Is There A Christian Theory of History?

wreckedI am a child of the 50’s. I became aware of the world around me in the 60’s. I finished college and seminary in the 70’s (and have embarrassing pictures to prove it). I could go on with my decadal memories. I daresay no people at any time have been more aware of time labels and how the fashions and trends of those periods shaped their lives. Of course, the labels and generalizations are all make-believe. One decade blends into another. Time passes and fashions change. The actors in the next war change (though the wars continue). But is all of this going anywhere? Is there actually a plausible theory of history? Is there something Classical Christianity has to say about the passage of time?

The Scriptures certainly know how to mark time. The passing of the months (Old Testament Judaism had a lunar calendar) were carefully denoted for the observation of particular feast days. But the passing of years were only of note in the cycle of the Sabbath years. Thus the 50th year marked the end of seven Sabbath year cycles and the year of the Jubilee. Time, however, had not moved forward.

The ancient Romans and all the civilizations surrounding the Holy Land also marked various mixes of solar and lunar calendars. But there was no particular idea of moving through time. The gospel of St. Luke offers a typical Roman-styled calculation for the positioning within time:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,  (Luk 3:1-2)

Occasionally a year might be numbered from some event, such as the founding of the city of Rome, or the “carrying away in captivity to Babylon,” etc. But again, there was no since of a pattern or movement through time.

It is in later Christian thought that the notion of time as a movement towards a goal comes about. But even then, the thought as often as not contained heretical concepts.

The expectation of the Second Coming of Christ is a likely culprit in the development of historical theories. The end of the first millennium raised those expectations and spawned a wide variety of speculations. These were largely on the fringe of the faith and not at the center of Christian believing.

It is during the various crises that gave birth to the Modern period that theories of history first began to find fertile ground and moved into the mainstream of Christian thinking. The labeling of periods (“Dark Ages,” “Middle Ages,” “Modern,” etc.) is an entirely modern (post-Reformation) invention. The radical changes of the Protestant Reformation were accompanied by a heightened sense of history. There was an intellectual need to justify the seemingly complete break with what had gone before (and to explain that it was not, in fact, a complete break). How could things have gone so wrong? Why was such reform required? Had God foreseen and predicted such events in history?

The birth of the modern world is also the birth of historical consciousness. It is not that those who came before had no awareness of history, but that they did not think of “history” itself as a force and movement. The rise of reason and rationalism in the Enlightenment transferred to history the same laws of cause and effect that were seen driving the cosmos. History had movements, causes, direction, even purpose.

The great heresy of historical thought appears in the 19th century with theories such as Marxism. There, modern Christian thought is secularized, stripped of its religious elements, and the movement of history laid bare. Marx held to an idea of a worker’s paradise, a time of equality and justice that was the inevitable (!) outcome of the laws within history. It was a secularized Second Coming. But Marx was not alone in such imaginings – they were already a commonplace among intellectuals. Marxism was unique only in that some political leaders adopted it as a blueprint and justification for their radical political programs.

In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became popular to declare that Marxism had been swept away into “the Dustbin of history” (itself a phrase borrowed from the Marxist, Leon Trotsky). But whatever its failure might have been, its lasting legacy is found almost universally in the modern mind and its view of time and history.

Today, we think that history is going somewhere. We think everything is in movement towards something. Evolution, whatever its scientific basis, is often nothing more than a modern theory of history imposed upon the backdrop of normal change. To the modern mind, it is not a theory of change, but a theory of movement towards a goal. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” itself a theory that coincided in time with Marx, imposed a value within the laws of cause and effect – things are not only changing, but changing for the better.

The entire notion of progress is itself only a popular version of these same modern assumptions. Progress is not a Christian idea. It is an artifact of the modern imagination.  We mistake the aggregate of technology as a movement towards something. And our same imagination frequently imagines that the something must be better. The accompanying notions of historical superiority (“we now know”) add power of these ideas.

But is there a Christian theory of history?

No. There is no such thing. The parousia (the coming of Christ) has never been taught as an event that is caused by anything within history. Nor has there ever been a teaching that history is leading to such an event. That it comes at the End of history does not make it the result of history or even history’s goal.

