Not sure about the charts: please explain…

I have been having an online conversation with someone who is rather suspicious of the charts I have been using (such as the one below) to map the story of the people of God throughout the ages. One of the problems is that I have not defined the y-axis. My assumption was that the chart rather obviously traces the rise and fall of societies and cultures, albeit in an impressionistic fashion, but people of a more scientific disposition may be frustrated by the failure to define the scale represented by the implicit vertical axis.

Mapping the biblical worldview

The more serious complaint is that the alternation between “stasis” and “crisis” makes no sense historically. The period we label “Christendom” was by no means a time of social, political, or religious stability. It was marked by an unrelenting succession of crises beginning with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire as a crisis in its own right, to the fall of Rome, plagues, schisms, internecine religious wars, invasion by Muslims, Vikings, Mongols, the crusades, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, all the way through to the support of the Russian Orthodox Church for the war in Ukraine.

This is all obviously true. It also needs to be said that the period of Israel’s residence in the land, from the conquest of Canaan to the deportation of much of the population of Judah and Jerusalem to Babylon, was hardly an age of political and religious stability: there was conflict with neighbouring kingdoms, Israel was divided between the northern and southern kingdoms, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and religious corruption and apostasy were a constant threat to Israel’s covenant identity. Likewise, the period from the return from exile to the conversion of the Greek-Roman world had its ups and downs—notably, the hundred years of relatively independent Hasmonean rule.

The chart, however, is not meant to plot social-political-religious stability—and in any case, such a chaotic seismograph would be difficult to read. Rather, it measures something like the flourishing or dominance of the biblical account of things or “worldview” (for want of a better word) relative to other hegemonic civilisations—the Mesopotamian powers, the European powers, and now “secular humanism.” It is a narrative-historical construct inasmuch as the telling of the story is as important as any modern attempt at historical reconstruction—indeed, the telling of the story over long periods of time is itself part of the fluctuating historical experience of the people of God.

I have added two other layers to this narrative. The first is Philip Rieff’s description of three major phases of human culture: a first world pagan culture, a second phase of the great monotheistic cultures, and a third world repudiation of the sacred and transcendent and turn to the immanent. In this schema, Old Testament Israel is a lonely and vulnerable precursor of the second monotheistic phase of Western cultural history.

The second added layer is the geological or climatic one, in the background, registering the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene and the deleterious impact of human activity on the environment. How a climate crisis will disrupt the dominant Western order remains to be seen, but it underlines the point that humanity is facing an epochal change of biblical proportions, perhaps on the scale of the flood, let alone the rise and fall of civilisations. The creator God must be in this somewhere.

The biblical story

Anyway, the period of “kingdom” in the land was the initial fulfilment of the theologically determined vocation of Israel as a people chosen in Abraham to be a new creation in microcosm. It was a time of “stasis” as long as Israel possessed the land, under a divinely appointed king, subject to the Law of the covenant, and with YHWH himself present in their midst in the temple.

The Babylonian invasion and exile brought this stasis to an abrupt end: kingship failed, the place of God’s presence was destroyed, the land was ruined, and the people were forcibly removed to an inhospitable foreign and pagan place. The most they could do to keep their “new creation” mandate alive was to build houses, plant gardens, have children, and pray for the peace of the city (Jer. 29:5-7).

The prophets imagined a glorious return from exile and restoration of land, city, temple, and kingship—so glorious that the nations would come to acknowledge the saving power of Israel’s God. But the reality was very different: the nations came not to marvel but to impose on Israel either their own religious culture (Hellenisation) or their own rule (Roman occupation).

So for a period of 900 years, the people of God—from our perspective as church—struggled to maintain both covenantal identity and eschatological vision under various forms of pagan oppression. I call this a period of “crisis” as a simple antithesis to the “stasis” of the previous period of kingdom. Its significance is captured in the Spirit-filled prophecy of the priest Zechariah: God will raise up a Davidic king for Israel who will save his people from their enemies, “from the hand of all who hate us,” allowing them to serve YHWH as his royal priesthood “without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Lk. 1:68-75).

Now let’s look at that phrase “covenantal identity and eschatological vision”….

The eschatological vision

In the New Testament the covenantal identity of God’s people is transformed. Through the obedience and suffering of Jesus a “new covenant” is introduced, bringing forgiveness of Israel’s sins and new life in the Spirit.

But it is the “eschatological vision” that brings the long period of crisis to its climax and resolution. Essentially, the exile gave birth to the conviction that precisely through the oppression and suffering of Israel the centuries old dominance of the pagan powers would come to an end, the old gods would themselves be sent into exile, and YHWH would be recognised by the nations as the only true God. Jesus identified himself with that largely underground tradition to a degree, but it is in Acts, Paul, and Revelation that the full implications become apparent: not only will Israel be judged, forgiven, and restored, but on that account the nations of the dominant pagan world will renounce their idols and confess the exalted Jesus as Lord to the glory of God the Father.

I then suggest that it makes both biblical and historical sense to regard the conversion of the Roman Empire to a broad social-political-religious allegiance to the one God, the God of Israel, as the concrete fulfilment and embodiment of the 900 year eschatological vision. I do not, therefore, regard this development as itself a crisis, in biblical terms. In narrative-historical perspective, it brings shalom, peace, the freedom from the hands of the pagan enemies that would allow the church to serve the living God without fear.

In this new civilisation the church in principle served as a priesthood for the nations, replacing the old pagan priesthoods. The church fathers took on the task of devising a new worldview—a rather unwieldy mash-up of biblical and Western thought, which nevertheless served its purpose for the next 1500 years or so. The numerous “crises” of the Christendom era put the arrangement under considerable stress at times, but the centrality of Bible, Church, Trinitarian orthodoxy, and a Christian ethics remained secure until the Enlightenment and the gradual displacement of revelation by reason.

The “stasis” of the era reflects the persistence of the large scale Christian account of the world, in the particular geographical location, despite the various forms of disorder and conflict to which Europe was subjected. In that respect, Christendom was kingdom writ large. The curve indicates that it emerged slowly and declined slowly.

Crisis? What crisis?

The current crisis for the people of God is a consequence of the collapse of the Christendom worldview. Just as 2000 years ago some people in Thessalonica stopped worshipping the old gods, binned their idols, and turned to serve the living God, so over the last couple of hundred years many people, whole societies, have stopped worshipping the living God, no longer attend church, and now serve the forces of reason and human interest.

This is felt as a crisis to the extent that we are alarmed by declining church attendance, by the difficulty of sustaining belief, by the disturbing reorientation of sexual ethics, by the impoverishment of denominations and churches, and so on. It is also much harder to fulfil our vocation to be new creation and royal priesthood under these conditions, as it was for Israel in exile.

But scripture suggests that it is in these difficult long transitional periods that God reforms and renews his priestly people and sets new trajectories for their existence in the world.