God of History vs. God as History?

24 04 2019

One of the great influences of my youth was a Russian Orthodox monk who was a Catholic convert. According to a biographical essay written by one of his disciples, he was converted by the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky. Having read Florovsky myself, I can attest that he is one of the only Orthodox writers worth a damn. Aside from his obvious mastery of Patristics and Church history, his more theoretical impact was clear and to the point: Christianity is a religion of history. That is, in contrast to Nietzsche’s attempt to revive the eternal return, Christianity is based firmly on the concept of linear time. Things happen once, and not over and over again. Humans are historic persons with their own unique substance, and not just masks for an eternal repeating energy flow. For instance, this is the main difference between Christian liturgy and pagan ritual in spite of any superficial similarities and appropriations. Liturgy can only commemorate historical events and not eternal cycles of seasons and movements of nature. It could be said that the latter only have meaning in light of the former.

As I have mentioned recently, the apotheosis of the historical has been rather problematic in the context of modernity. The importance of history has resulted in an increased scrutiny concerning sources: Did this really happen? How did it happen? How can we be sure? And so on. How this has affected things like Biblical criticism and interpretation requires little elaboration here. The impulse to change things in order to align them with a more correct reading from the sources is something I have critiqued several times. And yet, the hands of the clock continue to move, our memories become more hazy, and, arguably, things continue to degenerate and mutate in accordance with our own contextual fears and neuroses. Building a foundation in history often seems like trying to pour one’s foundations in a river of flowing quicksand.

Some thinkers have aimed to roll with it. Hegel immediately comes to mind. In Hegel, one moves from the idea of the Eternal entering into History to the Eternal becoming History, or the Eternal as a the gap in the unfolding of contingent events. God is not simply that which remains unchanged in the chaos of decay and death, but he is the continuous process of decay and death as self-actualization. There is no eternal foundation, only the process by which I become free (self-moving) within a meaningless world constantly in flux.

That would just be a bunch of gobbledygook if it weren’t the modus operandi under which we live. For us, the world is merely the blank canvass on which we splash our freedom. There is no other telos to it. Especially with the fall of communism last century, we have indeed reached an end of history in that humanity has no objective impulse other than to carry on in the most basic sense. It’s as if we got so carried away with the temporal (the body and its well-being) that we forgot that it is an instrument for the eternal (truth, goodness, beauty, etc.). We have an obsession with the ephemeral, the fleeting, and the material to the exclusion of anything else. Anything higher seems like a crime to us, honestly.

The million dollar question in my mind is then: Did the God of History inevitably lead to God as History? Is the real progenitor of our society linear time, or the idea that the Unchanging must incarnate itself into the Changing and be totally transparent to it?  Did the definitive identification of ourselves with this body, this identity, inevitably lead to the deification of our own unique historical individuality, and by extension, our corporeal well-being as the highest good?

The irony of it all is that deifying the passing flesh does not make us happy. At most, we can lead a tolerable life of comfort forgetful of any eternal fate, and then heap our corpse upon the Pyre of History as a sacrifice to Humanity and Progress; just like an animal going into the slaughterhouse. When some person or event deviates from this all-too-modern credo, say, in binding themselves to any idea that does not view this corporeal life as the highest good, then we grab our pitchforks to burn the heretic. But the absurdity of existence for its own sake does not diminish simply because we double down on it constantly. My only question is: Does Christianity have the tools to address this malaise at all, or is it rather its inevitable cause? My contention at this time is that, while it had some aspects that pointed to an eternal truth and beauty, it couldn’t really transcend its carnal aspects, and thus cannot help us. I am not blaming it as an idea here per se, but I think we have to look for answers elsewhere.

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One response

4 05 2019
Anonymous

The closing lines here remind me of my recent forays into Neoplatonism and specifically Plotinus (thought I suppose the two are largely synonymous). At least for me I have found something of that pointing to an eternal truth and beauty that seems less likely to become mired by the snares of the material realm in the work of Plotinus.

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