Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
The God who makes history
Tony Payne: Let’s start off with why is history important?
Phillip Jensen: Our history is really important because without it, how do we understand who we are? How do we understand how we got to be where we are? How do we understand why we’re doing the things that we do? You cannot understand Australian life if you do not understand something of the history of Australia. It tells me something about you to know that you grew up on a farm on the North Coast of New South Wales, just like it tells you something about me to know that I grew up around Bondi Junction as the son of a printer. It’s who we are, where we’ve come from, how we got there. It’s history.
TP: That’s a Christian view of the world, that the history of our lives is linear—that it goes back into the past, and travels forward into the future, and that there’s some kind of meaning to be found by looking back over that whole sequence of events that’s headed somewhere. It sort of places me and explains me, to some extent. Not everyone views history that way.
PJ: And they won’t see it as meaningful. The meaning comes from God and not from elsewhere. And so the reason I am here and where I’ve come from is an accident, unless it’s under a sovereign God who is in control of the world, and it’s his control of the world that gives meaning. I mean, understanding where I’ve come from will give me understanding, but won’t give me meaning. So that actually comes from our theology, and the linear concept of history comes from that theology. For example, Buddhism doesn’t have a linear view; they have a circular view, the same way the Stoics did in the ancient Greek world. It was a view that life never actually went anywhere and that we’re consumed by the present moment, which is just part of the endless cycle. We run around and around, we get up, we eat, we drink, we go to work, we finish the day, we go back to bed. And tomorrow, we will do it again. Life is like that movie Groundhog Day, which captures the meaninglessness of our existence.
TP: It’s interesting, though, that Bible does reflect that in some way in Ecclesiastes—that life does seem to go round and round, and that from our perspective, in the middle of it, it’s very hard to get a sense of everything that’s happened and is happening. And yet at the same time, the Wisdom literature taken as a whole presents a meaningful picture of what life is like.
PJ: Yes, and the Wisdom Literature comes in the context of the whole Bible, which gives us creation, and gives us the end of the world, gives us judgment. It shows the world is created by a God who calls us to be responsible, and therefore establishes a righteousness which has right and wrong, which has justice and injustice and punishment. And he also tells us of his plan of a new heaven and a new earth. So the linear view of history and meaningfulness of history actually comes out of the Bible.
TP: If we go back to the Wisdom Literature, and the complex and beautiful picture it paints of the world, it assumes that the world is an ordered place, because there’s an order that God has built into the world.
PJ: And so the world works, because God has created the world by wisdom, which you see in Proverbs 8. And so the world is not only right and good, but the world functions and achieves its purposes so that we who live in the world can actually recognize that.
TP: And not only is there an order within the world, but there’s an order to where it’s going, that there’s a future that has a direction in the purposes of God.
PJ: Yes, it’s a macro order that is going somewhere and it’s a micro order of what I do today. What I do today is only part of the huge history of the universe. In fact, it’s so small—what I’m doing today—that it’s barely a blip. But yet, I’ve got to do today, and what I do today will affect tomorrow.
TP: And that’s the reason you have wisdom and pass on wisdom, because understanding what to do today and learning from the order of the world takes time, as you do things over and over again. For example, we see (time and time again) that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Or if you’re lazy, you end up impoverished. Or if you’re indiscreet, it will be to your ruin. In a sense, that’s what proverbial wisdom is.
PJ: Yes, you learn from history in that way, but it’s not because “history repeats itself”. I don’t think that’s true. That is, the macro history is not going to repeat itself, but the micro history will, because if I’m lazy today, it will very likely have the same bad result as if I’m lazy tomorrow. That kind of micro wisdom is repeatable, because it says something about the nature of the way the world is made, the way God made it and made us to look after it.
TP: But Proverbs also recognizes that when you’re right in the middle of it, it’s often very difficult to perceive what’s going on, to see the pattern, to figure out what is going to happen next, or which particular part of the pattern is happening now that I could recognize and know what to do. And this is the message of Ecclesiastes and of Job. In the midst of Job’s suffering, he hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. ‘Why are these disasters befalling me?’ And his comforters have various responses and answers which, of course, are wrong because they don’t know either. And so, in that sense, understanding the regularities of history is something you do by looking back on them with the benefit of distance. But in the midst of them, you need to trust what God is saying and how he directs us, given that we’re just not sure what the future is going to hold.
PJ: Yes, we do learn by looking back and seeing it from a distance. But more fundamentally, we learn by the fact that God has told us the meaning of things—and so even when I’m looking back in history, I see it through the lens of what God has said. Without God speaking, I’m not even sure I’d understand history. I would see outcomes, but I wouldn’t be sure which outcomes came from what and which was important or not. And so, likewise, in the midst of life, I have the word of God telling me what to do. But in some situations (like Job) there is no word for me to know, other than to trust God in the midst of it. But there are other passages where I know what to do tomorrow or today because I’ve been told, “Don’t be lazy. Don’t be a sluggard.”
