Monday, January 02, 2017

Which side of history are you on?

The beginning of a new year might be thought the appropriate time to begin it by identifying whether we are on the right side of history or not. That phrase, ‘the right side of history’ is not mine of course. Nor is it the best way to think of our relation to the past. But  it  is common to think in these terms. Lately it has been used as an argument for the UK remaining in Europe. To remain would be to join or continue to be on the right side of history, the Sunny Side of the Street, as we might call it. But Brexit is on the wrong side, though the Spectator, a magazine which is for Brexit, opined in a recent editorial that  ‘the world is doing rather well’.

‘Which side of history are you on?’ is also raised in connection with other contentious issues in current politics and culture. This idea of history having a ‘side’, which is liberal, enlightened and so on, harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, to the emergence of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, in sharp contrast to the side of the ‘dark ages’ of medievalism. The idea is that such a surge as the Enlightenment, having begun, is inevitable, tending unstoppably in one direction. This side of history is on the move to better times, and so if we wish these times for ourselves and others, we had better get on the right side. And that direction becomes ‘obvious’ to those with enlightened minds.

The forces of darkness, of barbarism and superstition, are history’s other side, its faltering side, the side of those intent on ‘turning the clock back’, impeding or interrupting and so delaying its progress. Sooner or later history’s other side is to be decisively supplanted by the enlightened. So that dark side is destined to fail. The light side of history will succeed. Who wants to be left behind? So do not get left behind, for the Light and its forces will ultimately triumph over Darkness, reason against unreason, liberty against slavery, and so on. This is somehow connected with what Herbert Butterfield and others referred to as the Whig interpretation of history.  Though this seems to have been, insofar as it existed, a gentler version of the current ‘sides of history’ view, at least insofar as it is view of history that is the outcome of ongoing parliamentary debate. In fact it may be said that so long as freedom of speech and the working of government and opposition in Parliament continues, the enlightened ages continue.

Also linked with the winning side of history view is the idea of Western leadership and hegemony, which causes the rising sun to shine on the Sunny Side until the entire world basks in it. These are the engines of light.  Currently these are the forces of globalism, international corporatism, and the waging of the war against global warming.  Its personal ‘values’ include unlimited tolerance, and the freedom from offendedness of various kinds, along with the renouncing of the vestiges of nationalism and popularism,  two currently-favoured examples.. Though it is said that we are living in a post-Enlightenment period, the confidence of the Enlightenment persists. Whatever ‘post-modernism’ is, it is not pessimistic.  (An oldish sceptic might wonder what has become of a fad of yesteryear, the ‘Small is Beautiful’ claims of Schumacher, which at the time seemed attractive to some, but whose norms seem to go in the opposite direction, or are nothing other than a nostalgic hiccup in the upward march).

What the inevitability of the triumph of such enlightened forces is grounded in is not made clear. Besides, it encounters competition in the ‘sides of history’ stakes. For example Marxism in its pure form holds to the historical inevitability of the international revolution that will usher in classlessness, and so Nirvana. These inevitabilities are not strictly speaking fated. For it seems to be possible to hold to the inevitability of history and yet get one’s timing for meeting the train that will carry you to the destination of personal liberal freedom and plenty, or of communist revolution, wrong.  Nevertheless, he train is to continue in its destination even if presently it is shunted into a siding. But such a view of history is obviously false. There is change and decay as well as periods of seeming advancement.

But though history records moods, and changing habits and priorities, trends and tendencies, it does not have a side, nor two sides. It has, and has had, many sides, some of which have come to an abrupt halt and others which still run. Other sides suddenly appear and invite you to ride, like a scene from Alice in Wonderland – ‘Jump on me’. The rise and fall of empires bear testimony to these, and empires rise and fall still.  It is hard to think that we are at the end of history in this sense. The sun never set in the British Empire, but time has set on it.

The belief in the course of history, if it is worth the name, is an empirical belief, based on the study of the way in which it is going, and then extrapolating that.  It is in this sense of history that in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. He did not assert that history as a sequence of events has ended, but that with the course of Soviet communism being stopped, history as a fundamental clash of ideologies was no more. Fukuyama held that this was true of 1992, when it seemed for a few moments that liberal democracy, helped by global capitalism, was dominating the globe.

History and pilgrimage

Is historical inevitability of any use in understanding the gospel or its spread? I am asking this not with a modernist or liberal form of Christianity in mind, but Christianity in its historic, orthodox expression. I suppose certain millennialist positions of the end of time held by such Christians may be said to take such a view. But is the idea of history having a right or wrong side part of the Christian outlook?

From time to time in Christian history, there have been groups who have pinned their hopes - not usually their fears - to some passage of biblical prophecy or other. Not only radical sects, who have tied their Christian faith to the  events of history, interpreting this and that as giving direction of the progress of the gospel to far islands and to the courts of kings, and to interpreting the ‘signs of the times.’ We  see this temper also at work in those who have a programme of Christian ‘cultural transformation’, perhaps as part of some postmillenial aspiration, or perhaps not. One might think too, that those who stress divine sovereignty, in providence and in saving grace, might be tempted in this direction.

The inscrutability of history

It is a feature of living ‘between the times’ that God’s activity in history, his macro activity we might call it - cannot be correlated with the ebb and flow of history. Why is this?  Because there is now no fixity between the events in history and the saving purposes of God. The only possible exception is the history of the church. But that is also rather uncertain. During the eras if special revelation – in the call of Abraham, and the history of Israel, and of course in the coming into flesh of the eternal Son, there is redemptive history in something like the usual sense of history.  There were times in which the purposes of God  with those with eyes to see, could be discerned. Through the ebbing and flowing, a trajectory of the divine redemptive purpose is discernible. But no longer. There is no ‘open vision’. Attempts to make a connection between historical states as the centuries roll, and the redemptive purposes of God are doomed.

All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. (Eccles. 9.2.)

There is some other evidence in Scripture for this, in eschatological contexts.   ‘So, if they say to you, Look, he is in the wilderness, do not go out.  If they say, he is in the inner rooms, do not believe it’. ‘ For as in those days before the flood…so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’  (Matt 24 36f.)

Such an  understanding of  history and the place of the Christian church in it throws into sharp relief the New Testament teaching on Christians as pilgrims and strangers, whose citizenship lies exclusively in a future city  whose maker and builder is God.  Any ‘Christian’ activity which seeks to impact dimensions of this present age and its cities –through social policies, political agendas, or arts and crafts - as so many expressions of Christian faith, inevitably compromises the root importance of a pilgrimage of men and women who otherwise may agree on little else, but whose eyes and hopes are in the New Jerusalsem. Besides these, the questions of history, its various sides and significances, matter not.

Augustine of Hippo had his cap on the right way.

When, therefore, death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things will not be there, and there shall be peace – peace full and eternal. We shall be in a kind of City. Brethren, when I speak of that City, and especially when scandals grow great here, I just cannot bring myself to stop.