Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hope in historical unpredictability

The fellas over at First Things--along with their allies and fellow travelers (and, uh, frenemies) are quite a gloomy lot these days. There's a distinct sense that orthodox Christianity is doomed in American society. Many in this cohort have shifted their attention from strategies of engagement in the public square to how best to deal with impending exile from mainstream American life. The so-called "Benedict Option," articulated most popularly by Rod Dreher, has been gaining traction. Michael Hanby's profoundly despairing essay on "The Civic Project of American Christianity" was widely and heatedly discussed.

It is in this context, then, that I find Michael Brendan Dougherty's most recent column at The Week rather refreshing. Dougherty essentially says two things.

He points out how many seemingly unstoppable trends in the past half century or so were reversed or undone in ways no one predicted:
But history has surprising turns, ones that can be hard to see even in retrospect. It is possible to imagine a future in which 2015 doesn't augur the beginning of conservatism's final descent, but instead represents a temporary nadir. 
...Many Cold War conservatives were convinced that communism would triumph over the West. Conservatives of the late 1980s and '90s thought that the increasing crassness of popular culture and the rise in crime were related and unstoppable. Entirely wrong, all.
Dougherty then highlights many societal trends that, while apparently secular and anti- or post-Christian in nature, have surprising resonance with the concerns of conservative Christians. He points to feminism's relatively recent turn away from unfettered sexual libertinism and towards a genuine concern over the destructiveness and danger of casual sex. He notes that "the desire for organic, natural, and sustainable products" should be very amenable to true conservatism--which should be about conserving, after all. He highlights the ways that union organizers resists statism and New Urbanism emphasizes humane scale and beauty. In short, not all is bleak.

A decade ago, historian John Lukacs saw these surprising convergences. "A great division among the American people," Lukacs wrote, "has begun--gradually, slowly--to take shape: not between Republicans and Democrats, and not between 'conservatives' and 'liberals,' but between people who are still unthinking believers in technology and economic determinism and people who are not." Later in the same book, he quoted Wendell Berry's similar thoughts. "It is easy for me to imagine," said Berry, "that the next great division will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."

Ultimately, though, the particular hopeful trends Dougherty mentions are less important than his other, more basic concept. History is unpredictable. Trends that seem unstoppable stop. New trends emerge from totally unexpected places.

Some years ago I wrote some thoughts about Tina Fey, Mark Twain, and racism:
Consider: if we today have problems discerning whether 30 Rock is racist, imagine how much more difficult this would be in a century. When people with inevitably different perspectives from another culture with its own constructions of race and society attempts to parse commentary, humor, and racism within 30 Rock, some of them are likely to think, wrongly, "Wow, that is actually pretty racist." And if, in one hundred years, that discussion actually is occurring, Tina Fey's work and legacy will have approached Mark Twain's. 
I later connected that thought with a broader point about the unpredictable judgments of our progeny--the frightening reality that what we see as our best, most "forward-thinking" qualities might come in for vociferous condemnation somewhere down the line:
At the end of last year I wrote that Tina Fey's not-controversial-except-to-neocon-pundits joke about Mark Twain might actually be a brilliant anticipation of the totally unfair ways we'll be judged by our descendants. And it's that unpredictability--turning a prescient, humane condemnation of racism into racism itself--that makes me think worrying too much about our grandchildren's judgment is a waste of time. They'll probably have bad taste.
More to the point today: we surely needn't worry about those proclaiming right and wrong sides to history. After all, they aren't making "historical" claims, in the sense that they can be proven or supported with reference to past history. Whether the proclaimers recognize it or not, such assertions are fundamentally prophetic. That is, they are making a claim about the purposes and intentions of the author of history.

And the author of history either does not exist or he is God Almighty.