Friday, 13 October 2017

The Study of History: Devious Tracks

Why and How Did These Things Come To Pass?

Herbert Butterfield on the complexity of historical causation, using religious liberty as a case-study.
It is not by a line but by a labyrinthine piece of network that one would have to make the diagram of the course by which religious liberty has come down to us, for this liberty comes by devious tracks and born of strange conjunctures; it represents purposes marred perhaps more than purposes achieved, and it owes more that we can tell to many agencies that had little to do with either religion or liberty.

We cannot tell to whom we must be grateful for this religious liberty and there is no logic in being grateful to anybody or anything except to the whole past which produced the whole present; unless indeed we choose to be grateful to that providence which turned so many conjunctures to our ultimate profit.

If we see in each generation the conflict of the future against the past, the fight of what might be called progressive versus reactionary, we shall find ourselves organising the historical story upon what is really an unfolding principle of progress, and our eyes will be fixed upon certain people who appear as the special agencies of that progress.  We shall be tempted to ask the fatal question, To whom do we owe our religious liberty?  But if we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably no man ever willed, our minds become concentrated upon the process that produced such an unpredictable issue, and we are more open for an intensive study of the motions and interactions that underlie historical change.  In these circumstances the question will be stated in its proper form: How did religious liberty arise?  . . . History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present.  [Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965), p. 45,47.]
The appropriate approach for Christians to history and its study is to see causation as "exceedingly thick"--deep, multi-variate, complex, and at many times mysterious.  What else would we expect from God--the all controlling Controller.
. . . remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose’
[Isaiah 46:9,19]

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