I have long had an interest in the relationship between Christianity and history. After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on (supposedly) historical events. History matters to us. And yet, we have issues making sense of history. There is a great temptation in the contemporary West-shared by atheists and many Christians alike-to interpret history by way of narrative. What many refer to as the “Myth of Progress” is an Enlightenment-based myth, in which human history is seen as “progressing” (ethically, technologically) out of the “dark ages” of our species’ youth and moving towards…well, whatever. For now, I think the Singularity is the current Destination Utopia.
The problem, of course, is that history-by any honest account-is too convoluted to be squeezed neatly into any narrative, be it Progress or anything else. Not long ago, I slapped A.C. Grayling on this point:
Grayling also seems not to be able to process that the Enlightenment owes at least some debt to Christianity (c.f. Tom Woods)-but then again, in his worldview, there are only cardboard cut-outs and archetypal abstractions. Reality is just too messy and complicated for someone who sees the world through the eyes of a three-year old.
What I meant by this comment is that anyone who approaches history thinking “Christianity bad, Enlightenment good”-or vice versa-is reading history in an exceedingly simple (read stupid) way. Criticizing John Gray, Grayling wrote:
The chief of them is that he is against the progressivist ambitions of the secular Enlightenment, and he hopes to annoy its proponents by giving it Christianity for a father and – that weary old canard – Nazism and Stalinism for offspring.
What Grayling seems to have missed is the mere fact that the Enlightenment is sandwiched “between” Christianity and the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century should be a clue to any thinking person that the Enlightenment probably has something to do both-for better or for worse-both with what came before it and with what followed. The absurd alternative, that the Enlightenment “just happened,” springing for like Athena from the head of Zeus, makes no sense on any level. Even the Christian, who believes that there was indeed a radical “break” in history (from Outside), believes that the “break” is only intelligible in the context of the history of Israel. Whatever the truth of history, we can be sure that there are plenty of overlaps and connections between these “eras”-if, in fact, history can even neatly be divided into “eras.”
That’s Step 1. Step 2 is that it is equally dimwitted to assert that the Enlightenment “caused” Nazism and Stalinism, and to insist in a knee-jerk way that these evils had nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Indeed, I would posit it is a great mistake to read history as a narrative of good and evil, where the Enlightenment is seen either as “liberation” from the powers of darkness, or, alternatively, as a disastrous mistake. Any serious study of history makes a mockery of such efforts. It should not be so difficult for an intellectual honest atheist to admit that Christianity is not as wicked as many believe, and that, indeed, many of the “good elements” in the modern world have Christian roots. Thomas Woods made that case in the linked article above, Rodney Stark made the case in a recent book, and at least some atheists will grant the basic point. And, of course, David Bentley Hart also made this case in Atheist Delusions, though, as I’ve conceded, his rhetorical overreach somewhat undermines his argument.
Moreover, the Enlightenment wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. As Hart explained in reviewing Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:
For him, modern culture’s moral advances were born from the sudden and fortuitous advent of the “Age of Reason,” which” aided by the printing press-produced a “coherent philosophy” called “Enlightenment humanism,” distilled from the ideas of “Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill.” We know what he means: not the dark side of the “Enlightenment” and the printing press—“scientific racism,” state absolutism, Jacobinism, the rise of murderous ideologies, and so on—but the nice Enlightenment of “perpetual peace,” the “rights of man,” and so on.
In point of fact, the Enlightenment did not belch up a coherent philosophy at all. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it:
Alasdair MacIntyre’s point in After Virtue is that the Enlightenment project – a morality constructed on rational grounds with no reference to religion or tradition – simply failed, not because it came up with no answers but because it gave too many of them. Kant’s ethics are incompatible with Hume’s, which are irreconcilable with Bentham’s, which are anathema to Schopenhauer. The philosopher’s slide rule does more sliding than ruling, and we are left bewildered and confused.
The white man’s burden, Voltaire’s anti-Semitism, these too are part of the Enlightenment. Grayling’s simplistic narrative paves right over these distinctions. Again: any thinking person should know-simply by virtue of being alive-that real life is never that simple. As Carl Olson noted in a rebuke to Grayling:
Grayling admitted in later comments that his column “was of course brief, conversational, rhetorical and polemical only.” Fair enough, but it is readily apparent where he is coming from and what he thinks of Christianity: it is an intolerant and despondent mythology that thrives on ignorance, oppression, and the suppression of knowledge.
Grayling describes himself as a “humanist” and an adherent of what he calls “secular, free-thinking, classically rooted inheritance.” He is an heir to the Enlightenment and thrives on the sort of anti-Christian polemics and dubious historical assertions that became the rage among many intellectuals during the Enlightenment era, so much so that he seems to be nearly entombed in a dusty (dare I say “old-fashioned”) form of simplistic skepticism that was in style many decades ago.
