By: Stephen McAlpine
My father died of Lewy Body Dementia, a particularly cruel sub-genre of a particularly cruel disease. ‘LBD’ not only shuts down your brain, but shuts down your body.
Before long all that is left is a shell of a person unable to walk, talk, feed independently, or even show signs of cognitive understanding. And that last stage can go on for months.
The thing that hurts about it, indeed about all forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s is the gradual loss of memory. Because it’s at that point that we realise that the relationship we have with our loved one only makes sense in the relationship we had with them; the relationship yesterday, and the day before, and last week, last month, last year, and so on. We have that still. They no longer do.
Once the memories start to go things become vague. They enter a foreign land, and the more terrain they travel, the further from the entry point they go, the signposts fall away, the landscape loses its distinctive peaks and troughs, the colours and the seasons blend into a grey amorphous plasticine.
The future becomes part of an ephemeral now, with no reference points. Family members, painfully, become strangers, or even estranged, as banshees, imagined or recovered and reconstituted from some time in the past, raise a low bitter wail.
I remember going in to visit my father near the end of his life and imagining that his brain was like a constant screen static, the plug connecting him to any signals that provided meaning long since removed.
We Need the Past to Make Sense of the Present
Perhaps you have heard the saying “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. Well, the future without the past is not only an uncharted country, it is a country that cannot be charted. It is both fathomless and unfathomable at the same time, lacking as it does any reference points.
We need the past in order to plot the future and make sense of the present. In our current cultural context however, there are great efforts being made by some progressives who wish to erase the parts of the past with which they take particular umbrage.
In using the term “progressives” I am not trying to be politically or cultural partisan. It is an acknowledgement only that by virtue of that title, the future is vitally important to them. They wish to see us progress. Appositely, they wish to see some of the things that some of us hold, to not progress. They wish for a better future than what they consider the past to have been.
Yet as we have seen in recent years, many who wish to see such progress believe that there is some cleaning up to do first. Some cleaning up of the past. The extreme version of this is the removal—sometimes violently—of statues and name plates of those who are deemed to have offended modern sensibilities by what they did in the past.
And to be fair, not merely modern sensibilities. Many things that many so-called greats have done would have been derided in their own day. But history is, as they say, written by the winners.
Which is where progressives wish to position themselves in history, as do conservatives, if truth be told. The overarching feature of a conservative is not reactionary, but of cautious moving forward in such a way that the past is a place of learning, some of shame and some of honour, but none without instruction. Now, granted, some conservatives are reactionary, but such reactionaries no more honour the past as they do hope for the future. They like the present because they possess the power in the present.
Cultural Amnesia Throws Out The Baby with Bathwater
But there is a zealotry to some more radical moves to erase the parts of the past that seem undesirable going into the future. There is a cultural amnesia afoot that will throw babies out with bathwaters, and throw statues into harbour waters. And all for the sake of some sort of Year Zero.
Year Zero. Anyone remember that? The Cambodian dictator responsible for the killing fields of his country, Pol Pot, labelled the start of his revolution Year Zero. This would be the start of a glorious future.
But first the past had to be dealt with. And how? By not simply throwing statues into the harbour, but by the wholesale slaughter of millions of his people. Those who wore glasses were particularly in the spotlight as it was proof they could read and were educated. Educated people would know the past, would be purveyors of history, and as such were flies in the ointment of a glorious new future.
We shudder at this, along with all sorts of bloodthirsty events throughout the twentieth century in which people tried to erase the past for the sake of an unsullied future. And lest we think it was only the job of the progressives, it took until 1992 in Australia for the erasure of indigenous tenure of the land to be admitted. Colonial Australia declared upon arrival that the continent was terra nullius, nobody’s land, hence ripe for the taking—their taking—upon which a new future would be built in a particular way.
The Past Matters – Both the Good and the Bad
The past matters—good and bad—because it shows us up, all of us, good and bad. And perhaps that’s the point. If we want to truly discover that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stated:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
Our own personal pasts are not so pretty, and unless we face up to that, and Solzhenitsyn saw this first hand in Soviet Russia, we will always believe that the future we carve out can be a pristine, error-free future, in which every hint of blemish must be clamped down upon.
History is needed. It is needed in all its gore and glory. We learn from it, and we lean into the future secured by its weight. The loss of memory is not cute. It is not an endless loop of the film Fifty First Dates.
And it’s as a Christian that I have most conviction about history. The faith itself is historical and hinges on its historicity. And the most robust versions of Christianity don’t junk the old creeds and liturgies, they keep them and embed them in newer practices.
In fact, as our culture becomes more rootless in the West there is a return to the old ways by many young people. They realise that they need some sort of anchor to hold them that is older than the latest TikTok influencer or Instagram trend.
Christianity, because of Jesus, also gives me the freedom to face my past with its monuments to my own vanity or stupidity. I have no need to tear them down to be thrown into the river. And the reason is clear: God has in Jesus Christ, said that He—and He alone—will remember our sins no more. The one described as The Eternal Now, who was from eternity past to eternity future ushers in a forgetfulness that takes account of all of these past failures, and the future ones too.
Christianity above all religions, is historical, because it grounds itself in history and is leading to a “telos” or a goal. It’s not like the pagan religions that hearkened back to a Golden Age, with no real hope for the future. And it’s not like Eastern religion which has no linear progress, but rather one that has a certain and good goal.
Perhaps history is bunk. Henry Ford said it was. But we only know that he said so because someone recorded it and left it for our posterity. Perhaps as a warning and a lesson that it most decidedly is not.
Feature image: Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
About the Author: Stephen McAlpine is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing he dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.