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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
30 Aug 2004

God and History

by Matthew M. Anger

Fernandez, Pedro, 'Vision of the Blessed Amedeo Menez de Sylva' (1514), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Three centuries before Christ, the Greek poet Cleanthes said: "naught upon Earth is wrought in thy despite, O God." Wherever we look, belief in a superior power ruling over the universe has been the norm in every civilization prior to the secular societies of the modern era. Unfortunately most Westerners, even self-professed Christians, tend to think in terms of divine aloofness rather than God's active intervention, being embarrassed into this view by their peers in the media and academia. For this reason a corrective to modern deism — the idea that everything really depends on the actions or institutions of men — is long overdue.

To treat history as if "God mattered" is to get beyond the superficial and the obvious; that clutter of mere opinions and trivia about the past. Sadly, modern historiography is almost completely dominated by hobbyists on the one hand, or neo-Marxist academics on the other. The average person is simply left out in the cold. As a result we see not only a distortion of the past, but a complete indifference to history to the point where people find it meaningless. In such a vacuum, false paradigms about human nature and society are much easier to construct.

A religious view of the past is not simply another form of ivory tower idealism. On the contrary, the problems of contemporary society only make sense as we approach them from a well-ordered Christian perspective. This perspective also demands taking into account both the grand sweep of events as well as the small details. The big picture gives us a sense of direction, while observation of precise data confirms the larger truths or acts as a corrective for false idealization. Unfortunately, contemporary scholarship has seen a radical divorce of reflective and specialized study. This prompted Catholic historian Christopher Dawson to say that

[T]he immense extension of the scale of education and its ramifications into a hundred specialisms and technical disciplines has left the [secular] state as the only unifying element in the whole system. In the past the traditional system of classical education provided a common intellectual background and a common scale of values with transcended and national and political frontiers and formed the European or Western republic of letters of which every scholar was a citizen.

In the Fullness of Time

While we may treat history in a philosophical manner, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a "philosophy of history." This point may seem recondite, yet it is at the heart of modern misapprehension. History is an order or a process in time. This process, as St. Augustine explained, is not in itself an essence or a substance. It is the post-Christian thinkers like Voltaire, Hegel and Marx who erred on this point, trying to create a "philosophy of history" by which human events could be treated as predictable "patterns" and materially quantifiable "forces." This is impossible if we realize that history is the work of Divine Providence which realizes in time the eternal plan of God. This implies not only the Creation but also the Redemption of the human race in the fullness of time. Genuine historical study must, therefore, be Christocentric, based on an Incarnational perspective.

Full completion comes... when [Jesus] places his kingship in the hands of God, his Father, having first dispossessed every other sort of rule, authority, and power; his reign, as we know, must continue until he has put all his enemies under his feet, and the last of those enemies to be dispossessed is death (I Cor. 15:24-25).

The Incarnation, the birth of Christ, by its very nature occurring in time, nevertheless points out another dimension, originating from eternity and pointing to eternity. "To the Christian," says Frederick Coppleston, S.J., "history is necessarily of profound importance. It was in history that man fell, in history that he was redeemed: it is in history, progressively, that the Body of Christ on earth grows and develops and that God's plan is unfolded." More specifically it was St. Augustine who "saw in history, as he saw in the individual, the struggle between two principles of conduct, two loves," the love of God on the one hand and the love of self on the other.

All events must be seen in this context, sub specie aeternitatis (or, "as God himself sees it"). This fact was taken for granted until the late Middle Ages, but with the rise of a skeptical form of humanism in the Renaissance, history began to be particularized and divided into artificial periods in order to accommodate it to personal and philosophical bias. The Incarnational view — never precisely formulated because it was simply taken for granted in an age of vibrant faith — survived less and less with the physical decline of Christendom.

History as Intellectual Discipline

Following the long prehistoric period of mankind there emerged early civilizations whose original written records provide the first firms of historical documentation. At this point we enter the factual study of the past. Most nations and races have had folk memories to start with but only three have developed (independently) the concept of formal written history: a) the Chinese, b) the Hebrews, and c) the Greeks. The Greek poet Homer (c. 700 B.C.), author of the Iliad and Odyssey, was rooted in the epic genre recounting great events and people with the necessary mythic trappings. The purpose of this early bardic tradition was educational. The narrative was handed down from generation to generation and provided the models for the formation of the citizen of the ancient city-state.

The disciplined description of the past originates with the Greek Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), who is considered the "Father of History." After him, Thucydides (460-394 B.C.) developed the idea further, in his Peloponnesian War which detailed the bloody civil war between Athens and Sparta, under which form it essentially passed to the Romans. By the time that Polybius (205-125 B.C.) is writing his History of Rome, he confidently speaks of history as a "profitable field of knowledge." He also says it is strange that anyone, "however commonplace or indifferent, cannot be curious to learn how the whole world fell under undisputed ascendancy of Rome within the period of less than fifty-three years." One notes the change in genre. Unlike the Homeric epic, Polybius tries to provide an exact chronology.

