How the Past Can Rescue the Present

At the start of new year, most of our attention is focused on what lies ahead. It’s really one of the few times we take our eyes of the present moment and begin to imagine the future. My wife and I love praying and planning for the season ahead.

But I also love studying the past. I’m not a history buff, but I enjoy learning about previous eras, particularly of church history. As a pastor, I am often comforted in knowing that the Church has faced challenges and dilemmas like the ones in our day before. We can learn from both the mistakes they made and the wisdom they displayed.

There are two types of snobbery when it comes to a view of time. There is the snobbery of progress— what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. It is the belief that everything newer is more evolved, more enlightened, more advanced or sophisticated. This is a temptation precisely because there are aspects of it that are true: we know more about how the human brain works, how addictions occur, how spirituality integrates holistically with emotions and actions; and on and on. But not everything current is an improvement. The passing of time is not the same as progress. And, as Lewis pointed out, a culture or society may forget what it once knew.

The second kind of snobbery is the snobbery of nostalgia. This is the view that everything older is better; that the more historic the thing is, the richer it is. The way things used to be is automatically assumed to be better than the way things are. This view fails to account for the problems and flaws of every paradigm, or the challenges in every age, or even the way an allegedly abstract principle is actually deeply shaped by the context of its geography, politics, and more.

So, why does the past matter? Why study it if its not actually better than the present? Why can’t we just concern ourselves with the ‘now’ work of God? Once again, C. S. Lewis offers an insight:

“…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

Just as a person “who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” so the person who “has lived in many times” is “in some degree immune from the…nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We study the past so that we do not become prisoners of the moment.

We study the past so that we can call into question the assumptions of our age.

We study the past so that we can gain an immunity from the myths of our day.

And so I press on…backwards to go forwards, free of the myopia of the moment. My current quest for chronological context includes reading this gem from Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh) on the unique qualities of early Christianity in the midst of both Jewish and pagan contexts.

Here’s one of the passages the struck me recently:

‘It is interesting that these pagan writers [in the first few centuries of Christianity] typically refer to Christians as dissonant and out of step, and as in tension with the larger culture of the time in some matters…Tacitus [the Roman writer around 112 AD who wrote on Nero’s accusations of Christians] claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various forms of death.’

Huh. So, no matter how loving and kind Christians try to be, we still may be accused of being out of touch with the times (on the ‘wrong side of history’) and hateful? Well, now, that may challenge our paradigms.

But the rap on Christians in the first few centuries wasn’t all bad. Galen, a physician in the 2nd century, expressed ‘admiration for Christians, particularly for their courage in the face of death [not that the admiration for their courage was not a reason to rescind the death penalty!], their self-restraint in matters of sex, food, and drink, and their “keen pursuit of justice”.’ So, no need to tone down our admonishment of Christians today to embrace both a comprehensive view of justice and a temperate view of morality.

And yet, it may not be enough to keep people from viewing us– as Celsus the late second century pagan writer viewed early Christians– as ‘intellectually inferior people’.

There is so much more in Hurtado’s book that encourages and challenges me. And I think that’s the point: we need to study the past to see our own age more clearly.

We cannot compare the present to the future because we do not see the future clearly enough to know the implications of our theories and hypotheses. And we cannot live in the past as if the world remains unchanged. We must make two moves– the move to acquaint ourselves with the Church in previous eras, and then the move to see our own context with fresh eyes, and discern the Spirit’s work in us, here and now.

Science, Miracles, and God

It is largely assumed that miracles are inherently unscientific. But let’s examine the premise for this belief. Science, it is said, shows us a predictable universe, one that follows uniform laws and rhythms. Miracles, by definition, are an aberration of those laws, a suspending of the norms of nature, and therefore are improbable if not impossible.

