George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although I find the quote memorable, I do not know if I completely agree with Santayana. I find a quote of Winston Churchill more compelling on the loss of the past, that it would introduce “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views” (House of Commons, 16 November 1948).
A while back, our family spent a few days in Kansas City, including one whole day exploring the National World War I Museum and Memorial. A centerpiece of the museum is the WWI timeline. The timeline dominates and divides the museum, printed majestically on two long curved walls, giving a precise global history of the war from beginning to end. The first half offers a timeline of the war prior to the United States entry into it. The second half continues the timeline until the Treaty of Versailles.
I was struck by the tragedy of the Great War, the tremendous loss of life, the intractable nature of the conflict, the strange and seemingly ineluctable push to its beginning. But in this walk through the museum, I was even more struck by the force of human creativity that transcended the war. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote Tractatus Logico-philosophicus while in the trenches. The Dada movement originated during the war. Explorers traveled to the North Pole. The war inspired Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings. Women suffragists fought for and won the right to vote. The national hockey league was organized. African-Americans organized a political movement to fight lynchings.
In the midst of a global war that changed the lives of everyone, the human drive for creativity, for liberty, for love, maintained its focus. Millions of lives were cut short, but life, human life, found ways to thrive in the midst of adversity.
In a moment in history when our nation seems more divided than usual, when some believe we are on the precipice of dramatic decline, it is good to attend to history, that we not become the most thoughtless of ages, distracted by every day headlines and short views. Human creativity is far too fecund to be stunted by partisan politics.
This is the point in such a meditation when I’m supposed to blame the Internet for all the things, or the so-called liberal media. And of course there are every day headlines and short views in both those places. But I think Winston Churchill was aiming at something else in what he wrote. He was pointing towards the capacity we have to take the long view, to actually attend to history. You can mention WWI in passing on Twitter. You can also drive to Kansas City and visit the WWI museum, and ponder our nation’s present in light of the past. Both options are available to us every day, and Churchill and Santayana invite us to take the second option more regularly.
The best impulses of religious life run in a similar direction. Go to church this Sunday—or visit the synagogue or mosque this weekend—and you will hear ancient texts read aloud. Clergy trained in the study of such ancient texts will consider them in light of historical insights. We maintain such texts, read them aloud, discuss them, teach them, because we believe the story of God’s interaction with God’s people present in those texts offers hope, and unmatched resources for creativity.
History is not a distraction from the present moment—it is precisely a resource for better, deeper, and wiser engagement with it. However, like anything that can produce real change, history requires of us a few things—patience, our time, real attention, less distraction, care, tools for proper inquiry, investment, interest.
The silo’d voices of our own parties and positions are echoing all around us in a cacophony of noise that is regularly decreasing our ability to understand those who differ from us. Inasmuch as we believe they are wrong, we probably don’t care that much whether we understand them or not. But effective change, changing hearts and minds in ways that bend in the direction of life and justice, can only happen when we bring our perspectives and insights into the range of understanding of the other who is predisposed to misunderstand us, and us them.
We do not want to be remembered as a thoughtless age, one of those ages that knew neither its own present or the storied past. We need the inspiration the past can provide. Even in the most troubled of times, there are resources for profound creativity, open paths forward that lead to peace. If we’re going to find those paths, it behooves us first to look back and see where we’ve been, that we might recognize the path forward with greater clarity.