Friday, June 20, 2008

How We Got To Here

Everyone’s got a theory about American freedom, for example, and I won’t be providing any new ones here. One of the most widely-held ideas situates the roots of the American attitude in the Teutonic forests, among the tribes that Tacitus described 2000 years ago. Egalitarian, difficult to subdue, and according more status to women, these Angles, Jutes, Franks, and Saxons are seen as the freedom-loving Germanic peoples, debating at their moots, drinking their mead, pillaging and raping (but nobly), and eventually going off to take over England from whence they founded the colonies that turned into the only nations that are worth a damn.

This freedom-loving Saxon theory comes in both racial and cultural versions. I tend to a soft cultural version of this myself. I find it extreme to push the origin too far into an unrecorded past, but that something different happened in the British Isles and its colonies seems obvious. These Anglospheric theories usually include reference to Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and the Bloodless Revolution of 1688. The Bloodless Revolution wasn’t bloodless, by the way. Magna Carta wasn’t all that magna, either.

Other theories have included the English admiration for Native American tribal councils, particularly the Pemigewassets; Roman Catholic abstract thinkers reflecting on the rights of man; Protestant settlement finally liberated from all traces of Catholicism; a confluence of French legal thought and East Anglian merchant custom; Frisian influence; the Greek Revival; the preeminence of property rights in English Common Law; the search for cultural universals of governance in diverse colonies – I’m sure I am missing many others.

All these theories were developed retrospectively, imposing a teleological framework that leads to Wonderful Us. We trace back through events and ideas and claim to have found a single path. Such thinking does have advantages. It allows us to see patterns that are there, which gives a certain predictive value to our thoughts about the future. Unfortunately we also see patterns that aren’t there, giving a deceptive predictive value to our thoughts about the future. Paths there may be, but if we are picking out a spot on the horizon in our past and retracing toward it, we come to regard our route through the crisscrossing trails as the real path, the natural path, the inevitable path.

It is almost automatic at that point to look into the future with the idea that this is all going somewhere, and that past trends will continue. Such prediction is risky even with physical or even mechanical events. It is certainly hubristic with political and social events.

I have heard it called assumicide.

Christians sometimes think they’ve got an edge that allows them more right to look ahead. We have been given the last few pages of the book, and easily convince ourselves that we have a pretty shrewd guess what’s going to happen next (wink, wink). The problem is, we don’t know where in the book we are. If we knew that we had started the last chapter, then our extrapolations of current events out to the close of the age would likely be accurate. But we don’t know if we have gotten out of the second chapter of human history yet. Heck, we don’t even know if the number of chapters has even been decided. God might be writing this world interactively with us because it’s more fun for Him and better education for us.

There is a wonderful section in the last book of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series which compares our understanding of the world to the back of a tapestry. There are hints of the figures on the other side, and patterns that are not wholly illusory. But the threads and shapes on this side are not dependable guides to discerning what the picture is. Nor do we even know how large the tapestry is.

If you’ve still got a big fat section of the book in your right hand as you read, it causes you to interpret what you are reading differently. As you gradually come to the last few pages, the physical construction of the volume tells you that the story is coming to an end. (This is what is so frustrating about unexpected set-ups for sequels, by the way. Not only the narrative, but the object you are holding in your hand has powerfully signaled to you that resolution is approaching. Quotus interruptus.)

Ellen G. White had a particularly detailed retrospective of world history in which she saw, or thought she saw, trends that pointed to a particular future. The path leading to her own subculture’s extreme anti-Catholicism she saw as the natural, rescuing path that God had put his church on; she intuited the future accordingly.

It’s a fun exercise in an election year to attend to the various versions of history and progress being put forward by the candidates. Beware “the vision thing.” It is often nostalgia for a false past masquerading as a glimpse of the future.

Paths, tapestries, books. I think that’s enough metaphors for now.


Anonymous said...

Instead of an apocalyptic emphasis, a religion of hope for the world:

"So, let me add that Christianity is, and always has been, and always will be, not just essentially a religion of hope, but in itself, the most stupendous hope the world has ever known. Only Incarnate god would have dared to hold out to us all, mere men and women of every sort and condition, sweet Mongols and pundits and professors and beauty queens, the sick and the well, the stupid and the clever, those who stumble equally with those who lend an arm, whoever and whatever we may be, a hope of being involved in a destiny set in eternity and encompassing the universe. Imagine telling caterpillars that they are destined to become butterflies” Malcolm Muggeridge, from “Christ & The Media”

found above under the title A TV Panel of Caterpillars @

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Great quote.

@nooil4pacifists said...

Agreed. The tendency toward linear prediction and post-hoc ergo propter hoc shallow synthesis is the Casaubon delusion--and a staple of Marxism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks - I, for one, share this view about prognostication as a subject matter (even the History Channel's Nostradamus-type shows are full of fluff, stretched theories and questionable conclusions). Fortunately there are those delving into the knowable past and doing great research that gives us a better understanding of where we've all truly come from - case in point, this eminent church historian whose obit today includes this statement: “The Anglican church may not have a pope, but it does have Henry Chadwick,” Archbishop (of Canterbury Rowan) Williams said, suggesting that that this was a common view."

Anonymous said...

Daniel Boorstin gave some very interesting and readable answers to "how we got to here." I particularly liked The Discovers and The Americans: The Colonial Experience.