The secular philosopher David Hume wrote in his Essay on Miracles
that there are two questions to be answered: “Do miracles occur?” and
“Is Nature absolutely uniform?” Because he answers yes to the latter
question, he answers no to the first one. But, as C. S. Lewis points
out, Hume has engaged in philosophical sleight of hand for the two
questions are the same one. By asking is miracles occur you are simply
asking in another way if nature is always absolutely uniform. So, the
real question we have to wrestle with is the one of nature’s uniformity.

How do we know that the universe follows a uniform pattern of behavior?
Our first response tends to be: by experience or by observation.
But the truth is all we can say by experience and observation is that during the period of time that we have observed nature, we have observed her to behave is such and such a way. Even the longest periods of observation– decades for many things, centuries for a few things– is a relatively short period of time in light of the relative age of the universe. For scientists who believe in an earth that existed millions of years before mankind, even the short history of humanity (6000 years at our best guess?) is not enough to to answer the question of nature’s uniformity by experience alone. In fact, when we try to say that we believe in Nature’s uniformity because of our observation and experience, we are simply saying that we believe that the patterns we have observed are ones we believe to have been around before our observation and experience and will continue even beyond our observation and experience. And you would officially be in a circular argument.

Our second response is that we wish it to be so. This, of course, is irrational. And yet, highly practical. We couldn’t live day to day if we did not count on some level of predictability or reliability in nature. Life would be disastrous. And since it is beyond our control anyway, we assume that things will continue tomorrow as they have today, and that tends to work out in general. But such an answer cannot be enough.

Our third and most honest response is that science depends on a predictable universe and if we have up the sense of uniformity and order in nature we would lose science. We are now getting closer for we are admitting that science is predicated on a kind of faith: a faith in the general orderliness of the universe.

But what sort of belief system allows for that conviction? For the pure Naturalist– the one who believes Nature is all there is, that there is no God, no Spirit, no Force, no Mind– he is in a bind. The Naturalist is forced to admit that since there is no guiding Force or Mind, his own “deepest convictions are merely the byproducts of an irrational process” and therefore cannot be trusted. A person’s convictions– about the uniformity of the universe or anything else– is simply a fact about that person (like the color of his hair) and has no grounds for treating his conviction as more valid or reasonable than anyone else’s. (C. S. Lewis in Miracles wrote on this in Chapter 13). The Supernaturalist– one who believes in a Rational MInd/Force beyond nature– has the best grounds for accepting the uniformity of nature. He believes there is a great rational force that has set the universe in motion and its motion follows a sense of rationality for He is rational. “Men became scientific because the expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (Lewis).

The “catch’, however, is that the same grounds that lead you to accept a rational, uniform universe allows leaves you defenseless against the possibility of miracles. For if there is a God– a rational, creative Being– then we can expect the universe to be orderly; but we must also admit that if that God chose to break into His creation He could.

What sort of God would break into His creation? Here is where we turn away from what science alone can tell us and ask what religion tells us. The bulk of religion chronicles man’s search for God. But it is the Jewish-Christian story that begins with God’s search for mankind. “Adam, where are you?” God said in the beginning of our story. For the Jew and the Christian, God has always broken into time and space. And those occasions are often called “miracles”. For the Christian, the ultimate invasion of God into His world is in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Him we see the most dramatic miracles: the virgin birth, the incarnation itself, the resurrection.

By no means does science prove God or miracles. But neither does science preclude it. Furthermore, because science itself needs to believe in an orderly universe, it admits the possibility of a “God”. But by admitting the possibility of a “God”, it must admit the possibility of miracles. So, our answer to Hume’s questions are yes, miracles can occur; and, yes, the universe is generally almost always uniform. It is my view that the Christian story best reconciles these questions. And it does so it a breathtakingly beautiful way.

[NOTE: I am indebted to Chapter 13 of C. S. Lewis’ Miracles for the content of this post. If you are intrigued, I recommend his book for further reading. You can also listen to my recent sermon on “Miracles and the Christian” HERE.]