TP: So does that mean that history can only be written with the benefit of hindsight?
PJ: Well, in the midst of the struggles and trials of life, you really can’t form an opinion other than the opinion of what God has said that we should do, because you do not yet know the outcome. That’s the problem for us, therefore, of living in an age of huge social change. In an age where nothing much changes from one generation to another, it is easy to form an opinion of what to do and how to do it. But in an age where we are going through incredible social change–I would say, apart from war, we’ve never seen a period of history with greater social change–we’ve been told, “This is progress, and that is conservatism”—‘conservatism’ in the sense of being wrong and stuck in the past, and ‘progress’ in terms of being right. And frankly, we don’t know whether it is progress, and we don’t know whether being stuck in the past is better or worse. Progress could be better. But it may not be. We don’t know.
TP: Which is the problem with the utilitarian way of making decisions, generally. And it’s interesting that’s what we’ve got in our modern culture—having abandoned God, having abandoned the idea that there is any actual right and wrong, that there’s any revelation that might direct us in the midst of the confusing complexity of life. All we’re left with is: “Will this work? Will it generate better outcomes?” (however we define ‘better’). And we don’t quite know how to define ‘better’, but we hope that this course of action will result in more happiness and general goodness, somehow down the track.
And so we make a prediction, for example, that making divorce much easier (as we did in the early 1970s when we introduced no-fault divorce)—that this will be great. It will liberate people from dreadful marriages and oppression, and the terrible suffering of children in bad marriages. It will be better for society, better for women and better for everybody. And it’s only 10, 20, 40 years down the track that you see just how damaging an outcome that policy ended up generating.
PJ: That’s absolutely right. Utilitarianism is the only thing the atheist has got left. And so they speak of ‘harm minimization’, but we don’t know what will minimize harm, and what will create other harms. Your divorce illustration from the 1970s is a good one.
If you read the Communist Manifesto, written in the 19th century, it recommended what Lenin put into practice when he came to power in the 20th century—things like no-fault divorce and the acceptance of homosexuality and a ten-day working week, and all kinds of things that Marx and Engels thought would be good. Well, the Soviet Communists put them into practice. But 100 years later, none of those things are available to you in Russia. They’ve actually found they didn’t work. The sad thing is that they are now all being pushed into Western civilization. Lenin imposed them, but we’re voluntarily embracing them. But they didn’t work.
Another example would be the kibbutzes that were established in Israel after the Second World War as a way of raising children socially. So instead of families raising their own children, children were raised in communities. Well, the children who were raised under that system, when they came of age, they got rid of it. They thought it was terrible. This great social experiment that was lauded around the world at the time was completely abandoned a generation later, because it was a disaster. However, you don’t know it’s a disaster until a generation later, by which time the damage is done.
TP: In our conversation at Nexus last week, you mentioned that this is the case with feminism and with the sexual revolution. More and more writers—non-Christian atheistic writers—are looking back over the last 50 years of enormous social change in this area and saying that it hasn’t worked. In fact, they’re saying that it has produced more harm than good.
PJ: Yes, we have sufficient distance. The 1960s to early 70s was the great revolution. But now 60 years later, we’ve seen two generations raised in this great revolution, and various writers are now assessing what’s actually happened. One of them—Mary Harrington in her book Feminism Against Progress—sees the acceptance of the pill as the great disaster. This was the first time we used medicine not to address sickness or illness in any way but to medically enhance ourselves for our own benefit. It changed the way in which we lived. And she says, what we’ve got to do is stop taking the pill.
I’m not necessarily commending her or her book, but I’m just saying that you now have a woman who is not a Christian (as best I can tell) looking back with enough distance to say that when you look at what we’ve done, we’ve got it wrong; we’ve done more damage than help. And she’s not saying we should go back to the 50s. She argues that the 50s weren’t good either. She would like us to go back to before the Industrial Revolution, back to a model of families where you worked at home, both male and female, and where your work and your life and your home were all integrated like that. So she’s not being conservative in the sense of wanting to return to her childhood. (Most conservatives don’t know history and think that what they grew up with is what it’s always been.) No, she says, go back before the 1950s Industrial Revolution model of dad going to the office or the factory, and mum being at home with the kids, and you’ll have a different structure of family life again. The one that we had in the 50s was not right, and the one that we then moved to has been worse. In Mary Harrington you have a feminist who’s actually against progress and the ideology of progress.
TP: It’s very interesting, isn’t it? Because part of our modern narrative is that industrial, technological and economic progress is in itself always a good, and that we must keep getting richer and keep raising the standard of living. That’s the narrative that our society (and every politician) runs on. And yet she’s questioning that as well—which as a Christian, you would also question, on the basis that the purpose of money and wealth and economic activity is not simply to grow richer and have an ever higher standard of living; it’s to serve others and that’s why it is good.
