Every man is a student of history. History is more than a mere repetition of names and dates, a catalog of inventions, facts, and figures. History is not the death toll of a battle, nor is it the length of a ruler’s reign. History is a story; a woven fabric of lives and events, of men and women doing what men and women do. All of those aspects of the story—names, dates, battles—are important, but they should not replace the story. A historian who sells the story of history for the details of the fabric is like an art critic who comments, after looking at a painter’s masterpiece, that it is “a fine bit of dots and squiggles” and in doing so misses the grander picture.
We, as Christians, have an even greater investment in studying history, since our religion is a historical religion. History for us is the story of salvation. It is the most dramatic story, with the greatest hero and the most loathsome villain. It is a story told in chapters, episodes packed with drama and suspense. There is a beginning for our story, before we even were. There is an end, a moment in the future, where the Divine Author finishes with the stroke of his pen all earthly existence, noting that the blessed “live happily ever after,” the physical reunited with the spiritual. It is towards the story’s end that all men turn, waiting in eager anticipation for everlasting joy.
That end, that telos, to history separates us from our ancient pagan forebears. Life for the ancient was not imbued with a hope for the resurrection, as we Christians hope for it, nor was it understood that all of history focused on one historical event. A Greek or Roman – even a Hebrew historian – might date his history in light of great historical events, like a famous king, an important battle, or the founding of a city. However, Herodotus would not say that the Greeks’ victory against Persia transformed the meaning of history. Livy would not say that all of history prior to the founding of Rome prepared for the success of Romulus and the failure of Remus.
Yet it is precisely such a claim that Christians make about the Incarnation. We hold Christ at the center of our study of history not because we placed him there, a sort of benchmark for chronicling the millennia, but because He put Himself there. The Christian historian teaches unashamedly that the central event of history is the Incarnation, an unrepeatable moment. It is that historical moment, the union of Heaven and Earth in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, that transformed history’s purpose. No longer are we to trudge through time, aimed towards some unspecific end; now we know our end, our telos, is in Christ. Our purpose is “to know, love, and serve God in this life so that we might be happy with Him in the next,” as the Baltimore Catechism so memorably put it.
Our outlook of the past, our entire historiography, shifts when we view history as a Christian. Patterns appear, originally invisible to our misunderstanding eye, indicating how God in His Divine Providence prepared the world for His coming. This is most clear, of course, when reading the Old Testament. Few events in Ancient Israel’s history fail to illuminate God’s plan when examined in light of the allegorical sense of Scripture. This should not surprise us, because the same God who became man is also the Divine Mind behind the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah. However, we can perform the same interpretation on other historical figures and events, seeing how even secular history prepared the world for its Creator’s coming.
There are many examples, but for this article, one will have to suffice. In 323 BC, Alexander the Great, king of the known world, died. He left in his wake a vast empire, stretching from Greece across the conquered Persian Empire into the unknown land of northern India. Before his death, wherever Alexander went, he had established cities that mirrored the cities of Greece. After he died, these cities kept their Greek culture, despite the fact that they were later conquered (in most of the cities’ cases) by the Romans. The Romans incorporated Greek culture into their own conquests, even keeping Greek as the universally spoken language.
After Christ died, rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, the Apostles spread throughout the Empire. How could they preach to a variety of listeners, people who knew nothing of Hebrew or Aramaic? The Apostles, resourceful as they were, preached and wrote the Gospel in Greek, a language which everyone in the Roman world could understand. The secular historian might brush aside such information as coincidence; the Christian views it through the lens of Christ, and in doing so sees in retrospect that Alexander’s Empire was part of the Providence of God.
Another, more controversial result of this Christocentric history is an uncomfortable (depending on who is speaking) emphasis on truth. We live in an age of relativism, as Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis remind us. The only solution to relativism is to proclaim the truth. This is especially the case with historical studies in a unique way. A relativist historian does not understand the great doctrinal controversies of the Church’s history, even as any sort of relativist does not grasp the Church’s insistence on remaining true to her teaching today. Why men would physically fight over the specific wording of a creed, or why medieval inquisitors obsessed over teaching Albigensian heretics the truths of the Faith, rather than leaving them alone, a relativist cannot understand. If he does understand, it is with a sad, slow, condescending shake of the head.
The Christian, however, understands perfectly. All men might be “created equal,” but the same cannot be said of all ideas or beliefs. When approaching the past, one must admit that there are, unfortunately, unpleasant truths to be presented. A Catholic must concede the illicit behavior of the Renaissance popes, just as a secularist must admit to the violent incarnation of atheism in Communism. There is as much truth in history as there is anywhere else.
This leads to our daily lives. History tells us the story of the past, and crucial to understanding our story is understanding Christ and His plan for our salvation. How we live each day, whether we are close to Christ or distant from Him, will depend on how we view his Incarnation. Our lives will depend on how we view history. If we ignore the historical truth of the Incarnation, if we see Christ as a mere moral teacher and the Resurrection as a nice fairy tale, then our lives will reflect that. If, however, we embrace Christ, God made Man, and believe in His Incarnation, then we will draw closer to understanding our salvation, to properly understanding our place in the saga of mankind.
After all, His story, the story of our salvation, is our history.