The Disclosure of History
Because I was a young lad with a strong cultic religious bent, my father kindly but repeatedly cautioned me with the words, “Son, the obvious is seldom true.” I do not know where he learned that aphorism or if he coined it himself. But he knew, and hopefully I have since learned, that indeed the obvious is seldom true. This is a lesson mankind has had to learn over the ages. Those ancient Hindu sacred writings, the Upanishads (800-500 BCE), recorded that “the gods love the obscure and hate the obvious.”1 The obvious is seldom true, not only in history, but of history.
The Oxford English Dictionary devotes nearly a full page to the single word history. Here we find that history is (1) “a relation of incidents,” (2) “a written narrative,” (3) “the formal record of the past,” (4) “a series of events,” (5) “a systematic account . . . of a set of natural phenomena,” (6) “a drama representing historical events,” (7) “a pictorial representation of an event,” (8) “a series of lessons from Scripture,” (9) “one who ‘makes history’”2 In mankind’s concept, “history” embraces those who make events, the events themselves, the conscious experience of events, and the memory and recollection of events.
Let us now return to a time, about three to four thousand years ago, when man (male and female), who had acquired language and writing, first exhibited a consciousness of occurring events and a recollection of and reflection upon those events. With the associated loss of “god-consciousness,”3 mankind then acquired a terrorizing sense of alienation from God as well as from the world and each other. Every event seemed to confirm mankind’s isolation and alienation and lead irrevocably to death and extinction. Mircea Eliade graphically pictures this predicament. Man “is powerless against cosmic catastrophes, military disasters, social injustices, bound up with the very structure of society, personal misfortunes and so forth.” How can man endure “the calamities, the mishaps, and the ‘sufferings’ that [enter] into the lot of each individual and each collectivity?” For mankind events can never be anything “but tragic, pathetic, unjust, chaotic . . . and the ‘instant’ in which man lives grows worse as time passes.”4
Because of this situation, man has sought, from then until now, to reconcile himself to events in three different ways.
1. The Denial of “History” (Ahistorical)
Some have attempted to find release from the sense of alienation by denying what they see as “history” and returning to an imagined or ritualized presence of a god at the beginning or end of time.5 For such individuals history has always been something to despise. For example, Nietzsche (1844-1900) declared that “history is nothing more than the belief . . . in falsehood.” Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) pictured history as “that excitable and lying old lady.” Augustine Birell (1850-1933) referred to “that great dust heap called ‘history.’” James Joyce (1882-1941) has one of his fictional characters declare, “History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Henry Ford (1863-1947) said, “History is more or less bunk.”6 However, like the rest of mankind, these observers have ultimately had to acknowledge that, despite their denial of alienation, the series of events known as history always ends in the disclosure of final alienation — death.
2. The Control of “History” (Antihistorical)
Another way for man to confront events has been to fantasize his control over those events — to contend for his ability to create events and, therefore, to create himself. This reminds us of William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) and his poem, “Invictus”:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud;
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed. . . .
I am master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.7
For those seeking to control what they perceive to be “history,” mankind’s sense of alienation in the face of events is something for man himself to resolve in history. But again, man, the imagined creator of events, finally succumbs to the unwanted and inexorable event of death.
3. The Intervention of God to Create True History (Historical)
There is yet another way for man to confront events that reveal his creaturely alienation from the Creator. It is to look beyond such events to the continued intervention of God on behalf of mankind. In his masterpiece, Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) observed, “History is in a manner a sacred thing, so far as it contains truth; for where truth is, the supreme Father of it may also be said to be.” In a similar vein, Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote, “Truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.” Others have evidenced even greater insight into the nature of true history. Ernest Renan (1823-1892) long ago discerned that “the whole of history is incomprehensible without [Jesus].”8 Tomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), the first president of Czechoslovakia, declared, “Jesus, not Caesar — that is the meaning of . . . history.”9
God always has known that life resides alone in himself, as Creator, while death stalks the creature. He therefore knows the vast life/death alienation that exists between Creator and creature. God knows that, since he is Life and creaturely mankind is death, there is no hope of a human relationship between God and man, no opportunity for human interaction in time and space. The stark fact is that there is no possibility of value or meaning for a life one does not possess. Ultimately, there can be no destiny but annihilation and extinction.
