It’s easy to skim the headlines and come away angry or depressed. Constantly, we are inundated with reminders of horrific situations at shrunken and bloated scales. Sunken submarines, terrorist attacks, warnings about upcoming political cycles, all grab our attention. Modern media – both social media and more traditional forms like cable and newspapers – profit lavishly from the constant cries of rage. Our behavior incentivizes bad news. Our world clearly does, too.
The perverse incentives created by our disaster-fixation, though, are not just a matter of gaining our attention. Tragedies are common. In fact, our world is in a constant state of crisis and reconstruction, and requires an attentive, patient eye if it is to be observed with any degree of clarity. Any keen viewer will continually notice terrible injustices, untrustworthy institutions, and destruction brought about by causes human and natural. Needless to say, circumstances will often seem rather dour.
How do we respond to such massive problems? As a student of history, I cannot help but occasionally notice that others often appeal to the famous quote of Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[i] But is this statement really true? Does historical memory create prudence – the ability to function with wisdom based in part upon prior circumstances, avoiding negative outcomes whenever possible – and more than that, does it provide hope for ultimate peace – lasting times of joy-filled human flourishing? A watchful reading of history certainly can provide wisdom and help someone prepare for future decisions. More than that, it can provide a basis for understanding people’s motivations and actions, both of which are useful even when they are not predictive. But, although it can provide wisdom, a careful analysis of history on its own cannot provide a final hope – if anything, at best it can provide us a list of failed utopias. As a Christian, however, I believe that the limitations of the historical perspective are complemented by the reality of the story of Jesus Christ. In fact, the longings of historians – for peace and finality, among others – are fulfilled in Him.
While it is fairly clear that our generation exists in a fraught time, I do think that it is necessary to address some of the challenges we face before discussing the perspective which a study of history can provide and before finally explaining why that study can only be life-giving when understood in light of the Christian faith.
All through high school, I had a number of struggles which I just wouldn’t talk about. Sure, I worried about people, about how I looked, about what others thought of me. But, maybe more than that, even, I worried about what was going on in the world. I first got a phone in middle school, and fairly quickly I was hooked on the website then known as Twitter. I wanted to be informed about everything, all of the time. The problem – my feeble mind couldn’t take it. I failed to understand everything, and more than that, I was troubled by whatever I read. What’s worse, I couldn’t stop until I deleted the app from my phone and blocked the website from my browser. It caused too much anxiety, too much trouble. Instead of focusing on doing good in the parts of the world which I could affect, I was paralyzed thinking about things I could never control.
Apparently, my own anxious news-scrolling is far from isolated. One major study conducted concerning news consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that all media consumption – save only the reading of newspapers as such – leads to significantly elevated levels of emotional distress.[ii] The same set of conclusions introduces a few more wrinkles in the data: while being informed about most topics can ease tensions, being over-informed is correlated with worse emotional outcomes. News consumption is a game with diminishing returns. The correlation between excessive information consumption and emotional distress is especially true during times of crisis – i.e. after terrorist attacks or during a global pandemic.
The economic uncertainties of the twenty-first century have certainly plagued our generation – even as our society has become richer, access to housing and reasonably paying jobs seem to have eluded many Gen-Z’ers and Millennials in particular. Combine these basic economic woes with social difficulties, early banking collapses, oil disasters, a massive pandemic, increasing political polarization in the United States and abroad, the threat and the rhetoric of environmental collapse, and the foreboding return of war in Europe, and no wonder we think we are beginning to breath the last fumes of a passing peaceful age. The data shows, too, that the fact that we are constantly reading about these things only makes matters worse.
Against this backdrop of fear and anxiety, quite clearly we need wisdom and hope. Wisdom may be situational – determined in part by the specifics of any circumstance – but it also must be founded in a genuine conception of what is good. Neither the news nor history can tell us what is good – they can only tell us what has happened. That does not mean that they are worthless, or that we should not consider them.
