On Historical Imagination

16 11 2008


When modern people tend to think of history, they tend to imagine themselves as rubbing shoulders with great men. When they become nostalgic for the “simpler” times, the “golden age”, the glorious past now lost, they tend to picture themselves in the castles, cathedrals, and palaces of the mighty and powerful. The problem is, so few actually had access to these monuments of human achievement. Most were treading dung in a pit to slather it on their house. And they never ventured more than ten miles from where they were born. Vanitas vanitatum…

I am trying to perform an exercise of imagining what it would have been to live in my family a hundred years ago, in the harsh deserts of northern Mexico: growing and picking cotton and anything else that could grow in the rocky soil and experiencing death at a young and tender age. Of all ideas in the world, Christianity is least suited to the idolizing of great men. The Gospel itself seems to be a deconstruction of such myths. A humble stable, a smelly fishing boat, a barren hill of execution outside the walls of Jerusalem… all these seem to speak of something far removed from the realms of great men. How easily we forget.

Connected to this is the idea of “tradition” as a set of approved written texts. The Church rose and fell last century on how certain very smart men read some very old texts, and how these texts seemed to tell a story different from their childhoods of rosy-cheeked Madonnas, Infants of Prague, and a hurried if meticulous muttered Mass in fiddle back chausable. But what if some smart men two thousand years from now try to piece together our way of life from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and editorials in the New York Times? What would they find out? How much would they read us out of it and read themselves into it? That is why I am skeptical of the whole “Patristics resourcement” in general. The game is being played with loaded die. I don’t buy any of it for a second.