The Historical Perspective

The Historical Perspective

The Figment of Scholarly Reasoning blog a few weeks ago, which looked at some of the most recent feeble minded attempts at ‘debunking’ religion, this time reducing it to a probable outcome of human’s developing imagination, ended with the following proposition/refutation:

There is something called Enlightenment. There is a way of being, and a way of training the mind. It is of immense benefit to the meditator at the beginning, the middle and the end of the way. It is something verifiable in direct experience, with the only caveat that you must train the mind in meditation first.

The issue is scholars looking at religion in purely anthropologic terms.  They seek to explain the involuntary or voluntary delusion of religion in terms of Darwinian survival, sociology, psychology, or in some cases as a fear reaction to the unknown and to the prospect of death. One gets the feeling of clever scientists peering down at the unwashed masses who would acknowledge the scientific explanations if only they were clever enough. The premise offered above, that there actually might be a real and ultimate truth to existence, a subjectively experienced reality that changes everything, is rarely considered, except in its various historical contexts.

The Christian scholar, writer and wit C.S. Lewis, enjoying a resurgence of fame with the Hollywood films on his Narnia series, described this scholarly calumny to religion as the ‘Historical Perspective‘ in his brilliant masterpiece of wit and wisdom The Screwtape Letters.

In this work, Screwtape is a senior demon advising his nephew, an apprentice demon who has just been assigned his first ‘patient’. It is the demon’s job to use an array of dirty and underhand tricks to misdirect the patient away from all things Godly or moral.

Addressing the problem of free will in God’s creation the demon Screwtape readily acknowledges that an assortment of writers and thinkers have already explained the matter at various times in history. The patients however are in little danger of benefiting from this, since the demonic introduction of the ‘Historical Perspective’ which handily prevents successive generations from benefiting from earlier generation’s wisdom.

But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn’t bother about that. Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View.

The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.

He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”.

To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge-to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour-this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk”,

Your affectionate uncle   




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