This profitable field of knowledge, a systematic study of the past, becomes an intellectual discipline, invented by the Greeks and Romans in an approximate time span of four centuries. It was already called historia, a separate field of study (though it was never a separate ars of the seven liberal arts; it was studied as part of two comprehensive artes, grammar and rhetoric). Polybius expresses well its concept of self-contained meaning, though his understanding is quite removed from the later, false "philosophy of history" coined by the rationalists. Rather, Polybius' meaning was in the underlying goal that history revealed for mankind. He was referring to the empires, those great political, cultural and linguistic entities, proceeding in succession through the centuries: Babylon, Persia, and Alexander's conquests giving way to the Roman Empire.

St. Augustine echoes this by saying that "we must ascribe to the true God alone the power to grant kingdoms and empires" and that God "granted dominion to the Romans" just as He "gave sovereignty to the Assyrians, and also to the Persians." It is not accidental that the Incarnation and the subsequent establishment of the Church took place at a specific time and place — within the frontiers of the Roman world. This new development saw the convergence of three elements, each seemingly separate in origin, yet all tending towards a definite culmination. Hebrew religion, Greek philosophy and Roman order formed the triune structure of Christian Europe, perfectly personified by St. Paul, a Hellenized Jew and citizen of Rome.

Rome and Imperium

According to the classical liberal view of the "Enlightenment," as brilliantly but erroneously expounded by Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Rome was "the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous." Gibbon's thesis that barbarian invasions and the rise of Christianity caused the downfall of the Western Empire became a stock-in-trade argument in the popular mind. It has hardly diminished in the two hundred years since he wrote his book.

Unlike other secularizers, Gibbon's "philosophy of history" is anti-historicist in that he sees no plan or progression in human events. He believed that the succession of events have no meaning and it is up to the historian to give it one. In this sense he is more honest than liberals who claim to see inevitable social forces at work in history. Still, Gibbon was imposing his own view on the past, and it is one which does not bear up to objective study. The moral deterioration of the ancient empire set in well before the triumph of Christianity, and it was the Church, particularly the monastic institutions, which actually preserved what could still be preserved of Rome. Had it not been for this, Europe would have lapsed into a true Dark Age from which it would never have recovered. But there is little point in speculating about alternate versions of the past since its unfolding is neither random nor aimless.

The ancient Roman historians believed in the empire's eternity, as voiced by Virgil, "Imperium sine fine dedi" ("Empire without end have I granted," Jupiter declares in the Aeneid). St. Augustine presented the ultimate teleological understanding of the events of the past with clear reference to Providence which justified the idea of Rome in a way that even Virgil, the great eulogist of the Empire, had failed to do. The concept of a highly developed political and social order, the imperium, both preceded the Rome of the Caesars and survived it.

The Near East was the cradle of civilization though we seldom appreciate what that fact means. Students briefly memorize the publication of Hammurabi's legal code in 1750 B.C. and then happily forget about the clay tablets and Ziggurats of Babylon. Yet Hammurabi's legal system — highly developed and enlightened for its time — was the prototype for subsequent legal codices of the Western world. The forms may have changed over time, nevertheless the core idea of a unified system of law endured and reached its culmination in early Christian history with the Code of Justinian I in 535 A.D.

This underlying civilizational ideal of the empire, its sense of order and justice, persisted in the concept of Romanitas ("Roman-ness") in the Middle Ages. The devotion of both sacred and lay rulers to upholding the values of Latin culture reveals an intuitive understanding of a transcendent purpose behind human development as well as a linear movement towards a supreme end. It is opposed to the pagan cyclical concept of history (historia repetitur) which has, not surprisingly, resurfaced in the works of writers since the Enlightenment.

The Christian view does not glorify the Empire for its own sake in the way that many humanists and liberals have. St. Augustine was not an apologist for pagan Rome and the first half of the City of God is largely a catalog of the evils of those who denied the true faith. Nevertheless the Bishop of Hippo believed that once the natural strengths of the Empire were subordinated to revealed religion, they would benefit the latter and aid its growth. While ungodly rulers were patently unjust and exercised only a semblance of true authority, so Christian emperors would establish political justice thereby benefiting the faithful. No further proof is needed than Constantine's Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) which ensured freedom of worship for Christians and the subsequent rapid establishment of new dioceses throughout the Empire. It is the working out on a global scale of the Thomistic dictum that the supernatural is built on the natural.

The Vibrancy of Christian Culture

To some, this close identification of Christian civilization with the Roman world invites a mistaken view of the past. After all, the history of Rome and early Europe is fraught with superficial contradictions and disappointments, with political and social decline, feudal warfare and economic collapse. What this tells us, however, is that a purely state-sponsored culture, typical in Oriental nations, would not have survived the disasters that beset the late Empire. Unlike Christianized Rome, such a society is not truly dynamic. In those places where the political and social order became absolutely identical, culture is rendered static as happened in Egypt and China (and perhaps once again in the increasingly socialized Western states).

