Recently I came across a remarkable essay by L.D. Burnett, a Ph.D. candidate in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas. It is called “Through a Glass, Darkly”, and its main argument may perhaps best be summed up in this quote from the last paragraph: “The historian’s faith, from what I can see of historians’ practice, pretty much comes down to this: that the dead, rather than being remembered, would be understood.”
On its own this conclusion, while interesting, does not appear very unusual; that historical scholarship is or can be an endeavour with an existential dimension is hardly a new or original idea. But Burnett’s specific point, that as historians we are “resurrection men”, and how she frames it is anything but ordinary:
It was Ambrose of Milan who suggested that human redemption is effected because Satan, Death and Hell “swallowed” Christ, as a monstrous fish swallows a hook, so that in overcoming Christ, Death itself was overcome, caught, captured, rendered powerless by Christ’s indestructible life. In the same way, perhaps, the revivifying effect of historical inquiry, which to us seems like a service to the needs of the present, may in fact be the accomplishment of that redemption from misunderstanding, from partial knowledge, which the dead of the past demand.
Rarely or never before have I seen the meaning of history being described quite like this. The whole piece, from the title onward, is permeated by Biblical and theological imagery and references that many “secular historians” would probably not feel entirely comfortable with, at least not in the context of discussing the purpose of their work. For me, however, it represents a thoughtful, inspiring and deeply human way of conceptualizing what it is historians do and why. And I cannot help thinking that by comparison, most of the conventional explanations of why history matters seem rather shallow and trivial.