Such alienation wholly excludes genuine history. For upon reflection it becomes clear that true history is more than simply objects and events in time and space. It is more than human language, conscious awareness, memory, recollection, writing and formal records. It is even more than the consciousness of life and death — which underscores the alienation between Creator and creature. The simple truth is that there can be no genuine history apart from a human relationship between Creator and creature, no genuine history without human interaction in time and space. Nor can there be true history without an unending life, which gives value and meaning by providing an eternal living destiny. Thus it is that the great life/death alienation between God, the Creator, and man, the creature, bars both parties from history.
But God intervened. He intervened in the hopeless terror and despair of man — man who could not successfully deny his alienation in the events leading to death, man who could not make history and therefore could not make himself. In the incarnation God acted as Jesus Christ to unite God, the Creator, and man, the creature. By this once-and-for-all, unrepeatable act, Christ abolished the alienation between Creator and creature. He made human relationship possible. He destroyed death and offered unending life to all mankind. He gave mankind value and meaning and the assurance of an eternal living destiny. This act — and this act alone — created true history. It is therefore clear that Christ did not break into history, as we so often imagine. Rather, with the advent of Christ, history broke into this world. Christ is the Truth of history.
The Promise, Inauguration and Full Disclosure of True History
In light of His light, let us look back on the last four or five thousand years in the biblical context. When God spoke to father Abraham and opened to him the future, giving him the assurance of the Christ, we encounter the first conception of true history. When God spoke to Moses from Sinai and gave Israel commandments to define and structure living relationships, genuine history entered its gestation. With the coming of every weekly Sabbath day, every change in season, and every new year, God repeated his assurance of a true history to come.
In the fullness of time, Christ indeed did come as promised (Galatians 4:4). He came, not to break into history, not to fulfill history, not to end history, nor to transform history. Rather, he came to create true history ex nihilo (out of nothing), to bring history itself to birth. The term “the historical Jesus,” so popular in scholarly circles today, embodies a truth that so far has evaded the scholars themselves. As the Oxford English Dictionary declares, “history” is the “one who ‘makes history.’”10 Because of Jesus Christ,
a straight line [now] traces the course of humanity from the initial Fall to final Redemption. And the meaning of this history is unique, because the Incarnation is a unique fact. Indeed, as Chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Hebrews and 1 Peter 3:18 emphasize, Christ died for our sins once only, once for all . . . ; it is not an event subject to repetition, which can be reproduced several times. . . . The development of history is thus governed and oriented by a unique fact, a fact that stands entirely alone. Consequently the destiny of mankind, together with the individual destiny of each one of us, are both likewise played out once, once for all, in a concrete and irreplaceable time which is that of history and life.11
Again, when Christ rose from the dead, he did not break into history. Rather, true history broke forth into this world. The Risen Christ declared that he would be with us always, even to the end of the world (see Matthew 28:20). Christ is mediatorially present with us.12 In other words, as John Dominic Crossan, author of The Historical Jesus, so presciently affirmed, Christ is “relationally,” “intersubjectively” and “interactively'” present.13 He is creatively present to further the process and progress of the “human” creatio continua (continued or continual Creation).14 He is present to enlighten mankind on the healing of alienation and to assure the imminent disclosure of true history. He is present to grant mankind the gift of free will, decision and responsibility, to kindle love and compassion, to impart value and meaning, and to lift the veil that has so long concealed man’s historic destiny. As mankind accepts Christ’s presence, promise and healing, that history first intimated to Abraham, announced to Moses in the ringing declaration, “I shall be there,”15 then inaugurated once-and-for-all at Golgotha and the empty tomb, will shortly be fully disclosed. This disclosure is nothing less than the Parousia16 — the appearing of Christ and, therefore, of true history.
