(Note: this piece was originally written as part of a reflection in a seminary assignment, 2007)
Why read the ancients? This is an important question, especially in a world that is printing more books each decade than were produced in all the eras of Western civilization before the twentieth century. With so many fresh resources pouring onto our shelves, why pick up a book that speaks from another time, another culture, and in obscure language? There are a number of compelling answers to this question; so compelling, in fact, that most of the books I now read are at least a hundred years old, and most far older. First and foremost is the fact that readings from other cultures can make us more aware of the “blind spots” and errors of our own time and culture. Second, old books that have remained in wide use must have certain merits to them, which current books may not have. The classical works have proved the test of time, whereas it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in today’s book-glutted market.
The two reasons above would apply to anyone who picks up an old book. For Christians, however, there are even more reasons why they should take up and read the thoughts of ancient and medieval Christians. First, readers will encounter such a breadth of thought and devotion, much of which will be new to them, that heretofore unseen horizons of contemplation and theology will open up for them. And second, the Body of Christ is a unity that extends through time, and the Christians who lived centuries ago are just as much our brothers and sisters as those living now. Since we will be spending eternity with this blessed company of friends, it is to our benefit to get to know them now.
We live in one of the most self-obsessed cultures that the world has ever seen. This occurs on the individual level, with billions upon billions of dollars spent each year to cater to our own particular whims, as well as on the cultural level, in a popular society that seldom attempts to understand other backgrounds or worldviews, either those of our contemporaries or those of the past. This is a generalization, of course, and there are many who stand as exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, the current popular culture is dangerously unable to see beyond the boundaries of its own shallow world. Even those of us who have some cultural awareness and a desire to break through this unfortunate blindness are trapped to some extent, limited by the unconscious perceptions of our culture. The great value of reading the ancients is that they will be speaking from a culture with different blind spots than our own. We will be able to see their weaknesses more clearly than they could, but they will also be able to speak to our weaknesses in ways that we are unable to.
It is worth noting that we, of all the generations of Western civilization, are the first to openly flaunt our disregard for the past and to act as if the great thoughts of history have no relevance for us. In fact, in a society that worships “newness” as something meritorious in and of itself, the mere act of reading an old book is to take a stand of cultural defiance. Reading history and the classics is as good a way (or perhaps even better) of understanding the current American cultural crisis as by reading most of the contemporary books published on the subject.
Christians especially can benefit from reading the ancients, because the same Holy Spirit who works in our churches now was also working in those earlier ages, and his messages to the church (and through the church) are always worth knowing. We in evangelicalism are as much strictured by tradition as anyone else, and our interpretations of Scripture—and of the way the Gospel ought to be lived—are determined by a rather narrow set of (often unconscious) boundaries. Exposure to other traditions can open up new possibilities, never before considered, as to how the Christian life can be lived more fully as a disciple of Christ. Reading the ancients gives us a window into the early church, a glimpse of the way that the people closest to Jesus and the apostles understood the message that had been handed down to them. And while evangelicals often appeal to the example of the early church, there are some intriguing and inspiring surprises in the world of the early fathers (such as Ignatius’ vigorous defense of ecclesiastic hierarchy). If we only read the works of our contemporary evangelical brethren, we will never be truly stretched out of our comfort zone, never stop to consider that the way God interacts with his people might be bigger than the tidy boxes we construct.