Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Christ's Atonement, Resurrection, and Progress in History

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Arnold J. Toynbee



Arnold J. Toynbee,* the history of ideas man, wrote an essay on Jesus Christ and history in which he argued that Christianity was responsible for the idea of progress in history.("Christainty and the problem of history" in God, History and Historians, modern Christian views of History edt C.T. McIntire) Pagan mythology had the eternal return. The eternal return mirrored the cycles of the four seasons and featured the gods always doing the same things over and over in cycles. We see Baldar killed by Loki stays dead half the year and this marks the coming of winter. The old style of pagan myth explication which understood myth as explainations for nature (pre Joseph Campbell) understood this explanation of the cycles of winter and spring. There is a Greek cycle too with Prosepheny (daughter of Demeiter) eating the seeds and having to stay in the under world half the years. Both of these clearly mirror the seasons. In fact Procephanies mother was Demeiter, her Roman name was Series). She was the goddess of wheat and the harvest. So this is all tied in with the spring/winter cycles.

The Joseph Campbell way of looking at myth (circa 1940s) brought in with it the understanding that myth is the circular telling of stories that relate to one's journey in life (see The Hero With a Thousand Faces). It's the journey of the hero. The hero goes out into he world and searches for something and does heroic deeds, then comes back home and settles down and goes about the business of re creating the warrior so the the cycle can be repeated again. In the older school of interpretation (I think of it as connected to Bullfinch) the point is to explain the cycles. In Campbell's method it's not an explanation but a road map or a guide for the individual to understand his/her own growth in life as an individual.
In either case the point is the recurrence of the cycle. In the method where the individual is being guided in life it's the recurrence of the same things for each new generation. In the case of the older method its the repetition of seasons, but in either case the world does the same things over and over again and history is going nowhere.

The concept of re creating the worrier implies a commitment to a fix set of life experiences, although the experiences themselves may be very different, the pattern is fixed. Not only so but they are committed to a fixed pattern as an ideal they believed in, since the warrior understood that his job as a warrior was to reproduce himself. Toynbee points out that with Jesus we have a breaking of the cycle. Jesus atonement is once and for all, it is not a repetitive thing. In Pauline theology the atonement puts an end to the repetition. It ends the cycle of yearly sacrifice in the temple where the scape goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people. Though foretold by the prophet of old, the hope of the resurrection guaranteeing the end to cycle, since no new sacrifices will be needed becuase the resurrection changes the rules. The sacrifice gets up and lives again, and those who recon themselves dead in the death of the sacrifice also share in the hope of a future provided by the new life of the risen savior (Romans 6).

This is true eschatology disruption. Eschatology doesn't just mean end times scenarios it means it means "the last things." Death and resurrection, death and after life, going to heaven these are actually as much a part of formal eschatology as are the anti-Christ and the rapture. So this new eschatology gives the individual believer a share in the future and the hope the resurrection life of Christ, where as the old goat sacrifice only gave the tribe collectively a pardon for one year until the cycle repeated again. The Hebrews had their own mythological eternal return, and the sacrificial system and the temple system reiterated it. The tribe moved toward the promised land, and their journeying was doubled due to their own sins. They could have continued to journey forever, repeating the pattern always. But the disruption of eschatology was built into the system with the concept of arriving the promised land. Then the journey become temporal not spatial. But it is still goal oriented. The temporal aspect is the land days, the end times, the teolos of history, and the goal is the coming of the Messiah. Now they journey is done through time not through he desert. Each believer has his own end goal of the journey. These observations are the work of Jurgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope.

The pattern makes the individual more important than the tribe. As Jeremiah said in chapter 31 of his book "No longer will a man say to his neighbor 'knew the Lord' for you shall all know me, from the least to the greatest." The New covenant would be written on the heart of the individual, so that changes things from a collective relationship with the tribe as a whole to each and every believer on a one on one basis with God. This means a disrupting of the pattern. Something new can happen. The salvation of the individual is based upon the end of the cycle and the beginning of a new once and for all order, so history can proceed into the future and find new patterns. The old mythological way was about building the tribe. Individuals were not important in themselves, they were members of the tribe, and functioned as building blocks that made the tribe. That's why the same pattern had to be repeated year after year, the tribe must continue at the expense of the individual. The new child must become his father, or the girl her mother, because the tribe had to go on as it was. But the way of Christ was the individual with God and the chruch rather than the tribe, which is a collection of the individuals not a tribe to sacrifice the individual for its own good.