So, for example, his description of early Christianity as “an amalgam of dying and resurrecting god myths and myths”, has far more in common (nearly everything) with the pseudo-scholarship of The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, written in 1875 by freethinker and anti-Christian Kersey Graves, than it does with the sober historical, textual, and biblical research done by over the last several decades by men such as Jean Danielou, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Raymond Brown, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Fitzmyer, Bruce Metzger, John P. Meier, Larry W. Hurtado, and many others. Writing over fifty years ago, Henri Fehner (then a professor at Russian College, Meudon, France), observed that prior to the end of the eighteenth century “nowhere at any time had there ever been any doubt about the historical existence of Christ.” The point here is not to launch an extended apologetic discussion on this topic, but to point out that Grayling’s position is, ironically enough, antiquated and out of step with the best scholarship.
He goes on:
Which is not to suggest that the history of Christianity from the fourth century until the twelfth century was one of steady and unhampered progress and success. Not at all. As Dawson and other historians readily point out, there were difficult, even dark, moments throughout, including the fall of Rome, disease and famine, various assaults by barbarians and, later, by Muslims. Nor is it to deny that there have been Christian despots, corrupt clergy, and lax laity. Yet Grayling apparently thinks that any mention of positive achievements on the part of Christianity is a naïve denial of any failures–as though any admission of Christian achievement is tantamount to kissing the hand of the Pope and begging entrance into the Catholic Church.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Christians who could benefit from a reminder that the Enlightenment is not all evil. Olson notes:
Later, in the same work, Ratzinger asks the rhetorical question about his critique of the Enlightenment: “Does this amount to simple rejection of the Enlightenment and modernity? Certainly not!” He then notes that Christianity is rational, philosophical, universal, trans-political, trans-cultural, pro-man, and pro-life. “In this sense,” he writes, “the Enlightenment has a Christian origin, and it is not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state”. Obviously, Grayling disagrees. But note that Ratzinger has no problem acknowledging whatever is good and true in the Enlightenment and in modernity. Compare that to Grayling’s refusal to admit–despite much historical evidence to the contrary–that anything good has come from Christianity.
Whether in the realms of theology and philosophy (as Ratzinger demonstrates) or the realms of science and technology (as Stark argues), Catholicism has shown a remarkable ability to assess, incorporate, assimilate, and appreciate what is good and truthful in other religions and belief systems.
I rather like the approach of Fr. Rolheiser on this issue:
A third group has a more nuanced approach: Persons such as Charles Taylor, Louis Dupre, Kathleen Norris, and, a generation earlier, Karl Rahner, see secularity as a mixed bag, a culture of both life and death, a culture that in some ways is a progression in and a purification of moral and religious values, even as it is losing ground morally and religiously in other ways. Of major importance in this view is the idea that secular culture, secularity, is the child of Judaism and Christianity. Judeo-Christianity, at least for the most part, gave birth to Rene Descartes, the principles of the Enlightenment, the French revolution, the Scottish revolution, the America revolution, and thus to democracy, the separation of church and state, and the principle that so much undergirds secularity, namely, that we agree to organize public life on the principle of rational consensus rather than on the basis of divine authority (allowing, of course, for divine authority to influence rational consensus).
Viewing secularity from this perspective, it is equally important to highlight both the moral and religious ground that has been lost in secularity as well as the moral and religious ground that has been gained. Both can be seen, for example, by looking a highly secularized culture like the Netherlands: On the hand, it is very weak in church attendance and in explicit Christian practice. Along with this there is the tolerance and legalization of abortion, drugs, prostitution, and pornography. On the other hand, they are a society that takes care of its poor better than any other society in the world and one that is recognized for its emphasis on generosity, peace, and the equality of women. These are not minor religious and moral achievements.
Where do I stand? Mostly with this third group and its belief that secularity is not our enemy but our child and that it carries inside itself both highly generative streams of life and asphyxiating rivulets of death. On the one hand, I draw a lot of my life and joy from its creativity, color, exuberance, and generative energy, often times against my own Germanic-propensity for greyness and acedia. I am also uplifted on a regular basis by the real generosity and genuine goodness that I find in most people I meet. Importantly too, I reap its stunning benefits – freedom, protection of my rights, privacy, opportunity for education, wonderful medical care, information technology, access to information, wide cultural and recreational opportunities, clean water, plentiful food, and, not least, the freedom to practice my faith and religion.
On the negative side, I recognize too its elements of death: The tolerance of abortion, the marginalization of the poor, the itch for euthanasia, lingering racism, widespread sexual irresponsibility, a growing addiction to pornography, and an ever-growing trivialization and superficiality. As reality television becomes more indicative of our culture, I begin to despair more for its depth.
As an adult child of Rene Descartes, I breathe in secularity, a very mixed air, pure and polluted; and I find myself torn between hope and fear, comfortable but uneasy, defending secularity even as I am critical of it.