Indeed, in Classical Christian thought, the Second Coming has a profound mystical timelessness about it. St. John Chrysostom famously refers to it in the past tense in his Eucharistic prayer. In proper theological understanding, Christ Himself is the End. Wherever He is present, there the End is also present. He Himself is the End of All Things – their purpose, their goal, their final place of rest. And He was already the End of all things before their beginning! That this End makes an appearance within history does not make Him the End. He was already the End before He appeared. He is the Lord of time.

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.

In the 19th century, precisely at the time Marxism and Darwinism were historicizing politics and science, Christian thinkers were carrying similar ideas into evangelism and mission and later into what became known as the “Social Gospel.” Modern man had discovered Progress and could not wait to apply its hopeful balm to all areas of his life.

The modern Church has been buffeted and reshaped by the ideological forces of historical consciousness. A false template has been imposed on contemporary theology contending that theology and Church discipline, like everything else in our imaginary historical narrative, are subject to progress. Theology is “going somewhere.” In the name of this movement, every innovation can be seen as an improvement, a natural evolution of all that has come before, and another step on the ladder of human perfection.

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. Rather:

…giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light….He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, (Col 1:12-13)

and

…But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… (Eph 2:4-6)

Note that these declarations are in the past tense.

True Christian “historical” consciousness is expressed quite clearly by St. Paul:

For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Co 6:2)

Now. Not sometime. Not as the result of our progress. In Christ, all time is now.

45 comments:

  1. Let me push a little: perhaps its not that there is no theory of history, but that we have little to no ability to discern it. But God has a theory and a purpose.

    Let’s look at Old Testament history. Certainly it was moving toward a purpose (Christ); however, the seemingly obvious scenario of a robust Israel bringing the kingdom in with a triumphant King didn’t quite happen like that. If fact Israel as a nation went from bad to worse.

    But God did have a theory and there was great purpose. But who could have discerned it on the front end? (Daniel?…maybe?)

    So, I wonder if there is a theory … if there truly is cause and effect … but we should just remain “poor in spirit” as we deal with attempts to understand it.

  2. Your statement concerning a Christian History is totally correction. Some might aver that history is form (as in histology), and in the Bible, some entities such as Sun, stars, etc are mentioned, and certainly they have form. But the Great Mystery is in the heart of the Godhead Father. Our loving father has not told the Son when the world will be re invaded by Jesus Christ and the regime of death is abolished: Mark 13:32: “But of that day (when Jesus Christ shall come again) and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” Some like Joaquim of Fiori en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joachim_of_Fiore, who was Roman Catholic, or William Miller en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Miller_(preacher), who was Protestant, supposed they knew but they were all disappointed sadly. To such an extent as we follow scripture, to that extent, we know that God the Father will not reveal this fact. In the mean time, Jesus Christ tells us: Repent. Here is how:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hesychasm. From Wikipedia on Hesychasm: “the practice of inner prayer, aiming at union with God on a level beyond images, concepts and language”, a sense in which the term is found in Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662), and Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)”

  3. Also, while we can’t be confident about “purpose in history” per se, we can be quite confident regarding purpose of reality. Everything’s purpose is Christ.

    This is important re: how we speak to the world. So …while we can’t say that our missionary efforts will lead to such and such a world in the future, we CAN say that God’s purpose for the world is to bring all things into the fullness of Christ. That may look like a growing movement toward a Christ-honoring world. Or it may look like a howling wilderness that Christ renews with the breath of this spirit when he returns. We don’t know. But we can still speak God’s purpose for the nations.

  4. Dean,
    Well. First, the concept of “history” as the stage on which things are being worked out is itself something of a Modern idea. Part of what I’m suggesting requires that as an intellectual exercise we jettison the notion of history for a wee bit. It will allow some clarity to come out from the Marxist fog we’ve suffered from now for 200 years.

    God is the purpose of all things. That purpose can be translated as “Logos.” And every created thing as a “logos” created by and through the Logos. And everything finds its fulfillment in Christ.

    But we need not make that a timeline-cause-and-effect thing. “Everything” includes things that no longer exist (timewise). Fr. A. Schmemann once speculated (quite theoretically) that perhaps in eternity all times are present.

