The Fallacy of an Idealized Past

Grass is greener on the other side
Photo by Dimitar Yanchev on Unsplash

I love history. Throughout my studies in mathematics, theology, and philosophy, my greatest interests have been in historical people, events, and ideas. For me, studying the past is a means to interpret the present and to guide the future. An understanding of history sheds light on today’s controversies, shortcomings, and problems.

But, a temptation I’ve had to fight – an one I find in others as well – is to confront problems in the present by appealing to an idealized past. Within the context of the church, there exists within each generation those who find the contemporary church leaving much to be desired – and the solution is to return to the model of church as found in Acts. In Western philosophy, there is little consensus – if any – regarding the value and purpose of the former “Queen of the Sciences.” One answer to this existential crisis has been a desire to return to philosophy as “the love of wisdom” – making Plato relevant in the 21st century. And so on.

While I see great value learning from the past, I feel such a temptation fails to consider the context, struggles, economics, politics – everything that made up the past culture’s air one breathed – that shaped the historical ideas, events, and people we study today.

For instance, it is common for one dissatisfied with the today’s church to use Acts 2:42-47 as the model (or goal) on which to start a new church. This is well and good – indeed we see in the early church a model by which a church ought to exist. However, in longing for that of the past we can easily ignore the context of that past. That is, early Christians lived in a completely different political, economic, sociological structure – one vastly different from today’s context of the American church. To appeal to an idealized early church such that such context is ignored risks making a square fit in a round hole.

Again, I firmly believe that studying the past is essential to correcting the problems of today. Yet, viewing history through rose-colored lenses leads only to further frustration and disappointment with the present. It becomes a standard by which the present cannot attain. Philosophy may never look as it did in Greco-Roman times (or whatever one views as philosophy’s golden age) – and that can be lamented, but that does not mean philosophy is dead or irrelevant in a STEM-dominated age. Philosophy can address, confront, and answer the problems of the 21st century; it just won’t look as it did in the day of Socrates. The church today can reflect the New Testament church (and it should!), but what that looks like in practice (community, gathering, etc.) will look differently from the ancient church.

Appealing to the past requires that we understand (to the best of our ability) the context, the questions, the problems…the cultural air…of that (or whom) we’re studying. What are principles we can glean that transcends spatial-time barriers? What are truths that are true regardless of geography and epoch? Finally, how can we take these principles and truths and fit our 21st century lives around them?

This won’t be easy, but when as it ever been?


Disclaimer: When reading my posts, please don’t read them as complete, self-contained works. I don’t intend them to be so. My posts are not final solutions to problems I observe or fully thought out ideas. Rather, I intend my posts to be viewed as my fleshing out of ideas or thoughts. Knowing is a journeya life-long process…as such, my posts are but glimpses of my own journey.

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