The Creative Historian: The Role of the Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past?

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J.R.R. Tolkien, age 24

If what we say here is true of Tolkien’s sub-creation, it is equally true of those less radical creative departures from the so-called “real world” – those works that go by the name of the roman or novel? Such works, historical in character as they are for the most part (insofar as they generally speak of past events) and set in the “real world,” usually contain their dose of error or even (dare we say it?) lies. For who reads, for instance, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Richard III and thinks he is getting the straight dope on the events proceeding and following the Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare at times frankly distorts the past for purposes of his own – purposes quite other from those of the historian. And not only Shakespeare is guilty of falsifying the past; one can point to countless other writers who, with their creative imagination, recast past events and personalities for their own arcane intentions and purposes.

If we expect poets and novelists to be liars, we count on historians to tell the truth. “The facts, mam, the facts, and nothing but the facts” – this is what the historian is after. The historian narrates, or at least tries to narrate, what actually occurred at some defined time and place, without addition or subtraction. If the historian is an artist, it is only in how he narrates the facts, not in the facts themselves, or so we think. Indeed, we would describe the historian as “scientific” rather than artistic or “creative.” The novelist may play fast and loose with the events of the past; the historian is tightly constrained within the parameters of a demanding discipline.

Thus, it seems I have confirmed the suspicions of at least many of you – that I am some sort of intellectual heretic for even suggesting that an historian may be creative. Yet, before you sick the hounds of the Inquisition on me, I would beg you to hear my case. For despite my protestations to the contrary, I maintain that the creative imagination has a role, a very central and important role, to play in the exploration of history, and the telling and teaching of it. I pray this august assembly to hear me for my cause, and only then, pass judgment upon me. When I have had done, if need be, you may denounce me to the authorities.

In making my case to you, I should first say something about what I mean by “creative imagination.” The term does not equate simply with “imagination,” for the latter is a faculty common to humans and brute beasts, while creative imagination is peculiarly human. Imagination is that faculty whereby sensual images – the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells we take in through our senses – are in some measure preserved within us. Imagination differs from the intellect, which is informed not by sensual images but universal and abstract ideas; whereas every image of the imagination is of, or derived from, some particular sensual experience we have had. With the intellect we can define what a mountain or a man is in its nature; with the imagination, we can conjure up an image of a mountain or the features of a man. With the imagination we can, to some degree, scent the salty air of an ocean on whose beaches we once have walked, savor a hoppy ale, feel the heat of a bygone summer, or hear the strains of a Beethoven sonata. By the intellect, we differ entirely from every sub-human creature, for the intellect is immaterial, spiritual, if you will. The imagination, on the other hand, unites us in a fellowship with creatures whose highest faculty never rises above the merely material level of existence.

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St. Jerome, apparently using his creative imagination, by Albrecht Duerer

The creative imagination is something more than imagination. It is rooted in the imagination, for it deals with those sensual images that inform the imagination; but the creative imagination does something more than merely picture or hear or feel or smell again. The creative imagination is the imagination marshaled by the intellect and the human will. It includes what we call intuition or insight – a view into things, their character and make-up. It is architectonic, for it takes the various sensual images of the imagination and arranges them into meaningful patterns and, in this way, creates a new reality out of the raw materials of the old. For instance, drawing on the images of a lion and an eagle, we create an imaginary beast, the griffin. And if we are well acquainted with lions and eagles; if our experience provides us with the imaginative pictures of their behavior and antics, along with an intellectual understanding of the same, we can do more than merely picture a griffin; by reconstructing lion and eagle elements into a new creature, we can relate something of its natural history. We can describe its habitat, its feeding and mating habits, its lifespan, its ferocity, etc.

Indeed, we may even be able to convince others of the griffin’s existence if our creative imagination is especially keen. And when people hear that a griffin’s feathers possess the virtue of restoring sight to the blind, they may even set out on expeditions to find the extraordinary beast. Imagine, government grants to fund a “Society for the Discovery and Domestication of the Griffin.” Tales of sightings in dark forest lands all over the world. Experts speculating on conservation policies to be implemented, once the griffin is found. Such can be the power of the creative imagination.

