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From the May, 2005 issue of Touchstone


The Winds of History by Wilfred M. McClay


The Winds of History

Using History to Get Where We Ought to Go
by Wilfred M. McClay

Christians cannot ignore history. On the contrary, we are uniquely bound to it. We are not like Buddhists or gnostics. The specific things that happen in time and space matter enormously for us, precisely because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And yet the meanings of history are always partial and subordinate and provisional, precisely because God’s ways are not our own. We cannot ever know for sure what matters most in God’s sight. Indeed, we know that the fall of one sparrow, or the crucifixion of one man, can trump the fall of a great and gaudy empire.

And so we need some way of sorting out what history means and does not mean. In doing this, there is the real danger that we will make history mean either too much or too little. Our era’s problem, as Patrick Reardon observes in his editorial, is almost entirely with the former. We tend to understand history in our age as History, an inexorably “progressive” force, and hence an authority of last resort.

A Secular Fate

In that sense, History has become for our secular age what “fate” was for the Greco-Roman ancients, and what “providence” was (and remains) for many Christians. This is the sense of History that Hegel and Marx promoted, and the sense that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy recently appealed to in justifying an opinion by “evolving standards of decency.” It is the sense that moral innovators are appealing to in promoting homosexual and polyamorous “marriage,” artificial wombs, bioengineered enhancements, and all the other delights of “posthumanity.”

The postmodernists who claim that we are beyond the sway of such metanarratives as History are speaking utter rubbish. (As usual.) “Progress” is the one article of faith that remains strong among us, the one torch in modernism’s darkening hall that still burns bright. To oppose it, even in the slightest, is to render oneself an “enemy of the future.”

Which is why the possibility that such innovations might ultimately fail is, literally, inconceivable to so many true believers, as inconceivable to them as a sudden revocation of the laws of physics. You see, there are certain prevailing winds in this thing called History, and the Path of True Virtue can only be found in discerning those winds, and aligning one’s skiff with them. Or so the partisans of conventional wisdom would have it. And their confidence is oddly mirrored in the dejection of the orthodox, who feel themselves on the losing side of History.

Yet both are wrong. One of the chief sources of the hope that is within us as Christians derives precisely from our knowledge that our human projections into the future are almost always wrong—especially when they are based upon some grand theory of History. That is one reason, among many, why it is a sin to despair—because despair arrogantly presumes to know what it cannot possibly know, and presumptuously places limits on the power of God.

For the Christian, the point is not to align oneself with the prevailing winds, but to make it to the right destination, which may mean aligning—or fighting, or tacking, or waiting, or even retreating. History is, so to speak, the inescapable climate of our actions, and so we have to reckon with it. But “climate” is only a fancy word for “the weather,” and neither snow nor rain nor other impediments should keep us from our appointed rounds.

The knowledge we call “history” serves us best when we confine it to a strictly advisory role. We can get some useful clues in charting our course from the study of history. But it is an illusion to think that we are going to get any reliable answers—let alone any redemption—from History. •

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (North Carolina) and A Student?s Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books). He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

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