The Christian’s Place in History

In Why Study the Past? Rowan Williams (now famous for marrying Will & Kate) explores the difficulty of writing Christian history. For the believer, Christian history is not merely an academic matter. It is a discovery of one’s identity, genealogy even, incorporating moral and theological dimensions:

I want … to suggest not only why church history is a moral matter but also why it becomes fully so only within a wider theological context. The Christian engaging with the past has even stronger reason for doing so as part of a maturation in critical and self-aware perception than the secular student, though there are important analogies even within the secular framework. A central aspect of where the Christian begins, the sense of identity that is there at the start of any storytelling enterprise, is the belief that the modern believer is involved with and in a community of believers extended in time and space, whose relation to each other is significantly more than just one of vague geographical connection and temporal succession. In theological shorthand, the modern believer sees herself or himself as a member of the Body of Christ.

Who I am as a Christian is something which, in theological terms, I could only answer fully on the impossible supposition that I could see and grasp how all other Christian lives had shaped mine and, more specifically, shaped it towards the likeness of Christ. I don’t and can’t know the dimensions of this; but if I have read St Paul in I Corinthians carefully I should at least be thinking of my identity as a believer in terms of a whole immeasurable exchange of gifts, known and unknown, by which particular Christian lives are built up, an exchange no less vital and important for being frequently an exchange between living and dead. There are no hermetic seals between who I am as a Christian and the life of a believer in, say, twelfth-century Iraq — any more than between myself and a believer in twenty-first century Congo, Arkansas or Vanuatu. I do not know, theologically speaking, where my debts begin and end. What any one believing life makes possible for others (and for which particular others) is not there for introspection. How my progress towards the specific and unique likeness of Christ that is my calling is assisted by any other Christian life is always going to be obscure.

Hence the Christian believer approaching the Christian past does so first in the consciousness that he or she is engaging with fellow participants in prayer and eucharist, fellow readers of the same Scriptures; people in whom the same activity is going on, the activity of sanctifying grace. This is not in itself the conclusion of research (they are so much like us that they must be the same really), but the implication of the Christian’s basic belief that we are called into a fellowship held together not by human bonds but by association with Christ. Particular bits of historical research may make it harder or easier to put flesh on this fundamental conviction, but the only thing that could simply unseat it is a refusal of the underlying theology of the Church to which we are committed by practising the sacraments and reading the Bible. If you see Christianity simply as an enterprise of the human spirit within history, the challenge of understanding the past is going to be different, less radical. For the historian who has theological convictions, that challenge is to discern at last something of what is truly known of Christ in the agents of the past.

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Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 9:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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