Friday, January 28, 2011

Divine and Worldly History

Yesterday I began a consideration of the theology of history, how a Catholic historian might approach his work. I offered a distinction between spiritual and mundane history, and probed both the strengths and weaknesses of this distinction. Today I’d like to consider another distinction, between divine and worldly history.

If spiritual history concerns all the working of God, the angels (including demons) and men, divine history concerns specifically those spiritual realities which are good. One might be tempted to conclude that divine history, together with a counterpart perhaps called “satanic history”, is a subset of spiritual history. Let me contend, however, that the divine/worldly distinction stands apart from the spiritual/mundane.

Many of the Church Fathers argue that evil does not exist; existence itself, they argue, is good, and so evil is a privation, a lack of good, and therefore also a deficiency in being. Whatever one makes of these metaphysical claims, I think we can agree that evil is more of a lack than a positive thing. Thus, rather than talking about the presence of evil, we might more accurately refer to the absence of God. Likewise, while St. John refers to “the Anti-Christ” (1 John 2:22, 2 John 7), he also refers to “many anti-Christs” (1 John 2:18. These anti-Christs all lack a positive identity of their own; they are defined in opposition to Jesus and His work.

Thus, the opposite of divine history is not satanic history, but anti-divine history. Put another way, active hostility to God (of the demonic form) and apathetic rejection of God both constitute an absence of God. This is what I mean by “worldly history.”

When trying to understand the most important happenings in history, we may see the hand of God wherever there is truth, beauty, goodness, self-giving, joy and other such qualities. We find these in abundance in the lives of the saints: Frances of Assisi, Thomas More, Teresa of Calcutta and countless others. But when trying to understand that which opposes God, we should look not only for the horrors of child-immolating Carthage or Nazi Germany, but also for the apathy and relativism common in our own age and many before it.

A historian would be laughed at if he offered a paper on “Why the 17th Century Saw Divine Victory and the Retreat of Satan”. Nevertheless, the historian should be driven by the desire to understand, an understanding which should not preclude the highest things. (That the academy is so hostile to any consideration of spiritual or divine history shows how far it has strayed from an interest in profound understanding or first principles.)

We should not forget, however, that all this is simply a framework for thinking about history, not a method for approaching it. The method of the historian is humble: he collects stories, facts and bits of data and then assembles them, trying to make sense of it all, like trying to piece together the fragmented pages of some lost epic. But in so doing, he may take confidence from the knowledge that the epic indeed exists, that it has an Author, and that the Author’s loving ways are, to some extent, known.
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