Broken lights

November 2 2014

… or, Religio historici 4.

Why do people study History? Why, to put the question ad hominem, had the writer of the present work been studying History since he was a child and been spending thirty years on this book which he was now finishing? Is an historian born or made? Every historian will have his own answer to this question, because he will be speaking from his own experience. Quot homines; tot sententiae: [footnote: Terence: Phormio, Act II, scene iv, line 14 (= line 454 of the play).] each must speak for himself. The present writer’s personal answer was that an historian, like anyone else who has had the happiness of having an aim in life, has found his vocation in a call from God to “feel after Him and find Him”. [Footnote: Acts xvii. 27.]

If this personal answer finds any favour with the reader, it may help us also to answer a second question that is implicit in the one from which we have started. In beginning by asking ourselves why we study History we have begged the question: What do we mean by History? And the writer, continuing to speak simply for himself from his personal experience, would reply that he meant by History a vision – dim and partial, yet (he believed) true to reality as far as it went – of God revealing Himself in action to souls that were sincerely seeking Him. Since “no man hath seen God at any time” [footnote: John i. 18; 1 John iv. 12.] and our clearest visions are but “broken lights” of Him, [footnote: Tennyson: In Memoriam, Invocation, stanza 5, line 3.] there are as many angles of vision as there are vocations, and the historian’s angle is only one among a number of diverse angles from which souls with diverse gifts and diverse experiences obtain diverse partial visions of God seen through diverse fractions of His “inconceivably mighty works”. [Footnote: “Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke” – Goethe: Faust, l. 249 […].] Besides the historian’s angle there is the astronomer’s, the physicist’s, the mathematician’s, the poet’s, the mystic’s, the prophet’s, the priest’s, the administrator’s, the lawyer’s, the soldier’s, the sailor’s, the fisherman’s, the hunter’s, the shepherd’s, the husbandman’s, the artisan’s, the engineer’s, the physician’s – and this roll-call could be extended over many pages, since human vocations are as numerous and as various as the glimpse of God that each of them gives is narrow and feeble. Among these innumerable angles the historian’s angle is only one; but, like the others, it makes a distinctive contribution of its own to Mankind’s piecemeal vision of reality. History’s contribution is to give us a vision of God’s creative activity on the move in a frame which, in our human experience of it, displays six dimensions. The historical angle of vision shows us the physical cosmos moving centrifugally in a four-dimensional frame of Space-Time; it shows us Life on our own planet moving evolutionarily in a five-dimensional frame of Life-Time-Space; and it shows us human souls raised to a sixth dimension by the gift of the Spirit, moving, through a fateful exercise of their spiritual freedom, either towards their Creator or away from Him.

A plumber has a religion. Religion is your angle on the universe, nothing more or less.

Old posts:

Religio historici

Religio historici 2

Religio historici 3

The Chinese nurse

Curiosity.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

One Response to “Broken lights”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    “Our little systems have their day;
    They have their day and cease to be:
    They are but broken lights of thee,
    And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”


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