The Fleeting Comfort of Perspective
We are not the first generation to exist in a seemingly terrible time; certainly, in comparison to many, maybe even most, of those who have gone before us, modern life is far easier and fairer. By grounding ourselves in knowledge about the past, perhaps we can navigate the future better. As the Greek historian Polybius writes “men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past.”[iii] But, as any cursory glance at the past will show, it is far from providing ultimate hope. As historian and provost of Georgetown University James J. O’Donnell notes, “The great moral risk for the student of ancient history is that we too easily inure ourselves to its brutalities and miseries because we admire what the rich and powerful were able to accomplish.”[iv] In our appeals to the goods of human history, we can easily gloss over the immense evils. As a student of the Roman Empire, it is often difficult to pull myself out of whatever narrative Tacitus or Livy recounts and remind myself that these are often true stories, and that their contents are often remarkably evil.
These specifically Roman evils are not limited to the mythic founding of the city or the rape of the Sabine women.[v] For example, Pliny, a Roman senator during the tyrannical reign of Domitian (81-96 CE) and a provincial governor the more docile reign of Trajan (98-117) recounts tremendous political injustices during their reigns and the reigns of the emperors who had preceded them. In one letter, written in praise of Fannia, the ailing wife of a rebellious senator, he recounts her courage in the face of an unjust exile. “Twice she followed her husband into exile, and a third she was left because of her husband.”[vi] She even refused to crumble under the cross examination of a hostile senate during Domitian’s reign. Fannia’s story ended relatively well – by the time Pliny wrote the letter, she was a matron and held both deep responsibilities and seemingly wide respect, in spite of her wrongful sufferings. For other groups, this was not the case. One need only look to the sporadic persecution of Christians (on account of their “inflexible stubbornness”) which Pliny executed in the Roman province of Pontus-Bithynia.[vii] Some were forced to convert; others died. The emperor Trajan approved of this unsystematic approach. Obstinance, not false religion, was his principal concern.
These examples of force from the life of Pliny are an excellent reminder of the reality which O’Donnell rightly reinforces. Trajan brought stability to the empire – he also did horrible things. Worthy of note, too, the empire did not become less violent following Trajan’s reign. Capable leaders often commit heinous acts or support societal evils which we now judge to be wrong. Our knee-jerk reaction is to declare ourselves and our current age innocent of any such atrocities as the past. However, as C.S. Lewis rightly warns, “Every age… is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.”[viii] The perspective offered by history, then, is more like a stunning beam of light refracted through the discolored lens of the human soul than a pure presentation of data sufficient for future predictions.
Santayana offered his maxim in order to suggest the plasticity of the human experience. His goal was to inspire society to treat the past just as an adolescent or young adult treats their own: as lessons used in personal (in this case, societal) growth. This statement, contrary to its normal application, is fundamentally progressive. While its wisdom, like that of Polybius, is helpful, it is necessary to realize just how limited it truly is. The only comfort historical perspective provides through crisis seems to be that of solidarity and wisdom: crises are ubiquitous, and occasionally the stories of others aid us in reacting to them. While helpful, this approach is hardly hopeful.
History offers chaos little meaning. Even when it provides us with glimpses of grandeur, it is a constant reminder of the frailty of human life and goodness. The Christian faith offers a deeper understanding of this knotted narrative of successes and failures – and more than an understanding, can provide lasting, meaningful comfort which historical perspective alone cannot. A full account of answers it provides is far beyond the scope of one article – let alone a whole set of books. In order to account for space, I will briefly discuss three aspects of the Christian response to crises in world history: the deeply flawed nature of the human race, the goodness of God found in providence, and the mysterious hope of resurrection.
First, when rightly applied, Christianity never excuses the evil committed by human beings – whether ancient or contemporary. In fact, it reminds us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” – that all people naturally want to be our own arbiters of right and wrong, and all of us fail in this capacity (Rom. 3:23 ESV). This central idea is called “original sin” by theologians, and it means that all human beings are more self-centered than is right and should be expected to act in their own interests as they see them. We are flawed, and can be expected to react in ways which reveal our self-love. Most dramatically, we see this in government officials and high level executives – sometimes, as recently was revealed at Stanford, with college presidents.[ix] Nevertheless, we see less lurid examples in our own lives.
