CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY
There is a fashionable view today, which is shared by some philosophers and scientists, though not by all, that while the Universe had a beginning, will have an end, and operates according to discoverable laws, it has no purpose. Meanwhile mankind, like any other thing or creature, is a chance by-product of that purposeless process, and might just as well never have appeared. This view of things has led many people to conclude that nothing really matters; for if the Universe is totally purposeless, plainly life too must ultimately be futile. In fact, Macbeth was right to cry that ‘Life’s but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;’ and everyone else has been wrong. This, in its turn, has led, not only to much cynicism, especially amongst young people, but also to much hopelessness, boredom and depressive illness amongst people of all ages.
In many ways, this cosmic pessimism is understandable, but in one way it is surprising that so many philosophers and scientists should take such a view; for it is at odds with evolutionary theory, which sees the history of the Universe and man in it, not only as a process, but as a progress: an ordered progress from the moment of Creation in the Big Bang, through an amorphous cloud of incandescent radio-active gas , and thence through the slow formation of the galaxies and the stars - that is to say, through the ordering of matter - eventually to the appearance of life in bacterial form and thence again through ever higher forms of life to culminate in man. And if that is not an apparently purposeful progress rather than a meaningless process, it is difficult to know what it is: a fact recognized by the advocates of the so-called Anthropic Principle of the Universe.
I say this, looking for a moment however inadequately at an enormous subject, because, in common with evolutionary theory, Christianity sees history first and foremost as a vast process with a purpose, namely God’s purpose - a purpose which had a beginning, has a direction, and will have an end; and again in common with evolutionary theory it sees this process as involving a struggle. It does not envisage it primarily as the struggle of the fittest to survive, to adapt itself better than its rivals to its environment, or to excel in competition for territory and such resources as food and water, though plainly these have played their part in the development of all animal species including that of our own species, but rather as a struggle brought about by the creation of mankind in the image of God and the recurring pretensions of man to be more than a mere image of his Creator by usurping his sovereignty.
In story form it all began with Adam and Eve, to whom the one thing forbidden was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (in Jewish thought, God’s knowledge) which they must not eat, or they would die. ‘Nonsense!’ said the serpent, an animal with death in its mouth, ‘You will not die. You will be like God;’ and men and women have been trying to be like God ever since. In evolutionary fact rather than story form, much the same is true. Unlike any other animal, man has developed a unique freedom to determine the course of his own affairs and those of others, to make choices between good and evil, and to seek for knowledge in order to control the course of history and the rest of God’s creation. It is a
freedom which makes him a man - a mini-creator - but it is a freedom, which he can and does abuse, thus bringing him into conflict with the freedom and sovereignty of God - or so Christianity believes.
But what does it mean to say that history is the record of a conflict between the sovereignty of God and man’s attempt to usurp that sovereignty? Or is it just words? Well, if it means anything at all, it must mean at least this; that since certain attributes are proper to God alone, man cannot claim them as his own without bringing disastrous consequences down upon himself and others, just as a twelve-year-old cannot steal a BMW for a joy-ride, and drive it off at ninety miles an hour or more without disastrous consequences.
But what attributes should men not try to usurp - to steal - from God? Autonomous power for one. ‘God has spoken, and twice have I heard the same, that power belongs to God.’ That is a typical statement of Judaeo-Christian faith. So was St Paul’s saying: ‘There is no power but of God.’ Man has his own limited and proper power, but when he forgets that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is therein’ and begins momentary profit, cutting down the rain forests, over-ploughing the prairies, and damming the great rivers so that they never reach the sea, the result is likely to be dust bowls and other ecological disasters. After autonomous power, he must be wary of judgement ‘Judge not that you be not judged,’ is a warning that mankind would do well not to disregard or forget, as our own age has had every reason to know. For who was judging who to be unfit to live, when the men of Hitler’s Germany decided that the Jews of Europe should be gassed and the marrow of their bones rendered down for soap?