The concept of imperium, as a living principle derived from God's active intervention in history, came to fruition under Christianity and thus defies categorization as a mere political construct. It emerged from the collapse of the Western Empire because it was not strictly identical with the Rome of the Caesars. And while it was coextensive with the Church's spiritual life, there being a clear and necessary interaction between the two, it was not identical with it either. The spiritual will always take priority over the material. Paradoxically this supernatural dimension is the key to the survivability of the Roman ideal, in that it was taken up and nurtured by a force greater than itself, whereas anything less would have engendered decay.

Things like social discipline, artistic expression, military power or economic competition do not exist for their own sakes, and when treated as self-sufficient ends they become perverted and even destructive. This is especially true for an advanced culture. The Incarnational view does not admit of any simplistic solution to societal problems and understands that the tension between the secular and the sacred is never fully resolved on this plane. As Sir Kenneth Clark observed in his famous documentary series Civilisation, this tension imposes a necessary striving for balance and is the source of vibrancy in our culture which sets it apart from all others, not only Eastern nations, but also the ancient pagan world. For Christians, perhaps the best proof of the providential nature of the development of the Roman concept lies in its robust continuity despite the shifting political topography of Europe.

Firstly, God does not measure success and failure in the way that we do. With the benefit of hindsight we can often see triumph amid failure. Likewise disaster will loom up amid apparent victory. The fact that the concept of imperium shifted from Rome to Constantinople and then was miraculously taken up by the very people who had nearly destroyed it — the Franks and the Germans — indicates no random phenomenon but some superior plan which we may discern, if dimly, with the passage of time. The collapse of Byzantium did not spell the end of our civilization. The Eastern Empire had departed from Rome both religiously and culturally. Its ecclesiastics evolved into a political appendage of the state (a situation which later prevailed in Orthodox Russia). Lacking the necessary moral independence of their Catholic counterparts, Byzantium's life resembled more and more the static societies of the Orient. Outwardly superior in political and military strength, Constantinople would be eclipsed by the true renascence of Rome under the converted barbarians of the West.

Secondly, the fact that the Christian commonwealth has never been restricted to one nation or people again demonstrates God's intervention for the purpose of evangelization and also continually reinvigorating, as it were, the human side of the Church. Hence at many points in history the civilizing mission was exercised by multiple states simultaneously. French, Germans, Spanish and Slavic peoples variously took the lead in the Catholic social order, with the smaller nations also finding a meaningful and valuable role within a scheme that fosters complimentarity rather than crass competitiveness or bland conformity.

The Germans embraced the imperial concept in the form of the multiethnic Holy Roman Empire, later transformed into the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary which provided 1,000 years of stability in Central Europe. Spain was the bulwark against militant Islam and led the way in a phenomenal conquest and conversion of the New World. France became the nexus of Europe both geographically and intellectually. It was a much needed point of stability for the outer marches of Christendom; a citadel to those embattled realms which formed our frontier against the savage and infidel. Even England, though not a "superpower" prior to the Reformation, left its enduring imprint on the West thanks to such intellects as the Venerable Bede, John of Salisbury and St. Thomas More. Nor does this unity in diversity (as understood in the original Christian sense) end with the recent cultural and religious decline of Europe. Evangelization continues and the role of Catholic peoples, in the Americas and Asia, is a story still unfolding.

Conflict and Continuity

As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: "Thus can be seen, underlying the chaos of the world and of a spectator's own mind, God's order." The fact that the Christian nations have sadly been at odds with one another does not disprove the truth of Western unity, but reminds us of the fallen nature of mankind and the inability to put our confidence in a purely political settlement. Unlike other non-Christian societies, the rise and decline of individual states never threatened our cultural survival, and to some extent the inability of any single state to dominate Christendom acted as a safeguard against the absolutism which confronted the Church throughout its history (as for example, under Emperor Frederick II or Louis XIV). Standing at the opposite extreme from barbarian anarchy is total state control. Both are deviations from the mean of classical polity. Only in recent centuries, when the influence of the Church has been eliminated or reduced, has this absolutism advanced to a degree unthinkable to ancient tyrants in the form of crushing totalitarianism. By contrast, older Christian Europe survived and even flourished in the midst of political upheaval, invasions by barbarians and infidels, and devastating plagues, proving that it is not external but internal enemies that really threaten the imperium of Christian culture. It is loss of morale in the form of a spiritual collapse that corrodes society.

If the timeless concept of civilization has virtually disappeared, it is not because it is no longer viable. There is no greater need for an "Incarnational" ordering of society than today. But, as with the early Church surrounded by hostile pagan powers, the vision of Romanitas may pass into eclipse only to be brought back, perhaps even more resilient and vital than before, by the restoration of true Christian life.


Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and seven children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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