* * *

It is the telling of stories, however, that provides us with perhaps the most familiar example of how the creative imagination works. We are all familiar with the basic elements of a story. Every story, we know, has to have a main character, or protagonist – the chief actor in the story. It usually includes other characters as well – in particular, the one we call the antagonist, who strives against the protagonist and provides the dramatic grist for the story. But a story is far more than its characters and their description. A story is most fundamentally a tale of deeds, a series of events comprehended by the term, “the plot.” And not simply any concatenation of events makes for a plot; the events, rather, have to possess a logical coherence and a sense of directed movement. There must be a “conflict” – a problem to be solved, a difficulty seeking resolution. The conflict is resolved definitively in what is called the peripeity or climax, and finds its ultimate resolution in the denouement.

I have said that a plot has to possess “a logical coherence and a sense of directed movement”; such a sense of coherence is what makes for a good plot as opposed to a bad one. But how do we achieve this coherence?

We achieve it, first, by making sure the plot is self-containing. That is, the climax must appear to be a logical consequence of elements introduced in the conflict, and nothing more. In a mystery story, the culprit has to be one of the characters introduced in the conflict. If the storyteller must introduce an element not present before in order to resolve the conflict, say, “who killed Colonel Mustard?” we call it a deus ex machina and deeply deplore it. Imagine in a murder mystery, after exonerating each of the suspects – the butler, Miss Scarlet, Mr. Plum, or Mrs. Peacock – the author discovers the murderer to be some newsboy we had heard nothing of before! In a stage play, such a travesty could even spark a riot! Too, a self-containing plot demands that every event in the plot makes sense given the events that have preceded it. The climax must blossom from its native rootstock; not like a rose from ragweed.

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The Macbeth of the imagination

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a good example of what I mean here. Why does Macbeth kill the king? Clearly, on account of those convincing tempters – the Weird Sisters, his wife, and his own ambition. To secure his power founded on blood-shed, Macbeth murders his friend, Banquo, and (with the Weird Sisters’ intervention) Macduff’s wife and children. Macduff flees, but desiring revenge, joins Malcolm in a push against Macbeth’s power. On account of his tyranny, none stand with the murderous king in his last hour, and the play climaxes in Macbeth’s last battle with him who was not of woman born. Shakespeare carefully constructs his plot so that everything that occurs follows from what he has introduced before. No element of it appears as if it were from its “mother’s womb untimely ripped,” to use a homely though unpleasant metaphor.

 

The self containment of the plot is thus essential to its soundness. But perhaps even more important is how the storyteller develops his main characters. The storyteller constructs his plot primarily by working through the protagonist – for, as we have said, the protagonist is so-called because he is the chief actor in the series of events we call the plot. The protagonist is the chief mover of the plot. If the plot is to possess logical coherence, everything the protagonist does, how he reacts to whatever happens to him, has to make sense given the sort of man he is. His choices must accord with his inner character. If he does anything inconsistent with his character, we find the plot dissatisfying. If anything befalls him that does not seem to follow from his own acts, the immediate circumstances in which he acts, or on account of the explicable proclivities and capacities of other characters in the story, then we think the plot a poor one – and we are correct in our assessment.

When we first meet Macbeth, we see he is ambitious. We see, too, that he is irresolute on account of his conscience. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, seems utterly resolute and ruthless, at least according to our first and superficial judgment of her. It is she who spurs him to do the deed his heart abhors but his ambition desires – the murder of the king. She reminds him of his desires for greatness; she lashes him with words, questioning his manhood and courage; she declares that she would dash her own infant’s brains out, if she had so resolved. Scourged by his wife’s words, Macbeth murders Duncan. We see, subsequently, how the first murder hardens Macbeth to commit the murders that follow – and it all makes sense, given what we know of him. Lady Macbeth’s character follows a different trajectory. Alienated from her husband’s counsels, she betrays her own inner terrors and remorse – elements of her character hinted at in her earlier prayer “to unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty” and her admission, “had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.”

This sort of character delineation proceeds from what we have called the storyteller’s intuition and insight into the imaginary persons he has created. By his intuition, the storyteller sees not only what kind of man his protagonist is, but in what manner such a man would act if placed in a certain environment and beset by very particular circumstances. He perceives how other actors in the story, with their own defined personalities, can impinge on how his main character acts.

