History and Truth

As a follow-up to the thread on Rowan Williams getting misquoted, I wanted to offer a few reflections on history, truth, and related matters from the viewpoint of a science- and theology- educated lay person.

First, thanks to the Enlightenment and the modern views of recording fact, there is considerable misunderstanding about what history is and what history is not. Too often there is a focus on “what actually happened,” including in the realm of religion. Religious folk who get their knickers in a twist about the historicity of the Scriptures or the martyrology have been coopted by modern views on philosophy. If something can be quantified, it is true. The extreme view would say that if it can’t be quantified, it isn’t true. That would be a gross misreading of intent and truth.

News reporters interview Titanic survivors. Maybe somebody takes a photo. Authorities interview crew and others. This is factual history. The big ship sank on such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a time. It had an effect on future shipbuilding, safety procedures, and other things.

James Cameron makes a film. This is not history. Though it might depict some historical events, it is not scientifically factual.

Does this mean Cameron is a liar? No. His intent was not to make a documentary film. His intent was to entertain with romance, suspense, love, and sacrifice. Does that mean that the film contains no truth outside of the historical certainties? Again, no. The love affair of Rose and Jack, while not historical, is true in a sense beyond mere facts. The catastrophe of a sinking ocean liner involved the loss of life and love, and sacrifice on the part of human beings involved in it. That’s an important truth to experience. And if it takes an entertainment vehicle to provide it for a willing audience, I have no problem with it.

So the Christian blogosphere turns its attention to Rowan Williams making comments about the Nativity as depicted on Christmas cards. We have a similar situation. Like Titanic, the Bible is a non-historical medium. Much of what it contains would not hold up to the disciplined scrutiny of modern history. An enlightenment-soaked individual might conclude I’m saying the Bible is false. To such a person I’d counsel: get out of the present and into the faith.

History as a scientific discipline has evolved–for better or for worse–into a literalism that doesn’t align with the religious worldview. Three wise men didn’t exist historically. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures don’t contain any text that there were three, that they were men, their names, or much other stuff in the way of description. A painter could paint four or two Magi. A parish could have girls dress up in a Christmas pageant bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These wouldn’t be historical either. They wouldn’t be any less historical than the Bible. But they would be true.

The astrologers from the East certainly have something to teach us. That’s why we should pay attention. And we shouldn’t ignore them because we can’t prove they existed.

In the same way, many major facets about religion aren’t historical facts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t true, or that they didn’t happen. Certainly we should pay attention to the truth of the Paschal Mystery, to the Nativity, to the Blessed Mother and the Virgin Birth. We should pay attention not because these are facts we can verify through history, but because they lead us to God.

Some commenters seem to think the general or religious public isn’t ready to hear this stuff. Seems like many of these people were quick to jump on the bandwagon when Bishop Trautman seemed to be insulting their intelligence on translations. I can’t agree Williams was out of line for talking about Magi, shepherds, or even the Virgin Birth. Not a bit. There’s a reason why many people demur when the cocktail talk drifts to religion: they don’t want to get caught up in any of the many controversies that have dogged us from the time of the Nativity.

So let’s grow up and get aware of history and the truth. People are more than capable of handling a good discussion on the faith. When the holiday conversation turns to bashing an archbishop, why not turn it around, and instead ask what the meaning of these pagan gift-bringers is? Instead of contently dwelling on the surface, like the beautiful complexion of Kate Winslet, why not get to the heart of the matter–the true heart? Would I pay attention if an angel warned me in a dream not to go home a certain way? How far would I go to find the Lord Jesus? How do I adopt the attitude of the shepherds, telling it wherever I go?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to History and Truth

  1. Liam says:

    Well, this also is a deconstructable view of what history is and is not, and relies partly on assumptions that are themselve quite questionable.

    ” Three wise men didn’t exist historically.”

    That’s an overstatement, for example, and that’s the kind of thing that has triggered needless controversy in the past and present.

    The most you can say in history is that ancient manuscripts describe magoi of undetermined plural number doing certain things, that their actual historical existence is as of now beyond the province of current historical discpline to prove OR disprove.

    We can prove that people adopted this belief at an early date, and even induce that manuscripts were likely written within a shorter period of time, after the life of Jesus of Nazareth than standard college-level historical criticism had formerly acknowledged (there’s been a great deal of change in that regard in the past generation, though many essayists and professorial course materials have yet to catch up). Et cet.

    Of course, one could also apply this to many ancient “secular” (an anachronistic term in this context, except for things like tax/census/fiscal records) manuscripts that we rely on historically as well.

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