    When we bring bread and wine into the presence of the Risen Christ, they are fulfilled. They find their fulfillment as His Body and Blood. In a similar manner, the End of All Things (Christ the Logos) is always present to all things and all things find, even now, their fulfillment and end in Him.

    That will be revealed and made manifest in time (or at the end of time), but it will not be a new thing, but a fulfilled thing.

    Good theology requires that we not make history the coin of the realm.

    My suggestion is, again, the thought experiment of “What does my theology look like if I jettison history and progress as categories?” Something like that. How would a Christian who never, ever entertained a single concept of progress have thought of the faith. That is to say, how did the Fathers think?

    I would indeed like to sweep all the various versions of modern progress theory into the dustbin of history (and maybe history with it).

    BTW, thanks for starting my creative juices last night. I chewed on the conversation until it came out as an article this morning!

  5. Father, thanks for another thought-provoking article. But as a professional historian, I think you’re ascribing what’s called “the Whig theory of history”–the idea that things inevitably progress–to all modern practice of history as an intellectual discipline. A lot of us think it’s all coming unhinged–what you’ve recently highlighted as Tolkien’s idea of history as the “long defeat.” (Also, we can’t really have had 200 years of “Marxist fog” unless we count socialists before Marx.)

  6. One thing that cannot be left out of the concept of history is industrialization and the sense of both control and unlimited progress that was a part of the ideology of industrialization. Of course, industrialization also brought with it the subjection of the human to the machine which in turn made us subject to time and place in a much different way than ever before.

    This is another thing that Nietzsche understood, that history in the hands of most people was oppressive, a tool designed to create and control the herd.

    Determinism was the root ideology of the latter half of the 19th century and the German scientific-history school of thought fed that determinism as well as the idea of the totalitarian state.

    I once again recommend reading Henry Adams little essay: “The Law of Phase as Applied to History” as both a revelation of that way of thinking and a relief from it at the same time–at least it has always been that way to me.

    Prior to the latter part of the 19th century, history was largely story-telling, factual as far as fact was important, but much more intent on conveying the mythos of a particular civilization that “telling the literal truth”. Unfortunately, in the quest to be ‘scientific’ much that is called history has become ideological polemic; much more interested in tearing down than in passing along. It has become part of the nihilist dialectic of destruction.

    In contra-distinction the history in the Bible, originally oral in nature, was meant to pass down (tradition) the understanding of God, nature, the tribe and each person’s place in the larger whole.

    With the Incarnation of the Christ, He revealed that all of that was about Him. All of our questions about the nature of creation, ourselves and our place in the larger whole are answered by our interrelationship with Him. The more we are at one with Him, the less time and place mean. Thus the elders who are able to be present anywhere with anyone.

  7. Excellent stuff here Father per Marxist, Modern & Industrial theories of Progress. Could not agree more. Yet I wonder & ask if there is not some notion of ‘progress’ implied in the idea of maturity…be it plant, child, student or human? And we Christians begin as babes in Christ…with an expectation to mature, hopeful to become those of full age, able to handle strong meat. Is there not also this sort of maturity (change/progress) in Christ’s commission to disciple the Nations? Similar things might also be said of God’s history of redemptive OT covenants (Adam, Noah, Moses, David)…consummating in Christ as the End of all. How would all this fix in what you’ve said above…if indeed it does!? 😉

  8. Well, this adds to the C.S. Lewis reading I had today in The Screwtape Letters, which has Satan talking about God (“our Enemy”) and time.
    I will put my own clarifications in quotes.

    “The humans live in time but our Enemy (God) destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy (God) has of reality of whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered to them.”

    “Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past. … But it is far better to make them live in the Future.”

    “In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time–for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the Future, on the very core of temporality.”

    “But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future–haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth–ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other–dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

  9. First,
    “To disciple the Nations” is a terrible translation (forgive me). It is to “make disciples of every tribe” (or something like that). It is a commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but not necessarily a notion of Christianizing the world. That is not a historical promise. We have been making disciples of every “ethne” since sometime in 33 ad.

