History as Lived and as Seen

We may be helped toward a solution of the problem of history and faith by reflection upon the fact that the history to which we point when we speak of revelation is not the succession of events which an uninterested spectator can see from the outside but our own history. It is one thing to perceive from a safe distance the occurrences in a stranger's life and quite a different thing to ponder the path of one's own destiny, to deal with the why and whence and whither of one's own existence. Of a man who has been blind and who has come to see, two histories can be written. A scientific case history will describe what happened to his optic nerve or to the crystalline lens, what technique the surgeon used or by what medicines a physician wrought the cure, through what stages of recovery the patient passed. An autobiography, on the other hand, may barely mention these things but it will tell what happened to a self that had lived in darkness and now saw again trees and the sunrise, children's faces and the eves of a friend. Which of these histories can be a parable of revelation, the outer history or the inner one, the story of what happened to the cells of a body or the story of what happened to a self? When we speak of revelation in the Christian church we refer to our history, to the history of selves or to history as it is lived and apprehended from within.

The distinction between our history and events in impersonal time, or between history as lived and as contemplated from the outside may be illustrated by contrasting parallel descriptions of the same social event. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address begins with history: "Four-score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created free and equal." The same event is described in the Cambridge Modern History in the following fashion: "On July 4, 1776, Congress passed the resolution which made the colonies independent communities, issuing at the same time the well-known Declaration of Independence. If we regard the Declaration as the assertion of an abstract political theory, criticism and condemnation are easy. It sets out with a general proposition so vague as to be practically useless. The doctrine of the equality of men, unless it be qualified and conditioned by reference to special circumstance, is either a barren truism or a delusion.

The striking dissimilarity between these two accounts may be explained as being due merely to a difference of sentiment; the blind devotion of the patriot is opposed to the critical acumen and dispassionate judgment of the scientific historian. But the disparity goes deeper. The difference in sentiment is so profound because the beings about which the accounts speak differ greatly; the "Congress" is one thing, "our fathers" are almost another reality. The proposition that all men are created free and equal, to which the fathers dedicated their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, and which for their children is to be the object of a new devotion, seems to belong to a different order of ideas than that to which the vague and useless, barren truism or delusion belongs. Though these various terms point to the same ultimate realities the latter are seen in different aspects and apprehended in different contexts. Moreover it seems evident that the terms the external historian employs are not more truly descriptive of the things-in-themselves than those the statesman uses and that the former's understanding of what really happened is not more accurate than the latter's. In the one case the events of history are seen from the outside, in the other from the inside. Lincoln spoke of what had happened in our history, of what had made and formed us and to which we remain committed so long as we continue to exist as Americans; he spoke of purposes which lie in our enduring past and are therefore the purposes of our present life; he described the history of living beings and not data relating to dead things. It is a critical history but the criticism of its author is not directed toward the general propositions so much as to the human beings who measure themselves and are measured by means of those general propositions; criticism is moral, directed toward selves and their community. The other account abstracts from living selves with their resolutions and commitments, their hopes, and fears. It is not critical of men but of things; documents and propositions are its objects. The events it describes happened in impersonal time and are recorded less in the memories of persons than in books and monuments.

The example from American history may be duplicated in the history of every other community. Pericles' Funeral Oration appeals to memory and may be paralleled by many an external account of the rise of an empire "acquired by men who knew their duty... and who if they ever failed in an enterprise would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering they could present at her feast." Hosea's account of the childhood of Israel and the Psalmist's recall of what "we have heard and known and our fathers have told us" have their counterparts in ethnological descriptions of early Semitic tribal life. Shakespeare's invocations of memories clustering about "this royal throne of kings, this scepter isle... this land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land," and Burke's reverential regard for a tradition in which the hand of God is visible may be matched by cool, aloof accounts of the rise of British empire. The distinctions between the two types of history cannot be made by applying the value-judgment of true and false but must be made by reference to differences of perspective. There are true and false appeals to memory as well as true and false external descriptions but only uncritical dogmatism will affirm that truth is the prerogative of one of the points of view. Events may be regarded from the outside by a non-participating observer; then they belong to the history of things. They may be apprehended from within, as items in the destiny of persons and communities; then they belong to a lifetime and must be interpreted in a context of persons with their resolutions and devotions.

