The Story is Freedom
Why is history important? Why should we study it?
One answer to these questions from a Christian perspective is that God seems to put historical experience at the forefront of His relationship with mankind. The story of the People of God does not deal with the simple manifestation of pre-determined cosmic laws or structures, but with God’s free and personal relationship with free personal beings. It must then be told as a dynamic Story, and not as a static formula or discourse.
This historical orientation of Christianity is illustrated in its answer to a knotty philosophical issue: the problem of evil.
Christian philosophical answers to this problem are often criticized as inadequate, not as “simple” or “straightforward” as say, an atheistic or Buddhist answer.
Philosophy deals with fixed orders – the set, determined structures of the universe or of human thought, such as the laws of logic. Philosophical rationalism, left to itself, always leads to some form of determinism that destroys or seriously undermines free will.
History deals with freedom – the free actions of free beings in time. Historical action and experience cannot therefore be properly described in language designed for the elucidation of fixed orders, that is, philosophical language. If, therefore, the best Christian defense of the Faith on the challenge of the problem of evil involves free will, it will by necessity be best described in historical language.
We must tell a Story about free choices made in Time.
Although this kind of response may frustrate hostile philosophers because it shifts categories and lacks “simplicity”, this Christian historical response is actually a superior response to its rivals, who attempt to answer the problem of evil philosophically – that is, explaining the existence of evil by an appeal to the fixed “nature of things”.
For example, the typical atheistic explanation for the existence of evil appeals to the fixed, materialistic nature of the world to deny the real existence of evil. In doing this, however, the atheist also denies the real existence of good—the world just is how it is, and free will (and thus morality) is an illusion of human beings whose actions are pre-programmed by chemistry and physics. “Good” and “evil” are illusions produced by human culture.
The Christian historical response, however, while a messier and more complicated one, preserves the reality of morality—and in the process, preserves the true reality of human nature and human dignity as free beings.
History is the story of freedom, and a Christian understanding of history will make the term “historical determinism” an oxymoron. Man’s freedom from being a slave or plaything of cosmic history does not primarily rest in an appeal to a larger transcendent fixed order (a la hardcore non-Christian Platonism)—this would mean simply moving man’s servitude to a higher level of the universe.
Christian revelation tells us that man is created in the image of the free God and is made to “participate in the Divine nature” while still a fully cosmic being. Man was intended to be the free friend and ruling steward of the cosmos. It is only his Fall that has condemned him to become its servant. St. Paul declares that the Kingdom of God has come to liberate the Children of God from subordination to the stoicheia kosmou – the “elemental, foundational structures or principles of the cosmos” whether of the physical universe or the limitations of a fallen human world-history.
Understanding our history then, to a great extent, means understanding ourselves, as we are and as we are intended to be—and why one of the most effective ways of teaching is telling stories. By hearing about the actions of free beings in time, whether true or fictional, we connect to the lesson using the fullness of our nature.
This explains the superiority of the parable to the proverb. While proverbs have a valuable function in pithily communicating pieces of wisdom to us, they can also be readily misunderstood as stoicheia – fixed laws of the universe that should apply on all occasions. The Book of Proverbs is often misunderstood in this manner. The parable, with its fully-personal characters engaging in potentially any of the ordinary human activities, makes it clearer that the point it is trying to make belongs to that messy, complicated world of free personal relationships – but a world that still has that higher kind of order that is overseen by the living, free and personal God.
Featured Art: Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1804) by Benjamin West