It’s increasingly obvious that the modern West has become antihistorical. The past is no longer seen as a useful guide to the present or future, but a misleading, unreliable one. Those who lived in the past are more likely to be dishonored than honored. The study of history itself is often seen as wasteful or even dangerous. When reading Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies, I was interested to see his explanation of how we have arrived at such a point. He offers four reasons.
The first reason is the dominance of science. Many people today understand science to be the only way to achieve objective knowledge. When we reject the notion that truth is available through Scripture or anything else, we are left only with the narrative of science, which assumes that the present is superior to the past and the future will be superior to the present. After all, new scientific discoveries almost invariably supplant those from the past and lead us to greater knowledge, greater wealth, greater health, greater safety. Surely, then, our focus should be on the future far more than the past. Surely one is more important and reliable than the other.
The second reason is related to technology. In former times technology was the domain of the elderly who would instruct young people in its use (such as when a father would teach his son how to use a loom). Today, though, technology is the domain of the young who constantly need to instruct their elders in how to master it and integrate it into their lives. Thus “it invests the young with wisdom and power and makes the old look inept and incompetent.” This helps create and foster a spirit in which we believe there is little wisdom to be gained from the past or from those who have lived in it. Rather, the old must cede to the wisdom of the young.
The third reason relates to the dominance of capitalism and consumerism. They are built upon innovation and, thus, the constant creation and recreation of markets. They also promote commodities that have their own obsolescence built into them. Fashion and phones are equally meant to be temporary rather than permanent, to loosen our grip on the past and present in favor of the future. Yesterday’s wisdom is surely as unfashionable as yesterday’s styles; yesterday’s lessons are surely as useless as yesterday’s computers, for everything is fleeting, everything from the past is soon supplanted by something in the future.
The fourth reason is the rise of the critical attitude embedded in Marxism and postmodernism. These ideologies see history as little more than propaganda that is meant to defend the power of the strong over the marginalized. Added to that is the suspicion that language even has the ability to convey meaning and that a historian can do anything more than manipulate his or her readers according to ideology. In such a context “the writing of history looks like a murky and disreputable trade indeed.” As this critical attitude moves from the minds of the philosophers to the universities, grade schools, and board rooms, it carries its ideologies and skepticisms with it.
Trueman, as a natural contrarian and a trained historian, disputes such antihistorical tendencies and insists that understanding the past is necessary if we are to thrive in the future. “In short, I believe we have a choice. We can ignore history, and thus doom ourselves to understanding our own small world as reflecting nature, just the way things are, and by so doing doom ourselves to be enslaved to the forces around us that remain unseen but which nonetheless exert a powerful pressure on us. Or we can study history, and in so doing, simultaneously relativize ourselves and our times and, ironically, somewhat liberate ourselves in such a way that we understand more of our world and how we fit into it. Only the man who knows the forces that shape the way he thinks is capable of resisting those forces; and history is a great help in identifying and exposing such hidden things.” As for me, I’m with him…