Homily on History

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

Closeup of fingers touching from the Creation of Adam painting in the Sistine Chapel.For the past eleven years I have ended my History 152 classes with a homily on history and this Christian’s view of what it all means. I make no claims as to profundity, but I will lay claim to its sincerity.

This is what I believe history teaches:

  1. We are debtors: to God, to each other, to those who preceded us. God provides the cosmic frame in which we see the world. He sees fit to place each of us within that picture frame for a time. That time span varies. Some interactions are for a lifetime, others for a few months or minutes. But in each there is chance to see God’s goodness in another person. Some of those persons are folks we never have seen, because either time or space separated us. But our debts to them are still very real.
  2. No human idea embodies all the truth, not even Christian embodiments. God is too vast to be contained in mere words.  At times we get closer to His truth, but we never grasp it completely, at least not on this side of death. Ideas, art, music, discoveries, and technology may show glimmers or gleams of God’s light. But getting any closer than that only blinds us. Even Christians need to approach the Truth from an angle.
  3. God is that Truth. He said so, therefore it is so. He is the eternal present tense – I AM – unlike us, His mortal, time bound creatures. Two thousand years ago He dropped in to visit with us and experience what we experience. He became one of us so we can see who He is, and what His truth means in a comprehensible form – Christ the Lord.  Looking at that Truth is an act of worship. A class, a paper, an assignment – they are all sacramental acts. Being a Christian means handling the truth with care. Christians may not be cynics, even though they know how deeply sin infects everything. Despite the mayhem and chaos of the world, the truth is still there for the finding. For the same reasons Christians are not naifs. Their knowledge of sin’s presence in everything should lift them beyond glib answers and bumper sticker wisdom. Christians are critics because they see sin. Christians analyze because they know the truth can be found, but only through the grace of God.
  4. Since truth finding is God’s gift, Christians also realize that God is never confined to our categories. He is not American, or western, or white, or Republican, or liberal, or African, or Asian, or bourgeois. He is all of them, and more than them. And glimmers of Him can be unearthed most anywhere among our tidy boxes, those ideas we mistake for the Truth. He wants us to invest our whole being in His service. To that extent He fits capitalism. He is a zealot who despises evil, a peacenik who preaches loving enemies, a socialist who espouses community and cooperation. And these approximations fail to really capture Him.
  5. Since God is bigger than our boxes, His truth is the one thing that finally transcends all the differences we see. Christian faith should be our bridge to everyone and everywhere, not the chasm that separates us from the rest of the world. Pride creates chasms dug in self-righteousness. Even as a Christian, or maybe precisely because I am one, I (should) know that I have no monopoly on the Truth. And if my individual pride is a danger, may heaven spare us from the results of what happens when we feel proud collectively. That is the gist of every chapter in the history books.
  6. Paradox may be the greatest lesson history teaches. God created a world of vast diversity. We can see bits of Him in different people, places, and times. But that beauty is also the curse that divides us into warring camps armed to mutually destroy, in the cause of self-preservation. As if God actually needs us, to the exclusion of all others. We see threats in differences, not facets of God. He called us to walk by faith, not by sight. We are to look between the things we see in the certainty that there is more to the world than the obvious. That means being tolerant. Yet faith demands resisting evil. So are we to be warriors for harmony? I’m still trying to figure that one out. Sin separates us from both God and each other, yet the sin is the thing that unites humanity. We are equal in this world because we all need God’s help to save us from ourselves. We are independent dependents.
  7. History is an out of body experience. We are both in the picture and the viewer. I look at me in the third person by looking at you and them, the others in the frame. That frame moves, unlocking new angles and opening new insights. The picture is always new, yet familiar. In seeing ourselves and our fellow creatures, we see intolerable things we have done. Like looking into a rear view mirror, history lets us see where we have been, the intersections we passed, or missed, and the continuity of the road we travel. We see wrecks and collisions avoided. And faith reminds us that despite our illusions of control, other hands have been on the wheel and other feet on the pedals, allowing us to survive being who we are, and getting us to where we are right now.
  8. Realizing that we are not the actual driver should make us humble. The sins we see behind us should sadden us, more than angering us. Sadness comes from recognizing ourselves in our fellow sinners. We fall with every step we take. A good idea becomes a new injustice, and injustice is the opposite of the love God is. Yet each injustice encountered is a reminder that God’s grace and goodness is greater than any horror we inflict on ourselves, and each other. There is hope for the future because we are still here, because He has cared enough to keep His perfect hand on the controls.

So in the end we are left with two thoughts: We can know what is good in the world, and God still uses each of us to reflect and refract the light He creates.  That next falling step is not just a random event but the prompting of a loving God who is moving everything toward His goodness.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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