The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.

 

Centuries

Although it may not be obvious, history marks us as hopelessly shortsighted.  As a species we’ve only been keeping written records for about four millennia.  History, as we know it—without the intervention of gods—is an even more recent phenomenon.  Since living a century is a rarity (although becoming more common), a hundred years seems like a very long time.  Our lives spin out over a brief span of active decades until we run out of energy and let others make the important decisions.  We hope, against hope, that they will have learned from our collective mistakes.  Learning isn’t always our strong suit as a species.  In just one century we forget and arrogantly refuse to read our history.

One hundred years ago the War To End All Wars ended.  World War One was a slaughter on a scale unimaginable, involving nations around the world distrusting each other and hating one another enough to threaten all the advances of millennia of civilization.  When the war was over we thought we’d seen the last of conflict.  Two decades later it started all over again and the Second World War wiped out millions of lives.  The aggressors, known collectively as fascists, were strong nationalists, believing in racial superiority and privileged rights for those in power.  When that war ended, just about seven decades ago, a stunned world took little for granted beyond the awareness that fascism was, at least, gone for good.

Today we stand on the brink of a chasm that spans one century.  Fascists are in power in the United States and elsewhere.  International tensions are running high and the “leader of the free world” openly eschews reading history.  Protests against the war in Vietnam were largely prompted by the real-time coverage on television.  Now we have a world-wide web, but no basis for truth beyond the tweets of madmen.  For many people the decade-and-a-half that they spend in school seems a long time.  We used to believe that it took that long to learn what our restless youth need to survive in a complex society.  We teach them, among other things, history.  The need to learn from our past is perhaps even more important than technology.  My generation of academics, reaching over half-a-century now for many of us, has been taught that lifelong learning is the value we must instill in students.  Given that we’ve collectively had a century to learn, and that we’re still edging toward the same collapsing precipice, a hundred years seems not nearly long enough.

Whose Story?

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What really happened? I grew up thinking that reading history gave the answer to that question. In fact, it is a viewpoint that I still struggle against. You see, historians try to marshal as many facts as they can to support their reconstruction of events in the past. Somethings, clearly, “really happened.” What those things are, however, depends on your point of view. For example we know that the twentieth century was dominated by wars and economic crises. Apart from a few periods when things seemed largely okay, it was a century of leapfrogging crisis after crisis. Historians pick a set of circumstances in this mix—let’s say the Second World War—and try to explain what led to certain results. But what if we stop to think about such events from another point of view? What if we think about it from the perspective that “nations” are purely fictional inventions? Who wins such a conflict?

This is more than an idle thought-experiment. We, as people, base our self-perception on how we view our personal histories. It can be quite jarring to have someone contradict our own personal narrative of “what really happened.” I’ve run into that from time to time—my reconstruction of events is not the same as someone else’s reconstruction. Who’s right? There’s no objective history. There are only events viewed from multiple angles. Turn the clock back a few centuries—was Jesus of Nazareth a political criminal (the Roman point of view), or a great sage out to save the world (a Christian point of view)? And these are only two out of many possible views of a political execution.

As we enter an era of post-truth politics, we’re going to find more and more historical events questioned. Facts have lost the anchoring functions they used to have. Historians built narratives by stepping from fact to fact, like using a series of stones to cross a river. They can’t tell us what really happened, but they can make sense out of an otherwise confusing stream of chaotic events. The thing about history, however, is that you have to read it to understand. Certain things we’ve pretty much all come to agree upon are now being questioned by those who see everything through the lens of capitalism. Money changes history. It is a narrative of great power as long as everyone agrees it’s true. What really happened? I think we may have all been too quick to accept what economists have told us and we have fabricated a fictional story that we can all believe.

Mythisotry

Positivism takes no captives. I’m not talking about the philosophical system—not necessarily—but about the phenomenon of assuming absolutes are available for human consumption. Some physicists, for example, assume that because our five senses can detect reality only the perceptions of those senses can be considered real. Material. Nothing more. Nothing less. A similar view plagues those who believe history is the telling of “what actually happened.” No historical event has ever been fully explained. All stories are told from a perspective. This is particularly dangerous when religions get involved. Many mistake historical veracity for “truth.” If it didn’t occur just as “the Bible says” then we should throw out the whole shebang. No point in believing in half truths. This is a myth.