But even more important than power or judgement, the attribute of God which men must not arrogate to themselves is righteousness - or, if you like, moral certitude - unquestioning certainty that they are right. The Old Testament is full of such sayings as, ‘To thee, O Lord, belongs righteousness,’ while again and again Christ himself emphasised that God alone is good. ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?” he said on one occasion. ‘There is one that is good.” I could compile a longer list of the attributes of God not to be usurped by men with impunity; but absolute power, judgement, and righteousness will do for the moment. Indeed, they will more than suffice; for I have only to ask the question, ‘What happens when men, believing themselves to be absolutely right with unquestioning certainty and therefore to be in a position to judge others, have the power to enforce that judgement?’ to get from anyone, who has glanced at history, the immediate reply, ‘All hell is let loose.’ And this seems to me to prove the greater profundity of the Christian interpretation of history as compared with, say, the Marxist doctrine, which attributes disasters to economic inequalities, or the liberal humanist doctrine, which attributes them to human ignorance and still tends to imagine that Progress with a capital ‘P’ will eventually usher in the millennium, even though such optimism is not as widespread today as it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before the two world wars shattered it for many people.
If the Christian interpretation of history is right, it is not to human vice - to pride, greed, envy, lust, anger or whatever - that one must look for the occasion of human disaster, but primarily to human claims to righteousness and to intellectual certitude, especially when they are supported by power. It is when men know themselves to be absolutely right - men immune from criticism because they are wrapped in cloaks of such perfect moral, political, and intellectual rectitude, that they are deceived by their own disguise - that the earth should tremble before the heavens fall and crash round men’s ears.
It has not been the self-confessed rogues - the lechers, the thiefs, even the rapists and the murderers, however much individual pain and damage they may have caused - who have bathed God’s world in blood, plunged it in darkness, and blinded it with tears, but the Utopians, the fanatical idealists, the men fired with Messianic certainty, the Ayatollahs, the Ceaucescus, and the occasional Popes and Protestant bigots. The Spanish Conquistadores were quite certain that they were doing God service, when they burnt the Aztecs and the Mayas of South America; they didn’t just think so; they knew it. It was Cromwell in his armour of Puritan certitude, who left Ireland a wilderness of Catholic corpses, believing them to be an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. As for the men of our own time like Stalin, Hitler, and Chairman Mao, they acted as if they were gods in their own right. Stalin slaughtering millions of kulaks and political reactionaries on the altar of Marxist economic theory and Soviet justice, while Hitler gassed six million Jews to curry favour with his Aryan gods of ethnic purity, and Chairman Mao probably starved more Chinese peasants to death during the period of his Great Leap Forward than the Jewish victims of Hitler and Stalin’s kulaks put together. Absolute certainty that you are right, judgement of others, and power. It is a lethal cocktail.
But if the root cause of human disaster is to be found in man’s recurrent attempts to usurp God’s righteousness, judgement, and power, the growing point of the historical process - the leading shoot of God’s developing purpose - is to be found at work in those who claim no power of their own and on righteousness of their own: in Christ derided, deserted, and powerless on a Cross, not in Caiaphas backed by the religious establishment, nor in Pilate with the might and majesty of Rome behind him, but in Christ. And after Christ, as St Paul saw, God chose what is foolish in the world’s eyes to shame what is wise, what is weak to shame the strong, what is lower and despised, even the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are, that no man might boast in the presence of God. So if, like me, you look around sometimes at God’s world with its power struggles in Bosnia, Kurdistan, the Sudan, Algeria, Cambodia and God knows where else with the killing, the pictures on television of the children with limbs like twigs, the burning of homes, and the tears - if you look at the population explosion, the pollution of the Garden of Eden by petrol fumes, sewage, and plastic bags - at the race between the Iraquis and the Israelis to make enough atomic weapons to be the first to obliterate the other - if you look at all this and despair, don’t. Tremble and weep, yes, for there will be disasters; but after a disaster some time ago on Calvary, there was a Resurrection. God’s will and purpose prevailed after that disaster, and his will and purpose will prevail over all future disasters; and the little people of the world, who put their trust in him rather than in themselves, their own righteousness, or their own power, will prevail with him.