God’s Will be D…ifferent: Navigating the Topography of Time
Connie Willis, an award-winning science fiction author, has figured out how time works. In her time travel novels (which I read quite a while back, so my descriptions may not be exact), scientists of the future have invented a time travel machine that moves between the past and present — never the future — but they aren’t able to travel just anytime, anywhere. Instead, time protects itself, shunting travelers out to the peripheries of important past events in order to ensure that the stream of events leading to up to the present moment continues to do so. The present going forward can be affected by its interaction with the past, but the mechanisms of time seem to try and protect the past from being fundamentally altered by its interactions with the future.
The important thing to realize about how this works is that, while some moments in history matter more to the overall movement of history than others, it’s not always the moments one would guess. The team of time travelers is a group of historians who use time travel as a research tool. They are interested in studying pivotal moments in history, yet the time machine will not deposit them close enough to those events to be able to change them. The picture of time that I built in my head was that time exists as a sort of landscape of peaks and valleys, with some points more accessible than others — or, to put it another way, time is like a magnetized dimension whose only features, vis a vis any foreign particle (that is, time-traveling human) that happens to find itself there, are the points of attraction and repulsion. The problem for Willis’ protagonists is that it’s not like they have a map to follow; as is always true of early explorers, the researchers don’t yet know time’s terrain. It may be the case that a particular action taken by an obscure individual unknown to history ends up changing the course of history. If the researchers’ happen to attempt to land near that point in history, it ends up with them emerging in some other space/time point for which they were totally unprepared.
When I read Willis’ books, I found her explanation of time to be not only compelling, but moving. We all know that there are points in time that change the course of history — moments like the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai, or the discovery of the Pythagorean theorem by its namesake, or the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar, or Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ epiphany, or the invention of the polio vaccine. (One wonders where and when one would end up if trying to travel to first century Palestine!) But in Willis’ universe, sometimes it’s a small and unrecognized moment of decency or bravery that ultimately saves the nation in a war, or during a time of famine and plague. Sometimes the big moments are easy to spot, but sometimes you’re in one and you don’t even know it.
We all have those moments in life that we recognize as “big” — graduations, weddings, births, deaths. I remember, during one of those moments, thinking that while the moment was a pinnacle one, I felt like my same normal self, and was rather disappointed that I somehow hadn’t managed to “rise” to the occasion, existentially. At the same time, I’ve often wondered, in my own life, what some of the invisible Rubicons have been — points of no return that seemed insignificant, event horizons I didn’t even notice I was crossing. I’ve always been a person who had a hard time making decisions (one of my most tortured experiences as a young kid happened when I was given the opportunity to choose my own practice swim suit for summer swim team!) and over time I started putting myself in situations where the choice was made for me by virtue of my delaying the decision until the options had narrowed to almost nothing. Recently I realized that somewhere along the way, I stopped believing that I even really had a choice, that I wasn’t really in control. I had originally, in a way, chosen to limit my agency, but in doing so, I had come to believe that I didn’t have any to begin with. When did that turn happen? When did I cross that particular Rubicon, and what did the tiny Knight of Infinite Resignation sitting on my shoulder say to make me cross it? I may never know.
I have also been wondering what brought the United States of America to its current crisis. The invention of Twitter and the election of Trump seem obvious point-of-no-return moments, but I suspect these moments, while perhaps event horizons, were really just points in spacetime that happened to sit along a cultural trajectory chosen long before. In some ways, the trajectory has been similar to my own. Evangelicals, with their end times-obsessed sense of historical destiny, were all too willing to believe that they were being swept along in the great apocalyptic tides of providence. This might partly explain the apparent continual, persistent lack of self-examination; the great swells of history seemingly don’t care about the inner life, they care about the external and the painfully obvious.
When I was a child, and the USSR and GDR were still the evil empires we all feared, there was a lot of fear of persecution amongst Christians. There were many books sitting on the shelves of evangelicals detailing the horrors of Moscow’s prisons and gulags and the incredible sacrifices of the Chinese underground church. And sitting just behind that memory was the memory of the previous major annihilation of people of faith, the Holocaust. American evangelicals had been egged on by earlier dispensational theology (the belief that human history is providentially divided into discrete parts, in each of which God deals differently with humankind) with the focus it created on the coming “End Times”, and it led to widespread fears that a time of suffering predicted in Revelation was about to gather them up in this great, global swell of persecution. (Dispensational theology itself argued that ‘real’ Christians would avoid this suffering, yet the literature still seems to have focused on the terrors that would be faced for those left behind.) What I remember most about all the speculation was the fear behind it. Before the End came, many evangelicals fully expected to face en masse whatever the modern version of the lions of the Colosseum might be. As history followed its arc back from the ascension of Christ back towards his return, the blood of the saints would once again be the seed of the beginning of the End.
Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the political mood became much more buoyant. The economic recession of the 1980s gave way to the economic snowball that was the 1990s. The 1990s also saw the rise of the personal computer, which, while providing fodder for End Times speculation about shady systems of global domination, served to connect the entire globe. The world didn’t seem nearly as alien and threatening all of the sudden. The election of Bill Clinton was a major blow to the evangelical sense of well-being, but even though he was proof that American culture was going to hell in a handbasket, I suspect it was a bit hard to imagine him bringing on an apocalypse of persecution, as attached as evangelicals were to the idea.
With the election of Bush Jr., evangelicals finally had their champion in the most powerful man in the world. With 9/11, they once again had an evil empire for their John Wayne to battle. The fear was tinged with triumphalism. The biblical ‘Day of the Lord’ was looking rosier for the Good Guys. The main thing evangelicals wanted to think about vis a vis the end times was that “the Lamb wins” — where by “the Lamb,” of course, evangelicals meant “us; we win.” The concern was no longer to be Christlike in the face of adversity, but rather, to ensure victory for the Team, or, perhaps, to be on the “right” side of history. Because victory was destiny; the Book of Revelation proved it.
