Historical Ignorance, Historical Bigotry and Historical Truth

No historian should be taken seriously unless he is also a theologian and philosopher.

Mont-Saint-Michel (photo: Paul Henri Degrande / Pixabay/CC0)

It is always prudent to know what we are talking about before we begin to say anything. It is, therefore, important to know what history is before we talk about it, or before we consider visiting or revisiting it. The problem is that history has more than one generally accepted definition, and, confusingly, those definitions could be said to contradict each other.

History can be defined as the “aggregate of past events” but also as a “continuous methodical record of past events.” These definitions are so different that they constitute two entirely different things. The first is all that has happened in the past, the second is all that has been recorded in or about the past.

(Strictly speaking, this definition of history only considers those things recorded in the past that have survived into the present. Things recorded in the past that have been lost to posterity are not part of “history” according to this definition.)

The first is entirely independent of man’s record of it. It is an objective reality; it simply is. The second, by contrast, is entirelydependent upon man’s record of it. 

It is absolutely crucial that we are aware of these two definitions of history and that we avoid conflating them when we think or talk about the past. The first definition considers history as synonymous with the past itself, with those things that reallyhappened, so it is real regardless of the imperfect perception of it. A thing that truly is does not owe its existence to the way that it is perceived or misperceived by those experiencing or recording it. It simply is. It is real. This understanding of history might be called historical realism. 

The second definition, taken to its logical conclusion, assumes that something that really happened in the past does not qualify as “history” if no record of it remains. All that is unknown or undocumented is “unhistorical.” The logical conclusion of this subjective view of history is that history itself is not true, in any objective sense, but is merely as true or false as the surviving records. It is only relatively true. It is a human construct and is therefore as false and fallible as the humans who constructed it. This understanding might be called historical relativism.   

It must be stressed, however, that historical relativism is not synonymous with philosophical relativism. On the contrary, it is simply applying to the past the same criteria for understanding reality that we apply in the present. Since none of us is omniscient, we go through our everyday lives making judgments based upon our own limited knowledge of the people and events that we meet and experience. Although we have limited knowledge, we use our wisdom and understanding to make judgments. The greater our wisdom and understanding, the better our judgment will be, i.e., the closer that our relative judgment will conform to objective reality. And what is true of our engagement with the present is true of our engagement with the past. Although our knowledge of the past is limited by the “continuous methodical record of past events,” we need to use our wisdom and understanding to make judgments about the past. The greater our wisdom and understanding, the better our judgment will be, i.e., the closer that our relative judgment of the “record of past events” will conform with the “aggregate of past events,” which is objective historical reality. It can be seen, therefore, that historical relativism is the raw data whereas our philosophical and theological assumptions are the means by which the data is processed. As such, it is philosophy and theology that determine the extent to which our understanding conforms to reality, whether we are speaking of the past or the present. A false philosophy or theology will lead to a false understanding of the facts and therefore a false reading of reality.

(It should be noted that everyone’s judgment is informed by philosophy and theology. Even atheism is theological, in the sense that the presumption that God does not exist informs the way that the atheist perceives everything else. The “Real Absence” of God is as crucial to the atheist as is His Real Presence to the believer.)

If, therefore, Christianity is true, i.e., if it conforms to reality, it follows that only the wisdom and understanding of orthodox Christian scholars will interpret the knowledge of the past correctly, or as near to correctly as is humanly possible. If Christianity is true, this statement is true, even if it makes secularist historians apoplectic. Nonetheless, it is necessary for Christian scholars to engage with the wider secular academy, even if the wider academy is actually narrower in its breadth of understanding. As such, a modus operandi should prevail in which scholars of differing philosophies can agree to differ while working together. This modus operandi must be based upon practical objectivity, i.e., by the necessity of seeing history though the eyes and minds of its protagonists.

Historians must desist from judging the past from the perspective of the present until they have shown that they understand the past on its own terms. In other words, historians should refrain from passing judgment until they can show that they know and understand the thing being judged. In practice, this means that historians must learn about the major ideas that have animated the past. They must know and understand Christian philosophy and theology, the dominant force in history for almost 1500 years, and they must know it and understand it as well as the people they are studying understood it. In short, no historian should be taken seriously unless he is also a theologian and philosopher. 

The problem is that philosophical relativism does not believe in objective truth and is therefore unlikely to see the point of studying history objectively. If there’s no such thing as objective truth, why try to record it? All that's left is the pursuit of the individual historian’s agenda, which is the reduction of history to the level of propaganda. Thus, for instance, we see the rewriting of history from a feminist perspective, a Marxist perspective, a “queer” perspective, a post-modern perspective, et cetera, ad nauseam. Thus our culture’s understanding of its past has been poisoned by the bitter fruit of relativism.

Relativism makes no effort to see history through the eyes of the protagonists; it makes no effort to get inside the heads and hearts of the people it studies; it does not seek to understand the times in which the protagonists lived. It does not try to see history as it really was, which, from the perspective of truth, is what it really is, but judges history from its own relativist perspective. It does not look at history through the eyes of history, i.e. looking at the past through the eyes of the past, but through the eyes of the historian’s own prejudices. The historian no longer tries to understand the past and learn from it. On the contrary, he judges the past from the perspective of the fads and fashions of his own zeitgeist and not the zeitgeist of the time being studied, condemning or condoning the latter according to the moral presumptions of the former.

This, to put the matter bluntly, is historical ignorance; it is, to put the matter more bluntly still, historical bigotry. Thus, for instance, we see how secular historians refuse to use the terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, i.e. the Year of Our Lord) and insist upon CE and BCE (Common Era and Before the Common Era). This is not only the pursuit of a secular fundamentalist agenda, inspired by a hatred of Christianity and by implication a contempt for the past, it is patently dishonest. The historical fact is that the year zero marks the year in which Christ is believed to have been born, and yet the birth of Christ has been banned by historians in the sense that it must not be acknowledged, on pains of academic excommunication. It is no longer permitted for any historian to commit the “heresy” of employing the terms BC and AD in an academic paper, and failure to conform invariably means a refusal to publish the paper in question. In similar fashion, these secular fundamentalists force their students to conform to the ban on BC and AD, extending their intellectual intolerance to the classroom.

Compare this secular fundamentalist intolerance towards Christianity with the tolerance of Christianity towards paganism with regard to the naming of the months of the year or the days of the week. Even to this day, we use the pagan names for the months of the year (Janus, Mars, etc.) and the days of the week: Sun-day, Moon-day, Tiw’s-day, Woden’s-day, Thor’s-day, Frigg’s-day, Saturn’s-day. If the age of Christendom had been as intolerant as the age of secular fundamentalism, we would surely be referring to Christ-Day, Mary-Day, Peter-Day, etc.

All of this should be obvious to anyone who truly understands history. It is, after all, not Christianity but secularism that is responsible for the greatest crimes of history, from the secular ambition of the Roman Emperors to the secular designs of Henry VIII, and from the mass homicide of the French and Russian Revolutions to the genocide of the Third Reich. The lessons of history are clear enough for those with eyes to see. Secularism is intolerant, bigoted and ultimately deadly. It kills everything it touches, including the study of history itself. Such lessons are always worth remembering; indeed, we forget them at our peril. 

This essay was published in Joseph Pearce’s book Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture and is republished with permission.