Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Shape of Christian History

One of the things that I've been thinking about for a while is the whole topic of just what is Christian history. In a sense, I've been wondering about this since entering grad school and becoming a Christian (which coincided, oddly enough). Part of this wondering is the odd disjuncture faced by all Christians in modern academe. It isn't that academic institutions like universities or schools are anti-Christian; rather most academics regard Christian faith as inherently irrelevant. This is all part of the Enlightenment inheritance which sought to separate religion into a private sphere and reserve the public sphere for matters of universal concern. So, in history (my own area of interest), what this produces is a great concern for causation, chronology and the reinforcement of universal humanistic values such as the loyalty to the nation state, human rights and such like. It isn't that these values are wrong or bad, but, to a Christian historian, they are incomplete.

Still, I really don't know how to write Christian history. There is no doubt that one of the characteristics of it is that we have to presume God as historical actor. That is easy enough when we're dealing with periods covered by the Bible because here we have a book which not only presumes God's intervention in time, but it even records it. Academic historians have problems with this, of course, but that is only to be expected. God's interventions are, by definition, one offs and academic history thinks in terms of patterns. God's actions are a part of a pattern, but it is one that is simply too big to trace. So, God seems random, even when we can see His actions.

Yet, what strikes me as the hardest area to wrap my head around is dealing with what faith tells us about the shape of Christian history. We are, if we think about it, a people who is in the middle of its story. That is, we presume a history which has a beginning, a middle and and an end. The beginning presents its problems in details, but all Christian historians begin with Creation, even if they may find it hard to define exactly what happened because of the lack of human witnesses. God was there, of course, and, for the Christian, that is enough to know that God created the world at least.

The middle, of course, is the easy bit. Much of that is what, we would claim, all historians study. It is the stuff of history. We may have lost information. Some periods may be next to unattested, but, theoretically, we could know something because this is humans acting upon each other. Now, we Christians assume that God's redemptive work is also operating behind the scenes, but it only peaks out every once in a while. The supreme example is Jesus' incarnation which is the pivot point in human history. It is the point at which we shifted from the beginning to the ending of history. It is so important that even secular historians use it as the implicit pivot point, even if their explanation is that, rightly or wrongly, the rise of the Christian movement is so important for later history that it is a pivotal point. We will get increduous reactions when we insist on God as a historical actor, but, at least, the events of the past are taken as known or, at least, subject to proof.

Yet, we also presume an end. More than that, (since many histories presume an end to history: witness the predictions of nuclear suicide in the Cold War or environmental disaster today), we think we know how it will happen. We presume that, someday, God's redemptive work will be completed and human history as we know it will end. Death will be conquered and evil destroyed. Some Christians go so far as arguing that the Book of Revelation literally tells us how things will end. Others take it as an indication that they will end and, while the dying throes won't be pretty, the end will be wondrous. We are, as N.T. Wright suggests, in Act Four of a five act play, but we have an idea from the hints thus far how thing will end, but they haven't happened yet. Among the things that we see darkly is the future consummation for God's purpose, but we just don't know the details yet.

It is this last part which drives our secular colleagues crazy. They rightly point out that it is difficult for historians to study something that hasn't already happened yet. Yet, because of our faith, we can't stop remembering that all that we see is leading in that direction. Yet, we also have to remember that we aren't called to write a future history, if that isn't an oxymoron. Nor are we called to create a Rapture Index . We are called to try to figure out what people have done and where God is in the periods we talk about. I'm just not sure how to strike that balance.



Seven Star Hand said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phil S. said...

I don't normally delete comments, even when I disagree, but the comment I removed above was just a little too loopy for me.