Every single one of us has a history inherited from a family, grandparents, our nationality, etc. But it seems that too many people today take the short view of history. It ends where their personal memories end. Educators sometimes unwittingly protract this problem by too often stressing the future while shortchanging the importance of the past. Granted, education should prepare one for the future, but it is equally important to remind students that there is no such thing as a future without the past that leads up to it. In short, it is impossible to know where we are going if we don’t know where we’ve already been.
And why should history matter to some poor Joe out there just trying to make a living? It matters because whether Joe realizes it or not he is just as much a part of history as the rest of us are. What we all do in the present moment will eventually have some sort of impact, large or small, on future generations. The things that people thought and did a hundred years ago have greatly determined what we think and do today. How so? Because culture consists of those countless fine threads of history which were intricately interwoven into and produced the particular patterns of present day reality. Think of it. But for Alexander Graham Bell and a thousand other innovators we would now be forced to cope in a world without telephones, cell phones, or internet technology.
History is the reason you are who you are, and I am who I am. Every person is a direct product of history. Each one of us is given a fleeting opportunity to “dance our dance” on the pages of history. When our dance is done someone else will succeed us. History, like life itself, is a continuum. Break it for only a single generation and all the lights will simply go out, not unlike the electric power grid which must maintain a constant flow of electricity or the consequences would be too severe to imagine. History is that constant flow of electricity. Interrupt the transmission of it and civilization would cease to be.
An important aspect of all human civilization is religion which, like law, government, and other social institutions, is historically dependent. But behind that generalized statement there are substantial distinctions setting one religion off from another. Virtually every religion is based upon some kind of ethical foundation and most exhibit prescribed rituals and a philosophical framework. But not all religions are truly historical in the sense of integrating God (or many gods) into the human sphere. Many pagan religions in fact do the opposite, they fearfully attempt to appease the gods and keep them at bay from human affairs. Others, such as Hinduism or Mormonism, construct elaborate mythologies or fictional histories to justify their belief systems (while virtually incapable of standing up to scholarly scrutiny).
While every religious tradition retains a history of its own particular development, prophets and the like, only two religions can claim to be strictly historical. I mean that in the sense that God enters directly into and becomes an active presence in their history. Judaism and Christianity are unique in this respect. For both Jews and Christians, God entered into human history, and he continues to direct and sustain that history even unto the end of time. Christians refer to this dynamic as Salvation History because salvation actually functions in a historical setting. It unfolds with the unfolding of time. From a Christian perspective Christ himself becomes the Lord of History.
Salvation history did not end or come to fulfillment with the coming of Christ 2,000 years ago, rather it entered a new “Apostolic” phase which continues even today. Today’s Christians experience that history of salvation primarily through the Apostolic Succession which is the means by which God chose to transmit a lively faith from one generation to the next. That transmission of grace is accomplished historically vis a vis actual human beings who have succeeded the original Twelve Apostles by the laying on of hands as is described in the Acts of the Apostles.
The question arises, has that line of succession continued uninterrupted since their time? Because if the Church has ever become so completely corrupted, as certain sects periodically claim, so as to sever its direct line of succession to those chosen Apostles, and therefore to Christ himself, the work of salvation would have ended tragically and prematurely. Many latter day sects will insist that such a disaster actually occurred, claiming that after a lapse of some centuries God suddenly restored the lost graces of salvation through various resurgent prophets, Joseph Smith to name just one example. Of course they present no convincing historical evidence for their claims of some cataclysmic, post-apostolic “Babylonian Exile” and subsequent restoration.
The fact is that God’s historical Church has never ceased to exist or transmit the divine grace of salvation over the past 2,000 years. While the Church has certainly experienced extreme ups and downs, both devout saints and spectacular sinners among her ranks during that extended span of time, yet it has endured through every travail. Otherwise the game would be up for us today just as certainly as if great grandpa had been killed at Gettysburg and never met great grandma. History always implies and indeed requires a continuous, unbroken line of transmission to succeed. Salvation history is not something that simply comes and goes, because without that uninterrupted continuity represented by the Apostolic Succession our Church would expire as surely as the human body would expire without a continuous supply of oxygen.
Fortunately for us, God’s Church and her successor apostles are still around today to transmit that sanctifying grace which is the spiritual oxygen of every Christian. But without history we would have no way to access those essential graces through the apostolic ministry of the Church. For every good Christian, and every good Jew, history does matter greatly because our respective faiths are predicated upon it. Furthermore, all may rest assured that the Apostolic Succession which is so integral to Salvation History is set to continue until the day of the final judgment when all of human history will at last be fulfilled.
Francis J. Pierson