The burden of history

It was not long ago that I held a smug sense of satisfaction that our tradition had not been burdened by the intellectual acrobatics that characterised the first three hundred years of Christian history in the run up to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. But the more I learn about the intellectual endeavours of the scholars of our own tradition — some brilliant beyond comprehension, some patently absurd to the unlearned mind — the more I realise how terribly naïve I was.

Why would our tradition be immune to the same forces of pious and scholastic judgement that had played down on every religious community before it? How did we come to such a positive view of our tradition — viewing it as doctrinally pure and untainted by the interference of the human psyche — when historic events clearly paint a picture of great flux: civil wars, assassinations, impious leadership, corruption and grave injustice?

Our Book brims with tales of nations that fell before us, but we do not read them as exhortations against repeating the same missteps. In our self-image we are a perfect nation without history, unaffected by politics and conflict. And so the unlearned amongst us — who only read the equivalent of the Christian’s Acts of the Apostles — hold fast to preposterous visions of the past. The devout don’t ask questions; they do not spill highlighter ink on the page. Orthodoxy goes unchallenged. Never do we cast our minds back to the second and third centuries, to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who lived then. Never do we interrogate ourselves as we interrogate others.

We may regurgitate all we know about Emperor Constantine, Hosius of Corduba, Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius of Alexandria, or about the Gnostics, Ebionites, Nazarenes and Nestorians — but to interrogate our history as we interrogate others’: this is too great a taboo. Perhaps if we did, we might learn something. But instead we sit here smiling smugly, shaking our heads at the misfortune of others: how fortunate are we not to be burdened by history.

One thought on “The burden of history

  1. Another excellent reminder. By turning history (and its many mythic, gory parts) into tradition, we leads ourselves off the Straight Path which concerns itself with belief and ethics, not time and what the powerful do in that time. Perhaps this is somewhat pertinent:

    ‘And yet they say: “”There is nothing beyond our life in this world. We die as we come to life, and nothing but time destroys us.” But of this they have no knowledge whatever: they do nothing but guess.’

    It relates to every individual; the misreading of the Qur’an often happens when every wisdom dispensed is externalised to the Other.


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