Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre

One of the fruitful ideas I keep returning to in my life and scholarship is how stories or narratives or dramas shape us. They form our imaginations and – even when we’re not conscious of it – they influence how we live. The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (1929- ) says that “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story do I find myself a part?’”

Lesslie Newbigin

Questions like this are integral to discerning our place in the world, what we often call discovering our vocation or calling. The British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) took this a step further. It’s not just my life that has a storied nature to it but, he said, “The way we understand human life depends on what conception we have of the human story.”

Once we recognize this storied shape of our lives then it’s not that much of a jump to think about all of human life or history being part of some larger narrative. But, what is that larger narrative? This is the question that Herman Dooyeweerd delves into in chapter 3 of his little book, In the Twilight of Western Thought.

Dooyeweerd’s focus in this chapter is what he calls “The Evolution of Historicism” or what he describes as the process by which “the historical viewpoint [becomes] the all-encompassing one” (45). His interest is how philosophical developments have boiled all rationalizing about human life and experience down to a solely historical level. In other words, all of human life is just the outworking of a historical process.

René Descartes

In this regard, Dooyeweerd points to René Descartes who launched “a real rebirth of the human being not in its biblical sense, but in the sense of its regeneration into a completely free and autonomous personality, the sole ruler of its own destiny and that of the world” (47). It is in this shift, whereby human beings replace God as the sovereign creators of the world, that Dooyeweerd perceives the “central religious basic motive of modern Humanism” (47).

This revolution, deeply religious at its core, results in an unavoidable dialectical tension between human nature and human freedom because God is no longer the transcendent ground of Creation. The one extreme is what Dooyeweerd calls “the primacy of nature” in which human life is subjected to scientific management that overrides human individuality and freedom. This results in “the State Leviathan, construed after the mathematical pattern of thought, absorb[ing] all human freedom” (50). The other extreme is “the primacy of freedom” which is “the strong reaction” evoked by the first extreme of rational totalitarianism which seeks to impose an artificial order on human nature at the cost of freedom (50). This freedom pole is what gives rise to assertions of human individuality, free will, and individual happiness. Dooyeweerd thus sees much of the last few centuries as an endless swinging between rationalist State power (as in the French Revolution) or irrationalist identity-proclamations of free spirits.

This dialectical tension between rational control of human nature versus the irrational expression of human freedom is a kind of story. It is an attempt to explain, by way of a narrative structure, what reality is like. In this case, reality is an unfolding historical process in which human beings create their own realities. Obviously, this can be cast in a secular key: history is inherently meaningless and everything is radically relative because who’s to say anything authoritatively? Or, this can be transposed into a Christian key: in the Bible we have “the revelation of God’s eternal plan in history” (54).

It is this Christianized version of historicism that gave rise (especially in the twentieth century) to a strong view of general revelation in which, it was believed, we could know God’s will through historical developments. Dooyeweerd points to the Lutheran philosopher Stahl in this regard as someone who believed that “all that has come to pass in the long process of historical development, under the influence of incalculable and inscrutable forces without the interference of rational human planning, ought to be respected as a manifestation of God’s guidance in history, insofar as it does not contradict God’s revealed law” (54). It was this idea that the Karl Barth (1886-1968) and the Barmen Declaration (1934) sought to refute by proclaiming that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (8.11).

Historicism, therefore, is the view that history is the fundamental nature and force of reality. It is a worldview in which “the very aim of the entire historical process” is the emergence of “a new humanity, which in complete freedom and autonomy rules the world, having developed to the highest level of social solidarity, welfare and morality” (56). If you were to ask a historicist, “What’s your story?” their answer would be “Progress!” or, as Dooyeweerd puts it, “the steady and straight-lined progress of mankind by the autonomous power of science … [to achieve] an eschatological consummation of history: the final redemption and liberation of mankind” (56).

What do you think? What place does history have in reality and human experience? How do you view your place in the grand narrative of history? How do you view your discipline’s role in the drama of scholarship? Are there ways in which your own thought and work have been captured by the glittering lure of historicism – even a Christian historicism?

Michael Wagenman
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Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Scripture Collective at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​