    The image of growth is certainly Biblical. But there is a leap from growth to progress. A two year-old child has grown from a one year-old. But it has not made “progress.” It is not better. It is older, more mature. Progress is a very modern metaphor, and we metaphorically carry into many things. I’m suggesting here that it is extremely tainted and brings with it a large amount of corrupting baggage. Modern Christians would do well to purge it from their vocabulary.

  10. Hmm.

    This is the second article that I’ve written on the notion of progress. And I have to note that comments generally run in the direction of “Yes…but.”

    I will keep driving home the point…

  11. “Also, we can’t really have had 200 years of “Marxist fog” unless we count socialists before Marx.”

    As Marx was just a flavor of Hegel’s dialectical history, I suppose we in truth have had a bit more than 200 years of this fog.

    “A false template has been imposed on contemporary theology contending that theology and Church discipline, like everything else in our imaginary historical narrative, are subject to progress.”

    A template even Orthodox priests (and bishops by their silence – or is it not so subtle acquiescence?) are trying to impose as they wrestle with modern anthropological issues…Lord have mercy!!

  12. Alison,

    Fr. Stephen should add those quotations to the bottom of his essay. Think of all the “isms” you could add to list that the Enemy (Satan) today uses today. Just one example: ‘Environmentalism’, which among other things promises to save us from a future hell by forcing us into ‘sustainable living’…

  13. I too was reading that pertinent Screwtape letters quote and made the connection to this excellent article in my mind Alison…Most germane indeed.

  14. Ah but Dean there is a vast difference between progressing and the ideology of PROGRESS.

    The former is simply movement the latter an ideology that destroys all that is truly human for the sake of a utopian fantasy.

  15. Dean,
    Indeed. The Pilgrim’s Progress (which had the original meaning of a “journey”). But, nevertheless, a classic Protestant (even Puritan) work, confirming my point of post-Reformation on the idea.

  16. Father Stephen, please forgive, but can you weigh in on the Fr Arida post on the official OCA website?

    I live in New York City and can no longer in good conscience take my daughter to the OCA cathedral here for reasons directly related to the pastoral approach recommended in the post in question. Even bearing in mind your need to mind your relationship with your bishop, who is also Fr Arida’s, your voice is not a negligible one in American Orthodoxy and should be heard on this.

    Again, please forgive.

  17. Peter,
    I disagree with your decision viz. the cathedral in NYC. Archbishop Michael is very solid and I’m sure things are in good hands. Fr. Arida’s post has been removed from the OCA website (thank God) and Met. Tikhon has posted a response.

    For myself, I found Fr. Arida’s post to be terribly predictable as an attempt to defend a cultural trend that is simply contrary to the faith in every possible way. To my mind, it is an example of sentiment seeking to replace theology. In short, it was an example of very, very poor theology and an embarrassment.

    I refrain from Church controversy as a general rule – it’s not my task as a writer. It is my task as a priest of the Orthodox Church, however, to teach the truth. I think it is interesting that Fr. Arida’s post raised a small storm of protest – probably the most significant storm to hit Syosset in the past year or two that did not involve somebody’s misconduct. I am heartened to a degree by such a storm. And that the post was removed.

    I have great reverence for my Archbishop locum tenens who is also the bishop of Fr. Arida and leave the matter of caring for his priests to his discretion. It’s not my place.

    But I would be encouraged, were I you, that in the present cultural climate, an ill-thought article was rebuked and removed. That should not make you feel disheartened in the least.

    I should add, that unlike some bloggers, I write only with the blessing of my bishop. He does not, by any means, read my material before it’s posted, but I have written with an Archpastoral blessing since the day I began this work and would stop tomorrow without such a blessing. That, it seems to me, is the proper role for a priest.

    I know that I push the envelope occasionally in my cultural and historical observations, but I try to do that in obedience to the teaching of the Church. I think it is important to engage the culture – but in a manner that offers salvation rather than being awed by the culture itself. Pope John Paul II rightly described our modern culture as a “culture of death.” There is almost nothing that such a culture has to teach us.

