Thursday, January 28, 2016

Does History Move in a Particular Direction? Does History Have a Telos?

Does history move in a particular direction? Does history have a telos toward which it is moving, at which it will arrive and find completion, consummation?

For Christians, the question is ambiguous, and makes us liable to fall for Whiggish or Hegelian views of history that see its movement as inexorable improvement: history moves toward an end; that end is good (a mighty premise!); and each step along the way is therefore a step in the right direction—or, at least, for each step backward, there will be two steps forward.

But Christians needn't affirm such a claim in order to affirm that history has a telos, and therefore that history is moving in the direction of that end, which is its own conclusion in Christ, the consummation of all creation, the translation of human life into the kingdom of God. For 'history' can be 'moving' in the 'direction' of that End without necessarily becoming any better, which is to say, without becoming any more like that End, even while approaching it day by day.

Progress in proximity, in other words, is not progress in likeness. Pilgrims may journey to a holy site: they will not (necessarily) be holier when they arrive than when they first set out. Christians believe that the church, and they in it, are being transformed ever more into the image of Christ; we confess the work of the Spirit called sanctification.

We do not confess the sanctification of history in general. History may move, but it does not, of necessity, improve. What changes occur may be for better or for worse. What changes do occur, such as they are, will be the contingent results of human beings ordered, surely, to an End, but unbound to any inevitable logic determining their progress in virtue.