“Seeing” Providential History

March 31, 2006 | 8 comments
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Should “providential history” be left to seers? Is it ever possible in a pluralistic world to persuasively ferret out meaning in the chaotic and seemingly arbitrary movement of history?

Perhaps such an effort is a lost cause in a pluralistic society where beliefs on the ultimate existence of God vary so widely. But to concede there is no purpose or direction in history seems a surrender to a similarly fallacious acceptance of the bankruptcy of this aspect of pluralism. After all, just because people are confused about a fact does not mean that the fact does not exist. And just because society deems something not knowable right now does not mean it never was knowable. Interpretation, however, remains a problem among autonomous individuals.

It seems that a work of “providential history,” which attempts to identify the guiding hand of God in history, weaving in and out of the human agency that results in the actual facts of history, can only be persuasive and valuable within a closed setting — that is, when created and used by a group that shares fundamental beliefs about the existence of God and divine purposes. Thus, a recent and fascinating exercise in providential history by Latter-day Saints (Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History (2003)) might be enlightening for Latter-day Saints but appear only to relativize history to others or at the minimum seem like insider speak. The problem is that such an exercise can be described as simple cherry-picking.

But who is to say that there is no value in this type of cherry-picking? This was much more common in the eighteenth century — among people who considered themselves perfectly enlightened, indeed whose era itself carries that name — than it is today. For example, the eighteenth-century German historian/writer/poet Friedrich Schiller (1759 -1805) encouraged it in the interest of a didactic, universal history (or Universalgeschichte).

After completing his History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands in 1788, Schiller was appointed as a professor of history at the University of Jena. He gave an enthusiastic inaugural lecture to resounding applause from his future students. In this lecture, which was titled “What is and why study universal history?” (May 26, 1789)[1], Schiller expressed in no uncertain terms his optimistic philosophy that humanity was developing through the course of history to a state of “perfection.”[2] This was the ultimate goal of human history. And the proof was in the pudding — in the study of history itself.

Initially, Schiller based his universal history on the teleological principle that world history is leading humanity to a specific progressive end. Outlining his program of reading teleological meaning into history, Schiller posits that the historian must make sense of the “chain of events” visible throughout history that has culminated in the present age (MA 2:18). History is like a stage, and although individual actors and their thoughts may sink into anonymity, history — with an unobstructed view of the liberating end — continually observes the theater and incorporates everything into this progression (MA 2:21-22). But to read meaning into something is to cherry pick, isn’t it? No matter, Schiller unashamedly endorses this approach anyway:

Man changes and flees from the stage; his ideas flee and change with him: History alone remains permanently on the stage, an immortal Citizen of all nations and times. Like Homer’s Zeus she looks down serenely both on the bloody works of war and on peaceful peoples who nourish themselves from the milk of their flocks. No matter how arbitrary human freedom appears in the course of world events, she still observes the intricate play: for her far-reaching view discovers the distant scene in which this erratically floating freedom is anchored to the leading cord of Necessity. That which she veils from the punishing conscience of a Gregory or Cromwell she hurries to reveal to humanity: “that the selfish man may indeed pursue base ends, but in so doing unconsciously promotes excellent ones.” (MA 2:22.)[3]

And history itself only follows the guiding hand of Nature. The historian’s job, figures Schiller, is to discern the path that history is taking based on an understanding of the teleological principles driving history. He goes so far as to write that

History, by interpreting the fine mechanism through which the silent hand of Nature has been developing the powers of humanity according to plan since the beginning of the world, and by demonstrating with exactness that which has been won in each earth-age for this grand plan of Nature, restores the true measure of bliss and merit which the ruling insanity in each century has falsified differently. (MA 2:22 (emphasis added).)[4]

This is striking language indeed — purpose, plan, Necessity, etc. Ironically, however, despite this heady language about “restoring the true measure of bliss and merit” from the “ruling insanity in each century,” Schiller’s faith in this universal history, which closely resembles providential history, was shaken — even destroyed — only a few months later by the tyranny of the French Revolution, the implosion of the Enlightenment that had meant so much to Schiller. The irrational bloodbath of the French Revolution — which Schiller seemed to feel contradicted his idea of progress in universal history — influenced him to refocus his attention on the philosophical and aesthetic development of the individual to an ultimate moral end through aesthetical education rather than on the progression of society through a guided history. The ultimate moral perfection of the individual became, for Schiller, a necessary precondition for society’s teleological progression.

