Someone recently submitted a proposal to the next President, whoever they may be: just as there is a circle of economic advisors always on hand to advise the President on what he or she should do for our economy, so there should be a council of historical advisors to help the President avoid the historical mistakes of the past.
To buttress their argument, the proposer cites two examples: first, the terrible mistake of attacking Iraq without knowing the long history of conflict there between the Sunnis and the Shia; second, not understanding the history behind the relationship between Russia and Ukraine before the annexation of the Crimea by Russia. When you don’t know the history behind an event you may be likely to make a mistake in your reaction to it.
The suggestion to have historical advisors to the President is a good idea; but it will work only if those historians take seriously the role of religion in history both in a positive way and in a negative way. Some eminent historians are completely tone deaf to religion, ascribing all religious wars, for instance, to economic factors. While these factors are important, to say that the conflict in Ireland, for example, is not between Catholics and Protestants but about income inequality is to severely misunderstand the conflict.
The philosopher Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is a very sobering assessment, indeed. Part of the historical process is to understand the events and to put them into perspective based on the history of a people or an issue.
When it comes to the Church, history can be seen primarily in her great tradition. This tradition of faith is not just a history of facts and events but a living body of truth that comprises the Saints and the Councils and the accumulated wisdom of the Gospel as it interacts with the freedom of people seeking the truth in their daily lives. When this Tradition is explained and defined by the Authority of the Church it is called the Church’s Magisterium. Her Magisterium is the accumulated wisdom of the interaction of Revelation (e.g. The Bible) and the free decisions of believing humankind.
This is extremely important since it protects the Church from error by providing the boundaries of Truth in the theological reflections of the future. An individual believer cannot wake up one morning and in prayer proclaim that God has revealed to him that there are 4 persons in God! This idea of accumulated precedent is also seen in Judaism and in many legal systems, including our own.
This is not to say that nothing new can happen in our faith. God is always a God of surprises! But there can be no contradictions in the deposit of faith.
There can be, on the other hand, a valid kind of development of doctrine which allows the Tradition to grow. Our faith is not a dead list of laws. It is a living organism that grows, develops and matures, but always in a steady line. The great modern theologian and convert Cardinal John Newman, in his writing on the development of doctrine, uses insights from the medieval theologian St. Vincent of Lerins. He makes clear that development of doctrine does not mean that the doctrine changes, but that it grows and develops like a child who grows from infancy to old age. Sure the child develops and grows, but it is still the same person. So it is with Dogma or doctrine: it can grow and develop, but it does so in radical continuity from what it was before.
So using the example we cited earlier, we can understand the Trinity in new and more nuanced ways but to say there are 4 persons in God is change. Not development.
History, then, is essential to correct understanding, whether in the secular sphere or in the understanding of our Catholic Faith.
Would that the next President listen to the past!