    The merchants of death permeate almost every aspect of our daily lives. Hell is running with a wide profit margin these days. Very few things even in the marketplace are free from the death-tax of Hades. The sex industry that thrives through the decay of our culture is profit-driven. The rhetoric of “freedom” that supports it is hollow.

    We are a pitiable people. We should pray for all those around us and do penance for them. Pray for the grace of God to be poured out on His priests. Be encouraged. Be watchful of your soul. Guard your heart.

    At the end of the day, there is much for which we must give thanks.

  18. “We are easily persuaded to make present-tense sacrifices for the promise of a rewarded future. ”

    This is the perfect formula for industrious Americans, is it not? Maybe this is also the burden that makes us vulnerable to the promises of consumer-driven happiness as antidote to our hard work–we deserve a break today.
    Please comment on the Christian way of sacrifice and its “reason”.
    Most of us need/want/value self-sacrifice, but we don’t offer it rightly. It’s in us on some level, but we lose our nerve, and we don’t seek our Lord’s will, only our own.

  19. “…. and Met. Tikhon has posted a response.”

    What a strange response. Even giving the Met. Tikhon allot of leeway for having to write this in the midst of his difficult personal circumstances with his nephew, he says little of the elephant (homosexuality – specifically it’s status in the mind of the Church) in the room, except to obfuscate further by saying that homosexuality was “presumed” by the respondents to be “primary issue of discussion”. Let’s assume he is very tired and not take this as an insult to our intelligence.

    What about the disclaimer “…that Although the Holy Synod takes the sacred confession of the holy dogmas of the Orthodox Church with the greatest of seriousness, it is not charged in the matter of theologoumena…”? Since when are the letters of St. Paul “theologoumena”?

    We do get a lot of talk about “engaging the culture”, but the stinking elephant (a subversive, well not that subversive, attempt to justify a complete rethink of the Church’s moral tradition) is still, well, stinking.

    “That should not make you feel disheartened in the least.” I agree. I said as much in the blog when the original post was up. However, I am now disheartened again seeing this response. Met Tikhon even says of Fr. Robert’s essay “…Others have recognized its positive contributions to the complex and difficult theme of the relationship between Gospel and culture.” ‘Positive contributions’, really? Fr. Stephen you describe it as “In short, it was an example of very, very poor theology and an embarrassment.”

    So which is it? Was it a “positive contribution” overall but with some things in it that were too easily “presumed” (most likely due to the very reasons that Fr. Robert was arguing – us converts and our “alien spirit”, fundamentalism, etc.) by the unwashed herd to be about something it was not, and in any case was just a distraction from the “primary issue of discussion”? Or was it “an attempt to defend a cultural trend that is simply contrary to the faith in every possible way”? It can’t be both.

  20. Father,
    Thank you for your reply. I am indeed heartened by the groundswell of opposition Fr Arida’s post inspired. It speaks well of those OCA priests and laypeople who have made themselves heard.

    Less heartening though is Metropolitan Tikhon’s response, which takes unseemly pains under the circumstances to give Fr Arida’s sentiment, if not his argument (such as it is), its due. A simple, “this post is anathema,” would have done as well. As it is written, the Metropolitan’s statement is very nearly the opposite of a rebuke.

    Also, and with respect, you are simply mistaken about the OCA in New York City.

    But your counsel that I guard my heart is more well taken than you can know and hits me where it hurts. Thank you.

    “We are a pitiable people. We should pray for all those around us and do penance for them. Pray for the grace of God to be poured out on His priests. Be encouraged. Be watchful of your soul. Guard your heart. At the end of the day, there is much for which we must give thanks.”

    Please pray for me, for a grateful heart that gives itself in prayer for others. Lord have mercy.

  21. Christopher,
    I will not engage in parsing the Metropolitan’s response. As to the elephant, the included official statements of the Holy Synod are quite definitive. I will not fault a primate for being polite and gentle in his response, including his generosity towards Fr. Arida.

    The rules of my blog ask us to refrain from attacks on Orthodox clergy. My response is sufficient. While the rising sentiment of the culture endangers many, including some clergy, we do well to pray for them, to carefully draw them back from the passions that have overwhelmed them, and to guard ourselves as well.

