I am a student and lover of history. To me, the past is not dull and lifeless like a pile of discarded artifacts buried in dirt; to me, the past sparkles with intense beauty and significance. To me, the past is vitally important. To me, the past is a key to understanding what it means to be human.
When I was in high school, most of my friends were extremely science/math oriented, which is absolutely wonderful. I myself find the beauty and success of the maths/sciences intriguing and spectacular. But these same friends also often remarked on their disdain of learning history. “It’s useless,” they would say. “It serves no practical purpose. It won’t help me in life. It’s irrelevant, just a bunch of dead people and places and events that are over and gone and don’t affect me anymore. It’s boring.” Of course, being forced to study anything in the strict, controlled environment of high school can cause intellectual boredom. But in the words of one of my favorite writers, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder” (1). In other words, the world, and the past, is full of mystery and excitement. There is nothing in the whole universe which is “boring,” there are only people who are bored. And this boredom displays not an intellectual insight, but rather an intellectual arrogance and blindness. Wonder is the desire for knowledge, and the delight in finding that knowledge. Boredom is an intellectual apathy to knowledge, to seeking and finding truth, to the startling and overwhelming mystery of the universe. In short, boredom is an apathy to reality itself. And this boredom only arises when there is an internal pride which sees the self at the center of the cosmos, which sucks dry all laughter and light, and thus all mystical joy. How small the world becomes, when its borders cannot stretch past the limits of one’s own skull!
But I digress. As I said, I am a student and lover of history. I am fascinated by the stories and accounts of people and their fantastic journeys, and of the events which shaped the earth like a sculptor his marble statue. History is important because people are important. Because that’s just what history is: the collective stories of all people, from all times and places, united in a coherent narrative which is the adventure of human existence. If we ignore history, what we are saying is that all people don’t really matter. The logical conclusion of an ignorance to history is admitting that not even we matter, for one day we too shall be nothing but bones buried and rotting in the dust. The tombs may be silent; but history certainly is not. History gives voice, and a marvelous, euphoric, shouting voice at that, to all humans and their stories.
To quote Chesterton again (I abound in Chesterton quotes):
“tradition is only democracy extended through time…Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father” (2).
Of course, Chesterton was referring to traditions such as religious rituals, but his point stands for a general study of history as well, as I argued above. My friends said that history is boring; I have argued that it is not history which is boring, but the students who are bored. They said that history is irrelevant because it’s only just a bunch of dead people; I have explained that that is precisely why history is so relevant, because it gives voice to all humans, even, or especially, those who are dead. And finally, they said that history is useless, and impractical. I counter that there is nothing more practical than history, because there is nothing more practical than principles. What they mean in saying this, is that history will not teach them to manage their finances, or to fix a car, or to develop some revolutionary vaccine which will save hundreds of lives. What they mean is that history does not give us the astounding technological advances which the maths/sciences have. And they are correct, in one sense, to say these things. Of course, in a strict sense, they are incorrect. Studying economics or finances just is studying the contingent climax of historical development of economics and finances. Learning to fix a car just is learning how men in the past discovered what was the best way to fix a car. Developing a vaccine requires first a careful examination of the history of a disease, and prior attempts to attack that disease. Learning some complicated mathematical formula or physics equation just is accepting the testimony of thousands of years of mathematical/scientific development. “We drink from wells we have not dug,” as the saying goes (3). Of course that is only in a strict sense, and it is certainly not the case that in order to know a mathematical formula to be true you also have to know the entire history of that formula being worked out. But history is practical in a deeper sense, a sense which strikes at the very heart of this blog, and indeed of my entire intellectual pursuit. History contains the entirety of the human story; and it is only in this human story that we can discover what it truly means to be human. Science can produce advanced technologies; but it is humans who shall wield them, and humans must know how or why to wield them. And in order to know these things, we first must know what a human is in the first place. It may be practical for getting to the moon to have advanced rocketry. But we first need to know whether or not humans are meant to go the moon. Elevators may be practical for going up and down, but what if we are supposed to be going right or left? We cannot have practicality at all unless we have principles; and it is in history and the humanities that we discover these principles for what it means to be human.
