Friday, November 17, 2006

Elections and Optimism

Ben House -- pastor, educator, historian, and one of my favorite bloggers -- did a wonderful piece on Political Pragmatism just before the recent election. A brief excerpt follows:

History can be so cruel. If it would just sort itself out into Golden Eras and Dark Ages, all would be fine. We could model ourselves after the one and flee the other with reckless abandon. History is such a tangled up mess for a principled conservative looking for purity. It can be worse for the Christian. After all, the Nicene Creed was formulated and financed by a government program. Being a Presbyterian doesn’t help. After all, the Westminster Standards came into being by government directive and Parliamentary sponsorship. Being a Calvinist doesn’t help. After all, Calvin’s Geneva had government subsidies for schools, welfare, hospitals, and other agencies, with a fair share of government involvement in church matters.

It is a long post (almost as long as this one) but well worth the read. As I pondered his premises, though, I couldn't help but be reminded of Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, who wrote an excellent History of the English in 1135 (available in the Oxford Medieval Texts series). Henry was commissioned by Bishop Alexander 'the Magnificent' of Lincoln in the 1120's to 'narrate the history of this kingdom and the origins of our people.' Henry took the task seriously, spending perhaps 10 years on the effort. The work itself quotes (extracts, really) extensively from Bede, Gildas, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and many lesser-known sources, not all of which remain extant. He seems intent on showing us all manner of moral failings on the part of various English leaders while explicitly repeating his central theme: God is in charge, not kings, and He causes all things to work together for His ultimate glory and ours. That message reaches out over the intervening nine centuries to our current situation with no loss of applicability. But then, that is exactly what Henry intended. He was explicitly and self-consciously writing to us. Nothing apart from following his own practice of quoting at length will do his words justice:

Book 8, Epilogue

This is the year that contains the writer. The thirty-fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our own time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The 1,135th year of grace.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity. But since I gave hope to those starting this book that we might turn back to moral purity, this computation will show what point in time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord’s incarnation. We are leading our lives, or – to put it more appropriately – we are holding back death, in what is evidently the 135th year of the second millenium.

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. [He comments on the emporer, the pope and the governor of ‘Christian Britain’.] … But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and leaders, tyrants and princes, prelates and consuls, tribunes and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men – let them tell me: who were in command and office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time. I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What did it avail them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great and famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise, with our Lord God, by the thousands and thousands who are in the heavens. Now, however, I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millenia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

He then concludes with a discussion of why he has such an optimistic eschatology. Quoting his teacher, Bishop Herbert of Norwich, he argues:

According to my judgment and what I can conclude by reason, truth will endure much longer than symbol, light than shadow, the thing signified than what signifies it, the time of grace than the time of law. If the symbol and shadow preceding and signaling the grace of Christ stretched, let us say, for 5,000 years, would the light and grace of Christ be so much the greater? We see the folly of the theory of those who thought that after the Lord’s Passion the world would last only a thousand years, since Christ will come in the last age. … But rather I believe with good cause, on the authority of Jesus Christ, that the truth promised for many ages will endure much longer.

It seems to me that we would do well to share both Henry's and Ben's perspective on the relative importance of our civil magistrates.

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