Church history seems like a dismal task.
Why should anyone bother to read old authors or about the past? There is so much to do today, how can anyone read something from the past? No one has any time for that.
We find ourselves in a world filled with very practical people, people too busy for the traditions of their ancestors, too enlightened for people and ideas of the past tainted by so many moral blunders. But we need the past if we are to save our souls.
Many people have little interest in reading old books or books about the past. We see in our day a real antipathy to reading classical literature, an antipathy that has slowly built over the decades. In a world filled with specialists in medicine, science, and technology, we wonder how anyone can understand what such people of the past are saying. How can it help me live a better life in the twenty-first century?
Knowledge has become about facts, rather than wisdom. This is especially apparent in the world of Wikipedia and Google. Rather than seeing virtue and charity as essential to knowledge, we see facts and knowledge as power.
We have turned schools into technical, vocational factories that pump people out to be better workers in a grand society. A society of cliches and tweets has no life-giving wisdom or the embodiment of love. What a sad irony that more knowledge has made us less charitable and less able to live with others who disagree with us.
C.S. Lewis wrote about similar problems in his day. He expressed the moral problem of only reading contemporary literature. This habit blinds oneself to the moral assumptions (and evils) of one's own day. Reading from the past (not just books about Plato, but Plato himself) is an important task for the formation of the soul and virtue.
Learning from the Past
Old authors who held varying philosophical and theological positions have a lot to teach us today. We must encounter the souls of many authors and understand how they struggled with their faith in their day. The Christian faith contains a heritage reaching back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all the way back to Adam and Eve.
Yet, there is an even greater reason to read. Books (real, solid books) are literally a monument, a heritage, a gift from God! Books are gateways to lands unseen and unknown, to people with problems, people of great courage who know victory as well as failure. If we are truly to become a people of Gods book, we must become people of many books. This does not mean we need to be specialists. Rather, we must be people whose souls encounter other souls on their own terms, in their own day.
We must be a people confronted by the grandeur of Gods grace throughout history in the lives of others and in their deaths. And there is no better way to do this than by picking up a book, contemplating the beauties and mysteries of God through the ages. We need these sinner-saints if we, like them, will find a way to a gracious God who can save us from our own follies and blunders. That is our only hope.