Humorist Harry Leon Wilson, while visiting the Grand Canyon, once remarked, “At last, I know a place to throw my old razor blades!”
This is what’s wrong with our current view of history. We have trivialized the towering figures and events of the past. We know names and caricatures of historical figures, but little of their deeds and ideas. Washington is a face on the dollar bill, Napoleon is a pastry, Caesar is a salad, and Babe Ruth is a candy bar.
The contemporary church, in its quest to relate to our fast-changing world, ignores its past. Songs that are more than twenty years old are cast aside as not being relevant. Sanctuaries are designed (without the slightest recognition of irony) not to look “churchy.” In many churches, there is little to remind us of our deep historical roots.
It’s a shame. In ignoring history, we cut ourselves off from our roots. History is like a tree. We are the leaves of this year’s growth. From where we sit, all we see are individual, separate churches. But by tracing our branches back to the common trunk, we learn how deep and solid our trunk truly is. Eventually, we come back to the common Source that holds us together.
Christian faith depends on its historicity. If Buddha had not existed, Buddhism could still exist. It is a philosophy that could have been devised by anyone. But if Christ did not exist, or was not who He claimed to be, Christianity could not exist. Our faith depends upon the historicity, divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ–real historical events.
In the best-selling book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher writes, “To cut a people off from their tradition is to break the chain of historical memory and deprive them of a culture. No wonder Christian culture withers in modernity.”
Yet we are severing ourselves from our roots even while the rest of the world is seeking theirs. The internet giant Ancestry.com has sold more than a million apps for smart phones, owns subsidiaries in twelve countries, and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Recently, it acquired its ten billionth genealogical record. History books continue to sell well, and are regularly listed on the best-seller list.
Many Christians who grew up in the rootless “newness” of the modern church are ditching it for something with historical resonance. Neo-Puritanism, the Messianic Jewish movement, the renewed interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, and conversions to Catholicism all demonstrate the hunger modern Christians have to reconnect with Christian heritage.
A common quote in evangelical circles is that the church is only “one generation away from extinction.” This simply isn’t true. God’s will cannot be thwarted by the mistakes of a single generation. The church has been going on for a long, long time. It has survived heretical disputes, schism, persecution, and corrupt clergy. It will continue until Christ’s return and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
But why should we personally value our spiritual heritage?
First, because our heritage gives us a sense of perspective. In difficult times history shows us that we were not always there. In good times, history reminds us to prepare for the difficult times.
Second, because our heritage comes with a box of tools to help us in the present. When my father died, I inherited all his tools. Some of them were too old to use, but most of them were still helpful. Our heritage teaches us what has worked in previous generations, much of which can still work today with modification. Methods of prayer such as the lectio divina or the exercises of St. Ignatius are being rediscovered today. So are many of the lyrics of ancient hymns.
Third, because our heritage reminds us that we are not as important as we think we are. When we forget the past, we lose humility. Our knowledge of history can challenge and correct the errors of the present. Without history, we are adrift in a sea of temporal relevance, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men.” (Ephesians 4:14)
Recently, I heard a former evangelical leader talk about his conversion to Catholicism. He described the freedom he felt in being part of a church that did not begin and end with him, and did not have to recreate itself in every generation.
Our lives are not as long as we think, and our works do not last very long afterwards. A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Knowing our heritage reminds us that God has always been here, and always will be.