Cherry-picking constituted the fatal flaw in Schiller’s universal history. (For the world of literature, however, this was a good thing, even — providential? — because Schiller turned to philosophy and then adapted the Kantian ideas that he found so persuasive to a form of aesthetic education through literature meant to portray the perfection of the individual. Some of his greatest literary works followed this shift.) The French Revolution was too close and seemed like a step backward too big to be resolved by cherry-picking.

Schiller gave up perhaps a little too easily on the idea of universal history (although it is not certain that he did give up on it altogether). For those who believe in prophecy and seers, the contours of universal (or more accurately, providential) history can still be seen. It would seem, however, that the writer of providential history, whether a true seer or otherwise, is cherry-picking much like Schiller was in his universal history. (Or is this a valid assumption?) I am tempted to think this is, or can be, a good thing. It has to be honest to be good. My problem with the whole idea is with the manipulation or distortion of history by the dishonest in the interest of a questionable political agenda — the East German elementary school textbooks, Chinese history books that falsify China’s relationship with Tibet, or any host of other sinister examples of historical cherry-picking. And this brings us back to the beginning because, arguably, in a pluralistic society, a seer’s statement about the past or future, although in the interest of providential history, is viewed as such a sinister distortion. Pluralism is here to stay. Does that mean that our (LDS) providential history must go? I certainly hope not.

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[1] Friedrich Schiller, Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte? in Werke (München: Hanser, 1966), 2:9.

[2] The German for “perfection” is “Vollkommenheit.” Schiller uses the word vollkommen (“perfect”) in many of his writings with the sense of “completion.” The Duden dictionary defines vollkommen as “fully developed according to its nature and without mistake” (“seinem Wesen entsprechend voll ausgebildet und ohne Fehlerâ€? (Das große Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache in sechs Bänden [1981], 2807). At the end of the eighteenth century, a dual sense of both completion and wholeness conveyed by vollkommen was perhaps more pronounced. Adelung’s dictionary of 1780 defines it first in its historical sense of completion: “having arrived at the desired place” (“an der verlangten Ort gekommen“) and “to complete, to accomplish” and (“vollenden, zu Ende, zu Stande zu bringen“) (Johann Christoph Adelung, Versuch eines vollständigen grammatisch-kritischen Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart, mit beständiger Vergleichung der übrigen Mundarten, besonders aber der oberdeutschen [Leipzig: Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf, 1780], 1234-35). But the sense of wholeness in Vollkommenheit was more common even then: “that state in which a thing possesses the necessary characteristics in the right degree for its purpose or designation” (“derjenige Zustand, da ein Ding die zu seiner Absicht oder Bestimmung nöthigen Eigenschaften in dem gehörigen Grad besitzt, oder in der wissenschaftlichen Sprache, die gehörige Ãœbereinstimmung des Mannigfaltigen.”

