In the Great Sweep of History

“The Great Sweep of History” is an event that occurs in the rear-view mirror, easily characterized in various fashions as we choose to label certain events as important and certain event as without significance. I believe that for the Christian there is no great sweep of history and that the temptation to view history in such a manner is Just that: a temptation. Thus it is a temptation to look at the great sweep of Byzantium and look for signs of its return. It is a tempation to look at the great sweep of Holy Russia and seek to restore its glories. It is a temptation to look at America and the great sweep of its history and attribute to it one thing or another. In the coming of Jesus Christ what academics refer to as “history” is radically changed and is not truly the subject of scientific study. Reality operates in a manner that is less than discernible.

There are several reasons I put forward this suggestion:

1. In every “great sweep analysis” we offer only a selective view of history – similar to that in the history books.

2. Such great sweeps tend to devalue the small obediences of “insignicant” people and think only of larger decisions. This leads towards a utilitarian view of history – one of the most evil analyses Christians have ever engaged in.

3. We’re not in charge of history – either what has already taken place, or what will take place. History, at the very least is the place of providence – not the machinations of men. We fought Hitler, but God defeated Him. Only an analysis that ignored the many miraculous turns of events would think we defeated one of the most agressive evils the world has ever seen.

Instead of “Great Sweeps,” Christ tells us: “Take no thought for tomorrow, but let tomorrow take thought for itself. There’s enough evil in one day.”

The commandments of Christ are the proper attention of each Christian. It sets us in a small place, we do not become swept up into apocalyptic visions in which we are “renewing the world” or any such thing. It is a favorite American past-time to speak in apocalyptic returns. Thus Orthodox in America are tempted to think of an “Orthodox moment,” as if we were poised to do some great thing. We are poised moment by moment to keep the commandments and pray. Christ is the only moment that matters and we’ll find Him in the least of human beings.

If History is to be swept, it will be swept by God’s own broom as He gathers all things together into one, even Christ Jesus. That’s enough sweep for us all.

23 Responses to “In the Great Sweep of History”

  1. Reid Says:

    I think of Proverbs 17:24, “A discerning man keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.” It is so much easier and more satisfying to solve the problems of history than to quit eating two desserts and to think kindly of the colleague who insults me.

  2. Alexander Says:

    Is not Salvation History (Heilsgeschichte) a “Great Sweep of History?” God’s creation, redemption and divinization of man provides a coherency to history lacking in any secular understanding of world events. His dealings with Israel and the Church testify that this great sweep of history has a purpose. The central event that all of history turns on is Christ, his incarnation, his death and his return when history will reach its final goal.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Heilsgeschichte is a liberal German piece of theology, that actually means “not what has happened” but the story as told by Christians. God’s great sweep is summarized in many places of the Scripture – but is only truly revealed in the Scripture. So I’m a bit shy of German theology. The worst of it was the heilsgeschichte as used by the Nazi theologians, of whom there were too many.

    I’ll just stay with the story of Scripture and the Orthodox faith.

  4. Alexander Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    I’m no liberal Protestant and certainly no Nazi. If we remove the distracting word, “Heilsgeschichte” from my post, I think the idea that there is a great sweep of history still stands. We derive hope from the fact that no matter how bad things seem, God is in control of history and will bring it to conclusion in the eschaton. Scripture tell us how he has worked in past events but only gives glimpses of how he will do it in the future. Thus we live by faith that there is indeed a great sweep of history until Christ is all in all.

  5. The Boar’s Head Tavern » Apocalyptic Brooms… Says:

    […] Father Stephen Freeman’s latest post: The commandments of Christ are the proper attention of each Christian. It sets us in a small […]

  6. The Boar’s Head Tavern » Apocalyptic Brooms… Says:

    […] Father Stephen Freeman’s latest post: The commandments of Christ are the proper attention of each Christian. It sets us in a small […]

  7. shevaberakhot Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    The Great Sweep of History view is hopelessly two-storey. It leaves the protagonists great and small, detached from events, and partly explains the ensuing loss of leverage.

    Not the way to go. Well done there!

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Alexander,

    Of course I agree. And we can draw hope for what all has done for us, but we must be careful about the Great Sweep, for we are called to live day by day. Historically the great sweep and been a negative force for Christianity. Christ is the great sweep, indeed. Forgive me for using such strong examples, I did not mean to apply them to yourself. Forgive.

  9. shevaberakhot Says:

    Christ is the great sweep. Amen.

  10. Gerald Fernandez-Mayfield Says:

    Sorry to leave a spam-esque comment Father, but I wanted to inform you that I nominated you for an ‘I love your blog award’ at http://crimson.aniimora.com/2008/09/03/i

    God Bless,
    Gerald

  11. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Amen. Christ is indeed the all in all. Apocalyptic writings in the Bible, such as Daniel, are about Christ. Contemporary novels such as the Left Behind series stray far from the heart of the Gospel.