Meanwhile, we confront the ongoing frustration and despair of all global geopolitical and economic systems, of all societies, and of all supposedly autonomous (self-governing) individuals.17 For all these are pathetically determined either to deny mankind’s alienation or to resolve that creaturely alienation themselves. However, we now confront the fact that
our culture is gone. It has left us terribly alone. In its devastation it cannot even mock us any more, sneer at the lost child whimpering for its mother. That stage too is over. Our culture is past cruelty. It is wrecked. It is dead.18
Near the end of World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in Germany by Adolf Hitler and sentenced to death on the charge of conspiring to assassinate Der Fuehrer. During his incarceration Bonhoeffer endeared himself to his prison guards, who grew to love him. When the final, fateful morning arrived and the guards led Bonhoeffer to his execution, they confided to him how sad they were that he had reached the end. Bonhoeffer gently turned to his guards to console them. This, he said, is not the end; it is the beginning! So today, as we stand together on the rubble of world culture and civilization, we rejoice. We have not come to the end of history but to the time for its full disclosure. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
Confronted with events that have underscored his creaturely alienation from God, the Creator, man has long sought either to deny his alienation in the events leading to death or to create history autonomously (by himself). But now, finally, all such efforts have proved to be futile. True history fundamentally implies the conscious value, meaning, purpose and destiny of human relationships — of the interaction of human objects and events in time and space. As long as God alone held life and its attributes in his own hands, alienated mankind was confined to a creaturehood consigned to death and extinction. But God has acted as Jesus Christ to resolve all alienation between Creator and creature. As the Risen Christ, he is present to mediate19 those attributes that alone constitute genuine history. That which God first intimated to Abraham, renewed to Israel, inaugurated in the Christ event, and now offers to postmodern man, will soon be fully disclosed at Christ’s appearing20 — namely, true history. This history embraces God, who condescended to become human, and mankind, exalted to full humanity with the Risen One. Hasten, glad day!
- Emily Morison Beck, ed., Familiar Quotations: John Bartlett (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1980), p. 56. (go back)
- Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “History.” (go back)
- See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990), pp. 224-227. (go back)
- Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), pp. 95, 131, 132. (go back)
- See ibid. (go back)
- Morison, Familiar Quotations, pp. 587, 666, 667, 778. (go back)
- Ibid., p. 663. (go back)
- Ibid., pp. 169, 593, 615. (go back)
- Tomas G. Masaryk, The Making of a State (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1927). (go back)
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “History.” (go back)
- Eliade, Myth of the Eternal Return, p. 143. (go back)
- Rather than a nonrelational, immediate presence, in which we absorb the Transcendent (“God in us”) or are absorbed by the Transcendent (“us in God”), the evidence indicates that the Risen Christ mediates his presence with us in history. That is, he reaches us through our neighbors. We reach him through each other. We reach each other and our own objective selves through him. This relational “reaching” may therefore be referred to as Christ’s “intermediatorial” presence, which is defined by the gifts of faith, hope and compassionate love. See “The End of Human Alienation,” subhead “The True Resolution of Human Alienation,” Outlook (Prequel 1994.7). (go back)
- John Dominic Crossan, “Responses and Reflections,” in Jeffrey Carlson and Robert A. Ludwig, eds., Jesus and Faith: A Conversation on the Work of John Dominic Crossan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), p. 143. (go back)
- See “The Judgment of Creation,” Outlook (Prequel 1995.3). (go back)
- See Martin Buber, “The Eclipse of God,” in Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, eds., The Great Ideas Today: 1967 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1967), p. 339. (go back)
- The Greek word parousia, translated, means both “presence” and “coming.” See Wikipedia — The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Second Coming, Terminology” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Coming#Terminology. See also James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 2006: “Parousia is an ancient Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or official visit” (p. 299). (go back)
- See “The Abuse of Law,” Outlook (Prequel 1995.2). (go back)
- John Carroll, Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), p. 1. (go back)
- See note 12. (go back)
- See note 16. (go back)
This article was originally published April 1995 under the Destiny imprint.