Stunned by the decision of Vladimir Putin to exert Russian force against a neighbor nation, politicians and pundits have been searching for the words to describe this act of aggression. “I thought we lived in a world that said no to that kind of activity,” sputtered John Kerry. Other comments expressed similar bewilderment. Putin’s mindset is “medieval.” Russia’s actions appear “backward,” or “primitive,” out of step with “the times.”
President Biden, reaching for inspiration reminiscent of President George W. Bush and others, described “liberty, democracy, and human dignity” as “forces far more powerful than fear and oppression.” These are the values that will endure, never to be extinguished by tyrants or erased by enemies, he said.
Eschatology of the Enlightenment
In the befuddled responses to the invasion of Ukraine as well as the soaring rhetoric of Western leaders who believe freedom will prevail, we see on display the eschatology of the Enlightenment: the idea that the world, since the Age of Reason, has been moving along an upward trajectory of human development, both technological and moral, with better and freer days ahead.
But this is a myth. It always has been.
Why do so many leaders speak as though they could simply will a better future into existence, as if the calendar itself might help push against “medieval” mindsets and ensure our journey toward more sophisticated and civilized heights? Because of the Enlightenment’s unshakable faith in progress.
This commonplace view of progress spills out in everyday discourse, relating to various moral and ethical quandaries of our day. When people say, “Now that we live in the 21st century” or “I can’t believe this happens in our day and age,” they are implicitly endorsing the Enlightenment view of history and assuming that everyone else endorses it also. (Otherwise, how does appealing to the calendar make sense, unless one shares a similar view of the past, present, and future and what constitutes progress?)
Enlightenment and ‘Whiggery’
Immanuel Kant believed that progressing in enlightenment is a staple of human nature and that humanity’s “proper destiny” is to see progress take place. This confidence in progress as humanity’s destiny requires a warped view of the past.
Once you relegate the past to darkness and position yourself as leading humanity into the light, you tend to distort aspects of history that don’t fit your vision of where the world is headed. And that’s exactly what Enlightenment-era historians did. They “looked into the past as into a mirror and extracted from their history the past they could use,” writes Peter Gay. The abuses of Enlightenment historians became so common and prevalent that the term whiggery was adopted to describe extreme accounts of historical revisionism.
Of course, the only way whiggery works is by screening out the counterpoints. And when it comes to the inevitable trajectory toward “progress,” the Enlightenment runs into many challenges.
- Leaders all over the world in the early 1900s believed technological advance would lead to a new era of peace and prosperity, when instead they were about to witness the bloodiest century in human history.
- The Prague Spring—the 1968 uprising and protest against totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia—was a wonder to behold, until the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members invaded the country and suppressed the reforms. It would be two more decades before freedom would dawn in Eastern Europe.
- The brave stand of students at Tiananmen Square still inspires us today, but the event has been memory-holed in China, where oppression of the Uyghurs continues today, and where leaders have multiplied threats to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Whiggery hasn’t gone away. Self-serving historical revisionism was also a powerful tool wielded by Communist revolutionaries in Romania in the late 1940s, with historians enlisted to show how the dictatorial regime was the culmination of earlier strivings toward progress and justice. And today, Vladimir Putin is doing revisionist history of his own as a justification for his invasion.
Enlightenment Eschatology Shaken
As Christians, our response to revisionist Russian history shouldn’t be to counter with Enlightenment eschatology, a view of progress that owes more to Kant and Hegel than to Jesus and Paul.
World events like the attacks on September 11, or the rise of ISIS, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should instead raise questions about our society’s uncritical adoption of Enlightenment eschatology. The world is not on an inevitable climb toward progress, however we define it.
No, the Bible gives us a different view of history and the future. We are not on an upward climb toward a utopia of freedom and democratic norms. We find ourselves in a world given to wars and rumors of wars, a spiritual battlefield where the gospel goes forward, upending all rival views of history and the future with the spectacular claim that Christ has risen and is coming again. No matter what we see taking place across the world, we move forward with faith, hope, and love in God’s promises for the church. We proclaim Christ, make disciples, and serve the nations, all with an eye to the day he will come again to judge the living and the dead. That is our destiny, not Hegel’s spirit of the age.
There’s one thing the world does, wrote G. K. Chesterton nearly a century ago. It wobbles. And living in this wobbly world, Christian hope takes on a distinctive shape. We remain rooted in God and his promises. Therefore, we can be confident, trusting not in our own efforts to bring about a particular vision of the future but in God to restore his creation and put the world to rights.
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