Often on Facebook I get a funny picture called ‘Anglican Church Memes’. I was already familiar with Richard Dawkins idea of ‘the selfish gene’. Here he claims that the unit of evolution is not at the level of the organism but at the level of the gene, and that each gene seeks to ensure its survival. I knew that in the same book, he suggests that there might be similar units of cultural or social reproduction that he calls ‘memes’, but I never took it very seriously till this week.
This week on the radio, I heard an interview with a person who studies memes. It struck me quite strongly then, that they were arguing for an evolutionary theory of cultural change, and by implication an evolutionary theory of history.
So here is the starting point of my reflection this week. I am happy enough to accept the evidence for Darwin’s evolutionary theory of biological change, but I don’t think that I can sign up to a Darwinian theory of history. *
That sounds like that we would have to accept the idea of ‘culture red in tooth and claw’ in the same way that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’.
So I don’t want to go into a big case here about whether or not culture develops via memes in the same way that biology develops via genes. But I do want to have a bit of a think about what my idea of history is.
There have been a couple of people (G.F. Hegel and Francis Fukuyama to my knowledge) who have thought that history has come to an end. Hegel thought that he understood history, via the ‘Thesis –Antithesis-Synthesis’ model. Broadly speaking, Fukuyama saw the ‘end of history’ in terms of the success of liberal democracy.
What both authors have in common is that they are trying to discern from within history a pattern that tells them how history will go.
This brings with it some presuppositions. The first is that the development of history has nothing to do with God.
‘Well OK’ you say, but is there a credible alternative?
I think that there is. Here is my go at outlining it.
First of all comes the category of revelation. A theological idea of history takes seriously that there is information about the trajectory of human history that cannot be derived by looking just at human history so far. God’s revelation adds to our knowledge of where history is going.
The first piece of revelation that tells me about history comes from Isaiah. Here he gives us a vision. He says “Also the cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, And the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord As the waters cover the sea’ (Is 11:18)
Later he repeats this vision. “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the Lord.(Is. 65:12)
Here Isaiah is proposing a vision of history that transcends nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ Much later than Isaiah, both Wolfhardt Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann place a consideration of the natural order, and scientific truth within the framework of history, because Nature, the object of science, is subject, like Nature in Isaiah’s vision, to the plans and will of God, and is as yet ‘imperfect’.
Then comes the revealed knowledge that ‘Christ is risen’. This piece of knowledge tells me what the epistle to the Colossians elaborates. That the reality of Christ fills the Cosmos. That culturally speaking, God’s love for the unrighteous will be the final word, and that naturally speaking, what I may now hope for is not death, power growing from violence, and things falling apart. Since Jesus has been raised, we go into the cemetery at Easter, light the Christ Candle, and say ‘light is stronger than darkness, love stronger than hate or violence.’ We can reasonably hope for this because we believe the proclamation that ‘Christ is risen.’
This is a reversal of a common way of thinking. The caterpillar goes into being a chrysalis and becomes a butterfly not because this is ‘natural’ but because Christ is Risen. The signs of the renewal of life that we see in nature are at bottom, reflections in nature of the character of God, revealed in Christ’s having been raised.
This is then my ‘theological theory of history’. That Nature aims at history, and that this history looks like the history of Jesus, for which I am allowed to hope. This trajectory of history will be accomplished not by us, but by God in god’s own time and manner.
But then comes to me the question “But what about us? Are we just passive recipients of this trajectory? Are we directed to vacate the political field and let God do God’s work?
I don’t think so. But first, I do not think that, in Marxist fashion, it is we who make history, in that it is completely open to our free will, or that it is determined by forces that originate from within history itself.
But I do think, that having been grasped by the vision of history in the revelation to Isaiah, and having believed that ‘Christ is risen’, I cannot live any more not knowing these things. My job now is to anticipate this new history: to live in this reality.
It’s like the song “How’re we gonna keep him down on the farm, now that he’s seen Paris?”
Or my favourite seen from “Catch 22”. Yossarian lives within a world of war with a dismal view of history, and because of the “Catch 22” with no way out. But Orr, who has a vision of escape, is practising the crashing of his plane, and using the life raft to row to freedom. He is living according to what he may hope for. Everyone thinks that Orr is crazy, and won’t fly with him. But Yossarian hears from his hospital bed that Orr’s plan has worked. He hears the revelation that ‘The bastard made it!”. Yossarian does the only reasonable thing in this context. He leaves his hospital bed, grabs a life raft and starts rowing!
That is what Christians do. Having believed the revelation that ‘Christ is risen’ we too ‘start rowing’ in anticipation of the way things will be when the reign of God comes in power, and not just in principle.
This is the job of the Church. Sadly, all too often, the forces of destruction infect the Church, as we are learning about how paedophilia has found a home among us. Sadly much of the Church functions as icing on an already cooked cultural cake which accepts as ‘normal’ other values than those of the hope of Christ’s resurrection. But gladly, the information contained in this theological idea of history are only found in the Church. That is why she needs to be supported and loved.