OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

History and Spirituality

Keven Macnish

What, therefore, have we to do with questions of philosophy? He to whom the Eternal Word speaks is free from theorizing. Far from this Word are all things and of Him all things speak – the Beginning Who also speaks to us. Without this Word no man understands or judges aright. He to whom it becomes everything, who traces all things to it and who sees all things in it, may ease his heart and remain at peace with God.

Oh God, You Who are the truth, make me one with you in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all that I long for. Let the learned be silent before You; You alone speak to me.

The more recollected a man is, and the more simple of heart he becomes, the easier he understands sublime things, for he receives the light of knowledge from above. The pure, simple and steadfast spirit is not distracted by many labours, for he does them all for the honour of God. And since he enjoys inner peace he seeks no selfish end in anything. What, indeed, gives more trouble and affliction than uncontrolled desires of the heart?

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

This paper does not seek to answer the question, what does spirituality look like in an urban post-modern environment. To be honest, I have considered this for a long time and don’t have the first idea as to how to answer that question, and that is partly why I am here this weekend, to learn from you. Nor is it a tightly-argued philosophical tract – I have written too many of those over the last couple of years and felt like a break. What this paper does seek to address is one potential aspect of assessing how to determine the answer to the question.

In considering spirituality, I believe, it is important to keep it in the context of history. It is tempting in times of post-modern experimentation and in the spirit of seeking the new to reject history outright. Even the word “post-modern” suggests a rejection of that which has itself rejected the old, not in a reactionary fashion, but in a sense of moving even further beyond the new than the new itself.

Importance of History

Christianity today, indeed since the Reformation, is usually considered as a first-century faith, pursued in a contemporary manner. Nearly 2,000 years of history are ignored as we talk about an “ancient-future faith” (the name of a conference held in the UK last summer with Tony Campolo and Jackie Pullinger) or attempts to resurrect the first century church.

History, though, is more than a mere comparison of the “now” with the “then.” It is a continuum, in which there are clear developments as thoughts and theories are rejected, put into action, or carried to their logical conclusions by later theorists. An obvious example would be the relation of Marxism as spelled out in Das Kapital and that imposed on the Soviet Union for 75 years. The latter simply could not have preceded the former (were Marx to have had his way, it would not have succeeded it either, but that is a different story). Similarly, our understanding of astronomy can be seen to have developed from circular planetary orbits around the earth, to elliptical orbits around the sun, as better theories are discovered to account for weaknesses in their predecessors. Of course, there are anomalies, strokes of genius and luck, and unique characters throughout history. But even these were forced to react to the circumstances in which they found themselves, and were themselves the initiators of actions that would affect the lives and thoughts of those to come. In short, history tends to be a map of cause and effect relationships between people.

In this, Christianity is no different. The Bible is itself a history of man’s relationship with God, focussing on the Jewish nation, but just because the canon is now closed, it does not mean that God has ceased in His communications with people. As history has continued, so has the most important relationship, and so we ignore history at our peril. To assume that we can draw on what God has to say to us today solely by referring back to what He said to the disciples 2,000 years ago is at worst arrogant, at best cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We simply do not need to reject the history of Christianity in our understanding of the Lord’s guidance. To do so risks failing to understand why in many cases we believe what we believe, why and where we differ from other Christians, and why certain heresies are considered such. We also rob ourselves of the continuing story of God’s work with His people, where we fit into that story, and where we can learn from others.

Secondly, it is worth remembering that history is not simply a matter of progress. Not that I would for a moment want to endorse Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science with its inherent notion of incommensurability, still less apply it beyond its intended realm of the physical sciences, but it is true nonetheless that we are not always moving forwards. There may be times, periods of history, in which we stagnate or even regress, depending on which standpoint one takes. Personally, I believe that philosophy reached its zenith in the thirteenth century and has been on a downward slope ever since. Medicine, by comparison, has to my mind undoubtedly progressed such that we are now performing triple heart bypasses on a routine basis. Human nature, however, has as far as I can see remained pretty much constant since the dawn of history.

Thirdly, I do believe that those who don’t consider the past are condemned to repeat it. This is popularly noted in Hitler’s invasion of Russia coming undone through the long winter, as had been the case with Napoleon a hundred years earlier. It is also apparent in the course taken by most violent revolutions though (moderation followed by extreme response to the horrors that provoked the revolution, followed in turn by a dictatorship of sorts to bring order out of the chaos), and perhaps most obviously in our continued failure to trust a loving God in the same way as an entire nation doubted his benevolence following the exodus from Egypt.

Hence history is important and we run the risk of throwing a very mature baby out with the bathwater if we ignore it. To illustrate this, I want to consider two case studies. The first is a very broad overview of the history of philosophy from around 500BC to the present, while the second is a more focussed consideration of the role of the image of the desert in spirituality.

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