INAUGURAL LECTURE Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light -- By: Carl R. Trueman

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 70:1 (Spring 2008)
Article: INAUGURAL LECTURE Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light
Author: Carl R. Trueman

Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Carl R. Trueman

This article is a revision of Carl R. Trueman’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, delivered on 16 November 2005.

I. Introduction

Having been unable to find a suitable quotation from Bob Dylan as a title for my inaugural lecture, I have chosen instead a line from a famous poem by his partial namesake, Dylan Thomas. The whole stanza reads as follows:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My reason for choosing as my opening shot Dylan Thomas’s rant against the passive resignation of old age in the face of death is simply this: today, both old age and church history are generally regarded as irrelevant. In a culture obsessed with youth and driven by consumption, old age is something of an embarrassment. It is an unproductive, unmarketable concept; and, in a church which so often apes the larger culture, church history is usually regarded as having little or nothing of use to say. My purpose, therefore, is to cast a critical eye on this assumption, and to indicate that Westminster Seminary church historians are not simply going to acquiesce in the consensus concerning their irrelevance, but that they fully intend to rage, rage against the dying of the historical light.1

A variety of factors contribute to the anti-historical thrust of the modern age, as I have argued elsewhere.2 Suffice it to say today, however, that I believe that in a society dominated by ideologies of novelty and innovation—ideologies driven by the agendas of science, capital, and consumerism—the past will always be cast in terms which put it at a disadvantage in relation to present and future. In fact, it is vitally necessary in such societies for the past to be inferior; this is one important means of validating the present and justifying the future.

Dare one say it, in America, a nation built on notions of an expanding frontier and of manifest destiny, a nation whose self-actualization is always seen as being just over the next horizon, such present-future orientation is particularly strong. But it is not just in America that such a viewpoint exerts its grip; it is a Western phenomenon as a whole, with even our language indicating this underlying value scheme: innovative, original, ground-breaking have, on the whole, positive connotations; traditional, conservati...

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