I wrote here about my surprising journey into Church History. That post also relays C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the importance of reading the past in order to put pressure on the blind spots of the present–“to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds…”
Lewis helps us with some difficulties:
- Reading the past is hard. Part of this is because of humility–who are we to read the great works? Should we presume to understand them without a guide? To this, Lewis recommends skipping the guide and reading primary sources–that is, to go straight to the famous dead guy, and read his words directly. He says you’d be shocked at how accessible they are. Indeed, part of the reason these great works survive all these centuries is precisely because they were written by master teachers with tremendous gifts for clarity. Lewis also points out that a lot of so-called guides that are attempting to tell you what the masters are saying are (ironically) harder to read than the original writer. I think he makes a great point here. Though, it’s worth noting that we should still expect some difficulty whenever we read the past–it’s a cross cultural experience, and will take work. I try to encourage folks to skip the places they don’t understand–and to get some help picking works that are known to be easier to read.
- Reading the past will make you misunderstood. Since most people don’t do it, you’ll be different if you do. Like someone who’s lived in a different country, you’ll have a new historical perspective that will make you feel dislocated here and now. Here’s how Lewis describes your new point of view: “You will be thought a Papist [Roman Catholic] when you are actually reproducing Bunyan [not a Catholic], a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.” Translation: If you read church history, you’ll discover the grand highway of Christianity that cuts across the centuries and ties them all together. Your friends, however, won’t understand. They will see your point of view as too high, too low, too broad, or too narrow based on their perspective. That’s okay. It’s still worth it. And, for those of us called to lead Christ’s church, it’s necessary for gaining the wisdom we need to extend “the great level viaduct” into the next century.