With that having been said, there is another sense in which history is important. History is important because people in general are important. But history is also important because individuals are important, and individuals only exist in contexts. A person’s history is a central factor to their context. History gives voice to the people of the past as a whole, but it also gives voice to specific individuals in the past. Read a great biography/autobiography and I am certain you will discover something of, or for, yourself in it. In the paraphrased words of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” (4). None of us have reached the ends of our lives. None of us see our fates or our destinies. We know not the completion of our journeys. But we must nonetheless carry out our journeys, and we seek to understand them as we do so. In this, history shows us the completed lives of those individuals who have gone before us. In understanding their journeys, we may come to better understand our own.
But why my ardent defense of history? Because I am now embarking upon a journey straight into the heart of human history, and thus ultimately straight into the heart of human existence. If you take just a brief, cursory overview of world history, one interesting and perplexing fact will become immediately obvious to you: that the most influential person who ever lived was a Jewish peasant by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the extreme paradox of history, that throughout its course we humans should worship the wielders of fame, power, and fortune, and yet at the end of it all, these things have not been the supreme sculptors, but rather themselves have been wielded and sculpted by the shadow of a single man without them, without fame, power, or fortune, without prominence, without even a home.
I must make instantly clear that I am writing from a certain perspective. I am a Christian, meaning that I am one of the billions of humans who have, for the past two thousand years, worshipped this man as their God, as their Lord and King and Savior. But I also must make instantly clear what my aim is. I am not here starting from the assumption that Jesus is God in the flesh. I am starting from an objective view of history. Many significant studies on the most influential people in history have come to the same conclusion. Here is just one example, a list from Time representing a book published by Cambridge University Press. You do not have to believe that Jesus is God to think that he is the most significant human who’s ever lived. You don’t have to think that the Gospel narratives are true. You don’t even have to think that the actual man Jesus existed, to see that the mere idea of him has dominated all other ideas, that his mere name has swallowed the names of all Caesars and Alexanders, that his mere shadow has conquered the world, covering the planet in light.
This article is the beginning of a large, extended, in depth research project which I plan to undertake over the summer, the object of which is to come to an answer to this most significant and controverted question: who is Jesus of Nazareth? Part of the series will, of course, be looking at topics such as the historicity of the gospels and the resurrection, but the main focus will be to arrive at a conclusion on the identity of Jesus. This series will be grounded in and driven by objective historical inquiry, but that is not its end. Rather its end, as all historical inquiry should be, is to discover meaning. To understand more about our human story. To come to terms with our humanity, and whatever that might entail. To try to grasp this unbelievable, overwhelming, profound paradox of history: that at its very center is not an emperor or a tyrant, not the general of an army nor the possessor of great riches, but a simple man. A man. A human being, who to his very core was human, and exemplified perhaps better than anyone else who ever lived what being human truly means. He was not a large man, but a man whose shadow is larger than all the empires and kingdoms and governments which went before and have gone since. The man Jesus of Nazareth is at the center of history, because he is at the center of humanity. Because he is, at center, truly human, what humanity was meant to be. It is the paradox of history that a peasant should be the most influential person who ever lived. But even more so, it is the paradox of history that the man worshipped by billions as God was the most human person who ever lived. And that is also the paradox of humanity: that humans are not even humans. That no man has ever fully lived as a true human being, except perhaps a single man who is said to be actually God. Whatever your view of him, there can be no doubt that the man Jesus of Nazareth holds the key to understanding what it means to be human.
And that is exactly what I hope to uncover in this series.
Sources for quotations listed in the order in which the quotations appear above:
1) Quoted from G. K. Chesterton. The quote is from Tremendous Trifles, but is taken from this source: http://platitudesundone.blogspot.com/2010/06/world-will-never-starve-for-want-of.html
2) Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. 1908. Nashville: Sam Torode Book Arts, 2008. Print.
3) See Deuteronomy 6:11
4) Quote paraphrased from Soren Kierkegaard; source can be found here: http://homepage.math.uiowa.edu/~jorgen/kierkegaardquotesource.html