The 5 C’s of “What Does It Mean to Think Historically”
One of my favorite intellectuals, the Nigerian literary genius Chinua Achebe, said, “Until lions have historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” In other words, explanations about the past often resemble the value commitments of contemporary communicators rather than what historical evidence reveals. Hence, we must discipline our thoughts against presentism—reading contemporary values and understandings of culture into past events—without allowing past participants of systemic evil to remain ethically pristine in our memories since Scripture transcends, and defines, our understanding of right and wrong. Injustices against humanity cannot receive an ethical pass.
In an essay by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke titled, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically,” the authors proffer “five C’s of Historical Thinking” as potential aids for turning past events into doing history. The five C’s are: 1) Change over time, 2) Context, 3) Causality, 4) Contingency and 5) Complexity.
Change Over Time
Life is in constant flux. Today’s new discovery will eventually become tomorrow’s obsolete idea. When wise people think about the past, they invite multiple conversationalists from diverse cultural backgrounds to avoid provincialism. One nation or cultural group doesn’t have the market on knowledge for the rest of the world. Which is to say, experiencing other cultures will challenge our prejudices and give birth to new questions. Change means that even though things might fall apart, they can always be rebuilt. When someone says, for example, that they miss the good old days in America, the statement is frequently made by someone in a privileged position rather than a person who was systemically marginalized. Times have certainly changed for the better in some cases, and worse in others.
When I attended Dallas Theological Seminary, Prof. Howard Hendricks would often say, “Repeat after me. Context! Context! Context!” History involves the ability to narrate the past in a reliable manner. Context begins with people, places, things and dates to better understand the cultural, geographical, theological and economic situations of life during a given period. If you really desire a balanced opinion on past events, seek out answers from people who were there, remembering that primary sources are not always written. Many American laws forbade certain people of color from attaining literacy. Hence, as the authors state, “Texts, events, individual lives, collective struggles— all develop within a tightly interwoven world.” Context is king.
As evangelical Christians, we believe that the past has bearing on present happenings and future realities. After all, we can read Scripture knowing God has given us the big picture and endgame of human history—all things will be summed in Christ. The Bible provides persuasive explanations why certain events took place and how those events impact people today.
In similar fashion, before we quickly dismiss ideas as malicious, we should remember, as Southern Baptist historian John Wilsey states, “History is a study of the events of the past, as well as why those events happened. Events happen as a result of prior causes, and they happen in the way that they happened as a result of prior causes.”
Before one flippantly states “all lives matter”—one should ask “Why is the statement ‘black lives matter’ so important in the African American community?” Causality helps us thoughtfully answer this question.
Contingency explains potential reasons why certain conditions exist. As most historians admit, contingency is difficult—but not impossible—to prove. As the authors lament, “To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions, and so on. The core insight of contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place.”
Unlike the authors, however, Christians are not opposed to teleological interpretations of history that incorporate both God’s sovereignty in reigning over all events as well as human responsibility in bringing about God’s will on earth. This occurs when participants acknowledge or are unaware of His invisible hand. Begin reading the Old Testament while considering the New Testament and you will begin connecting clear signposts that point to Christ. Perhaps, as Wilsey avers, “A single event is a link in a chain of events going back in time and forward in time.” Simply put, contingency makes us ask, “Is there a link?”
Whenever any of us speak about the past, we do so with our biases intact. None of us have perfect vision into the ways in which people interacted with one another. We rely on evidence to tell a compelling story. History resists our efforts to simplify it, so we should exercise caution when we begin to speak well or ill of the living and dead. One of the ways in which we guard our hearts from inconsistent arguments is by rejecting oversimplifying history to bolster a political agenda, catalogue events or continue the nostalgia myth. We are complex beings who cannot be placed into an easily understood box of ideas.
I pray that each of us will utilize these five C’s as guardrails for discussing American history in general and Southern Baptist history. Remember, there is a difference between the past and history. The past is a record of events that occurred yesterday whereas history constructs past events in a meaningful and truthful way to correct false perceptions and shortsighted claims in contemporary culture.
As Kentucky Baptists, I hope that we will not be found guilty of espousing ideas in the public square that have very little evidence to support our claims. May these five C’s protect each of us from creating a historical picture that is contrary to truth.
Curtis Woods is the interim co-executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.