Sunday, 23 October 2016

History and the "Future"

Often, when one reads about Christian history of the first century, one reads that one should forget what happened in subsequent centuries. These outcomes were unknown to the historical actors, and thus cannot be consulted when seeking to consider their actions. If historical investigation consists only of understanding what the historical actors knew and anticipated, this would be quite legitimate an injunction. No doubt, Jesus and Paul, for instance, had no inkling that three centuries after their deaths hundreds of Christian bishops would gather in Nicea to determine the church's official position on certain aspects of the doctrine of God. Yet, for other sorts of historical investigation, one cannot ignore this outcome. The actions of Jesus and Paul, and Peter and the Jameses and the Johns, were part of a process that did eventuate in this outcome, among others. Nicene theology became dominant, and not Marcionite or Arian or... It is not a foregone conclusion, to be determined by theory rather than empirical investigation, that, for instance, Jesus' activities during his lifetime, stands as an independent variable to this outcome. In fact, given the entangled nature of reality it seems distinctly improbable that this is the case.

This brings us back to the French Annales school of historiography, which especially since its second generation has emphasized that history moves at variable "speeds." There is "event time," of what Jesus and Paul et. al. were doing during their lives. It is measured in years, sometimes months and even days. There is what we might call "doctrinal time," which we tend to measure in centuries, talking about the theology of the first century versus that of the fourth. There is geographical time, measured in tens of thousands up to millions of years, and cosmic time, measure in billions of years. All these are of relevance to history. And when considering all but event time, we are addressing matters more of process than of discrete events. And when considering process, we are not looking at what individual actors knew or anticipated or intended. Rather, we are considering them as objects in a process that produces certain outcomes, and only those outcomes. Lonergan understands this, making a distinction between history and dialectics, but I find that his thinking on this matter is generally best fleshed out by engagement with thinkers from the various disciplines and intellectual traditions that have focused upon discrete aspects of the "dialectical" world (the Lonergan scholar Robert Doran gets a good start on this in Theology and the Dialectics of History). Hence the increasing turn to the Annales school in my thinking.

The future is an undiscovered country, but it is important to remember that much of Paul's future is our past. We have discovered much of what was for Paul still undiscovered. To exclude those discoveries from our database seems an odd operation in willful self-blinding. After all, hindsight is 20/20, so why intentionally operate with less than ideal vision?

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