The differences between the outer history of things and the inner history of selves which appear in these illustrations need to be analyzed in a little more detail in preparation for our effort to understand the relation of revelation to history. It appears, first of all, that the data of external history are all impersonal; they are ideas, interests, movements among things. Even when such history deals with human individuals it seeks to reduce them to impersonal parts. Jesus becomes, from this point of view, a complex of ideas about ethics and eschatology, of psychological and biological elements. Other persons are dealt with in the same manner. One may look for an efficient factor among such impersonal elements, though its determination involves the peril of forsaking the objective point of view, as when a Marxist historian chooses economic elements or an intellectualist regards ideas in the mind as the motivating forces in history. Internal history, on the other hand, is not a story of things in juxtaposition or succession; it is personal in character. Here the final data are not elusive atoms of matter or thought but equally elusive selves. In such history it is not the idea of the soul which Socrates thought and communicated that is important but rather the soul of Socrates, "all glorious within," the soul of the "most righteous man of the whole age." In external history we deal with objects; in internal history our concern is with subjects. In the former, to use Professor Alexander's distinction, our data are "-eds," what is believed, sensed, conceived; but in the latter what is given is always an "-ing," a knowing, a willing, a believing, a feeling. Or, as Martin Buber would put it, in external history all relations are between an "I" and an "it," while in the other they are relations between "I" and "Thou"; moreover the "I" in the "I -- it" relation differs from the self in the "I -- Thou" setting.

Speaking as critical idealists we might say that in external history all apprehension and interpretation of events must employ the category of individuality but in internal history it is the category of personality that must be used in perceiving and understanding whatever happens. In our history all events occur not to impersonal bodies but to selves in community with other selves and they must be so understood. After the fashion of critical idealism we may distinguish external history as a realm of the pure reason from internal history as a sphere of the pure practical reason, though it is evident that Kantian reason must be understood in far more historical fashion than was the case in the eighteenth century when neither pure nor practical reason were thought to be socially and historically conditioned.

We may employ the method of critical realism rather than of critical idealism in making our distinction between external and internal history. From the realistic point of view we are concerned in external history to abstract from all that is merely secondary, from subjective and partisan accounts of what happened; we seek to set forth the primary characteristics of each event as these may be defined by taking into account the reports of eye-witnesses, of contemporary documents and those "permanent possibilities of sensation," the enduring institutions, the constant movements of mind and will available to the experience of all percipients. In internal history on the other hand we are not concerned with the primary and secondary elements of external historical perception but with "tertiary qualities," with values. These are not private and evanescent as the secondary elements are but common and verifiable in a community of selves; yet they are not objective in the sense in which the primary qualities of external perception are said to be objective. Critical realism, however, like critical idealism, is so strongly conditioned by its historic association with non-historically minded natural science and particularly with mathematics that its use in this realm of thinking about history requires a prior readjustment of all its concepts. It is enough to point out that the distinctions which appear in all critical philosophy as between knowledge of the external world and knowledge of the internal, which drive even the most dogmatic positivists to assert that ethics and religion belong to some other realm than that with which objective knowledge is concerned, must also be made in our understanding of history. There is a descriptive and there is a normative knowledge of history and neither type is reducible to the terms of the other.

The distinction may be made clearer by noting the differences in the conceptions of value, time and human association which are employed in the two contexts.

In external history value means valiancy or strength. The objective historian must measure the importance of an event or factor by the effect it has on other events or factors in the series.

Though he is also a self, living in community, having a destiny, and so unable wholly to escape a moral point of view, as scientific historian he is bound to suppress his own value-judgments as much as possible. Not what is noblest in his sight but what is most effective needs to be treated most fully. So Alexander may have a larger place in his account than Socrates, though as a self the historian may elect to follow right to martyrdom rather than might to victory. Economic motives in the framing of the American Constitution may require far more attention than moral ideals, though the historian be one who has abjured the ownership of property for himself and may live a semi-monastic life. Looking upon events in the manner of an impartial spectator, he seeks to suppress every response of love or repugnance and to apply a more or less quantitative measure of strength in determining the importance of persons or events.

In internal history1 however, value means worth for selves; whatever cannot be so valued is unimportant and may be dropped from memory. Here the death of Socrates, the birth of Lincoln, Peter's martyrdom, Luther's reform, Wesley's conversion, the landing of the Pilgrims, the granting of Magna Carta are events to be celebrated; this history calls for joy and sorrow, for days of rededication and of shriving, for tragic participation and for jubilees. The valuable here is that which bears on the destiny of selves; not what is strongest is most important but what is most relevant to the lives of "I's" and "Thou's." Value here means quality, not power; but the quality of valued things is one which only selves can apprehend. In this context we do not measure the worth of even our own desires by their strength but by their relevance to the destiny of the self.

