Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On theistic history as 'over-determined'

In a stimulating discussion on historiography I heard a historian on the radio today describe a theistic view of history as ‘over-determined’. This is revealing. It shows what non-theists despise and fear in a Christian view of things. I can somewhat sympathise with the historian if he merely misunderstands that the theistic position is that all is ‘written’ in a deterministic sense that makes a mockery of our human story, as if we’re not doing anything truly significant in the unfolding of history but rather that all is a Divine Puppet Show. But I do think that’s a misunderstanding – even on the strongest Christian view of God’s sovereignty he is still good and holy and just and loving in his ‘rule’ or ‘authorship’ of history and his demands on us and overtures toward us as creatures made in his image clearly show he expects significance from us, personal and communal choices of far-reaching import, not that we’re mere links in a cosmic chain of cause and effect or that our apparent agency is just that, an appearance and not a reality.

However, I don’t think the revulsion of the non-theist is as unmixed as that – a mere misunderstanding. As a Christian I think this epithet of ‘over-determined’ also reveals our inherent fallen instinct to hate and oppose God for limiting our freedom, for putting a boundary on our significance and placing it squarely under his own divine glory. Again, I think this ‘bounded significance’ is misunderstood as an evil, for on the contrary I would argue that it is in fact our greatest good and unleashes human potential under God as no rebellion against our Maker’s rights over us can ever do. If anyone wants to ask just how it so unleashes us, I will attempt another article to explain something of what I mean.

I can see too how this misunderstanding would lead someone with professional interest in the matter to fear that a theistic historian looks only (or mainly) for divine and not human causes in the past. But of course this does not follow from a true understanding of theism. Whilst the theistic historian assumes a divine Hand or Plan overall and behind all, and will indeed be open to seeing evidence of this, even apart from ‘special revelation’ that makes such divine activity explicit (e.g. Holy Scripture), he or she will still be on the same hunt for what every historian of whatever ideological stripe is after: fairly interpreted facts from which to speculate about causes and explanations of past occurrences. It is a matter of both/and, not either/or. It is the same in all other disciplines and arts. Theism enriches and enlarges rather than diminishing or reducing. It should be well known that the reductionism is all the other way. It is those whose philosophy dictates before research ever gets started ‘thus far and no farther’ that are in danger of excluding facts and causes.

Interestingly, I think it is this same misunderstanding of a biblical philosophy of history that fuels present trends in the more ‘liberal’ and ‘emergent’ theologies that seek to limit God’s rule so that our lives don’t feel ‘over-determined’. (I’m referring to an in-house debate amongst my ‘co-religionists’ as to the nature of God: some argue experimentally that God is ‘open’ or ‘in process’ while others argue that such a being would not actually be God at all but some sort of Super-Creature in some kind of symbiosis with the universe and that the atheists would be right after all—that all is imminent with no transcendence, that all is ontologically dependent with Nothing to depend on.) Indeed, I strongly suspect it is the pressure from socio-cultural influences such as I heard on popular radio that are the original inspiration for many of the ‘experimental’ theological moves being made, rather than first and foremost a fresh reading of the Scriptures that has required reformation of the church’s long held views. A different way of reacting to such challenges from culture is of course to explain and defend and show the beauty and goodness of the very doctrine under attack, rather than altering it to fit the sensibilities of those in opposition to a scriptural worldview. It is not theological progress to go down a dead end alleyway.

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