Anyway, my point is that we should admit that reality is complex and stop trying to read through history through the lens of ideology. Indeed, we would do well to stop trying to frame history in a narrative sense. John Gray has been much maligned for his criticism of “progress,” but what Gray is really criticizing is the human tendency to mythologize our own history. Gray suggests-and I agree with him-that our history is simply too messy to be neatly captured in narrative form.
This admission doesn’t diminish the Christian sense of “salvation history” one iota, but it does force us to revisit precisely what we mean by this. To believe that God is at work in history-that the Divine Economy is made manifest in actual lives and actual events-is not the same thing as affirming that we can “read” the writing of God on history. To use an overused phrase today, God’s actions in history are often “at the margins,” off the radar of the world. A commentator on Father Freeman’s blog (this post) puts it this way:
Archaeologically, only recent has even a shred of evidence regarding the historical existence of David as King been discovered, and even that shred is disputed. Secular histories vary on whether David was an insignificant tribal leader in the southern part of Palestine, or never existed at all. From the perspective of the God who reveals Himself in the Scriptures, however, David is easily the most important king to ever reign over Israel or Judah, and page after page of the Old Testament Scriptures describe his life, his reign, and then use him as a symbol of repentance that leads to salvation on one hand, and of the Christ to come on the other.
Meanwhile, archaeologically, the Omride Dynasty, and particularly Omri himself, are far and away the most important kings to rule over the northern kingdom of Israel. Not only did he have huge military victories, territorial expansions, and building projects, not only did he open trade relations with all of Israel’s neighbors resulting in a massive boom economy, not only did he found the capital city of that kingdom upon buying the hill that became Samaria, but the nation of Israel was historically referred to by neighboring nations as the ‘House of Omri’ for centuries. In the Scriptures, however, Omri is mentioned in III Kingdoms (I Kings) 16 and receives 8 verses dedicated to him that describe him becoming king, buying the hill of Samaria, being evil, dying, and being buried.
The historical books of the Old Testament do not give us history in the sense of modern historiography. More importantly, they do not claim to. It is not that they are attempting to do modern history and somehow failing. They are succeeding perfectly in their task of revealing the divine significance of certain events. From God’s perspective, Omri is insignificant, and David is of great importance. From the perspective of the world’s history, just the opposite.
This is why these books in the Scriptures tell us again and again, as here about Omri, “Now the rest of the acts of Omri which he did, and the might that he showed, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?” If you want the world’s history, the world has written it. The Scriptures are here to reveal to us what we could otherwise never know, and that is the real spiritual significance of these people’s lives and experiences millennia ago in the Near East, through which we are led to Christ, and can begin to understand the spiritual significance of our own lives, and the events unfolding in our own times.
I had a similar conversation this past Easter with my Mom. We were at the Vigil Mass at St. Anne Church in Rochester, where, behind the alter, is a picture of the Blessed Mother and St. Anne (God’s grandmother). My Mom looked at the painting and commented that it didn’t strike her as historically accurate. I forget what my response was, but I remember my Mom’s response to me: “Oh, so that’s how God sees it.” Whatever I said, I got that one right.
To close, some more good thoughts from Father Freeman on the (lack of) a Christian Theory of History:
Historical consciousness (an awareness of time’s passing, of one’s place within it, and an internal sense of direction through time) is a hallmark of modern human beings. We are easily persuaded to make present-tense sacrifices for the promise of a rewarded future. Even secularized persons, perhaps more than most, have an intense interiorized faith in a direction-driven history. It gives the individual a sense of place and purpose apart from God. We are building a better world.
This historical consciousness, born of a distortion of the gospel, has now come full circle and been taken up by the mind of modern Christians. For many, history is the scene of Christian development, a movement within time directed by God. It is therefore not surprising to see believers thinking of spiritual progress, or of progress in the Church or movement towards certain historical goals.
Classical Christianity, particularly in its Orthodox form, utterly rejects (or should) such foreign propositions. The Church is not a movement within history. It is the abiding presence of God-with-us as His Body. It is not the product of cause and effect (John 1:13). It is that place where the End of all things is made present to us at this time.
Progress is not a measurement within the Kingdom of God. It is a word that is not only foreign to the gospel, it is a word of quite recent coinage. Faithfulness is the more appropriate standard within the Christian life. We are not progressing.
The Christian need not obsess about trying to make history conform to a neat narrative. History matters-and will always matter-to us. It is incumbent upon us to confront those who attempt to read history through the lens of a three-year old (e.g. Grayling). But is equally incumbent upon us to avoid the same mistake. History is messy, and we cannot make it fit neatly into any kind of narrative. Good and evil run through the whole bit. The beauty of it all, however, is that we have no obligation to make everything fit into a simplistic narrative. God doesn’t need one to do His work, and there is no need on our part to insist on one.