    As to converts, Met. Tikhon is himself a convert as are a number of other hierarchs. We are not alien within the Church. What is alien for Fr. Arida, I think, are not converts, but those who hold views contrary to his sentiments. The pejorative label of “fundamentalist” indicates that he is describing a sentiment-driven narrative, not a reasoned position. Equally his imagination of groups of clergy who hate homosexuals is simply a complete fiction. It’s one thing to attack a straw man, it’s another to believe the straw man actually exists. The former is rhetoric, the latter is sentimental delusion.

    I consider the matter to be settled on this blog.

  22. Peter,
    We are in a very protracted period of trouble viz. the culture. My article on sentiment is far more important as a road map than many may realize. It describes the very nature of the problem. The culture’s sea-change on the topic of sexuality has come as a result of nearly 50 years of concerted and organized propaganda, not as a result of rational evidence, but as part of a marketing effort aimed at public sentiment. I have noted that we are extremely gullible (to say the least). Even those educated in the Orthodox tradition are clearly not immune to such sentimental onslaughts.

    Often the “battle” is engaged by trying to muster counter sentiments. Passion against passion delights the enemy because he wins no matter the outcome. The only healing and salvific response is asceticism and bringing the passions into their proper place. Thus, only repentance heals anything.

    The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. What we need is more light.

  23. “Giving ourselves over to a reprobate mind…” includes accepting the historical determinism of progress especially the absurd idea of moral progress.

    The equally absurd idea that equates technological innovation as equivalent with moral goodness is just as bad.

    Nietzsche saw it correctly. Without God all that is left is the quest for power and its use to destroy all moral and spiritual restraints.

    That is the sentiment of our age.

    “This kind only comes out in prayer and fasting”.

  24. Well, I must say I appreciate +Tikhon’s response. There was no equivocating on the issue at hand, extremely controversial in our day.

    He also is backed by the Holy Synod. For that I am also quite grateful.

    Compared to that, the desired amount of politeness or harshness is really inconsequential.

  25. Hi Stephen —

    Your commentary is regularly shared on a message board that I frequent. I made the following response there; thought I might as well share them here, as well. Blessings! — Vb

    ————-

    Brother Stephen is exactly right. The idea that we’re moving toward a “fulfillment” of Christianity on this earth is not only erroneous, it is preposterous on the face of it. But that is the impetus behind the watered-down, social justice, “emergent” church.

    Christ did not come to make the world a better place to go to hell from. He came to save us from hell and damnation. While we should strive to improve this world, and repair as much as possible the effects of the Fall; those efforts are secondary to the message of Salvation — a message rejected by liberal churches, which do not recognize Our Lord as the eternal Savior, or even acknowledge His resurrection (in anything other than a metaphorical sense, which is a direct insult to the Holy Spirit).

    I don’t know about any “Christian Theory of History” — that is to say, I suppose there are many. Probably “legion”. “The cheap crop of each new publishing list.”

    What I DO know is that history is literally “His-story”. And it has been pre-written, and laid out with alarming clarity in the only Book whose Author stands outside of history, and outside of time itself.

    That Book profiles a period of “70 Weeks of Years” — 490 years — and we are currently in a “pause” between the 69th and 70th, which we can refer to as the “Church Age”.

    That period is itself profiled in the sequential periods represented by the 7 Churches in Revelation. 3 are historical; 4 are extant — including the apostate “Laodicean” church, the last in the sequence.

    But so is the true, “Philadelphian” church — which transcends all denominational identification.

    When it is no longer on the earth — look out.

    That “70 Week” is a doozy….

  26. Fr. Stephen
    A hieromonk, who by the way is dying of brain cancer at a monastery…please pray for his soul (Athanasios), said something once in his teaching that stuck with me. He stated that when Jesus declares in Matt. 24:14 that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world, then shall the end come…that he was referring to the gospel as preached by the Orthodox Church…and that this preaching had not yet occurred. Could I have your thoughts on this please?

