What’s the purpose of history? This is a question that I have repeatedly thought about for the better part of my 3.5 years as a graduate student in a history of science program. But it is a question that has especially plagued me recently as I have been preparing for my doctoral exams. On four separate days during January and February I will take four exams, 3 written and 1 verbal, in which I answer a variety of questions pertaining to three areas of supposed “expertise” that I have developed. To help prepare for these exams over the last 7 or so months I have read many books and articles, only to then reread many of them at least once or twice. In the process of such intense preparation I find myself stuck with the most basic question of all: What’s the purpose of history?
The current job market for academic history would say that it’s of rather minimal value. Perhaps some of my family and friends would say the same. After all, it’s just a bunch of facts, the answers to which may be found on Wikipedia! Why would anyone ever pursue history?
This Christmas season I have been reminded of at least one reason: God reveals himself to us through history. And this is at the center of the Gospels. The identity of Jesus did not come from nowhere, but was rooted in the history of Israel. Both Matthew and Luke, each with their own respective emphasis, places Jesus among the descendants of Israel in their often skipped over genealogies. Yet such an emphasis on history is not something reserved merely for the infancy narratives, but continues throughout the Gospels, as each writer, from his own perspective, demonstrates the way in which the story of Jesus is the climax of the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They also tell how the activity of Jesus connects to various prophecies, showing a continuity – a historical continuity – in the way that God acted in the past, and the way God was acting in their own day.
But what about now? What does the Gospel writers’ emphasis on history say to us in our own day? Some would suggest that God has stepped away from the world, only to return at the end of all time. But to suggest that God’s activity in the past is somehow different than God’s activity today, is to place upon God some sort of identity crisis. God’s character does not change. What this means is that since the time of the Bible, God is still acting through history.
I would suggest that since we serve a God who reveals himself to us in history, that this makes history worth considering. Not all are called to pursue it as a vocation. Who knows, I might not even be called to do so (we’ll see how the job market is in 2 or so years). But I do think this means we are all called to consider the past, and even to consider how the past helps to explain the present.
In addition to this, I think we can also be thankful for the fact that God has chosen to work in history, a history that is oftentimes messy, sad, and disappointing. In which injustices are ever-present, and change is slow and sometimes unexpected. My own history is that of a life that is oftentimes messy, sad, and disappointing. I act with injustice. I am slow to change. And yet, because God is a God of history, I can trust that he can act in my own life. That I can change. That the world can change. That there is hope.
History has purpose because God acts in history.