History Puzzles & Providence
Nature is simply a starting point for grace
“Don’t mess with Texas!” Right, probably a mistake. There’s no doubt, though, that it’s folly to cross Mother Nature. And Father Time? Why, he chronicles the history of our lives. Surely, then, Henry Ford’s famous “History is bunk!” is nonsense—on stilts. Isn’t it history that decides our worth and measures our fate?
Not so, gentle reader! History doesn’t decide our worth. Nor does it measure our fate. An immediate puzzle, of course, is figuring out what’s history and what’s not. For example, here’s what Henry Ford really said: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Context helps, doesn’t it? Ford was making history, and he encouraged us to take charge of our lives and “make a difference.” But let’s not cut Ford too much slack. His “more or less” qualifier leaves him “more or less” in the dock. Besides, if G.K. Chesterton is right, tradition is the democracy of the dead and something we the living should treasure.
But figuring out what history is amounts to more than fact checking. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the key to figuring out what something is is observing what it does. So what does history do? Truth be told, history doesn’t do anything. Indeed, however much Trotsky might banish his opponents to it, history itself has no dustbin, much less one that it empties. Only persons act. Yes, personification can be poetic. But Texas can’t take revenge, not even on litterers. Neither can Mother Nature discover our attempts to fool her. Nor can Father Time construct a timeline. On the other hand, Texans can be eco-activists, meteorologists can predict weather patterns, and historians can draw lessons from what people have done in the past. Does that leave Fate? It’s a fiction and only as fickle as we make it.
The ancient Greeks could be as blunt as Henry Ford. The lawmaker Solon, perhaps fearing Fate, said that we should call no man happy until he is dead. But Aristotle wasn’t having it. Virtue, rightly understood, constitutes a life of excellence—come what may. Such excellence is the best sort of happiness, the real thing. The flourishing of such excellence helps measure our worth.
Yet there’s so much more. For Christians, the songs of such excellence will always include the refrain “We’ve only just begun.” How so? Nature, even its flourishing, is simply our starting point. It’s grace, amazing grace, that builds on human nature. Believing this, we turn from the puzzles of secular history to the Providence of the Triune God who befriends us.
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