738px-aristotle_in_nuremberg_chronicleBut the storyteller’s intuition plays a role even before he conceives the tale that he wishes to tell. To create a character and draw from that character a plot consistent with his inner self, a storyteller must have had experience of men and their ways. He must see beyond what men do into why they do it – how their character conditions and causes how they act. In other words, the storyteller uses his creative intellect to reproduce something like what happens in reality. He draws, as it were, a moving picture, creates an imitation of how human beings really do behave. It is for this reason that, in his Poetics, Aristotle has said that the storyteller is something more than a spinner of tales. He is a kind of philosopher.

* * *

I think we can here begin to see how story is similar to history. For what is history than a relation of what human beings have done – that is, an account of human action in the past? History speaks of wars, of social movements, of the deeds of prominent people, of the habits and proclivities of the common man as evidenced by how he acts. History shows us how, by the choices and deeds of individuals and groups, societies and civilizations rise and fall. How human choice, influenced by circumstances, environment, and the interplay of human wills, sets individuals and peoples moving along definite trajectories. History is tragedy. It is comedy. It is a tale of triumphs, but also defeats – often, it seems, more of defeats than triumphs. History draws us into lives long past in the manner of a story and can even leave us at times sitting on the edge our seat.

It is not insignificant, I think, that the word story is derived from the word, history. In fact, stories have been called histories in earlier times. Like a storyteller, the historian is concerned with causes. He is not content merely to relate what happened, but why it happened. He seeks, for instance, an explanation for the 1812 invasion of Russia in the character of its chief protagonist, Napoleon Bonaparte. The historian asks, why, when he reached Smolensk, did Napoleon decide to proceed to Moscow? How did that tragic mistake accord with the brilliance of the man who made it? And the historian finds his answer, in part, in Napoleon’s ambition, his exaggerated self confidence, and his overweening pride. In other words, the historian seeks for logical coherence and a sense of directed movement in the events of the past – just like the storyteller does in his stories.

But this is where the historian and the storyteller part company. Both are concerned with human action; but, while the storyteller describes for us what a certain type of man might do under certain circumstances, the historian tells us what real men have actually done in real times and places. The storyteller’s tale is hypothetical; the historian’s is factual. Both can be said to be true, but in different ways. Macbeth, for instance, is a real historical figure; but one can argue that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not, insofar as Shakespeare ascribes to his Macbeth things the real Macbeth never did. Yet, Shakespeare’s Macbeth gives us a believable account of what such a man as his Macbeth would do if confronted with a certain peculiar set of circumstances. We can say, “yes, that is just what such a man would or might do; Shakespeare has uncovered a truth about human character.” Still, if we were to judge the play Macbeth by the historical account of Macbeth, we might conclude that Shakespeare is an arrant liar. Such a judgment, of course, would be quite false, since, as a playwright, Shakespeare is not claiming to be an historian. The storyteller creates, while the historian relates. The storyteller finds truth in verisimilitude, while the historian seeks it in evidence.

Indeed, in some ways, the historian’s task is the harder one; it is also less satisfying. By necessity, he is always looking at historical events and their players from the outside. He can see what men have done; but if he seeks to discover why they have done what they have done – that is, their intentions – he is at a disadvantage. The historian desires to know the intentions of historical characters, for he seeks to know causes, and intention is a most important cause of human action. But, for the most part, the historian can only see what men have done; he cannot analyze their thoughts or see into their hearts. Actions do imply certain intentions; but the same action can imply sometimes multiple intentions. When, for instance, Archbishop Thomas á Becket contended for the rights of the Church against King Henry II of England, was he proceeding from zeal for the liberty of the Church or from pride and personal ambition? Because Becket is a saint, we may assume the former; but the case is not so clear cut for the historian acting as an historian. Human intentions, too, can be mixed, which, of course, makes the historian’s task at finding the truth even harder. Sometimes an historian possesses documents such as personal diaries or the like in which an historical figure confesses his mind and will; but even these are external accounts. Human beings are quite capable of bearing false witness against themselves; they may even deceive themselves about themselves – thus, what they say about themselves may not be utterly accurate. Indeed, they might be arrant lies.

