In our culture today, there is a strange set of attitudes toward history.
On the one hand, there’s a highly politicised approach to the past, in which people care passionately about history’s symbols and what they represent.
An example of this across the Western World is the recent wave of protests about statues – as well as some being torn down.
On the other hand, we know less than ever about history and are losing the ability to grapple with the ethical complexities of the past, such as how good and evil entwine in the same historical figure, or empire.
I fear that as a society we are losing our historical literacy. We are losing our ability to engage in moral reasoning about history.
This is because, in no small part, we live in what I call “an a-historic age”.
That is, in contemporary Western societies, which are underpinned by the idea that life is about self-invention and fulfilment, we have largely ceased to think of ourselves as historical beings.
Almost as if we think the past has nothing to teach us.
When we put ‘Me’ at the centre
A recent conversation I had with one of my undergraduate university students is a good illustration.
He said, “Why would I study the British Empire? It has nothing to do with my life.”
Not long ago, perhaps only a generation, part of the point of studying history was to understand the history of peoples, empires, countries and the like, and then to make sense of who I am.
In light of those larger stories, I could then reflect on how to be a citizen in my own society.
But the premise behind my student’s question is that the way we make sense of our world – past, present, and future – is through taking myself as the starting point.
Why is this?
In contemporary Western societies, the central idea of what constitutes human flourishing is self-expression and self-actualisation.
Our culture’s vision of what life is all about can be described as “finding your personal happiness through being your true self”.
This is a culture that emphasises the highly individualistic creation of our identities and lifestyles.
The cultural axioms of today – which we see everywhere from advertising for clothing through to private schools – embody the idea that your true potential needs to be unleashed.
This is the key to life: finding happiness (defined in highly individualistic and consumeristic terms) as personal wellbeing through self-fulfilment.
“Live your best life” and “you do you”.
We have detached the individual from any transcendent story that gives an account of the big questions, and any grounding for ethical and moral categories.
Yet these are precisely the kinds of conceptual tools we need to be able to reason about the past and to have a conversation in which we can genuinely, respectfully, disagree.
We yearn for justice, for example. We long for the horrific wrongs of history to be recognised and properly understood.
We can only engage properly with these kinds of issues, though, if we have robust criteria for assessing justice and injustice (not to speak of good and evil, truth and lies, and so on).
We are all part of a bigger story
The more that we unhinge the individual from the larger stories which give an account of the big questions, the more we are ill-equipped to grapple with history.
We reduce ethical reasoning to emotivism; we just assert our will and feelings.
We fumble around with crude ideological categories rather than engage in a genuine conversation, because a conversation relies upon a shared set of assumptions – about justice and the good, for example – to which we can appeal.
We have lost the meta-stories which show us what the proper and just use of power and authority ought to look like.
This is why it is increasingly difficult to have a civilised debate and disagree with each other in a healthy manner.
It is possible to critique injustice, even injustice of the present, through the lens of a larger story.
In doing so, we are drawing upon a vision of the just and good, and this can give us hope.
The abolition of slavery in the British Empire is a helpful illustration.
During the late 18th century, English statesman William Wilberforce led a movement of evangelical Christians on a decades-long campaign for public opinion – and in the parliament – to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.
Wilberforce and his friends argued the Biblical principle that all humanity was created in the image of God, all were of equal moral worth, and that slavery was incompatible with an empire that aspired to ground itself on Christian principles.
“Am I not a Man and a Brother?” was the iconic catch-cry of the abolitionist movement, emblazoned on pamphlet and newspaper literature, medallions (see image below), and even Wedgewood pottery.
Samuel Clarkson, the Church of England deacon who was a leading campaigner, wrote in his diary that “in the Scripture, no national crime is condemned so frequently and few so strongly as oppression and cruelty, and not using our best endeavours to deliver our fellow creatures from them.”
It took decades but the abolitionists finally managed to persuade parliament to pass the Slave Trade Abolition Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
The abolitionist movement held the Empire to the standards articulated in the Bible, standards which articulate the equal dignity and moral worth of every person.
The anchor of Christian faith
Christianity explains that all human beings are made in God’s image and, therefore, are inherently precious and of equal value. At the same time, all are fallen and broken and so we expect moral failure in human beings.
As put by Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom the Soviet Union put in a concentration camp:“The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every man.”
I believe it is possible to reengage with history properly, through reasoned, thoughtful, and informed discussion.
This is precisely the kind of discussion which is central to life in a liberal democracy.
Moreover, we need to engage with history through the lens of a story that gives us a way of understanding and critiquing injustice, making sense of human failings, yet also giving a vision of hope, the good, and human flourishing.
These are the intellectual resources which equip us to wrestle properly with the past.
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.
About the Author: Dr Sarah Irving-Stonebraker is an Australia based academic focusing on the history of Britain and the colonial world, and the intersection of religion, science and politics.
Image credit: William Hackwood (died 1836). “Medallion”, after 1786. terracotta on basalt (stoneware), 1 1/4 x 1 1/4 in. (3.2 x 3.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Emily Winthrop Miles, 55.9.25v. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 55.9.25v_PS9.jpg)