Thursday, June 7, 2012

Views of the Guiding Hand

In attempts to look up what Arnold Toynbee had to say about “higher religions,” I went to find my copies of Toynbee’s two-volume (abridged) A Study of History. Soon came memories that I had tried to do this before, two or three years ago. My volumes had absconded, probably lent out, never returned. My replacement copies arrived yesterday from Amazon, and I spent some time with the book. It was a revealing experience.

Toynbee is a wonderful historian and writer—if you enjoy complex sentences and soaring cascades of thought. My admiration for him has only grown. But now, so many, many years since I’d last read him in the same sustained and concentrated manner, I noted some aspects of his viewpoint that I had not awarely done before. To be sure, I had noticed that he saw a pattern of progress in history; but I had not, in the past, viewed that fact as in any way remarkable; back then I took it in stride. Now I noticed that a change in my views has taken place since, and significant enough so that I now feel the difference. The change does not concern Toynbee’s significant, enduring contribution to the study of history, namely his view of cycles: the rising and decay of civilizations one after the other. Those observations are built on very solid foundations. What struck me yesterday is that Toynbee projected into this process a higher dispensation guiding the “evolution” of humanity.

Sometimes it helps to have a good mirror. I noted that my own views, since those early days, had become other-worldly. My focus had changed so that, these days, I see the meaning of human experiences coming from a transcendental point—whereas events in this dimension are entirely to be explained using empirical observation alone. Hence the cycling of history makes “naturalistic” sense; what evolution is present in history is not in any way different from similar and strictly adaptive patterns in living nature. Toynbee saw meaning in the collective behavior of humanity here; somewhere along the line, I had stopped doing so—in that the explanation of what history displays does not need a higher reference; collective life altogether swamps the transcendental traces enfolded within it.

The difference here comes from cosmological assumptions. One view sees meaning here and assumes that being in this realm is right and proper for humanity—thus that it is God’s intended arrangement. The other sees paradise as God’s intended place for our kind of beings; this, the fallen realm, is therefore not intended. Hence the real meaning of being here is—to escape. That project is, of necessity, individual; the action is in the soul, not in social or physical arrangements.

Here is another way to put that. If there is a Guiding Hand, it seems pretty hapless. It seems to act against resistance, and who or what could possibly resist God? At the same time, we can’t simply deny the phenomenon of guidance altogether. It is tangibly perceptible at the personal level. It has many names; grace will do. It’s not merely “in the head”; it manifests as well as “signs,” thus as meaningful coincidences, inspiration, healings, miracles, and wonders. In the western tradition these phenomena are assigned to divine interventions. But why reach so high for an explanation? The “guidance” may also be explained—to pick a suitable analogy—as the “atmospherics” of a higher order still, if only partially, reaching this fallen level and, down here, touching those who are by luck or effort receptive enough to discern them. The seemingly “hapless” character of this guidance is not due to God but to the unevenly distributed gifts of those whom inspiration actually reaches. And if we view such individuals as a community, that community has a slight—but only a slight—influence on history, not enough to speak of progress. The numbers thus touched seem ever in the same proportion no matter what time in history we care to examine. The further back we look, however, the less we see it; while the same old, same old five-, six-thousand years ago is still clearly perceivable. There is no progress—except at a ninety-degree angle to space, time, and history.

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