    Father, you might be interested in the most recent essay at Jsut Genesis on “The Messianic Priesthood of Jesus”. I wouldn’t call this the great sweep of history as much as the persistent yearning of humans for Life. Go here: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2008/09/messianic-priesthood-of-jesus.html

  12. Lucias Says:

    Another wonderful post and one that I will ponder more.

    Thanks.

  13. Dean Arnold Says:

    Great insight.

    Sounds similar to the adage about idealists who love “the people” but can’t get along with any persons.

    I do love how the Orthodox church regularly reminds me that God is in charge and my job is to love my neighbor.

    Again, it’s so easy to “confess your sin” all the time and to anyone. A lot tougher to confess particular sins involving particular people with a particular human being listening.

    I would say a lot of my personal journey, Father Stephen, has involved “downsizing” my aspirations from global and grand to specific and local.

    To add a bit to the discussion, I quickly racked my brain on stichera that deal with post scriptural history. I think of Helen and the finding of the cross and many other lives of the saints and those kinds of stories.

    Not sure there are too many dealing with bigger “historical” events, such as, say, the fall of Jerusalem or the Christianization of Rome or the East/West divide, the end of Byzantium or the more recent liberation of Greece.

    There may be some of this in the stichera, I just don’t recall them (and I’ve had limited exposure, for sure).

    So it does seem that the church services tend to confirm and remind us of the scriptural sweep of history regarding the coming of Christ, and then also focus on individual stories of lives of the saints, which inspire us to continue our micro-crusade of loving our neighbor.

  14. Edward Hunter Says:

    I don’t get it, Father. It seems to me that history must be told selectively. How else would you propose to tell it? Perhaps I simply don’t understand your phrase “Great Sweep of History.”

  15. Robert Says:

    Edward,

    I agree with you that any history is in reality an interpretation of events. Even the Scriptures are not exempt; however they are God’s interpretation.

    I believe Fr Stephen is rightly cautioning against superimposing our own interpretation. It is all too easy, for instance, to romantizise past events – we are warned about the dangers of delusion. It is the work of demons to use overactive imaginations for their destructive ends.

  16. shevaberakhot Says:

    Robert,

    This is exactly the point. There is one Spirit of Truth, one interpretation, one teaching. Outside divine interpretation, there is confusion.

    Not that God foists delusions on people, but whosoever rejects the most Holy of gifts, the Spirit of God, opens him or herself up to the evil one. The devil’s greatest weapon is convincing people that he does not exist, or that he is just evil personified and many seducing spirits have gone out into the world.

    Only the Holy Spirit has the correct interpretation on history. Everything else is myth, and it myth that leads so many astray.

  17. elena Says:

    I’m an historian. It sounds as though this puts me in the devil’s camp, no matter what I write. Can you mean this?

  18. Robert Says:

    Elena,

    It does matter what you write; and certainly not all history is bad history. Fr Freeman is cautioning against the misuse and the abuse of history.

  19. Shevaberakhot Says:

    Elena,

    You sound like an objective historian with no particular hidden agenda — however being objective is not enough. May I ask, what is your specialisation area?

  20. elena Says:

    My field is mainly 20th century American urban history. It involves no “sweep” at all, but rather a kind of burrowing down into a very specific place and time. I understand my job to be doing the best I can to understand what happened, and then to explain how and why, again to the best of my admittedly weak ability.

    I agree that history is often abused and misused, but at the same time I can’t help but be extremely skeptical about objectivity. Objectivity, even if it were achievable, is not neutrality. I hold myself to the standard of always telling the truth, even if I don’t like it, in so far as I am given to see the truth. But there is no denying that the very way I come to understand people and their actions is deeply influenced by my own life and faith. I have to be professional, but I can’t leave my soul at home while I go to work.

    There are several hard problems tangled up in here, and issues like these have been debated constantly by historians for hundreds of years. I’m afraid that I don’t have answers to any of it.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Elena,

    Of course history is a necessary study, but I readily agree that objectivity is difficult. Most of my caution is with wanting to create “great sweeps” of history, while life is lived in the smallest ways, rather than in great sweeps. It is possible, particularly for people who see themselves at any given moment as part of a great sweep, to use it as an excuse for doing great harm. It is standard stuff for politicians. I meant nothing more.

  22. Shevaberakhot Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Much of that harm is subliminal. It involves manipulating public opinion in order to reduce political resistance. The Nazis did it. Unfortunately it is happening today and the ramifications are global. It;s something we have to be aware of, lest we take our eyes off the LORD.

    Blessings to all in the camp of the faithful.

  23. elena Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Much of the scholarship these days, at least in American history, is focused on understanding the lives of ordinary people, at least in part for the reasons you state.

    I love this blog!

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