Each month, a member of the board will share a reflection on the Soul Matters monthly theme and the state of the church. The theme for November is Holding History. This month’s post is offered by Brian Zais.
I never much liked history in school. Dry regurgitation of names, dates, and events never held my interest. Those were things that happened back then. They were a little like looking at names on my family tree from 100 years ago. Sure, William McCaffery was my great grandfather. That name could have been Seamus O’Connor and I probably would have turned out the same. It was only later in life that I truly developed my appreciation for history, and especially those moments when the course of history changed, even if people at the time didn’t realize it.
Thomas Edison is credited with hundreds of inventions; the electric light bulb is one of his most famous. But it is the phonograph that may have had more influence on culture, society, and human history. The light bulb made light less expensive and more convenient, but there were lots of other sources of light at the time like candles. The phonograph, on the other hand, altered the entertainment industry fundamentally. Before recordings, you might want to go see Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress and singer, one of the best performers of the time. But Sarah might not come to your town, so you were content to see others perform who were almost as good. It was still good opera, perhaps the best available to you. Once you could listen to a recording of the best performer, however, hearing the next best didn’t have quite the same allure. (Ever feel this way when you learn the understudy is performing instead of the star in a Broadway show?) Second-tier artists found their performances less in demand, and the market for a broader group of singers shrunk. Almost 150 years after the invention of the phonograph, our music and entertainment industry still strongly favors a few big artists. Edison was trying to develop a machine to record telegraph transmissions. He unintentionally altered society.
My appreciation of history really sings when I experience a connection with a turning point of the past. Today, I can look through my telescope at Jupiter and see its four biggest moons. It’s a relatively pedestrian experience for an amateur astronomer. But then I think about the first time anyone ever saw this same view. The ancients knew about Jupiter, of course, one of the brightest stars in the heavens, named after the king of the gods. But Galileo was the first to look at it with a telescope, in 1610. He saw four smaller points of light next to the planet and thought they were just stars in the background. But the next night, those same stars were still there, but in a different position. Over the next few nights, Galileo tracked those small stars, saw the pattern of their motions, and soon realized they were moons orbiting Jupiter. Galileo had found the first evidence that celestial objects can orbit something other than the earth, bolstering the Copernican theory that the sun is the center of motion, not the earth. Despite taking some time to take hold due to the fervent opposition from the Catholic Church to this heretical thought, Galileo’s discovery fundamentally changed our understanding of our place in the universe. So when I look at the moons of Jupiter today in my telescope, I feel an almost visceral, spiritual connection to an event that happened over 400 years ago. I’m seeing the same view as Galileo did back then, one that changed science immeasurably.
It’s easy to dismiss history as unimportant, just a list of facts we don’t have to bother to remember because we can just look them up on Google if we need them. But understanding history, embracing history, holding history helps us understand where we are today, how we got here, and where we might be headed in the future.
— Brian Zais
Member, UUCM Board of Trustees