Historical Is Not Enough

There is a temptation to confuse the historical with the true. That is not Christianity.

And so it can be with Christianity. I worry that the return to the old paths in much of the Christian world is simply a return to what is considered safe and convenient.  Perhaps it reflects little more than a nostalgic longing for a way of life now gone and offers merely a spiritual-sounding idiom for what is really a kind of conservative social pragmatism. Just because one recites the Nicene Creed on a Sunday does not make one a Christian.


Last week, Rod Dreher published a clarion call for Christians not to forget the past. I have deep sympathy with such.  Indeed, I typically start my history lectures each year with the same Kundera quotation which he uses.   Dreher is spot on in his analysis because the repudiation of the past is an essential part of the contemporary cultural project. Phillip Rieff predicted this some years ago, stating that the heart of the coming (and now present) barbarism would be its conscious eradication of the past. The autonomy of psychological man with his repudiation of all external authority made such inevitable. Mario Vargas Llosa sees the culture of the spectacle as doing much the same thing. As entertainment has risen to the status of a human right and moral imperative, both past and future have lost any significance in comparison to the pleasures of the present moment. As Llosa puts it:

The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn.

In this context, an essential part of Christianity must be its role as an agent of protest against the intentional amnesia and the built-in obsolescence of this age. Yes, we must address the symptoms of this worldliness: The abolition of marriage, the disenfranchising of the unborn, the denial of human nature. But part of the foundation of our protests against each of these is to be our assertion of history and its importance.  That means Christians must be self-consciously historical in both thought and life.

Yet there is a temptation here, and one that is particularly seductive to the traditional conservative mind. This is the temptation to confuse the historical with the true.

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