the imaginative conservative logo

Cole_Thomas_The_Architect-s_Dream_1840I remember being delighted by the Sunday School teacher’s play on words when she retold the Old Testament sagas and explained that history was “His Story.” I was pleased to learn that everything from the creation of the world to the redemption of the world and the harvest of all things in the Book of Revelation was the record of God’s mighty hand at work through the mystery of history.

The idea voiced in the hymn that “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year” has been killed off by post modernist theorists along with any other notion of a meta narrative. For the jaded post modern critic, the over arching story of God’s providence is just as illusory as the meta narrative of evolutionism, progressivism, Marxism, technological advance or the unrelenting upward struggle of the enlightenment man.

Historicism suggests that the meaning of history is that history has no meaning. This erosion of meaning and the destruction of the meta narrative has developed from the scholar’s intent to understand historical characters and events within their own context. In reaction to history as ideology, modern scholars have insisted like the TV detective on “Just the facts, Ma’am.” While this is laudable for the needs of historical research (and TV cops) if the understanding of history is limited only to context another problem arises.

History is more than a collection of facts. It is also a chronicle of ideas. While ideas can be understood within their historical context, to say they are no more than the product of their historical context is to destroy any transcendent value they might have. In other words, the truthfulness of an idea is not determined by its historical context.

In his encyclical Fides et Ratio the philosopher pope, St. John Paul II analyzed historicism explicitly. He explained,

“To understand a doctrine from the past correctly, it is necessary to set it within its proper historical and cultural context. The fundamental claim of historicism, however, is that the truth of a philosophy is determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose. At least implicitly, therefore, the enduring validity of truth is denied. What was true in one period, historicists claim, may not be true in another. Thus for them the history of thought becomes little more than an archeological resource useful for illustrating positions once held, but for the most part outmoded and meaningless now. On the contrary, it should not be forgotten that, even if a formulation is bound in some way by time and culture, the truth or the error which it expresses can invariably be identified and evaluated as such despite the distance of space and time.”

As with all heresies, the problem is in the little words “only” and “merely.” The problem with heresies is not that they are not completely wrong but that they are partially right. A heresy is a lie because it is a half truth. The modernist scholar rightly studies the historical, archeological and cultural contexts of a character, event or idea. His problem is not doing that, but doing only that. The study of history is not simply to collect and chronicle facts. History must also be interpreted, and even the most minimalist historian interprets even if it is only by his particular choice of facts to be collected and periods to be studied.

This totally objective approach to history results in separating historical events, characters and ideas from other periods and from the contemporary situation. It supports Henry Ford’s crass opinion that “History is bunk.” and dooms contemporary man to repeat the mistakes of the past because he has not understood how they connect to the present.

By discarding any notion of a meta narrative the historicist not only renders the past irrelevant, but he also makes the present meaningless. If a past character or event is no more than the sum of various random cultural exigencies and the result of past, random causes, then contemporary events and my life and your life is equally random and meaningless.

The sincere post modern historian who rejects the idea of a meta narrative may not call himself an atheist, but his philosophy is founded on an underlying atheism. The reason the meta narrative is rejected is because the idea that a narrator must be rejected. In G.K. Chesterton rightly observed, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.” According to the post modernist there can be no story because there is no storyteller. There is no great drama being acted out because there is no great dramatist to construct and then direct the play. History cannot be “His Story” because “He” does not exist.

Historicism is, therefore, no more than a mask for atheism. As such it is the tragic mask of the Greek drama, countered by the mask of comedy which, with it’s happy grin, affirms that history, like a good joke, has a punchline, and that therefore life itself has a glorious and hilarious meaning that is greater than we can imagine, and that through the mystery of history we can deduce the method and the meaning of eternity.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Connie Willis’s foray into this arena is most excellently summed in her book “Blackout-All Clear” (the publisher split it into two volumes, but it is really one story). Her protagonists, time-traveling historians from 2060 AD to the Blitz are running about most of the book obsessed with worry their actions have altered history (Butterfly effect). By the end, they finally hear the repeated refrain, “all will turn out well in the end”. They come to see their actions are not a derangement of history, but a confirmation of it… that there is a power (Willis coyly does not say WHAT) which shapes the end of the tale (and of history).

    The climax (in my view) –SPOILER ALERT –comes when a Shakespearian actor asks one of the protagonists, “Is it a Tragedy or a Comedy”, and is told, it is a Comedy.

    Indeed, a Divine Comedy.

  2. Thank you! One reason that I could never quite believe in no-god was because, if there were no God, life would be a joke, but a joke requires there be Someone to laugh. If Someone is laughing, is it cruel laughter? Springtime always follows winter, childbirth pain results in a delightful baby, the tree sprouts from the death of the seed, and Jesus rose from the dead. This life is a pleasant jest of the Lover joshing His Beloved so she will not feel jittery at her Wedding Feast!

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: