When I was a kid, I used to love TV shows dealing with war. At that time, there were two that I watched almost religiously (pardon the pun!): ‘Combat’ and ‘The Gallant Men’. I was enthralled with the heroism and courage of these men. I wanted to be part of this courage and the sweep of history.
So one day I was at dinner with my Mom and Dad. It was an ordinary day. I was so excited in watching one of these shows the night before that I said to my parents, “I can’t wait till there is a war! I will sign up right away and go into combat!” My parents, who seldom agreed on anything, put down their utensils and looked first at each other. Then my father said to me, “As long as you are in this house, you are never to say that again. You do not know how horrible war is. It is not like a TV show. Enough!” With that word (in Italian, ‘Basta!’) they went back to eating silently. I was embarrassed and very quiet for the rest of the meal. I never forgot that conversation.
My Dad had fought four long years in World War I. As an artillery sergeant, he was wounded a number of times while on the Austrian Front. My Mom was in a small town in Calabria during the Allied Bombardments of World War II. She often told me about how she would go running out into the countryside as the bombs started to drop. History, for me, was not in books. My parents lived history. My parents were history.
I, therefore, grew up with the idea that history is not found only in classrooms or TV shows. History is the record of real life with its real successes and real mistakes. That is why Santayana’s warning is so real a warning: “If you forget history, you are condemned to repeat it.”
The work of great historians is augmented in a positive sense by the great popularizers of history. Chief among these is Ken Burns. His documentaries, especially his major work on the American Civil War and his upcoming work on the Vietnam War are especially important because they translate the lessons of history for the common person who may not be a reader. In addition, their visual nature produce an impact that is hard to equal on the printed page.
History, our own and our world’s, is not chiefly an academic subject. One history professor in high school, trying to emphasize the important of that subject, put up his finger and moved it. He said, “Could we do that if we did not remember someone and sometime when we observed that movement?” That is history.
When we translate this to the area of our Faith, the importance of history is further augmented. Church history or Salvation history (to use a couple of common terms) is an account of how God has worked in the past. Because God is always the same, for Truth does not alter itself, it is religiously imperative that we become aware of the past so that we can avoid the pitfalls of the future.
In the area of heresy, for instance, the same issues keep popping up. In a sense, there are no new heresies, just old ones dressed up in modern clothing. Whether it is Arianism (that denies the Divinity of Christ) surfacing itself in movies that seem to do away with the miraculous and concentrate on the earthly, or Gnosticism (some have a special knowledge that is not available to the common person) which emerges in many new age movements, it is imperative to our faith to know the past and to learn from it.
The broader understanding of the importance of history is that God always illuminates reality with eternal significance, so that everything that occurs in the present and moves to the past has lessons to teach us if we have the humility and the perceptiveness to mine the deep deposits of its possibilities.
God, like any great artist, does not waste anything but finds a way to incorporate it in His ultimate vision. It is so important for us to be mindful of this and be able to develop the capacity to ‘read reality’ as we learn what God is saying to us.
In this sense, history is a revelation of God.