This is not the place to discuss all the ways historians analyze the past; what we have said thus far is sufficient to clarify this central point: that, unlike the storyteller, the historian does not create. He discovers. Though the storyteller must proceed from truth and create with verisimilitude, his product is something made, something of his own, something new. The historian is not supposed to make, or make anything up, but to relate, to the best of his ability, events with which he himself had nothing to do. A storyteller may change his story, if he does not like the direction it is taking. The historian cannot change the past, even if he deplores its results.

delarochenapoleonToo, even though the historian wants to produce an account with logical coherence and a sense of directed movement, he cannot always do so. Some events in history just seem to make no sense at all, given the actors involved and all the relevant circumstances. For instance, why did, by all accounts, a promising law student, who was gregarious and jolly and seemingly not excessively pious (I am speaking here of Martin Luther) – why did he suddenly make a rash vow to become a monk? Was the bolt of lightning in the forest really sufficient to wring from him so desperate a resolution? Or, why did Napoleon, after his defeat at Waterloo, trust himself to the mercy of his greatest enemy, England? Such questions are not so easily answered; and, even if he can come up with no answers to these and other questions, the historian is bound to relate the events as fact. Some events just make no sense, but they happened. These and many other examples demonstrate that what we would deplore in a piece of fiction we find unremarkable in a work of history. For history sometimes makes no sense at all.

* * *

Well, given all that I have said thus far, it appears that I must surrender myself up to your mercies. I have spent a good deal of time basically arguing that the phrase, “the creative historian,” is self-contradictory. Perhaps the phrase shows my own creativity – but if it does, then it does not show it to good effect. A piece of art must have verisimilitude; it should harmonize with reality; it should not be absurd, like the phrase, “the creative historian,” seems to be.

But I beg you to have patience – do not dial up a denouncement of me to the Inquisition. Hear me for just a little while longer.

For I contend that the historian and the storyteller have more in common that what I have related thus far. For one thing, they have a common desire, and that desire is to compose an account of a series of human acts possessing logical coherence and a sense of directed movement. That the historian has a harder time doing this than than the storyteller does, doesn’t mean he’s not hankering after it. As we have said, historians are not content simply to relate that A happened, then B, then C; they want to be able to say why B happened on account of A, and how the concatenation of A and B brought about an event so outrageous as C. In seeking to understand historical events, historians will look to various different causes – environmental causes, economic causes, cultural causes, etc.; but, since history has to do with human actions, the preeminent cause of causes resides in the human mind and will. If an historian wishes to understand why an historical actor has acted as he did; he must try to peer into the human heart to understand it.

In other words, an historian must exercise a faculty we may have thought peculiar to the storyteller: intuition. The historian must contemplate the actions of historical characters and ask himself, “what do these actions suggest about the person’s motives?” What kind of men act in the way, say, Luther acted or Napoleon? The task, of course, is difficult and complex, for the historian cannot rely on facile judgments; for the human character is a very complex thing.

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The all-too-creative theologian, Martin Luther, as he looked at the Wartburg

Forgive me for harping on Luther; but I find the man fascinating and an excellent example of my point here. Much of what Luther did as a reformer seems very much motivated by pride; but was he motivated by pride alone? To answer yes here, I think, would be to indulge in a facile analysis of the man. And even if he was proud, pride can rise from a miasma of causes. For instance, people who suffer from a profound lack of self confidence often compensate for it by developing an exaggerated view of themselves. Too, if we can locate (as I think we can) the root of Luther’s rebellion in his pride, we still have to account for the seeming conviction in the rightness of his cause that made him willing to court even death in defense of it, his self-doubts in the cell at the Wartburg (where he wondered, “are you alone wise?”), his devotion to his wife and children, the depth of his expressions of piety. It was not just Luther’s pride that helped make the Reformation, but all the complexity of the man.

