Hiding Your Theological Keys

It is an inevitability of life that at some point you will hide something to keep it safe and it will be so safe that even you cannot find it.  Keys spring to mind, but usually where you put them does not.  Giles Fraser, the radical Church of England priest, has definitely been guilty of hiding his keys in his article “The idea of history as progress is underpinned by a hidden theology.”   He (or the sub-editor) reveals both the political target and the hidden theology of his argument In a very wordy subtitle that would be better left to the opening paragraph:  “We need to recognise the influence of Christian eschatology to see what’s behind Michael Gove’s ‘narrative of progress.'”  The problem is that Giles, a former philosophy of religion lecturer at Oxford University, has hidden his theology so well that he has forgotten what eschatology means.  He confuses eschatology (beliefs about the end of history) with teleology (the philosophical theory that everything has a purpose or “end”).  This confusion appears in the key paragraph and everything else in the article falls down because he has so clearly lost the keys:

“What is at work here is secularised theology, technically a form of eschatology – the belief that history is the expression of God’s purpose for humanity, that it begins with the fall and works its way towards the salvation of the human race. Here, history is always working towards some final end or purpose. Forget the fact that Gove, Marx, Fukuyama et al present their history in the neutral trappings of social science; the very idea that history contains some teleology is, as John Gray has pointed out in his recent book The Silence of Animals, a hollowed-out version of Christian theology.”

Presumably it is the use of the term ‘end’ in both eschatology and teleology that has confused Giles, but as a lecturer in the philosophy of religion he no doubt had to teach the traditional Christian proofs for the existence of God, one of which was The Teleological Argument.  This is the claim that God must exist because the universe appears to have a purpose and therefore needs a designer.  This argument has nothing to do with the end of history, in fact its only connection with history  is the claim that history was begun in a divine act of creation at the dawn of time.  I have not read John Gray’s The Silence of Animals, but Peter Conrad’s review makes it clear that John’s positing of a lack of purpose of history has nothing to do with the type of glorious progression of (British) history that Michael Gove wants taught in schools.  John criticises the myth of humanity being given control over the animals in the Garden of Eden, as well as the historical behaviour of our earliest ancestors, and twentieth and twenty-first century humans.  That is not a critique of an ideology of progress, it is saying that humanity has been mired in barbarism from the outset and remains so to this day. Maybe John did critique a teleology of history, but it would seem to be irrelevant to his core argument.

Even had Giles ignored teleology and stuck with eschatology he would have fared no better, for that branch of theology appears completely hidden from him.  Eschatology is not about history’s progress towards an end predefined by God (that is providential theology).  Rather, it is the complete opposite, teaching that the world will go to pot and God will intervene to rescue the righteous, destroy the world, end history, and create a new place for the righteous to live without having to worry any more about the nastiness of historical human nature that so concerns John Gray.  In other words, there is not a shred of connection between eschatology and a notion that history develops towards its zenith in the modern British state.

Giles concludes, “we may need to do something that our increasingly irreligious age is often poorly equipped to do – that is, just for a moment, to think theologically.”  Unfortunately, Giles has not led by example, maybe he was distracted because he forgot where he put his keys.

© Mercia McMahon 2013
Twitter: @MerciaMcMahon
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