The historian Christopher Lasch (among many others) liked to note that Americans tend to be bad at history. We resent it. We want the past to be over and gone. And there’s a very good reason for that instinct. One of our key myths as a nation is that if we work hard enough we can achieve, and deserve to achieve, anything we want. That includes reimagining who we are. It’s why transgenderism — as deeply troubling as it is — gets traction in our media and elite opinion. Absent a biblical framework, it’s just one more route to the “pursuit of happiness.”
This is why the past, as it really happened, can seem so unwelcome. Put simply, it limits our self-invention. As a record of our origins, choices, and actions, the past reminds us that we’re not fully sovereign actors. We have roots and obligations that shape us, and they’re inescapable. We each have parts in a story that preceded us, formed us, and will continue after us.
For the selfish, that knowledge is a kind of oppression. For the sensible, it’s a source of hope. History teaches us the cost of mistakes. Bad things can happen. But history also teaches us that most of our difficulties aren’t really new, and that good can heal and overcome them.
As a result, knowing our history is important. A nation ignorant of its history is like a person with amnesia. Without a memory, the individual becomes, in a sense, a non-person. Without a grounding in the past, the present and future have no direction. And as with an individual or nation, so too, and even more so, with the Church. Since the Church is called to preach Jesus Christ across generations and cultures, her people need to know how and why we got where we are now, the better to support her mission into the future.
To know your history is to have a greater degree of self-knowledge than would have been possible on your own. Our world would be inconceivable without history—first oral, later written, and perhaps immersive next, in terms of audio/video.
While human beings in our present anatomical state have existed for 100,000+ years, our known history reaches back only a small fraction of that time. If it’s true that the past is a foreign country, it’s also true that we forgot to record a map for much of its territory. All the more reason to study what we have in order to understand what sort of future is possible.