This point was reinforced when a friend send me an article about the production of “The Hollow Crown” on the BBC. Apparently a local politician tweeted that having a Nigerian of Jewish descent (Sophie Okonedo) play Margaret of Anjou, a French queen, didn’t match history. As proof he provided a downy white Medieval illustration of the queen. In a rare moment of academic cool, an historian quickly pointed out that the illustration came from a manuscript that claimed Margaret descended, Leda-like, from a swan. Her whiteness, thus, belonged to her avian DNA. As the story makes clear, history is the modern mythology. We assume we know what happened, but we will only ever have part of the picture.

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Prejudice seldom worries about historical accuracy, unless, of course, it helps to uphold the bias. I used to caution my students about taking history as a statement of fact. Certainly there are events with factual elements, but when everything is interconnected we can never untangle precisely what happened. When we “believe” history, we are choosing to accept a certain viewpoint of things. One person’s manifest destiny is another person’s genocide. Peculiar institutions are very peculiar indeed. History, as we’ve come to know, reflects the point of view of the historian. It must be read and evaluated as the opinion of the writer and not as the absolute truth. For me, I rather like the idea that some people are descended from birds. It certainly helps to make more sense of what I see in the behavior of those who claim to be making history today.

Making History

We should learn from our mistakes. This is something of which historians are keenly aware. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association addresses the recent concerns raised on campuses throughout the world of removing monuments to historical founders who’ve fallen from grace. The dead white man has been out of favor for some decades now, but Grossman, as an academic, is keenly aware that we can’t take only the good from history. Who would ever read it if it was all sweetness and light? History is who we are, and there are unlit corners in every soul and although we prefer to think of ourselves as victims, we sometimes find ourselves asserting our will over that of others. It’s only human. The related question Grossman addresses is that of monuments. The winners of the moment, after all, incise the figures in stone and cast them in bronze.

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As an example, he notes, Stone Mountain in Georgia commemorates leaders of the Confederacy. Knowing that slavery is, was, and always has been wrong, casts a strong shadow of emotion over such monuments. The question is how to handle them ethically. I recently mentioned female figurines from ancient Israel in a post. Although they offend some, we know not to destroy them because they tell us something of how we became who we are. We have a moral obligation not to run from the darkness. We need to be willing to face who we really are.

History is interpretation. Everything that has ever happened is potentially a part of it. None of us has the scope, the breadth, the depth, to understand where any of this may be ultimately leading. We can only interpret. Religions, often positive, but also often negative, play an important part in that history. We can be assured they will continue to make history in the future. We have, as a society, decided religion isn’t worth our time to learn about. Our institutions of higher learning can less about history or religion than about business and economics. Ethics? Isn’t that somewhere in the philosophy department? You’re welcome to it, if you can find it. Meanwhile monuments are raised to trump the naysayers, and history becomes what we decide to make it.

Decomposition

The following video report addresses a number of issues recently raised on this blog: apocalypses, zombies, fear, and humor. Zombies, of course, have been clawing their way to the top of the monster pile for a few years now. Media analysts have suggested that they represent the triumph of the working class—no sartorially suave vampires these—instead they are spattered with blood and gore, multitudinous, and clumsy. Having watched the most recent apocalypse come and go, and having been a victim of an unstable economy for several years of my professional life, I think zombies represent something else. Instead of being the triumphal usurpers of vampiristic free markets, zombies represent the breakdown in culture we are experiencing in the present.

If history gives us anything to go by, we know that powerful world empires ebb and flow. The Persians succumbed to the Greeks, and the Romans could not stop the Goths. The Holy Roman Empire was dissected into the nations of the modern European Union (roughly), and the sun now sets regularly on the British Empire. The United States, the capital of the zombie craze, has perhaps passed its zenith and the zombies know it. Since the 1970s we’ve watched as religious extremists have made a mockery of a political system that had already grown problematic. Like decaying corpses that won’t go away, the factors that propelled the United States to a place of prominence have been undermined so that the non-undead can continue to feather nests already stuffed with down as high as Babel. In the constant see-sawing of political parties the imperialist trends of the obscenely wealthy have rocked their way into the dominant. Is it any wonder that zombies are brainless, yet insatiably driven?

What does it feel like to watch the azimuth decline on a great empire? It is difficult to say. History, as the aphorism states, is written by the winners. Revisionist history has become quite fashionable to those who find that the facts refuse to bow to their worldview. Zombies are those who, historically, do the will of their masters without question. Instead, the zombie of the twenty-first century bows to no master. Pure selfish survival is its sole aim. Perhaps the CDC is too late, the zombies have already overrun us.

Newsy.com’s Report