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Sundry Reflections on Providence and History
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-06-04 10:27:33
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The uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian ethos, which in some way makes the West unique also, is that its religious tenets are not derived from nature or an immutable, eternal and universal natural law, but from history and historical events which reveal a providential plan immanent within time and space but at the same time leaving man free to choose its own destiny. I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on this subject at Yale University titled “The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s concept of Providence,” and indeed, as I have written elsewhere in this magazine, this Providence, as Vico conceived it philosophically, is paradoxically and at the same time transcendent of time and immanent within time. This concept of Providence can be found at the very core of Vico’s New Science which he conceives as a narration of the providential history of mankind’s journey through time and space and the recurring three cycles of history (the so called corsi and ricorsi). Dante’s Divine Comedy is also conceived as a journey in transcendent realms right from its first verse, and yet rooted in the history of Dante’s Florence; most of its characters are historical personages and yet the work in its totality transcends time and space.
More concretely expressed, the God we discern in the Bible is a God of history, a God who brought his people out of the land of Egypt. In the New Testament, the eternal God incarnates himself within time and space; as John puts it: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ is born within a particular people, at a particular time in a particular place. This is not the God of Nature celebrated in mystery cults and the myths of the ancient Greek pagan world, but rather the Lord of history.

What is afoot nowadays in some philosophical circles is an attempt to return to those good old pagan days and make the God of history the God of Nature glorifying the forces of the physical universe and the fertility of Nature, to the point of even overtly denying the historical reality of Jesus Christ who was born in Palestine during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Those of a Straussian philosophical persuasion attempt the same subsuming operation but in a more covert, esoteric mode. They trace their origins from the philosophy on natural law of a Jew (Leo Strauss) who fled Nazi Germany and ended up teaching Platonic and ancient philosophy at Chicago University. Contrary to his own Jewish faith, he subsumed the historicity of the Judeo-Christian faith to natural law as expressed by the Stoics of ancient Greece. Many Catholic philosophy teachers in the 60s were so taken with Strauss’ anti-historical philosophy as to adopt in their own teaching the alleged superiority of the ancient philosophers vis a vis the moderns, a  red herring, if there ever was one. What they failed to notice is that Strauss in effect was denying the very essence of the Judeo Christian ethos: its historicity. Several of his disciples have suspected Strauss of atheism and even nihilism but of course one needs to judge his philosophy on its own merits and not Strauss’ personal belief system. In any case I quote verbatim what one of them cavalierly expressed to me recently in an e-mail exchange: “Christianity as radically historical = Christianity as radically contingent = Christianity as a bad joke.” Need one say more?

But let’s now look more closely at the historical characteristics of the God of the Jews. Nothing could have served better to enhance the preoccupation with history than the fact that Jehovah was bound to His people by a promise, while they themselves were admitted to be under special obligations by the terms of the Covenant that He had made with them. It was necessary to justify Jehovah and vindicate His fidelity when appearances were against Him--or alternatively it was necessary to show where Israel had broken the Covenant-and this helped to give to the religion itself and to the discussion of historical events that ethical bias which was so strong a feature of the Old Testament narrative. The lapses into nature-worship on the other hand, far from promoting any advance in ethical standards, appear to have been accompanied by licentiousness and immorality.

From a remarkably early date, therefore, there is significance in the peculiarly intimate connection that existed between religion and history amongst the people of the Bible. Jehovah, the God of History came to be apprehended as a God so ethical in His requirements and so be remarkably personal, jealous of his chosen people, a jealousy conducive to something like a monotheistic system within a single nation. The significance of the connection between religion and history became momentous in the days when the ancient Hebrews found themselves between the competing empires of Egypt and Babylon, so that they became actors, and in a particularly tragic sense proved to be victims, in the kind of history-making that involves colossal struggles for power. It cannot have been an accident that such events should have coincided with the age of the great prophets, whose religious teaching developed in a direct way out of these historic experiences. Their prophecies often took the form of historical interpretation itself; while many of the great Psalms and the book of Job bear the marks of subsequent historical vicissitudes, and represent similar attempts to grapple with human destiny--especially with the moral paradoxes with which men are faced with when history is catastrophic. Altogether we have in those prophecies the greatest and most deliberate attempts ever made to wrestle with destiny, interpret history, and discover meaning in the human drama; above all, to grapple with the moral difficulties that history presents to the religious mind. No revelation seems to have been granted to the ancient Hebrews till there had been a struggle to achieve the truth.

