Posted April 17, 2013on:
It has been fashionable in some Western intellectual circles to scoff at the 18th-century Enlightenment doctrine of Progress. Where Progress was understood as the inexorable march of freedom and rationality throughout the world, with Western industrial societies leading the triumphant march, such scoffing was (and remains) necessary. Two barbarous world wars, followed by several proxy wars, all emanating from the scientifically and technologically most advanced nations, surely put paid to that myth.
However, we are soon approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of 1989- that remarkable year which was a huge rebuke to historical determinism, whether of the optimistic or pessimistic kind. That was the year when, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the metaphorical Iron Curtain collapsed. A whole generation witnessed the truth that no power on earth is impregnable, nor is history closed to novelty, surprise and sheer reversals of direction.
Whatever the social and economic problems the nations of Eastern Europe continue to face, there is no denying that what they all experienced was genuine progress- and one not planned and engineered by human agency. Totalitarian regimes suddenly toppled at gathering pace. What had taken Poland ten years took Hungary ten months, East Germany ten weeks, Czechoslovakia ten days, and Rumania ten hours; and the Soviet Union disappeared soon after. With hindsight, we can say that this was the fruit of prayerful, faithful and unflinching witness in the face of terrible adversity. As the Czech dissident, Vaclav Havel often observed, this was a victory of the kingdom of truth over an empire of lies.
Anyone who seeks to discern the hand of providence in the events of history is taking on a gigantic challenge. This is why far more Christians prefer to pursue the natural sciences than become professional historians. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius hailed the conversion of Constantine as the culmination of divine providence. It was followed not long afterwards by the terrible persecution of Persian Christians in the East because they were now seen as belonging to an enemy empire. Perspective is all-important. It is why history-writing cannot be confined within borders.
Abraham Lincoln spoke of the American Civil War as God’s judgment on his nation for its acceptance of slavery. But the same surely cannot be said for the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide or the killing fields of Cambodia. Here the theologian can only confess the mystery of human corruption and the paradox of the “God on a Cross”. This is a God who is neither an absentee landlord nor a control-freak. He is found in the mess of history, overcoming human evil by bearing its full weight and planting seeds of a new creation in the midst of ugliness and death.
Some religious leaders are quick to pronounce divine judgment on everything that either baffles them or angers them. It would be better to remain silent and to wait upon competent historians and social critics to trace the causal threads and ramifications of cultural changes, social policies, technological developments and intellectual ideas on a society over several generations. Then perhaps- and only perhaps- may we be able to discern where God has been at work in judgment or in redemption. The apostle Paul’s depiction of divine judgment (in Romans 1) as a divine withdrawal or “handing over” of humans to their selfish wills may be a fruitful way of understanding the complexities of social evils. But much will still remain beyond our comprehension.
Thankfully, commitment to social transformation does not depend on our answering correctly the question “What is God doing today?’, but rather trusting the character and promises of a God known supremely in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Desmond Tutu has testified: “Our own struggle for justice, peace and equity would have floundered badly had we not been inspired by our Christian faith and assured of the ultimate victory of goodness and truth, compassion and love, against their ghastly counterparts.”
In the midst of my own struggles, political and theological, I want to affirm that the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the dismantling of apartheid, the emancipation of women in many parts of the world, and the widespread recognition of human rights norms and international law are “eruptions” of the Kingdom of God in my own lifetime (along with much else). All these events have a flawed, fragile as well as incomplete side to them; but that is the nature of the “now-but-not-yet” redemption of creation that the Kingdom is all about. From the day of Pentecost the Church itself has been a deeply flawed, yet genuinely anticipatory, human community.
I once said publicly in an American university, in answer to a question, that I had no hope for my nation’s political future. I was immediately upbraided by a student who announced to the audience that Christians must always have hope! I explained that biblical hope was not to be confused with optimism, let alone “positive thinking”. I had hope in the promises of God, but I didn’t see the preservation of Sri Lanka, the US, Japan, or any other nation-state promised by God in the Bible. Even the nation-state of Israel has nothing to do with ancient, biblical Israel. All these may well disappear into the mist of history, as others have done.
The confusion of Kingdom hope with secular Progress has often been challenged. But the confusion with optimism over our own private projects, our nation’s prosperity or the numerical growth of the Church seems to be rarely addressed.