Although it is expected – rightly – that people interact sinfully with each other and with God, it is not normative. A norm is a governing rule, the way something ought to be. The left-wing political theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, comments on this point so often made by the early Christian figure Augustine, saying “The biblical account of human behavior, upon which Augustine bases his thought, can escape both illusion and cynicism because it recognizes that the corruption of human freedom may make a behavior pattern universal without making it normative.”[x]Sin may be horrific, and expectation of evil and suffering ubiquitous – but they are not ultimate.
Sin without goodness is a nonsensical concept – after all, the breaking of a rule presupposes a rule. The idea of sin without goodness – arbitrary evil – also provides no real comfort. Comfort can, however, be found in the refuge of the goodness of God Himself. This is most simply related to humans in the ideas of providence and common grace – the first, the idea that God looks over his whole creation with care, and the latter, that he allows all people to live and enjoy any aspect of this life in spite of our rebellion. That we can have any peace in this life is simply because God causes “the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” This life alone is a merciful gift – notwithstanding the immense troubles that it bears. It is a gift given by a good God.
That same God is not ignorant of the challenges posed by living in this world, as full of tragedy and misery as it is. In fact, He is present in the midst of it, to the point that sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin could say that:
“When once the light of divine providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God.”[xi]
The point is clear: God is trustworthy, even if chance isn’t.
Why is this trust merited? Although the scope of this article does not allow for substantial elaboration on the point, it is necessary to mention the hope of resurrection. The Christian faith claims that Jesus, the Son of God the Father, became a human being and suffered the consequences of sin, substituting his death for the death which humans owe for sin. Because of his perfection and to prove his authority over death, the Bible claims that he rose from the dead – certainly a bold claim, and one which merits detailed discussion in a less limited forum. Note, too, that it is a historical claim.[xii] If true – and I believe it is – then we can, in fact, learn from history by believing in it and repeating it. Christianity teaches that faith, trust in God rooted in the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice, death, and resurrection, results in a resurrection where anyone who believes will be restored to see and love God for Who He is, and likewise to be loved by God for eternity.
Doubtless we live in trying times. Chaos seems to reign, with despair creeping alongside it. As voices from all corners of society scream that we are in crisis, two equal and opposite traps have been set for anyone daring to respond: wholesale agreement to sloganeering ideologies and full-throated dismissal of anything beyond the status quo. Christianity offers a different approach – without crying “peace, peace” while society seems to fray, thoughtful, biblical Christianity can both empathize with suffering now and look to a future hope based in the character of God himself and the reality of resurrection from the dead.
Jackson Lee, Editor-in-Chief
Jackson is a senior from Gastonia, NC pursuing a degree in Classics from Vanderbilt University.
- [i] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Introduction and Reason in Common Sense. p. 172
- [ii] Juwon Hwang et al., “The Relationship among COVID-19 Information Seeking, News Media Use, and Emotional Distress at the Onset of the Pandemic,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health p. 9
- [iii] Polybius, The Histories. 1.1
- [iv] James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History
- [v] Livy, From the Founding of the City. 1.9
- [vi] Pliny, Epistulae 7.19
- [vii] Ibid. Ep. 10.96-97
- [viii] C.S. Lewis “Introduction to On the Incarnation.” p. 4
- [ix] Melissa Korn and Amy Dockser Marcus, “Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne Resigns Amid Concerns Over Research Practices,” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2023.
- [x] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Augustine’s Political Realism,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale University Press, 1986), p. 130.
- [xi] Jean Calvin, Institutes 1.17.11; as a special note, I am deeply indebted personally to this passage of the Institutes – I first read it during a period of immense personal anxiety, and while Calvin is being hyperbolic, his writings on providence have since deeply affected me and made me reckon with the reality of God’s steady-handed control over my life and circumstances.
- [xii] For a brief but careful argument about the resurrection’s historicity, see Peter J. Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels?