Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Making Sense of History: Henri-Irenee Marrou's Theological Scope

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Making Sense of History: Henri-Irenee Marrou's Theological Scope

Article excerpt

Henri-Irenee Marrou is a well-known French historian, who lived between the years 1904 and 1977. He specialized in late Antiquity and early Middle Ages, and wrote extensively about the Fathers of the Church, particularly St. Augustine. Among his works are De la connaissance historique, in which he examines history and its challenges; Theologie de I'histoire, which analyzes the global problems of history and time from the point of view of a Christian historian; Histoire de I'education dans I'Antiquite; and Decadence romaine ou Antiquite tardive.

The aim of this article is to describe Marrou's vision of the meaning of history, a vision that takes its fundamental elements from his Catholic faith, but is also shaped by his personal commitments as a citizen in his own time and place.To achieve this aim, I have studied his Theologie de I'histoire, but also some other of his writings, especially L'ambivalence du temps chez Saint Augustin and his article "Tristesse de l'historien." After a short introduction sketching Marrou's life and work, I will explain his critiques to those who forget the eschatological dimension of faith and to some philosophers, who pretend to know the laws of history or, on the contrary, think that history is nonsensical. Secondly, I will develop the main lines of Marrou's arguments: the responsibility in the building of the civitas terrena; the coexistence of good and evil in this world; and the renewal of eschatology. In all of these, the influence of Augustine's teachings is clear and acknowledged by Marrou.

1. Introduction: The Man and His Work

Understanding human beings involves, as Henri-Irenee Marrou often repeated, the ability to achieve a "sympathetic understanding" of them. This implies developing genuine friendships, "inserting" oneself into the vital circumstances of a friend's life, and from that point trying to understand his or her actions and choices. Marrou was, as his disciple Pierre Riche rightly defined him, an "historien engage," (1) a committed man. He was committed to his faith, his homeland, and his profession, which he always perceived as a forum for serving the truth. Because of this, I shall begin by saying a few words about how these various commitments influenced his work.

The first aspect that should be pointed out is that he was a Christian; more specifically, a Catholic who sought to live out his life in a manner consistent with his faith and who was troubled by the vicissitudes that his Church was experiencing at the time. Referring to his Theologie de I'histoire, he stated that the book was "no more than a simple meditation on the second plea in the Lord's Prayer: 'Thy Kingdom come.'Yes; although we repeat them so often, do we really know what these words mean?" (2)

This work, written immediately after the Second Vatican Council, develops some of the key issues discussed at that assembly: The nature of the Church as the "People of God," together with a recognition of its community-based features (without abandoning the personal dimension of the relationship with God) and the role played by the laity in the Church and the common priesthood of the faithful; as well as the links between Church and culture.

Soon after we begin reading Theologie de I'histoire, it strikes us that we are being given a glimpse into the author's private thoughts, and that he is not only posing questions about the fate of his civilization and the meaning of this never-ending flow of cultures throughout history, but also, above all, about how he, as a Christian, should live if he is to use his own life to help build the City of God:

   This is not about producing a new treatise on apologetics; before
   seeking the conversion of others, which is always easy (at least on
   paper), one should strive to convert oneself. At the doctrinal
   level, one should first ask oneself what one's profession of faith
   means and, most particularly, if this can shed light on one's path
   (and how this can happen) and guide one's conduct through the dense
   and ominous jungle that is history. … 
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