceful closets?  Isn't it dangerous to become obsessive about the past, to become a stick in the mud.  Isn't it dangerous to hero-worship excessively, to build up false idols? Isn't the life of Lincoln hopelessly irrelevant in the age of Trump?  Civil War Tourism in the USA is way down from the 1970s (

Snapchat: The Cult of Here & Now

Should we not live in the moment and focus on the bright shiny future rather than the dim and dusty past?  Our new world of social media focuses almost entirely on the immediate.  Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are the new cult of the Here and Now.  Is it hip?  Is it fast?  Will it make me feel good?  How many stars in the review?  Should I like it or loathe it?   Do I friend or delete?  Will it be delivered for free, tomorrow,  by drone?  If there is no immediate gratification, we hurriedly move on.  And so on.

Commander K says: "Shalom"! 
Against this cult of the Here and Now there is...the faith of the Jews.

Well, Judaism is an ancient religion.  At the core of Judaism lies, not merely certain theological doctrines, but rather the conviction that the customs of one's forefathers are important.  Judaism is a practice and not just a belief system.  It is a practice that affirms the importance of remembering our history.

The dark chapters of anti-semitism that have blackened the pages of human history are important to remember.  Jews and Gentiles alike have much to learn from the history of pogroms, persecution and the Holocaust.  This history must never be forgotten so that it can never be repeated.  Even non observant Jews fervently believe this. And if the sufferings of the Jews must be remembered, then so too must those of countless other ethnic and religious groups (Armenians, Native Americans, Ancient Gauls, Rwandans, etc.).

Against this cult of the Here and Now there is...Christianity.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln Museum, Springfield IL
The Christian faith asserts that the life of one man who lived over two thousand years ago in Palestine is of central world historical significance.  Christianity, at its core, is a faith that affirms the central importance of history. The life of the historic Jesus Christ is the lens through which the world must viewed by Christians.  The tragedy of Good Friday is recapitulated again and again through history -- on Good Friday 1865 President Lincoln, having secured the peace of Appomattox, is assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington DC.  So, perhaps, the life of Lincoln continues to be relevant today?  Perhaps now more than ever.

But Christian faith can be embraced or it can be rejected.  No one today is forced to be Christian, Jew or, indeed, any religion.  All religions are simply dazzling options on the ideological Smörgåsbord of modern life.

So can we make a case for the importance of History form a completely secular perspective?  Can we convince an atheist or agnostic that the past is important too?

Well, consider the Historical example of the start of World War I.  In August 1914 a world that had been experiencing vast technological and economic improvement erupted into war.  A continent that had been largely peaceful since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 mobilized for war.  As a result, around seventeen million people lost their lives.  Four of the World's Great Empires (German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman) were shattered.  Moreover, the twin scourges of the 20th Century Fascism and Communism were midwifed by the Great War.  World War I would lead directly to World War II about twenty years later.

My own great-grandfather, Thomas Tileston Wells, was a witness to the outbreak of World War I who wrote an account of what he saw in An Adventure in 1914 (  In a small way I explored the origins of World War I in his memoir.

The puzzle over why the Civilized world degenerated into four years of horrific trench warfare has been endlessly debated by historians.  The final verdict may never be established to everyone's satisfaction. But is it not vitally important to examine and re-examine these events in order to give us guidance for the present?  President Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman's classic Guns of August around the time of the Cuban Missile crisis.  Is it not possible that the world today could once more stumble into war as we did so calamitously in the summer of 1914?

The philosopher George Santayana wrote that "Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It."  This is why we must keep eternally grappling with our history.

Even a non-believer must concede the value of trying to understand why World War I broke out.

MLK made History
The Reverend Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  King was a Christian and a man of faith who believed that the long line of history would bend toward justice.  The outbreak of World War I shows us clearly that the line of history is not a simple 45 degree angle sloping ever upwards.  The long line of history is jagged.  It includes wars, depressions, plagues, dark ages and reversals. Even TV's Harry Bosch, a homicide cop inhabiting a hellish Los Angeles, seems to believe that sometimes the world bends towards  And it is only through the efforts of men and women of goodwill such as Lincoln, King and Bosch that will keep our world bending towards justice.  Bosch, at the end of Season 5, will continue to sift through dusty historic documents in his personal quest for justice.

If History were unimportant to our world today, why would Hong Kong protestors be singing the American anthem?  Perhaps Lincoln's dream of a "government of the the people, by the people and for the people" has profound meaning far beyond American shores?  Now Lincoln "belongs to the ages" reposing in Springfield but he belongs to Hong Kong too.

Faith helps to give hope to believers.  A knowledge of History helps to temper our hopes with a bracing realism. Ultimately, History helps to keep alive the hopes of believers and non-believers alike.  For this reason history will always be important.

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