[3] Der Mensch verwandelt sich und flieht von der Bühne; seine Meinungen fliehen und verwandeln sich mit ihm: die Geschichte allein bleibt unausgesetzt auf dem Schauplatz, eine unsterbliche Bürgerin aller Nationen und Zeiten. Wie der homerliche Zeus sieht sie mit gleich heiterm Blicke auf die blutigen Arbeiten des Krieges und auf die friedlichen Völker herab, die sich von der Milch ihrer Herden schuldlos ernähren. Wie regellos auch die Freiheit des Menschen mit dem Weltlauf zu schalten scheine, ruhig sieht sie dem verworrenen Spiele zu: denn ihr weitreichender Blick entdeckt schon von ferne, wo diese regellos schweifende Freiheit am Bande der Notwendigkeit geleitet wird. Was sie dem strafenden Gewissen eines Gregors und Cromwells geheim hält, eilt sie der Menschheit zu offenbaren: „das der selbstsüchtige Mensch niedrige Zwecke zwar befolgen kann, aber unbewußt vortreffliche befördert“. (MA 2:22.)

[4] Indem sie [die Geschichte] das feine Getriebe auseinanderlegt, wodurch die stille Hand der Natur schon seit dem Anfang der Welt die Kräfte des Menschen planvoll entwickelt, und mit Genauigkeit andeutet, was in jedem Zeitraume für diesen großen Naturplan gewonnen worden ist: so stellt sie den wahren Maßstab für Glückseligkeit und Verdienst wieder her, den der herrschende Wahn in jedem Jahrhundert anders verfälschte. (MA 2:22.)

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8 Responses to “Seeing” Providential History

  1. Michael L. Umphrey on March 31, 2006 at 2:45 am

    Nice post. Thanks.

    People can and will lie, distort and manipulate. The fact that false prophets offer false prophecy is in no way an arugment against true prophecy. Since we may need some part of the gift of prophecy to tell the difference, it may mean that in the short run we can’t establish which prophets are true by appealing to standards such as those held by graduate schools.

    Cherry picking? Maybe, but since the author of providence isn’t as simple-minded as we are, history is full of events we judge bad that move the ball down the field: “that the selfish man may indeed pursue base ends, but in so doing unconsciously promotes excellent ones.â€?

    I think we are engaged in a narrative competition, in which all sides weave the events of the past into meaningful patterns. They make stories out of the past by “cherry picking.” Any of us sees stories we don’t believe as contrived by cherry picking.

    I don’t think there’s yet a way to establish the truest of stories to the satisfaction of scholars who don’t want to believe it. Time, however, is taking sides.

  2. Adam Greenwood on March 31, 2006 at 10:14 am

    Remarkable post, John Fowles. Thank you much.

  3. Nate Oman on March 31, 2006 at 11:33 am

    John this is very interesting stuff. I agree that providential history will always involve cherry picking and in this sense it will be “bad” history because it will obscure things that one would want to consider to offer a fully formed view of the past. On the other hand, if the purpose of providential history is not so much to account for the past as to use the past as a way of understanding God, then it may not be a problem. On the other hand, there is a problem of circularity here: 1. one uses one’s concept of providence to do the cherry picking; and then 2. use the narrative created by the cherry picking to understand God.

    I actually don’t think that the circularity is necessarily damning. Any heremeneutic involves a similar circle, as one cannot understand the parts without seeing them in the context of the whole, and one cannot understand the whole without knowing the parts. This means that niether interpretation nor providential history can be viewed as a linear argument in which one deduces conclusions from premises. Rather, I think that we have to think of it as a kind of dialogue or reflective equilibrium, in which we occillate from providence to narrative (or from whole to parts).

  4. john f. on March 31, 2006 at 1:31 pm

    Nate wrote On the other hand, there is a problem of circularity here: 1. one uses one’s concept of providence to do the cherry picking; and then 2. use the narrative created by the cherry picking to understand God.

    This is the problem when history is viewed as nothing more than a scientific exercise. Anyone who sees a didactic value in the study of history faces the danger of falling into the circular trap — it’s not only those whose purpose is providential history, I would think.

    I agree that viewing the exercise more as a dialogue is useful where pluralism makes actual agreement about what constitutes the “whole,” as you put it, difficult or downright impossible. Understanding the whole reads meaning into the parts, which is why history will mean something different to people who subscribe to different visions of the whole.