Donald Trump seems to represent, for his evangelical supporters, a bulwark against the version of history in which American evangelicals have to experience suffering. The Communist threat still looms (or is made to loom through a hyping of any Marxist ties that can be discovered and inflated in liberal social movements) but Trump can protect them from it. Why did evangelicals choose Trump as their champion in this battle? The only reason I can think of is that he’s literally an anti-Christ. He’s a buffoon who cares about nobody besides himself. He’s a sexual predator and an adulterer. He’s a cheater and a liar. Rather than having no place to lay his head, the world is his financial oyster. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all absent from his life.
If following Jesus back in the 1980s led many Christians around the world to experience, and to expect to experience, great suffering, then this playboy tycoon from the 1980s represented the fork in history that would lead to a completely different destiny. No suffering at all. Only winning — lots and lots of winning. So much winning. It was gonna be great. There was no taking up of one’s cross with Donald Trump, no laying down one’s life for others. All the big bummer aspects of being a Christian that seemed inevitable in the 1980s slowly melted away, leading evangelicalism to put its hopes in the man with gold toilets. And down those toilets the faith of the saints has been flushed. Because: Destiny.
As a person who has managed to believe that whatever happens is out of my hands, I should have a lot of sympathy for the destiny lot. I understand the feeling that history just happens, and we insignificant, rudderless individual humans have to ride the tide the best we can as we are swept along in the currents and eddies of time. If we try and change course, daring to approach a pivotal moment in order to direct it down another path, we end up, like Connie Willis’ time travelers, whooshed off to the periphery. Perhaps humans have always felt this way about time, to a degree, but this feeling of having no control in middle of the vast movements in which we are caught must be greater since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the Scofield Bible, which disseminated dispensational theology, can perhaps be viewed as an attempt to tame the wild beast of history, which seemed to be on an absolute rampage at the beginning of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, while it may have let the original dispensationalists feel like they had more of a grasp on things, all the speculation about the End, combined with all the horrors that began to unfold after the Scofield Bible was published, led later Christians to feel that terrible things were about to happen to them, and there was nothing they could do. No wonder evangelicals were so eager to slowly shift from the sure-and-certain-doom vibe to a sure-and-certain-triumph vibe; if history is fixed, it’s way less scary to believe that it is fixed in one’s favor.
The problem is that in the view of history that predicts a great time of persecution before Jesus swoops down and rescues his faithful, Jesus is the hero. In the view of history that predicts a great time of winning for as long as Trump is president, Trump is the hero — as long as he’s in power. Jesus is just the guy who stands back and is thankful that Trump is doing Jesus’ job for him — which is to say, Jesus is functionally irrelevant. And what else is irrelevant in this view of history? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — anything excellent or praiseworthy. Justice, righteousness. Obedience. All that still, small invisible inner stuff that doesn’t show up in the history books.
This is nothing new. At the time of Christ, the Pharisees, who were the most pious of all Jews, defined their faith not as a relationship with God, nor even as a set of precepts to keep, but as the boundary markers determining who was in and who was out. The Pharisees were eschatological; they believed that the messiah was coming, and all that mattered was that they were on the right side of history — on the inside track, rather than the outside track. The Jews were outsiders to cultural power; they tended to populate the same backwoods niches as Jesus, which is why he ran into them so often. For them, being a faithful Jew was all about saying the right things to prove their ingroup status. I suspect they figured that once they had done that, they could ride the coattails of history into a triumphant future, which contrasted sharply with the less-than-glorious present.
Naming and claiming God’s victory over history by virtue of their ingroup status seems to be a temptation particular to those who see God’s providence in sweeping terms that seem to minimize personal agency. But this completely ignores the fact that it is by the life and death and resurrection of a Palestinian carpenter’s son, Jesus, that the sure and certain kingdom has arrived, is arriving, and will arrive. Furthermore, we are only a part of that cosmic kingdom, ushered in by a sandal-wearing Jewish guy, when we are buried with him in baptism and raised to live a new life in him, by the Spirit. It ignores the fact that, yes, sometimes the moments that matter the most are the big, obvious ones…but often it is the responses to the still, small voice that shatter the spear and bend the arc of history.
Some things are totally out of our control. But some things are not. And God has told us what to pursue: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. He has also told us what participation in the kingdom produces: the fruits of the Spirit. And he has told us how to occupy our thoughts: not with an obsessive desire to ride the tidal wave of history in a way that ensures we come out on top, but rather, with whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. In one Connie Willis book, the main character feels overwhelmed by the tragedy that surrounds her and completely impotent in the face of the onslaught of history, yet is loved by and in turn loves those around her, and comes to realize that it is these small acts that, in time, will defeat the tsunami of suffering.
The idea that God may have suffering in mind for us is truly scary, even when we acknowledge that some degree of it is inevitable for all humans. But the solution to our fear isn’t to find a strongman anti-Christ to buffer us from this particular fork in the road of history. The solution is to find ourselves hidden in Jesus, who alone has conquered death and hell, and who promises to be with us until the End, come what may. In Christ, we can existentially rise to all the moments to which we are called, rather than just grabbing for dear life onto the coattails of history. In Christ, our seemingly insignificant lives, buffeted around by the winds of time, turn out to have meaning, and that means that our choices, including the invisible inner ones, have meaning — that they’re real, that they matter. Sometimes we may not know what meaning they have, or what Rubicon we’re crossing by choosing faith over fear in a given moment. But the future time traveling history researchers of Oxford? They just might discover it.