So says Rowan Williams on page 2 of Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church. It's only a little book and it doesn't use hard words, but I have to concentrate to read it! I'd say it oozes Williams - I can hear him saying it as I read it - and like so many other people he had all my best ideas before I did.
He helpfully (for my purposes) links the writing of history to change. Page 5:
"When you sense that you cannot take it for granted that things are the same, you begin to write history, to organise collective memory so that breaches may be mended and identities displayed."
One key theme that runs through Christian history, he asserts - and I think I agree - is that there is both change and continuity. People in the past times are not, as he keeps reminding his reader, twentyfirst century folk "in fancy dress," we cannot simply assume that they thought like we think or that we can recapture their world, nevertheless, whenever a Christian undertakes to study the work of past Christians, there is a connection as members of the Body of Christ, fellow participants in the Eucharist and prayer, who read the same scriptures and in whom the same activity of grace is at work. In other words, overt or not, the 'God-factor' is part of the process, part of what shapes the work - one of the constraints if you like, upon the student. Page 28:
"For the historian who has theological convictions, [the] challenge is to discern something of what is truly known of Christ in the agents of the past"
"What we are attending to is the record of encounter with God in Christ"
That all recorded history has an aim, plot, trajectory, is as true for Christian history as any other type, page 23, "To relate the story of the Christian Church is always - at least for the Christian - to look for a 'plot' in the record." By choosing some examples he illustrates this - Eusebius has a theme of suffering and vindication, Bede a battle between the true church and the false church, the writers of the Reformation a need to reconstruct the truth from the original sources of the Fathers (rather than as mediated through Rome).
Importantly, "[h]istory will not tell us what to do, but will at least start us on the road to action of a different and more self-aware kind, action that is moral in a way it can't be if we have no points of reference beyond what we already take for granted." (Page 25). I think he is right, it is by engaging with an 'other' whether that is someone/thing in the past or a different viewpoint in the present that our thinking is stretched and we begin to understand better why we are as we are, and are open to be transformed ever more into the image and likeness of God.
Now I need to go and read chapter 2!