The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, January 31, 2011

History and Revelation

I'm neither a historian nor a theologian so any comments I make on history and revelation are just that, my comments, my own unenlightened thoughts on a subject that was thrust on me the other day during a conversation with a parishioner. 

He and I were chatting casually about the state of the world when he said, "I'm sure glad that God is on our side." Assuming he was referring to the Church, I asked, "And what side is that?" His reply? "Why the United States of course." 

Now that's hardly what I would call a "catholic" comment, but I let it slide until he repeated it a moment later in slightly different terms. At that point I could no longer restrain myself, and asked him first, why he believed God was on our side, and second, in what conflict had God chosen us as His allies.

His answers were a bit confusing, at least to me, but I think I can boil them down to the following: God likes us best because we're a democracy, and the conflict involved is the ongoing battle of good versus evil. I won't bother relating the rest of our brief conversation because despite my best efforts I really don't think I had any appreciable effect on his beliefs. Indeed, he probably went away thinking I was, at best, some kind of anarchist.

But our brief conversation got me thinking about a few things, specifically history and revelation. And whenever I find myself thinking about those two subjects I usually turn to St. Augustine.

St. Augustine
It's pretty easy for us, especially for us naturally patriotic Americans, to see our time and our nation as something special, something set apart from the rest of the world. We've been, in effect, conditioned to do so by a culture that, at least until recently, set our nation apart and placed it above the rest of humanity, as John Winthrop envisioned it: a "city upon a hill." Ronald Reagan, perhaps our most optimistic president, and certainly a patriot, echoed Winthrop's vision when he gave his "Shining City on a Hill" speech and declared the United States "the last best hope of man on earth."

Now, I really like Ronald Reagan and wish we'd had more presidents like him, but I can't agree that the United States is man's "last best hope." I won't deny that the way of governing conceived and put into place by our founding fathers is doubtless the best ever experienced by least from a human perspective. It has brought about more freedom and more wealth for a greater number of people than any other system of government. It isn't perfect, far from it, but that's to be expected. It was, after all developed by men, not by God.

And that's the problem. Our nation is part and parcel of Augustine's City of Man, and therefore will always be in conflict with the City of God. Our nation is an earthly city, one ultimately ruled by self-love and contempt for God and His Law. One need look no further than the decisions of the highest arbiter of our law, the Supreme Court, to recognize the truth of this. Our courts, our legislators, and our executives choose, as they always have, man's law over God's Law, man's will over God's Will. The United States may well be the best that man has to offer the world, but it's still man doing the offering.

No, the last best hope of man is not the City of Man but the Church, the presence of the City of God on earth. It cannot live in total peace with the City of Man because it is ruled by something very different. In the words of Augustine, it is ruled by "love of God even to the contempt of self." Despite this, the two cities do, however, live together, interwoven as long as they share the world. As Catholic historian Christopher Dawson wrote, the two cities "have been running their course mingling one with the other through all the changes of times from the beginning of the human race, and shall so move on together until the end of the world, when they are destined to be separated at the last judgment." It will, of course, be a final and complete separation. As for me, at the time of the last judgment -- that is, at the very end of time itself -- I hope I will be judged to be a citizen of the City of God and not the City of Man.

Augustine believed that God is very much involved in our history. The very fact of the Incarnation itself should remove any doubts on the part of the Christian. Augustine saw God's hand in the order and beauty of the cosmos, of all of His creation. But, perhaps more importantly, Augustine saw the possibility of human freedom operating within God's plan of salvation. He sees God entering our world of time to transform it through His self-revelation. And from that revelation, God allows us to take part in the work of that transformation. 

History, then, is much more than just the passing of time measured by the actions of men and women, by the rise and fall of nations and civilizations. History is Revelation. History is God making Himself known in the lives of His people and in His created order right here on earth.

No, God is not on our side; rather, He calls us all to be on His side.

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