Teleology is both the hope of Christians and the bane of historians. As a professional historian, I have publicly railed against teleology for the edification of my students. As a practicing Christian, I have publicly thanked God for his teleology and used it to comfort those who are hurting. That sure looks like a contradiction. It struck me as odd recently, as I was buried under a mountain of undergraduate papers and final exams to grade. I don’t think it’s a contradiction, but exploring why not has clarified for me what historians are trying to accomplish, and the basis on which Christians formulate their understandings.
What is teleology? As I tell my students, teleology is viewing the past as if it were necessarily moving toward a specified outcome, as if the fact that it has turned out a certain way means other outcomes were impossible. It is the denial of contingency in historical development. Why is it a problem for historians? It blinds historians to surprising developments by making everything that happened, what was going to happen anyway. It prompts us to look endlessly for the “warning signs” of some catastrophe future to our sources, presuming that they must be there since the catastrophe was on its way. It forecloses the actual options available to the people of the past, and focuses historians’ attention only on developments which “led somewhere” rather than developments which, although perhaps as important at the time, seemingly “fizzled out.” Thus the landscape of the past is artificially conformed to the present, and in teleology’s artificial drive to create a storyline which “makes sense,” we lose all accurate awareness of cause and effect in the midst of the narrative of history “progressing” to its specified end (namely us).
But what about Christianity? Christians do not believe that the past is random, that only by chance certain things happened instead of others. Christianity presents God as providentially guiding the course of events since the Fall to accomplish the redemption and restoration of the world. Christ’s death and resurrection, his ascension and expected return, his present and future reign all give meaning to history, they make sense out of the haphazard experiences of this life and of generations. History has a specified goal: when Christ “makes all things new” (Rev 21:5). And it isn’t as though history bounces along undirected until it randomly lands in the goal of redemption! No, God has acted (most dramatically in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ) and is even now acting (especially through the Holy Spirit) in our world to bring it to his intended conclusion. God has decided that the outcome of history is the final redemption, and this is why teleology is essential to Christianity. Without teleology, Christianity would teach simply that Jesus came and did stuff, but now the world is what we make of it. Frankly, I take great comfort from the “blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
So does that mean that Christians always make bad historians? Or that Christianity asserts that historians inherently misunderstand the past? In other words, is the professional study of history (my job) incompatible with the truth of Christianity (my faith)?
To answer those questions, I would like to draw some distinctions:
1. Revelation vs. human invention: Teleologies are a problem for historians because, and only to the degree that, they are false. When humans do things, they do things for a purpose, and thus their activities have a teleology of sorts. But the entirety of history is not the activity of any single person, and therefore it progresses toward no goal devised by a human mind. So when people propose teleologies for history, they do so on the basis of their very limited knowledge, and due to human sinfulness, people choose very self-serving teleologies for history, to demonstrate their own (singular or collective) superiority, legitimacy, dominance, power, intelligence, beauty, etc. Often, the proposed goal of the past is the present, since the future is unknown, but this is futile since the present becomes the past at an alarming rate. By contrast, God directs all of human history toward his revealed goal of redemption. (Even for Christians who reject any notion of determinism, God’s omniscience enables him to intervene perfectly in history to direct it toward his chosen goal.) In this teleology, Christians are the beneficiaries but not the stars – Christianity is not primarily about us, but about Jesus! Indeed, to benefit from this, you must repent, acknowledging how messed up you are. The goal of the past is not the present, but the eschatological future when Christ returns, a fixed point which never changes, whatever happens in human history. So the Christian teleology is not self-serving, partial, or concocted after the fact, all ingredients which brew inaccuracy in merely human teleologies. Instead, it is revealed by God, complete (although none of us know all the details!), and true. A true, God-ordained teleology is therefore unique among teleologies for posing no danger to understanding the past.
2. Arrogance vs. humility: Teleologies lead to misunderstanding the past, because we short-circuit our exploration. We already know where this is going, or we think we do. Instead of putting ourselves in the position of historical actors, we see that past events had to be moving in the direction that they turned out. Teleologies foreclose contingency. This makes bad history, because contingencies bombard us continually. Should I stop by the grocery store today or tomorrow? If I go today, and get into a car accident, that accident would not have happened had I stayed home. I plan things all the time which do not turn out as expected, because I do not know the future. As a historian, I assume that the people of the past were similarly limited in their knowledge of the future, and therefore they also did stuff which turned out in unexpected ways all the time. Teleologies tend to make people arrogant. But God’s plan of redemption teaches us to repent of our pride and arrogance. Since it is his teleology, we must wait and watch him work it out. We have only the outlines that he has revealed; there are plenty of details which are not revealed, and which we must learn by observation (such as whether particular relatives or friends will come to Christ, for example). God’s teleology should in fact prompt us to pay more attention to this world which He is redeeming, and try to understand it more accurately as the unfolding of his redemptive drama, the divine comedy. God’s teleology should make us more attentive historians.
3. Method vs. reality: History, the study of the past, is a human endeavor, based on our very limited knowledge. Because of our lack of omniscience, historians seek good operating rules to provide guidelines for how we understand the past. These form the historical method. But they are rules in general, created by humans on the basis of a whole lot of trial and error (and usually more error). Historians’ methods are not in fact laws of nature, but rather the painfully earned wisdom of a bunch of people. Historians’ methods change over time and across cultures; they are not universal, obvious, or immutable. In many ways, they are codified best guesses that seem to be working pretty well. They are not simply reality. Thus the historians’ rejection of teleology is not because there isn’t one, but because when almost anyone suggests any teleology, bad misunderstandings of history result. God, of course, needs no method for understanding the past; he has full access to it. God created reality, and he authored its rules. So the purpose which God has for history, the teleology which directs the way the world goes, is not a violation of some eternal rule. On the contrary, it enables us to understand part of the world which can only be understood by God’s revelation, and leads us to a deeper comprehension of where we have come from, as well as where we are going. It is not deducible from history, but neither does it distort what it in fact has directed from the beginning.
With these distinctions in place, I think it fair to say that the conflict between historians’ repudiation of teleology and Christians’ faith in one teleology is only apparent. I shall continue to lecture my students about the dangers of teleology for misunderstanding the past, because it is dangerous to make up a self-serving presentist goal and superimpose that upon a past which is rapidly moving past the present. But I shall also continue to praise God for the way he directs human history toward its final end, when He will make all things new.