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Going somewhere

God is taking history in a definite direction, not in little circles

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

"Everything that goes around," the old saying tells us, "comes around."

It's meant, I suppose, as a kind of folksy comfort. Don't worry, we're reassured. Things may seem out of joint. But they'll come back to normal. There's even a little biblical validation, when Ecclesiastes famously reminds us that "there is nothing new under the sun."

In more academic circles, it's sometimes referred to as a "cyclical view of history." It gains credence every time someone quotes another version of George Santayana's bromide that "those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it." But a professional historian I talked to a few days ago told me that good scholars-even those who do read history!-don't take the theory too seriously. It's one of those observations that makes sense, he said, only so long as you don't check it out too rigorously.

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Our rigor gives way to folk wisdom. The terrible recession of 2008-2009 may have been severe, we tend to think, but it's bound to end. Recessions always end. The drought that covered much of the southeastern United States for the last several years has taken a serious toll. But the rains will come. Rains always come. My political party (or my football team) took an awful shellacking the last time around, but they'll come back-if not this year, certainly next year. My team always comes back.

We think that way because deep down, we are all at least a little bit committed to a cyclical view of history. We all have some tendency to think: Everything that goes around comes around. We may not take it as far as the Hindus do with their doctrine of reincarnation-but yes, we tend to think there's a repetitive pattern to history.

The experts love to look for models and configurations by which the past sheds light on the future. In just one column a few days ago the thoughtful commentator Michael Barone offered comments like this: "History gives us some clues. The one similar extended period that comes to mind was the second term of Franklin Roosevelt. . . ." Or like this: "History does not repeat itself exactly, but polling evidence indicates that . . ." Or, suggesting that the current pattern isn't yet a good fit: "The recession may be over, but it's not at all clear that happy days are here again."

But instructive as the Barone approach might be in some respects, reminding us how both pitfalls and opportunities from the past might help us navigate the future, Christians need to remember that God's big narrative involves much more than a long series of little overlapping circles. God's grand story is very deliberately headed from Point A, on one end of the canvas, way over to Point B at the other end. Because God is constant and faithful, that story includes a few patterns, to be sure. But it would be a huge mistake to see the God of history as simply doing the same little thing over and over again. He's going somewhere!

So we shouldn't kid ourselves. We shouldn't presume that we can erase the God of the universe from our national vocabulary and then expect things will still turn out all right-just because they always have in the past. We shouldn't pretend that we can trifle with God's rules about justice and economic fairness and then expect Him to prosper and reward our society-just because He always seemed to wink at the peccadillos of our younger years. We shouldn't think for a second that we can equivocate about the evils of abortion and infanticide, or the radical reshaping of God's pattern for marriage, and then look to Him expectantly for His obligatory happy ending, no matter what.

Our inclination is to suppose that the question is not whether the current recession will end, but when. But what would happen to our culture if God's response this time to our spendthrift habits were simply to determine that the current recession will continue for the next generation or two? What happens if some of our children spend most of their adult years wandering from one temporary job to another? What will our response be if they never find themselves able to buy their first home?

But only people of small faith reduce their god to a deity who goes in circles. Instead of merely repeating the past, we are headed for something gloriously new and different. God's people should never aim for, or be satisfied with, anything less.
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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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