Pastoral Letter Extended 3: The “right side” of what?

This is the third of a series of posts expanding on my Pastoral Letter post based on my sermon from June 28th.

If we hold to the gospel, we are going to be on the bad side of public opinion, but we will not be on the wrong side of history.

There are a few important pieces to this. First, we need to consider what we believe about human history and where we’re headed. Our culture heralds progressivism, the belief that human life, and really humans themselves, are progressively getting better and better. This focus on our march toward progress is naturally hostile toward anything that seems to impede that progress. As I discussed in a previous post, dissent becomes not just an annoyance or a political obstacle; it is a moral offense.

Progressivism’s fundamental problem is that it misunderstands the nature of progress.

Progressivists look to high points of progress as support of their ideology, but they overlook that, while progress is legitimately observable, it is also intermittent. That distinction draws upon another fundamental difference of perception related to human nature. Human progress is never consistent and unilateral, because we naturally perpetuate a cycle of progress and regress. When things are terrible, we must be the best versions of ourselves to survive, a necessity that calls us to virtue. If we persist in that virtue, we inevitably enjoy the fruits of virtue, leading to an increased flourishing of human life. Progress!

Our optimism numbs us against discipline and vigilence, and we so often fall by our own swords.

Throughout history, however, we see the eventual collapse of those moments of flourishing. We see it in the lives of empires and individuals. In an atmosphere of prosperity, comfort and optimism, we begin borrowing against the system that produces flourishing. Our sense of the necessity of virtue erodes, and we devour our own foundations. Our optimism numbs us against discipline and vigilance, and we so often fall by our own swords.

The Christian narrative of history is vastly different from the progressivist assumption. Humans never “get better” in any ultimate sense as a product of their own initiative or invention. We do not have the means to heal ourselves or our world independent of the power of our Creator. This means that, while we see glimmers of flourishing throughout human history and in our modern world, we recognize that:

1) Glimmers of flourishing are the product of God’s grace, not our natural capacity for creative improvement.
2) The human narrative is one of restoration, not optimization. Humanity and creation will not see full restoration until the return of Christ and the final establishment of his kingdom.

It’s not “settled.”

Progressivism is also deeply vulnerable in its appeal to “settled reason” and “settled science.” Appeals to settled reason and settled science heavily populate our public discourse about gender identity and same-sex marriage. We would be convinced that any objections to those voices are not only ignorant and archaic, but are actually morally villainous in their hindering of progress. The problem with settled science and reason, though, is that they’re so often proved wrong through the lens of hindsight. This is most destructive when science and politics are intimately united as they are today.

Both science and religion share this same dangerous vulnerability. When they are allowed to be mingled with the political emotion of the day (whether it is nationalism, socialism, liberation, evangelicalism, social engineering, or social Darwinism), they are captured and bastardized. In the 1930’s the settled science of eugenics in America made exciting promises about progress. In the end, its dream was brought to life in the race policies of Nazi Germany.

Out of the same scientific vein came the “undeniable” science that the Irish were descended from Africans who migrated to the Iberian peninsula and settled on the British Isles. They were isolated from the competition centered around the Asian, Levant, and European plains, and therefore didn’t benefit from the evolutionary effects of competition which made the Anglo-Teutonic people more highly evolved and therefore genetically superior.

The best way to destroy the purity of science or religion is to capture it by emotional ideology and hubris.

Evolutionary theory, the ultimate advocate of of “progress,” served as the scientific foundation for intense racial discrimination. We’ve since rejected the “settled science” that helped generations of white Americans justify horrible abuse and oppression of blacks. With the painful clarity of hindsight, many now celebrate the removal of the flag that, to many, represents that horrible practice of slavery.

“Settled science” assured us that concentrated inner-city housing would improve racial and poverty problems, and that no fault divorce and the sexual revolution would produce a more loving society. The examples go on and on. The best way to destroy the purity of science or religion is to capture it by emotional ideology and hubris.

Opinion vs. history

If we dissent from the dominating ideology of our day, we will absolutely be on the bad side of public opinion. They warn us, though, that we will also be on the wrong side of history. To think Christianly about this claim, we must know what the Bible teaches us to expect about our future. We are to expect a period of tribulation (great trouble or suffering) dominated by the “man of lawlessness” (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12). Before the return of Christ, we are to expect a constant battle for truth and righteousness in which we will experience wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, betrayals, deception, an increase in lawlessness, and the kind of suffering that surpassed anything yet experienced (Matthew 24:1-31).

God graces every generation with creativity and a measure of flourishing in which we do succeed in some measure of positive progress. Medicine, transportation, political systems, agricultural technology, communication, etc. Within the the core of who we are, however, true progress only comes through newness of life in Christ, and all the works of humanity are marred by our fallen natures. We will not remake our world or achieve the progress we dream of apart from our rightful King. And we are to expect that earthly kingdoms will always oppose the true and coming King, and that those who identify themselves with Christ will suffer the same abuse and contempt as he did (Matthew 5:11, 10:22; John 15:19; Philippians 1:29).

We will not remake our world or achieve the progress we dream of apart from our rightful King.

J. R. R. Tolkien described the Christian perspective when he said, “I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat – though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” That anti-modern sentiment finds its origin in the expectation that humanity will not grow progressively more beautiful, but instead true beauty and victory will come in a climactic moment when the rightful King takes his place as the ultimate sovereign of a restored kingdom.

When God promises that we will suffer abuse and contempt along with Christ, though, he also promises that we will share in his glory (Matthew 19:29; Romans 8:7; 2 Timothy 2:12). When that happens, public opinion will be exposed and overturned, and those who are in Christ will be vindicated as eternally on the “right side of history.”

Written with contributions by Hannah

Feel free to comment below. Please be respectful and use appropriate language so the dialogue can continue.

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