Once the historian has examined an historical character, he must account for the historical events in which that character acts in a way that makes sense, that has verisimilitude. In other words, the historian must create an account of historical events possessing logical coherence and a sense of directed movement. His creation, of course, differs from a storyteller’s, for a storyteller is not bound by facts the way an historian is. Too, a storyteller begins from the inside out, while the historian moves from the outside in – from acts to motives, rather than from motives to acts. Nevertheless, the historian has to move creatively. He must come up with an hypothesis – this sort of man would act in this sort of way — that would seem to account for the facts; he may have to come up with a number of different hypotheses to account for the facts. Then, he must test his hypotheses against the facts. In other words, the historian must at a certain point of his investigation act very much like a storyteller, but without, in the end, enjoying the same freedom as the storyteller.

The historian, too, will use his creative imagination to form hypotheses when studying not just what this person did or that historical series of events (such as the American Civil War), but in seeking to understand the grand sweep of history. What is the chain of cause and effect between the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the scientific revival of the 17th century, the Protestant Reformation of the 15th? How were all these historical epochs related to the decline of Christendom in the 14th century and what is called the “Great Century,” the 13th century? Can we see the roots of the deplorable 14th century secularization of the papacy in the praiseworthy, necessary, though hardly flawless medieval reformation led by such great pontiffs as Pope St. Gregory VII and Pope Innocent III? To answer such questions, the historian has to proceed from an intuition, a hunch, which he will then test by the facts found in the historical record of the periods in question. He may posit (as at least one historian has done) that the power politics of the Avignon papacy, which led to the host of ills that finally stirred up the Protestant Reformation, are a result of flaws in the measures the medieval Church undertook to free itself from lay political domination. He may go further and suggest that the personality of, say, an Innocent III conditioned how he tried to reform the Church and was the cause of some of the flaws found in that reform. In doing so, the historian will behave very much like the storyteller – demonstrating how an historical protagonist moves a course of events, embracing not only his own day, but centuries.

The historian must look at history as a story – for that is what it is, a grand, tale, both a tragedy and a comedy. He must have a feel for the drama of history if he is to be able to understand it and relate it effectively to others – and this requires imagination of the creative sort. Perhaps this is why ancient histories often read very much like folk tales; why, for instance, a Herodotus, a Thucydides, or a Josephus will put dramatic speeches of their own creation into the mouths of historical characters – the sort of things those men or women would have said, given the kind of people they were. The rise of a more academic history forbids such flights of fancy; nevertheless, though more “scientific,” modern history is no less dramatic; and, as such, it has to be approached with an imaginative sensitivity – and retold in a way that conveys its inner drama.

In order to fulfill their respective tasks, the historian and the storyteller both must be graduates of the same school – the school of experience, of living in the world and encountering and contemplating human beings and their ways. They must, too, become acquainted with the world of nature, for human beings are affected by the natural world and affect it in turn. Yet, book learning is important too, though more for the historian than the storyteller. Many, if not most, of our great storytellers never darkened the halls of an academy; but in our age of academic history, formal schooling is essential to the historian. Not only what men have done make history, but, more importantly, what they have thought, what they have believed. The liberal arts are thus most important for the forming of the historian’s mind, as is some grasp of philosophy and theology and the empirical scientific disciplines – not to mention the study of history itself. The liberal arts not only add to the store of one’s knowledge, but condition how we come to know and how we perceive the world around us. Grammar, for instance, trains the mind in an understanding of the shades of nuance in language, thus schooling the mind in subtlety. A liberal education provides the historian with a kind of experience of human beings and their ways that is indispensable to his task of, dare we say it, creation.

Yet, one cannot forget the role of that semi-divine creator, the storyteller, himself in the education of the historian. Works of creative literature – lyric and epic poetry, tales, short stories, and novels – provide us with a vicarious experience of humanity. They help us see into the hearts of men and to perceive how what they do springs up from the well of who they are. Moreover, they teach us the compassion that warns us against easy judgments based on what we see men do. A well constructed story draws us into the characters it portrays; we see them for what they are, with all their contradictory desires and proclivities; and though we may not always approve of what they do, we see them for who they are – men and women very much like ourselves. Such an insight conditions our response to the real human condition, both as we see it everyday, and in history. It provides us with the experiences the creative imagination can reference as it explores the possibilities for solving the conundrums of cause and effect with which history presents us.

Thus, if an historian is be something more than a scribbler of facts and a compiler of timelines, he must become something of a storyteller. He must cultivate his creative imagination.