PJ: Yes, and she rightly picks up that the feminists are elitists. The changes that have happened have suited the elite–you know, the doctor, lawyer, dentist, the professional woman. But the vast majority of women haven’t been helped. They’ve been hindered considerably. And she says of herself, “I’m part of the elite, but yet I can see from my studies, it’s been really bad for women overall”. Likewise with wealth. Why do we want to grow in wealth for us or for our nation? If we grew wealth so that we could help other nations, would that not be a nicer idea? But no, we want wealth for us.
TP: The other author that you mentioned at Nexus and whose work is also fascinating, I think, is Louise Perry. She focuses more on the sexual revolution, as opposed to feminism as such, and the problems that have come up from changing normal sexual relationships between men and women and marriage, and just how damaging that has been, especially for women.
PJ: Especially for women was her point and absolutely right. As long as you think men and women are the same and interchangeable, you won’t look at the statistics as to what’s happening. And she and Mary Harrington both argue that men and women are different. We’re still in the human race and the same in one sense, but there are very significant differences between us that do affect the outcome. And so she would argue that the sexual revolution has been bad for men and for women, but in particular, for women. And again, she winds up at the end of her book saying that what we need is to go back to monogamous, lifelong, heterosexual marriage. These are not Christian women; she will argue for abortion. She also probably doesn’t want to go back to an imagined 40s or 50s ideal family life. They’re not that, but they say the changes we’ve made have not delivered the promise that they made for the betterment of life for people, especially for women.
I’ve been anti-feminism for this whole period of time, not because I don’t want women to be benefited, but because feminism seems to me contrary to what the Bible is saying—that the fundamental unit of humanity is the family, not the individual. But feminism is about atomizing society into individualism (Mary Harrington is very powerful on this). There’s a failure to understand that God has created us male and female so as to be united together in procreation. I’m sorry to say that a lot of Christian people have tried to mess around and reinterpret this, in order to embrace the cultural change of progressivism. And yet now with a little bit of historical distance, even the non-Christian feminists—both these women call themselves feminists—are beginning to see that it doesn’t work and that it’s actually been a bad thing. It’s sad to hear Christians still trying to argue for feminism, accommodating themselves to the society and to cultural change, rather than trembling at the Word of God.
TP: It’s a failure to trust deeply in the truth and applicability of the word to our world. It’s not a word that comes out of nowhere and only applies to Christians; it’s the word of God that expresses the wisdom of God by which he made the world and by which he governs and rules the world, especially in these areas.
PJ: It’s the culture and ethics of creation.
TP: So the challenge for Christians is, as always, to keep trusting the word, keep trembling at the word, as we said last week, to keep being driven by what God has told us, given our finitude and given that we don’t know everything. We are creatures, not the creator, and we depend upon him for an understanding of the whole and of how the bits work, of how the order of creation is meant to be lived in and what it means to participate in and enjoy and receive all the good things of creation in the way that he made them. And yet we so easily–I guess this is what it means to be sinful–is that we so easily distrust that word, and think we know better and can figure it out for ourselves.
A phrase that we’ve sometimes used to describe this approach to knowledge and living is principled pragmatism—that is there is a wisdom in the world, put there by God that we can see and observe, and by which we can live, such that we can make decisions in the pragmatic scope of everyday life as to what to do next. And yet, at the same time, it must always be principled. There’s always something that’s driving your pragmatism. And those principles need to be the biblical ones, the ones of the God who created everything.
PJ: ‘Principled pragmatism’ is a good way to put it, especially when you realize pragmatism is one of the principles of the Bible. They’re not alternatives to each other; they come from each other. When Paul tells Timothy about ministering the gospel, he uses illustrations from the soldier, the farmer, and the athlete. That is, this is the way the world works, and therefore our churches can learn from the way the world works. It’s a biblical principle to be pragmatic. But our problem is some of us are too pragmatic and not principled, and some of us are so principled, we neglect the principle of pragmatism. And so some of us fail to make sensible wise decisions (like wisdom of Proverbs), because we are so principled. And on the other hand, there are some who feel like, “Whatever I do, it’s got to work, I’ve got to make this work and minimize harm”.
TP: We’ve been talking today largely about who men and women are, how we organize our marriages, our lives, our societies, our families. But the same is true, of course, in Christian ministry—as you’ve started to allude to. It’s very easy to get those two things wrong there as well. We can be so principled in our ministry that we never change anything or think carefully about what should happen. But we can also be so driven by a kind of go-getting confidence in our pragmatics that we stop listening to the principles of what the Bible is telling us.
So to draw this together: we’re saying that history is really important, and that with sufficient distance we can look back on what we’ve done and start to understand it. But the meaning of what we’ve done, and the direction of our future decisions can only be understood in one way—in light of the history of God in this world; in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.