Old magnifying glass enlarged word history/DepositPhoto

We need to understand the history of our faith traditions

By Janine Warrington

History was notoriously my worst subject in high school. I found it uninteresting and unimportant. Whenever I would question the necessity of its study, I would receive the same answer: “It’s important to understand history so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.” To my teenage brain, this was a highly dissatisfying answer. I didn’t see myself at risk of committing colonialism or homicide or any of the great tragedies of history – these were mistakes I wouldn’t make whether I knew about prior instances or not.

Today, several years later, I am pursuing a master’s degree with a focus on the history of Christianity. It’s not that my eyes have been opened and I finally see the ways of my high school teachers. On the contrary, I still find “so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes” an unsatisfactory reason to pore over history books. History is more than examples of what not to do (although it certainly can be that at times). History charts the course that has brought us to where we are now. Events over time have shaped the world around us, which in turn has shaped each of us. In a different context, I would be a different person. My identity as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American has been shaped by wars, revolutions, and reformations. Understanding the ways in which forces outside of myself have shaped who I am gives me a clearer view of myself, my family, my friends, and my faith community. This understanding teaches me not only what not to do, what mistakes to refrain from repeating, but also illuminates possibilities of what I can do moving forward.

In 2010, the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life conducted a nation-wide telephone survey about religious knowledge. The results of the survey demonstrate that, on average, Americans identified 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions correctly. (Take the quiz here to test your own knowledge). While it isn’t essential to know specific dates, names, and minute details (the boring stuff that contributed to my dislike of history in high school), there are some significant historical details that certain groups scored dishearteningly low on. “About half of Protestants (53 percent) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity.” As scholar Brent A. Strawn notes in his book “The Old Testament is Dying,” this knowledge may not be considered ultimately important, as it doesn’t directly affect Protestants’ worship practices. However, only 16 percent of the people surveyed knew that Protestants traditionally teach salvation by faith alone, and Catholics do not. As Strawn says, “slightly more than eight out of ten people do not know why there is a Protestant movement in the first place as opposed to just the Roman Catholic Church alone…. Most disturbing of all: the majority of Protestants themselves don’t know this (81 percent).” (pp. 23-24)

For somebody to identify as Protestant without understanding the history of their own faith tradition is not inherently immoral, but it is unfair to that individual. Without understanding how your faith tradition came to be and how you became a part of it, you subject yourself to aimless wandering.

Understanding history empowers us to see the world as it is, and our place in it. When we know why we are who and where we are, we can be intentional about the way we live. We can form our own opinions on whether salvation is by faith alone or a combination of faith and works. And, once we’ve made that decision, we’ll also know not to repeat the mistake of burning those who disagree with us at the stake.

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