  27. Father,

    While “disciple the nations” sounds a bit strange, I think it does relate some of the meaning (in my limited understanding of Greek) of μαθητεύσατε πάντα τα έθνη. The verb seems to be applied to “all nations,” so my first impression is that “make disciples of all nations” would be understood, based on the Greek, to make out of the nations disciples, rather than to choose individuals out of each nation to make disciples. But Greek is my third (ish) language and, while I paid attention to the ancient Greek classes at seminary, I am by no means an expert.

    Fr. Peter

    (P.S. Sorry about commenting late on a Saturday – it’s been a long day. Hope you don’t see it till after service tomorrow)

  28. As a Greek I would say that ‘μαθητεύσατε‘(Μτ 28, 19) (literally: “Teach”) here seems to mean “Make know the gospel”,
    and ‘πάντα τὰ ἔθνη‘ is instinctively understood “as all the peoples of the earth – as in ‘ethnic groups’, rather than individuals”

  29. Yes. But the sense of ethne – in the context of Luke and the NT would make the point that it is the inclusion of the gentiles that is being referenced, rather than a 19th century mandate to colonize the world. It’s not the reaching everyone that is at issue, but the fact that non-Jews are now to be included.

  30. Father Freeman,
    Thank you for another thought provoking article. It seems to me that when we reflect on recent “history”, our blind faith in historical progress has resulted in some of the greatest atrocities in human history.
    Dave

  31. Thank you for the significant clarification Father. That’s a point that needs to be made nowadays, as people forget that virtually anytime we encounter the word “ἔθνη” (ethni) in the New and Old Testament it alludes to non-Jews. And it is certainly key notion here.

  32. It’s interesting that those who most fervently reject any notion that we can “cause” our own salvation also seem to be most interested in “causing” the Second Coming of Christ–and what is that, but salvation?

    The plight of fallen humanity didn’t “cause” the Incarnation of Christ. Nor did the perfect righteousness of the Virgin Mary. Our salvation–Christ’s incarnation and passion and resurrection–was only by God’s grace. That being so, I would expect the second coming to be similar.

    Of course, this issue is distinct from the hopeless task of trying to interpret the books of Daniel and Revelation as direct foretellings of events in our own time.

  33. Fr. Stephen,

    This post was another one of those mind-blowing moments for me. If it’s in fact true that the whole notion of progress is either false or at least relegated to very small things like measuring percentage complete on a certain task we’re on, then it is a huge game-changer. I’m sure you aren’t genuinely surprised by all the “yes…but” responses your article has evoked.

    Often without our knowing it we are continually being taught that it’s all about progress. Don’t get discouraged if you fail here and there because failure is acceptable – as long as there’s progress. But if you come along and take the measuring stick out of our hands, what then are we to do? We’ve been playing this game of exerting effort and then recording it for so long that many of us know no other way of living.

    If a 2 year old isn’t simply an improved 1 year old, then this means he was perfect at 1 without us having to look at him only with the eyes of potential. If progress isn’t important in the big picture of life, then it means we shouldn’t often look back on it with feelings of shame or disgust or belittlement. It means very possibly that all these civilizations of the past were at least as “advanced” (whatever that really means) as we are and often more so – something we’ve started to suspect lately anyway.

    It means changing the whole way we view and live our lives. If we believe modernity is off the rails in how they view progress, then it means that to live with integrity we must stop setting goals like they’re the next stop on the train line that’s going to “really take us somewhere.” It means we have to find contentment in the drab every day and allow the pendulum to swing away from the concept of linearity and more toward the idea of the circle, the cycles of life.

    Like I said, it’s a mind-blower. I for one could really use some help on this one. You suggest in the comments that you’ll just have to keep posting this idea until we get it. Does this imply that you’ve already made the shift in your own life? If so I ask with all sincerity if you’d be willing to share some personal examples of how you make this a reality.

    So thank you for the article, but it’s just a start for people like me.

  34. Drewster, progress is indeed a difficult idea to get free of. Even though I was raised in an environment that negated the idea somewhat, I have found it quite difficult, especially when raising my son.

    I don’t think that, at least by my understanding, the cycles of life you propose quite does it either.

    I keep coming back to the profound statement: God is with us.

