Posts Tagged ‘Hebrews 11:1’

Providential History

February 22, 2015

I am in the midst of writing a book-length journalistic history of Biblica, a 206-year-old organization. I won’t go into detail here—you’ll have to read the book—but suffice it to say that Biblica has gone through its highs and lows, its ins and outs, its days of triumph and unmitigated disaster. That’s probably true of any 200-year-old organization (there aren’t all that many) or for that matter any life.

My explicit purpose in writing this book is to tell the story truthfully but in such a way that a thread of purpose is revealed. That is to say, I am trying to marshal the facts in such a way that somebody who lived through them will recognize as accurate, while at least suggesting a note of redemption even in the catastrophes.

Some would look askance at the effort, as shamelessly manipulative. I grant you, it is not the same thing as an academic history, which ideally tells a story without fear or favor, as it were, and does not present God’s purpose except as an idea residing in someone’s brain. (Though even academic historians may look for themes to emerge from their telling of the story, and suggest what can be seen beyond the facts.)

But even granted that my purpose is a good one, it is not all that easy. Life is messy. Sometimes it appears to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The only thing I can prove is that Biblica survived its crises. Whether they had meaning, whether God was overseeing and protecting, and more importantly, how God was overseeing and protecting, I can only theorize cautiously and hopefully. It’s never absolutely clear. Sometimes you have to use considerable ingenuity to see some purpose in what happened.

I tell you this because it makes me think of an old and important question: whether there is such a thing as “providential history,” and whether Christian historians are obligated to write it. We have some very noteworthy historians who are Christians—George Marsden, to mention just one. But he, and many of his Christian colleagues, are sometimes assaulted by their fellow Christians for their failure to write “providentially” about subjects like Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. That is to say, they don’t attribute what happened to God. They focus on the mechanics of events, the human activities, rather than the divine purpose that lies behind them.

I’ve always sided with the historians on this one, mainly because I like to make up my own mind about what God was doing. Just the facts, ma’am. But now I find myself writing a sort-of providential history, and it feels very reasonable to me. I’ve concluded, tentatively, that there are two layers to history, and that it’s possible to write one or the other with perfect grace and integrity.

I get this from something important I learned while writing Miracles: everything is natural and supernatural at the same time. People desperately attempt to separate them, demanding to know, for example, “Did God heal that boy? Or did the doctors do it?” I learned that is not an either/or question. God is involved in everything that happens, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. When it’s obvious, and surprising, we call it a miracle. But God is no less involved at other times. (Yes, this does lead us to the problem of evil. What doesn’t?)

At the same time, even what we call miracle happens at a natural level. It happens to stuff, which is composed of particles, and the behavior of those particles is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific description and analysis.

So with history: it is at the same time both natural and supernatural.

Just as it is appropriate for scientists to describe the behavior of some organism without ascribing purpose to the organism, so it is appropriate for historians to write “just the facts,” without bringing God into it. On the other hand, there is a place for writing history through the eyes of faith. This kind of history will always be tentative, for the only fully trustworthy providential history is in the Bible. (That is, it is for those like me who believe the Bible is inspired by God.) But those who bring faith to the facts may venture hypotheses about what makes sense of the facts. (That is how Hebrews 11:1 describes faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”) The ultimate point of history is surely to make some sense of what happened. We can as well try that using the idea of God’s care as any other.

This applies to making sense not just of history but of our own lives. The unexamined life is not worth living, someone said, and whether or not that is true, there is beauty and nobility (and inevitability?) in trying to see some sense in your personal history. Is there a pattern? Is there meaning? Those questions will always lead to the question of God, in the end: is there one? Does he care? Is he involved? And can we have any idea at all of what he would care about, and how he might be involved?

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