    However, even the cherry-picking necessary for providential history is only that — cherry-picking, and not distortion, provided the history is pursued honestly. This doesn’t refer merely to good intentions but rather to an acceptance of the facts as expressed by whatever evidence exists. An example for Latter-day Saints might be Nephi’s prophetic narration about the future of the New World and its discovery by Columbus, as told by Joseph Smith the Seer looking back. (There is an interesting interplay there that begins to get very complicated the more you contemplate it — it sort of starts deconstructing itself.)

    It is a fact of history that Columbus went sailing etc. A historian attempting to exercise the science of history will describe the facts/evidence as far as they are known and hopefully place the events into a context understandable for the reader. Unavoidably, the goal is to educate the reader, I would think. Placing the events into the narrative context will involve interpretation and can also result in the drawing of inferences and conclusions, some more sound than others based on the record, about the situation and circumstances. All of is legitimate.

    The providential historian, whether LDS or otherwise, goes further and attempts to identify an outside force acting upon the narrative and to describe that force. A seer, I would think, goes one step even further and supplies the divine purpose itself in the narrative, based on, according to the understanding of believers, communication of that purpose from God.

  5. john f. on March 31, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Michael wrote Maybe, but since the author of providence isn’t as simple-minded as we are, history is full of events we judge bad that move the ball down the field.

    This is a great observation and certainly echoes Schiller, as you have noted.

    There are so many unknowns as to why things happen or happened. I understand Schiller’s frustration with the French Revolution throwing a wrench in his view of ennobling universal progress. I can’t imagine what he would have thought of the twentieth century (aka the Century of Violence). What would the realization that science can press forward in its progress while humans degenerate in their moral fibre at the same time have done to Schiller’s view of universal history? He might have been tempted to leave people out of the equation altogether.

  6. MDS on March 31, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Even Joseph Smith experienced feelings similar to Schiller’s on experiencing the Missouri persecutions (and prosecutions) of the late 1830s, which may have been even more jarring for him, having been given the mandate to build up Zion in Missouri. It is probably a lot easier to remain a believer in universal history when you have reminders in revelation of the grand scheme of things, i.e.,
    “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7)

  7. Dave on March 31, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    One man’s providential history is another man’s distortion and a third man’s heresy. But assuming one tries his hand at providential history nonetheless, how do you contain it? I mean, once you let God into history He sort of takes over the narrative. Try this on for size: “On June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied troops stormed ashore at Normandy, with God cheering them on and weeping at the appalling loss of life and limb on both sides. It was stormy the previous day, delaying the assault, but God blew, the skies cleared, and the troops sallied forth under God’s watchful eye in the predawn gloom of D-Day.” And so forth. Obviously, German providential history would take a different tack.

  8. john f. on March 31, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    Dave wrote I mean, once you let God into history He sort of takes over the narrative.

    Yes, this is what I mean. In a world where people don’t agree on the fundamental assumptions, providential history loses its value outside a closed group.

    (I disagree with your specific example, by the way, that German providential history would necessarily take a different track on the topic of your specific example, unless you are referring to contemporary Nazi views of providential history, if such can conceivably exist, but that is wholly beside the point.)

    But I have also been trying to express that there is a difference between merely cherry-picking in the interest of a proviential history that, at most, reflects the assumptions about fundamentals of the writer and consciously falsifying history for the purposes of propaganda and coercion, as in the Soviet Union, China, or other dictatorships.

    A seer, on the other hand, makes statements that do more than reveal assumptions, if we are to believe in the truth-claims of that seer (which, inside this religious tradition, we generally do). Thus, to the outsider it looks like merely another attempt at providential history. To the insider, it carries enough force to actually supplant other versions of the same historical episode. The believer then carries around two versions of the “history” with him or her — one that is acceptable to both believers and non-believers, and one that includes the pronouncements of divine will, thus shaping the hearer’s interpretation of the events.

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