    If, as we pray and assert that “God is everywhere present and fillest all things”, the only ‘progress’ is the greater realization of His presence in everything even the ‘dull and mundane’. The notion that sacrament is the revelation of that presence rather than a change into something else connects here as well I think.

    Most of my sins seem to hinge on my utter failure often willful in nature to recognize His presence and desiring something better or at least different.

    I hope Father does continue.

  35. Drewster,
    Good response and good question. First, as to an inner shift – the answer for myself is sometimes. I can speak the language of Orthodoxy, but I still have a modern accent (to employ a useful metaphor).

    Progress is, in many ways, a modern myth and a rhetorical device by which Modernity doesn’t have to give a reasonable account for its failures. Everything’s in progress so no matter how bad we’re doing, “we’re improving.” And, as we’ll see in an article I’m working on now, everything that doesn’t agree with this is simple “like something out of the Middle Ages…” That is, able to be dismissed as not even belonging to our own time period.

    This technique was used repeatedly by the colonial powers in order to justify their wholesale rape of other cultures – and continues to justify the wholesale rape of many traditional cultural values in our own land. It should rightly (and accurately) be compared to the repeated 5-year Plan justifications of the Soviets, for whom wholesale slaughter and genocide could be justified by Marxist progress. The Brave New World has almost destroyed the inhabited earth several times within the last century.

    But the myth of Modernity is extremely powerful and often unquestioned (those are always the truly powerful myths). Of course, questioning this stuff is not unique to me, but it is unique to many readers.

    The article I’m working on at present will look more closely at the question of whether it’s possible to not think and see in a modern mode.

    What suggestion on how to remove the myth is to simply work at seeing things “as they are.” “Progress” is a judgment, not a description. The true heart cannot see progress – it only sees things as they are.

  36. Thanks you Fr. Stephen,

    I should clarify: I’m not pushing back against the revelation that you’ve provided. It has the ring of truth and reveals much about the weak underbelly of modernity in my opinion. I’m sort of playing the devil’s advocate and as you have surmised, I’m simply asking “how then shall we live?”

    Michael is right of course; cycles instead of straight lines is not the solution. I just suggested that we should go more toward the middle of the pendulum swing between those two.

    In fact I would propose that the answer may even lie in the marrying of them. Both/And if you will. If you combine the circle and the line you get an upward spiral. To put this in context one could say that we do make progress of sorts, but that’s a wrong way to think about it. We submit ourselves to God in the cycles of life – each moment, each day, each year, each stage of life – and through that obedience we begin rise: to become whole, to become who we were created to be.

    Just a thought. I’ve been away and am working systematically working my way through your posts, but I look forward to the one you mentioned above.

  37. Drewster,
    I’m working on an article that has some more progress thoughts. Here’s a paragraph:

    There is a movement (kinesis) in the universe. But this movement is measured only as movement towards or away from God. As such, it could be described as a “progress” of sorts. But I think the word in the modern mind does far more harm than good. What good does it do for an individual to think that they have made progress in the spiritual life? Is there a single prayer in Orthodox material in which we are instructed to pray in a way that observes our progress? All of the prayers do quite the opposite. “The way up is the way down,” in the words of Elder Sophrony. “Progress” is a lie we tell ourselves because we cannot bear the shame of our sin. True “progress” comes in the increasing journey downwards, into the depth of human shame and nothingness, following Christ into Hades where we will find Him as friend and Savior. That, I suggest with a smile, is like jumping off a cliff and observing to yourself as you fall that your “making progress” towards the bottom.

  38. Yes. For some reason reading your excerpt brings Christ’s words to mind when He said that those who humble themselves shall be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. I suspect that the moment you reference above is when a person finally lets go of the possibility of achieving any progress in a certain area. To use the other side of Elder Sophrony’s coined phrase, “the way down (humility) is the way up (to God)”.

    The wise are defeated by this because it is the opposite of any conclusion that rationale can reach. It’s not possible, from that viewpoint. I believe this is how Jesus hid His wisdom right under their nose – in plain sight.

    In any case, I believe progress is made when hope of progress is released, and then it is accomplished by God in His way and timing and He lovingly thwarts all our efforts to manage it. Thanks for sharing the excerpt. I look forward to the entirety of it.

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