Alfred North Whitehead said that Christianity contributed to the development of modern science because it gave us the notion that God created the world as a reasonable system that worked by rules, and gave us minds which mirror divine reason and thus we can study the rules of nature and understand them as an ordered system. Since Whitehead said this historians have found many ways in which Christianity developed modern science,or at least contributed in a positive way to it's development. This was especially so in the English enlightenment. See Margaret Jacob The Newtonian's for a sense of how the latitudinarians (English churchmen and minsters) spread Newtonian physics as a political balm at a time when Newton was unknown and ignored. The notion of progress in history was a major aspect of enlightenment thinking and it started in the English influence upon French thought which came largely from the latitudinarians and their group. The idea of this disruption of the cycles of eternal return made the concept of progress in history possible.

In the Post Modern era the notion of progression history has been eschewed.  It is certainly the case that progress was taken for granted by moderns as any change especially scientifically backed change. So global warming is the fruit of what was once thought of as "progress in history." Progress in history was identified by moderns as a secular goal. Certainly fundamentalist see it as the antithesis to the end times which is the teleology of their historical goal. But I see a dialectic. We have ruined the planet with false pretense of "progress" which really meant wealth and power for the elites of secular society, but there is also a green movement, if it's not too little too late, and greater attention to human rights, racism has been identified as total evil, for the firs time in human history women are at least on the radar as candidates for a level playing field (we have a female speaker of the house, a female made a made a major attempt at winning the nomination of the democratic party and lost to the guy who became the first black President). I think we can see notions of progress in all areas our society would think of as humanistic in a positive sense and progressive. I can show that Christian values stand behind each one of these ideas. Christians stocked the civil rights movement and ran it, and they were very major force in the woman's suffrage movement that led to the feminist movement a century latter.

6 comments:

Loren said...

Metacrock, that's nonsense. The idea of progress is a modern idea, a side effect of being hit on the head with glaring examples of it.

Belief in a Good Old Days has been VERY common over humanity's history, and there have been plenty of Christian versions, like various idealizations of the early church.

As to the Latitudinarians, they were considered deplorably lax by the more orthodox sort of Christian. Talk about terrible taste in heroes.

Metacrock said...

That's about as complex and insightful a take on progress in history as Moe Howard considering architecture. It's clear you've spent maybe 30 seconds thinking about it.

I studied history of ideas, post modernism and that's the sort we studied. That's the sort of questions postmodernists like to talk about.

So I did Ph.d. work on progress in history you thought about it for about 30 seconds.

I also did Ph.D. work on the Latitudinarians. you know absolutely nothing about them. I write a dissertation on them. they were not considered lax and you now zero, nada, zip about them!

Metacrock said...

here's a little thumb nail summary I did for the blog on my late great
ill fated dissertation.

Anonymous said...

Loren,

the idea of "progress" as moving forward and "improving" with time is VERY (Judeo-)Christian. In fact, this is an important contribution of Christianity to modernity. There is good historical work to this, if you would bother to read it. And please, please, to read it and learn a little bit about history before making such remarks.

Metacrock said...

the idea of "progress" as moving forward and "improving" with time is VERY (Judeo-)Christian. In fact, this is an important contribution of Christianity to modernity. There is good historical work to this, if you would bother to read it. And please, please, to read it and learn a little bit about history before making such remarks.

God bless you my son!

Jeremy said...

I would say there is a difference in Christian view of progress and the enlightenment idea of "unlimited progress". The enlightenment thought they could shape their reality and future through reason/education. That thought has resulted in the many failed utopias of the last 300 years, culminating in the disastrous 20th century.