History must be a matter of considerable concern to Christians too given that Christianity is derivative from Judaism and in so far as religion in this way represents the attempt to engage oneself with the whole problem of human destiny. Its importance is enlarged if now, as in Old Testament times, it is true that the real significances and values are not to be found by focusing our attention upon man in nature, but are to be sought by the contemplation of man-and the ways of God with man-in history.

The historical Jesus on the one hand brings to a climax the kind of developments which gathers up the whole story and fulfilling the things to which the Old Testament had so often pointed. In this respect, His life, His teaching and His personality are the subject of an historical narrative which knits itself into the story of the Roman Empire. Over and above all this, however, Christianity is an historical religion in a particularly technical sense that the term possesses. It presents us with religious doctrines which are at the same time historical events or historical interpretations. In particular it confronts us with the questions of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, questions which may transcend all the apparatus of the scientific historian.
It stands to reason that such an historical religion must affect the manner in which men apprehend historical events or meet historical vicissitudes whether in their own actual lives or when they are reading about the past. 

I find it intriguing that the most formidable challenge and threat to Christianity in the 20th century came from the Marxian ideology which is wisely based upon an interpretation of history, one of a type  calculated to produce a shaping of the whole mind. It may be useful for us to examine the whole question of our attitude to the process of things in time. We would soon discover that those who have reflected upon God or Providence in history (such as Giambattista Vico) were wiser by far than those who have worshipped the gods in nature. It is equally true that with regard to the study of man himself there may be misunderstandings or mistaken emphases which could lead to cruelties, idolatries and human sacrifices.

A bit too easily we nowadays think of man as merely the last of the animals and in this way arrive at verdicts which we are tempted to transpose into the world of human relations. Some people are so accustomed to thinking of great collectivities and handling them in a mathematical manner, that the whole human story is to them only an additional chapter in the great book of biology. In these systems of our brave new world  the individual matters little and the only that seems to be important is the development of the species and the advent of the Nietzschean uberman. Indeed even an infant dies prematurely does not mean that such a life had as sense in itself and tended to the glory of God. Which is to say that the attitude of the historian is distinct from that of the biologist who is only interested in such history as relates to the development of the species as a whole.

The historian does not treat man as the student of biology seems to do. He does not regard him as essentially a part of nature or consider  him primarily in this aspect. He picks up the other end of the stick, so to speak, and envisages a world of human relations standing over against nature. He  studies that new kind of life which man has superimposed on the jungle, the forest and the waste as Vico does beginning with primitive man. Since this world of human relations is the historian's universe, we may say that history is a human drama, a drama of personalities, taking place as it were, on the stage of nature, and amid its imposing scenery. And if we take our bearings from this as we make our judgments on life, setting off personalities, against all the rest of creation, and seeing a world of human relations superimposed on nature, the result will have the effect of transforming any impression that we may finally acquire concerning the nature of the universe as a whole. It may be true that nature and history are not separable in the last resort, but at the level at which we do most of our ordinary thinking it is important to separate them, important not to synthesize them too easily and too soon, important above all not thoughtlessly to assume that nature, instead of being the substructure, is the whole edifice or the crown. The thing which we have come to regard as history would disappear if students of the past ceased to regard the world of men as a thing apart ceased to envisage a world of human relations set up against nature and the animal kingdom. In such circumstances the high valuation that has long been set upon human personality would speedily decline.

Those who look for God only in nature or judge the universe from what they see in the jungle, are liable in the end to debase even religion. Those who envisage only man-in-nature are calculated to degrade human history into a wilderness of atrocity and crime mitigated only by a state that protects its citizens. Hobbes comes to mind here. This is not to say that the God of history does not in the end turn out to be the God of nature too, but that comes later and once we have laid hold of the conception of man-in-history. Only then we can safely go forward to discover how deeply man himself is rooted in earthiness.
In conclusion I’d like to propose that it is dangerous, misguided and indeed mindless to cavalierly by-pass history ignoring the reality that man is his own history, or imagine that the natural sciences may reign over all and may safely determine our views on human destiny. That conceptual blunder may be at the very heart of present Western civilization. It is high time to consider Vico’s historicism (for he is the father of the modern philosophy of history) as a valid alternative to naturalism, which is also the alternative of Christianity beyond the myths of pagan antiquity based on natural law. 

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