As with value so with time. In our internal history time has a different feel and quality from that of the external time with which we deal as esoteric historians. The latter time resembles that of physics. Physics knows a plain man's time which has for him a valency like that of the "real" money of his province; it also knows a sophisticated time which is aware of its own relativity. So in external history there is the time of the naive chronicler with his acceptance of dynastic dates, his reckonings of years since creation, his A. D.'s and B. C.'s; or this history may think of time in the sophisticated way of a culture philosophy. But all these time-conceptions have one thing in common -- they are all quantitative; all these times are numbered. Such time is always serial. In the series, past events are gone and future happenings are not yet. In internal history, on the other hand, our time is our duration. What is past is not gone; it abides in us as our memory; what is future is not non-existent but present in us as our potentiality. Time here is organic or it is social, so that past and future associate with each other in the present. Time in our history is not another dimension of the external space world in which we live, but a dimension of our life and of our community's being. We are not in this time but it is in us. It is not associated with space in a unity of space-time but it is inseparable from life in the continuity of life-time. We do not speak of it in precise numbers but say in poetic fashion with Lincoln, "four-score and seven years ago," meaning not eighty-seven but our remembered past. In humbler fashion we correlate, as gossips do, the lives and deaths and wars of kings with shocks and joys in our own history. Such time is not a number but a living, a stream of consciousness, a flow of feeling, thought and will. It is not measurable by the hours and years of a planetary and solar rhythm; its ebb and flow, its pulsations and surges, its births and deaths and resurrections are incommensurable with lunar or atomic tides. If they are to be measured it must be done by a comparison with other inner alternations; in our history we do not correlate the death of the heart with the declining sun nor its rebirth with nature's spring but with a crucifixion of the son of God and with his rising to new life.

Human association also differs when regarded from the external or internal points of view. The external knower must see societies as made up of atomic individuals related to each other by external bonds. Yet even the human individuals are depersonalized, since they are understood as complexes of psychological and biological factors. Society, to his view, is a vast and intricate organization of interests, drives or instincts, beliefs, customs, laws, constitutions, inventions, geographic and climatic data, in which a critical and diligent inquiry can discover some intelligible structures and moving patterns of relation. In internal history, on the other hand, society is a community of selves. Here we do not only live among other selves but they live in us and we in them. Relations here are not external but internal so that we are our relations and cannot be selves save as we are members of each other. When there is strife in this community there is strife and pain in us and when it is at peace we have peace in ourselves. Here social memory is not what is written in books and preserved in libraries, but what -- not without the mediation of books and monuments, to be sure -- is our own past, living in every self. When we become members of such a community of selves we adopt its past as our own and thereby are changed in our present existence. So immigrants and their children do, for whom Pilgrims become true fathers and the men of the Revolution their own liberators; so we do in the Christian community when the prophets of the Hebrews become our prophets and the Lord of the early disciples is acknowledged as our Lord. Not what is after the flesh -- that is what is externally seen -- but what is after the spirit -- what has become a part of our own lives as selves -- is the important thing in this internal view. In our history association means community, the participation of each living self in a common memory and common hope no less than in a common world of nature.

It may be said that to speak of history in this fashion is to try to think with poets rather than with scientists. That is what we mean, for poets think of persons, purposes and destinies. It is just their Jobs and Hamlets that are not dreamt of in philosophies which rule out from the company of true being whatever cannot be numbered or included in an impersonal pattern. Drama and epic set forth pattern too, but it is one of personal relations. Hence we may call internal history dramatic and its truth dramatic truth, though drama in this case does not mean fiction.

The relevance of this distinction between two histories to the subject of revelation must now have become apparent. When the evangelists of the New Testament and their successors pointed to history as the starting point of their faith and of their understanding of the world it was internal history that they indicated. They did not speak of events, as impersonally apprehended, but rather of what had happened to them in their community. They recalled the critical point in their own life-time when they became aware of themselves in a new way as they came to know the self on whom they were dependent. They turned to a past which was not gone but which endured in them as their memory, making them what they were. So for the later church, history was always the story of "our fathers," of "our Lord," and of the actions of "our God."

The inspiration of Christianity has been derived from history, it is true, but not from history as seen by a spectator; the constant reference is to subjective events, that is to events in the lives of subjects. What distinguishes such historic recall from the private histories of mystics is that it refers to communal events, remembered by a community and in a community. Subjectivity here is not equivalent to isolation, non-verifiability and ineffability; our history can be communicated and persons can refresh as well as criticize each other's memories of what has happened to them in the common life; on the basis of a common past they can think together about the common future.

Such history, to be sure, can only be confessed by the community, and in this sense it is esoteric. One cannot point to historic events in the lives of selves as though they were visible to any external point of view. Isaiah cannot say that in the year King Uzziah died God became visible in the temple nor Paul affirm that Jesus the Lord appears to travelers on the Damascus road. Neither will any concentration of attention on Isaiah and Paul, any detailed understanding of their historical situation, enable the observer to see what they saw. One must look with them and not at them to verify their visions, participate in their history rather than regard it if one would apprehend what they apprehended. The history of the inner life can only be confessed by selves who speak of what happened to them in the community of other selves.

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