* * *

The subtitle for this talk is “The Role of the Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past.” Thus far, we have spoken only of the profane. Now we will brielfy touch on the sacred.

What is a “sacred imagination”? It is an imagination that has been informed by the sacral – by the experience of sacred rites, writings, and customs. It is an imagination conditioned by the teachings of the Christian faith. It is an imagination that springs from living that faith. Like any other experience, the experience of the sacred becomes the filter through which we come to understand the world around us and by which we add to that world by artistic creation. A person with such an imagination will see all things in relation to the Church, God, and eternity, and will act as if these are realities. He will judge all things by the transcendent.

History, too, must be seen through an experience of the sacred – by the knowledge we derive from such experience. The transcendent is implicit in history in the very fact that everything we humans do, we do finally for one purpose – to attain happiness. Men, of course, do not always define happiness in the same way. For some, happiness lies in the possession of wealth; for others, it is found in artistic endeavor; still others think happiness equates with physical pleasure. Yet, however we define happiness, we all strive to attain it. In the longing for happiness we live, move, and have our being.

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St. Thomas Aquinas

In the Prima Pars Secundae of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the question of human happiness. He demonstrates that men strive after the end of happiness – a unique happiness that is common to all men and, indeed, to the entire universe. He discusses the various goods that men deem to be ultimate happiness – riches, honor, glory and fame, power, bodily health, pleasure, and virtue. He argues that happiness cannot be found in any created thing; it cannot be found in the operations of the speculative intellect, not even if it could comprehend the entire universe and contemplate the angels in all their beauty and majesty. Ultimately, St. Thomas says, happiness can only be found in what transcends its natural powers – the contemplation of the divine essence. The vision of God alone can slake man’s natural thirst for happiness and bring him fulfillment.

 

The lofty tragedy of history is that individuals and human societies strive continually after happiness, but never fully attain it. Seeing this, the historian whose mind and imagination are rooted only in the sublunar realities must always wrestle with a vexing conundrum – if humans always strive for happiness, why do they never achieve it? If history is merely a tale having an ill-defined beginning, in a “big bang,” and a denouement in an ineluctable universal collapse, some Götterdämmerung or Ragnarok, does it really have any meaning? Is history then only the tale of a grim battle against overwhelming powers of destruction? A story of ultimate despair, ending “not in a bang, but a whimper”?

The Faith, however, gives us a different interpretive key to history. It tells us why human beings never fully attain to happiness in this world. More, it tells how men and nations may ultimately attain happiness. But greater still, the Faith has revealed to us a mystery, wider than the heavens and deeper than the sea: the magnum sacramentum that in “the dispensation of the fullness of times” it is God’s will “to reestablish all things in Christ.” History, we learn, it not aimless or utterly random. This does not mean that chance and freedom play no part in it nor conclude that every human and natural event is determined by an inexorable fate. Rather, it assumes that history is the work of a master storyteller whose characters act out the roles assigned to them, but with a self-moving, radical freedom. History has its own complication, not of the storyteller’s making but by his sufferance; it has a climax, and it will have its denouement, a final triumph of happiness, after which all men and creatures strive, to which they contribute, whether they will to or not. This storyteller’s art is awesome, in the proper sense of the word, for its protagonists can work contrary to the plot conceived and yet, in their insubordination, bring it to its foreordained conclusion. We call the truly divine art that can compose such a story, that is at the same time history, Providence.

The Faith, thus, confirms the hunch embedded in all human stories and witnessed to by history, that we have lost a treasure and have been spending our lives, our entire history, trying to find it. But more than that, the Faith reveals to us what that treasure, our true happiness, is – the vision of God in and through Christ Jesus, Our Lord. Equipped with this interpretive tool, the historian can use his creative imagination to explore the deepest meaning of historical events and of history itself. He will not be able to understand the genius of every historical event, but at the least he will know this – that history is not some “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”; rather, it is a story conceived by a master creator who, by his providence, working in and through human freedom, will gather all the loose strands of human striving and join them in a resolution that eye cannot see, nor ear hear, nor the heart of man comprehend – the joy that awaits all those who love him and seek to know his ways.

— Mr. Zehnder is the  general editor of the Catholic Textbook Project, and the author of an historical  novel about the Reformation, A Song for Else .

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