"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 2, 2018

Why Study the Past?

To my horror, my students have often complained in my courses on the history of interactions between Eastern Christians and Muslims that "there's too much history" in the books we read. That, however, is, I'm relieved to note, a complaint that usually comes about one-third, or no more than one-half, of the way through the semester. By the time we get to the end of the semester, they note, with a charming mixture of relief and chagrin, that the history has been well worth it to understand the whole picture we are looking at in 2018.

I do not know what history they are learning, or what they are learning about historiography, if anything, in their prior schooling. But it seems universally to be appallingly thin stuff if my posing random questions of them, and being met with utterly blank stares, is any indication. I mean by this what I regard as the basic understanding of any moderately schooled and sensate person: e.g., when was the First World War? If such general history escapes them, Christian history does so a fortiori. But here ignorance is combined with disbelief and disdain: whadday mean they punched each other up at Nicaea over doctrine, or the churches divided bitterly after Chalcedon? Nobody understands that stuff and nobody cares! 

This is just a preface to say that I'm glad to see, from the fall 2018 catalogue Eerdmans sent me last week, that they are bringing out a new edition of Rowan Williams' welcome book, Why Study the Past: the Quest for the Historical Church. Williams, of course, is not just the retired archbishop of Canterbury, but one of the United Kingdom's leading scholars of the Christian East (and much else), and has been for decades, author of, inter alia, books on icons, Dostoevsky, and much else besides.

You can, for the time being, find inexpensive copies of the 2005 edition of Why Study the Past here. The description has not changed:

The well-worn saying about being condemned to repeat the history we do not know applies to church history as much as to any other kind. But how are Christians supposed to discern what lessons from history need to be learned?
In this small but thoughtful volume, respected theologian and churchman Rowan Williams opens up a theological approach to history, an approach that is both nonpartisan and relevant to the church's present needs. As he reflects on how we consider the past in general, Williams suggests that how we consider church history in particular remains important not so much for winning arguments as for clarifying who we are as time-bound human beings. Good history is a moral affair, he advises, because it opens up a point of reference that is distinct from us yet not wholly alien. The past can then enable us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our identity in the often confusing present.

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