Back in those hazy crazy sleep deprived days of graduate school, we learned about the academic discipline of history. Among other things we learned that history is not simply a record of events that occured in the past. It is the selection of events that are deemed to be important, for whatever reason. We were also warned against presentism which is the tendency to read history based on current morality, understanding & knowledge.
I learned the same thing in school as part of Christian fellowship about reading the Bible. A text can never mean what it never meant, and we must try to learn what the author’s intent in writing was.
Why do I mention these things? Because I have been giving some thought to how future Christians will view the current period, when now becomes then.
When we look back on Christians during the era of slavery, we find it so easy to condemn them for their complicity and endorsement of slavery. We do the same with those during the civil rights movement. We commit what historians call presentism… we evaluate them essentially based on our now and judge them deficient in their understanding. And there are those who think and do theology with an eye to the future by asking questions about how we will be viewed by them. This is especially true about things like women’s ordination or gay rights. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history.
Is this a problem? I’m not sure, but I think so. It is easy for us to think that we are somehow above the culture, but it is amazing that as culture has shifted on issues of, say divorce, or women’s ordination, the church at large has trotted happily in its wake while telling ourselves that we are following the scripture. I cannot help but wonder if we are deceiving ourselves.
So in the future will people look at us like we look at those who justified slavery because we hold the line on certain issues? But if that is true; if truth is true, then it is always true and has always been true. And a shift in culture should not shift us.
So how do we remain in truth? Some say scripture, but people use scripture to provide justification for anything and everything. I think that is where the cloud of witnesses come in. I don’t think we are wide enough to judge our own motives and so we need the weight of the entire communion of saints, not only present, but past, to help us discern what is true and right.