Writing history as if every event is inevitable is called “teleology.” It is probably what has turned more students off the study of history than anything else, the notion that history is fixed and pre-determined. Entire academic courses of philosophy or theology can be devoted to debating it. Amazon.com lists 800 books on the subject.
Perhaps that’s why more students are attracted to modern history than ancient history. Humans seem to have a greater ability to shape recent events than ancient ones.
It’s nearly impossible to plausibly create an alternative narrative from events long ago, such as the first 2000 years of written Western history. I outlined the history of Jerusalem to 70 A.D, which is in many ways a history of the Western world. Ever since the ancient Hebrews recognized a God of history, humans have seen events as not simply the result of randomness and chaos but part of a coherent narrative and a divine relationship, even if the detailed meaning of that narrative is not clear until years, decades, or even centuries later.
Muslims tend to go even further than the ancient Hebrews and Christians, asserting that God pre-determines almost everything. “Kismet,” or destiny, fate, the will of Allah determines or even pre-determines the lives of every Muslim. It is one of six articles of faith in Islam.
The further back in history one explores, the harder it is to think of plausible alternatives. Details matter less, and one can more easily embrace a deterministic teleology.
“Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan,” wrote Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
The concepts of Destiny, Fate, a predetermined course of events — Divine Providence, or God’s intervention in the world, at least occasionally, are highly popular and widely believed, even among skeptics in secular societies.
And yet a rigid interpretation of history as entirely the work of destiny, fate, pre-destination, Divine Providence and Divine Retribution (as punishment for sinful behavior) that’s always in control of everything has led to skepticism, rebellion and the emergence of chaos theory.
And yet for me, the rigid application of chaos theory to history is just as grim as the concept that humans have no control over their destiny or fate, that everything must be left to Providence.
Rod Dreher in The American Conservative described this dilemma pretty well in an essay titled, “Is a Country’s Character Its Destiny?” To acknowledge only one path is to “deny human agency, and to surrender to fate. ” But to place the full burden of responsibility on individuals is “to ignore reality and the limits of human agency,” he wrote.
Abraham Lincoln, president during the American civil war, was a religious skeptic. He was not a member of any religious community. Yet he frequently cited Divine Providence. In 1864, he wrote a friend:
“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it.
“If I had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it.”
And he eventually came to see civil war slaughter as divine retribution for the national sin of slavery. In his Second Inaugural Address, 1865, he quoted the Bible, and declared:
“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
This quote may over-simplify Lincoln’s theology. He believed in a mysterious God whose will is difficult for humans to discern or understand. He was struggling, with his fellow countrymen, to find meaning in the enormous suffering sacrifice of the war. “The Almighty has his own purposes,” he humbly stated in the same address.
By identifying and examining “slender threads” thin moments when history turned on a dime or “a plugged nickel,” (Jeff Greenfield) , we can either be overwhelmed by the chaos around us, see everything as the work of God in control of the universe and of each life, metting out rewards and punishments to each of us and to our nations based on individual and collective behavior, or take a middle ground.
Sometimes, in the bloody course of history, God seemed nowhere to be found, and at other times, intervention by a Divine Providence seems about the only explanation that makes sense. Take your pick.
- teleology, Google.com search.
- teleology, Amazon.com search.
- Destiny, Wikipedia definition.
- Divine Providence, Wikipedia definition.
- Divine Providence, in an Amazon.com search, brings more than 30,000 results.
- Divine Retribution
- Chaos Theory.
- Abraham Lincoln and religion.
- Religious quotations by Abraham Lincoln.