Via David A. Graham, who has been critical of the president’s claims for there being a “right side of history,” I found this response from the Methodist writer Mark Tooley. Tooley agrees, I think, with Graham about the error progressivism makes about history having a side, and an inevitability, but he does not agree with trads who mock this sort of thing in general:
Traditional Christians abandon the language of history at their peril. Scoffing at or dismissing appeals to the “right side of history” will only marginalize our cultural voice. It also ignores the dictates of our own faith. Isn’t God the Lord of history? Aren’t all designs against His plans doomed to failure? Won’t justice and truth, as cornerstones of His Kingdom, inevitably prevail, despite sin and human failure?
Christmas is the ultimate reminder that Christians and all who pursue decency and humanity in a corrupt and vicious world are on the right side of history. We know He will make all the rough places smooth, and every valley shall be exalted. He came to us originally as a child, yet the government will be upon His shoulders. To align with the Baby Jesus is decidedly to be on the right side of history.
Well, yes … but.
All we can know for sure as believing Christians is that history does have an end, and that end concludes with the triumph of the Good and the redemption of the fallen world and its re-harmonization with its Creator. But that does not tell us anything about what is going to happen to us in our own time. The End of History, from a Christian point of view, might be one thousand or 10,000 years from now. In the everyday sense of the way the concept of “the right side of history” is used, what realistic comfort can that possibly be to us?
Far as I can tell, it is a comfort in exactly one way: it tells us that evil, death, and injustice do not have the last word. To tell the last generation of Christians in North Africa that they were on the Right Side of History™ is not to say “the Muslim invaders will not defeat you and wipe you out,” but rather to say, “by uniting yourself to Jesus Christ, what looks like defeat in the mortal life is really victory.”
The martyrs, in this sense, were on the Right Side of History. So were the Hebrews carried off in bondage to Babylon, because they could have confidence that as long as they believed in God, their suffering had meaning, even if they could not perceive it in this life. It was not in vain. That is an extremely powerful conviction. It is the difference between optimism and hope.
Linear time haunts modernity, and I think Joshua is right to note its world-altering importance. Linear time is a creation of modernity, a portent of progressive ideology, and a marking of temporality that comes to mock progress’s failure. The pessimist – having rejected optimism’s belief in progress – experiences linear time as a burden, a torment of meaningless successions that lead nowhere, that create expectations of a forward trajectory which can only disappoint. But, here again, we should notice that the pessimist is as thoroughly in the throes of superstition as the optimist – the pessimist accepts the conditions laid down by the optimist and then declares his dissatisfaction with them. But he does not dispute the underlying premise of the conditions. We are stuck with all the burdens of linear time, and enjoy none of its illusory compensations.
In several passing comments Joshua rejects out of hand the possibility that a more ancient “circular” conception of time is available to us moderns (16, 161). The modern mind is inescapably defined by the experience of linear time, he asserts. According to one of Joshua’s aphorisms, we moderns experience time wholly as a creation of culture and artifice, a division of the days and hours that provides the “appearance of order and continuity” (244). Joshua is particularly charmed by arguments that it is the invention of mechanical timepieces that inaugurates the era of linear time, that induces a belief in progress, that thrusts us into existential abstraction and alienation from ourselves and from nature. Linear time is the creature of mechanization, of artifices that “divorces the measure of time from nature” (13). I want to dispute this point, however. Here again, I think it is the case that the ideology of modernity obscures reality, not the clock – and reality is that terrestrial time remains fundamentally circular. Joshua states that “the revolutions of the heavens were displaced by clock and by calendar.” This is mistaken: the clock and calendar mark the movements of the revolutions of the heavens; they are based most fundamentally upon those movements. Even in our digital age, most people wear watches or consult clocks whose shapes are round. Our methods of time-marking are an acknowledgment of the cycles and revolutions of the heavens, of the daily turning of the earth, the monthly cycles of the moon (one that exerts influence alike over the daily tides and the monthly cycles of a woman’s body), and the annual rotation of the planet around the sun. Yes, the manner of division involves some arbitrariness – why base 60? – but the standard governing the division remains the motions of nature. Our experience of time is one of beginnings and endings, and again new beginnings and new endings. Each day, each month, each year we return to where we have started and begin anew. A clock and a calendar do the same.
Linear time is not a result of clocks; it is the result of the ideology of progress that believes that it can master and dismiss the circularity of nature. To paraphrase Machiavelli, nature is a woman’s cycles, and must be straightened into submission. In turn, the exertion to master nature appears, if for a time, to render those cycles irrelevant: thus, we can plant certain crops in any season thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, build roads without regard to terrain or topography, and wear shorts indoors in the winter and sweaters in the summer. The pessimistic instinct – to recognize the falsity of these presumptions and the ultimate and ironic failure of these efforts – is the right instinct, but it goes too far in asserting that, because the presumptions of progress are wrong, the opposite must be true – and, as a result, you should expect nothing. Indeed, because of its rejection of circular time and its acceptance of linearity, pessimism most fundamentally shares with its optimistic counterpart the same ultimate desire to conquer nature: it denies a rhythm in the natural world and seeks to live aesthetically – to turn nature into art, or, as Joshua puts it, to “emphasize how [nature] is a function of man” (268).
The reality of circular time, however, tells us we are bestowed with the privilege to expect something – the sunrise, the return of rain and sun for our crops, the birth of a child even as we mourn the passing of a parent, the seasons, the years, the centuries. We can expect the cup of coffee, because the coffee farmer plants his seeds in their season with the expectation of a successful crop. This does not mean that he will not experience disappointments – droughts and plagues, hail and pests – but memory and hope tell us that we can expect the return of our crops – that their reappearance is “imperfectly true.” Memory and hope, Christopher Lasch argued – and not pessimism – are the proper antidotes to optimism.
This is quite good. I would only point out that “linear time” predates modernity (if by “modernity” we mean the period that began with the Renaissance), and came into our consciousness with the advent of Christianity. As many have observed (not least among them the agnostic English philosopher John Gray), secular progressivism’s philosophy of history, in both its Marxist and liberal democratic varieties, is little more than desanctified Christianity. Without a belief that there is an Author of History, history is nothing but circular. Well, I believe that history has an Author, and a direction, but that it moves in a spiral shape, both circling and progressing. We never really know where we are on the spiral, though.
It has to be enough to have faith that no matter how bad things look to us now, we are going somewhere good. Remember Tolkien’s wisdom:
Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.
Remember too this wrinkle in Christian time: that according to Christian belief, just before the End of History and the Final Triumph of Jesus Christ, the world in general will be in unprecedented turmoil, and the church in particular will undergo the worst persecution in its history. Those who will die for their faith in those days will absolutely be on the right side of history, though it may not seem so at the time.