Spirit in History Part 1

On October 8, I presented a paper at the Conference of Faith and History meeting at George Fox University. The title of the paper was “Whither the Spirit: Proposing a Pneumatological Historiography”. This was a condensed version of a paper I wrote last Spring, which totaled about 45 pages. I got it down to a little less than 10 for this presentation. My task is not yet over. I’m working on adapting the theme, if not the actual present content, into another article that will focus more closely on understandings spirits in history. By this I mean looking at history as a place where God’s Spirit, human spirits, and evil spirits all are influential and interactive, pushing history different directions.

For now, though, I’d like to post from my presentation text. Not all at once, but a section or so at a time. Just to give a feel for what I’m working on. Indeed, I suspect this could be the beginning of a future book. There’s definitely a whole lot of material to write about.

Here’s the beginning part of my presentation at George Fox:

To believe in God—to believe in a fully Triune God as revealed in Scripture—is to believe in the God who not only has worked in the words of Scripture but continues to work in history. Outside of direct revelation, however, it is often a difficult, and maybe even arrogant, task to attempt to point out precisely how and where God works in history. That this is difficult, that this may even be arrogant, is likely a cause for significant reticence in exploring history for signs of God’s work.

However, as any theological claim can bear the charge of arrogance, it seems neither difficulty nor possible presumption should entirely dissuade this area of study. So, while it may be an audacious task, it is the goal of this present effort to seek a more substantial theology of history especially as it relates to the work of the Spirit of God.

Because this project is significantly larger than could be fully explored in the confines of a relatively brief presentation, the present task is less to pursue a comprehensive study on the relevant subjects and more to offer a proposal for continued study. In this presentation, then, my goal is to suggest areas of research, each of which would serve as the basis of a fuller treatment in a more substantive work. My goal is not to suggest an overarching theme, nor a definitive identification of God with any particular movement, event or culture.

My hope is to provide tools of discernment that can serve as cues for historians as they pursue their tasks, which in turn can serve as fodder for developing theological reflection. In pursuing the present task in this way, I hope to salvage some humility from what may otherwise be an overly brazen endeavor.

The whole business of history, according to Hegel, is to bring the idea of Spirit into consciousness, moving from an implicit, unconscious instinct to a more fully realized, fully aware embrace of freedom.

“World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom—a progress whose necessity we have to investigate.” Hegel understands the Spirit as the realization of a free consciousness, an idealization of human potentiality that calls us to be, in non-relational terms, divinized.

This ideal, this universal Idea, is not necessarily emphasizing individuals, however. Rather, the “universal Idea manifests itself in the State.” The State, not particularly people, is the context of the Spirit’s actualization, “in it freedom achieves its objectivity and lives in the enjoyment of this objectivity.” This is not to suggest the Idea cannot manifest in particular people. Indeed, Hegel emphasizes that it is in a “world-historical individual” who may best exemplify the progression of the universal Spirit in any given age.

“They are the very truth of their age and their world,” he writes, “the next genus, so to speak, which is already formed in the womb of time. It is theirs to know this new universal, the necessary stage of their world, to make it their own aim and put all their energy into it.” He identifies Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon in his list of such figures. Such figures are so mighty they “must trample down many an innocent flower, crush to pieces many things” in their path.

The Spirit is active in this world, bringing people to a realization and actualization, of the fullness of freedom, which is progressively comprehended in each successive age as human society is expanded in consciousness of what it can fully become. Hegel is not, it seems clear, orienting his philosophy of history upon a well-developed pneumatology, but rather is elevating Enlightenment ideals into the purpose and being of the Trinity itself, taking these ideals as themselves the reality of the Spirit, and thus divinizing modern understandings of human advancement.

Any conception which could emphasize a man such as Napoleon to being what is essentially an icon of theosis is missing a significant emphasis on how God has revealed himself most fully in Scripture and especially in the person of Jesus.

Hegel provides an interesting, even helpful, proposal for a robust theology of history, but imbues his terms with untenable, even repulsive meanings that have proven highly repressive to true freedom in the course of the last two hundred years.

to be continued…

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One Response to Spirit in History Part 1

  1. Pingback: Life in the Tension » Blog Archive » square peg, square hole: the Black Lake Women’s Retreat

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