Quaker Theology #12 Fall-Winter 2005-2006

The Angel of History, the Storm of Progress, And the Order of the Soul -- 2

Into the Storm of Progress

Seeing the Amazon by moonlight has lodged an image in my mind that is among the strongest and most deeply imprinted experiences of my life. It resides in a zone of memory that comes into focus unbidden and with great frequency. It has become one of those constant images that connects. I have always had a weakness for landscapes. I more-or-less fall instantly in love with new landscapes, and fill up with emotion on return to ones well known. (I agree with Stendhal when he says, "The purpose of home is to make your heart leap.")

But to be so powerfully imprinted by a landscape from over six miles in the air, and at night, is hard to account for. It is a puzzle, but a puzzle with an answer. And the answer lies in the image, and in all the prior images and the stories they compose about this region of earth that I have had the good fortune to encounter.

Now the irony of my story does not escape me. My experience of the Amazon was delivered while cradled in the wings of an agent of the storm of progress – aboard a jetliner, an ozone- blasting jetliner. This is not a trip we ever imagined making, but when our son married a woman from Buenos Aries, and a grand celebration with her family and friends was scheduled, we hesitated not a minute in booking our flight. Such are the wonders of progress. We now have a whole new sense of connection with another part of the world, another sense of home through our daughter-in-law and her welcoming and gracious family.

When I speak of the storm of progress, I am not speaking as a Luddite, as one who wishes that technological innovation had been stopped with the water wheel and the iron tipped plow, although there are good reasons to think that might have been judicious. From an evolutionary point of view, from an ecological perspective, and from within the human story, it is an objective fact that the history of progress since the sixteenth century has been a storm. Not "like" a storm, but an actual, objectively trackable storm – a turbulence of change, mounting in intensity, scale and scope, still cresting in successive waves of disruption and reconfiguration. The disruptions have been horribly damaging to the social systems and ecosystems that have suffered them. The reconfigurations have been wonderfully, though perhaps superficially, beneficent to those who have prospered and claimed the lion’s share of the booty and privilege.

It was once thought that as the storm ran its course, virtually everybody would benefit in a way that would be well worth all the disruption and suffering. The utopian optimists like to call this process "creative destruction." Now that this optimistic scenario is clearly not the case, not even for those with most of the booty and privileges, a great loss of faith stalks the land. And the storm, rather than running its course, like a natural storm, and allowing for recovery and adjustment, shows no signs of abating. Innovation is all the rage. Innovation is expected to produce progress. But the great doubt, the loss of faith now active in the culture, is that innovation and economic growth is not necessarily progress.

When the Quaker Institute for the Future held its first Board meeting in Philadelphia, I arranged for Board members to be billeted with area Friends. After our first evening meeting, Phil Emmi, Director of the Urban Planning Department at the University of Utah, arrived at the home of his hosts, Pat McBee and Brad Sheeks, after Pat had gone to bed. The next morning Phil was at the breakfast table contemplating his coffee when Pat came into the kitchen.

Pat, being a direct and forthright Friend, briskly asked, "What’s your name, and what brings you here?" Phil looked up, and, as Pat tells it, without missing a beat, replied, "My name is Phil Emmi and I am here because progress has been betrayed."

When I first heard this story, I thought ah ha, now that’s the mark of discriminating intelligence, and a perfect line of orientation of our new Quaker think tank.

There are forms of progress that truly advance human betterment and ecological integrity and many of them are being betrayed by scenarios of development that literally decompose social and biotic resilience. This is what the angel of history is trying to say, "Wake up! The outcome of the human story is at stake! What is smashed is smashed, but some integrity remains; the fecundity of earth, the solidarity of human communities at their best, some good tools, some old manuals of practice."

But who is this angel of history? If, as Walter Benjamin says, "the storm is blowing from Paradise," and the angel of history is storm driven, she is then clearly an exile, a homeless angel, a lonely spirit in a hurricane of troubles being blown increasingly beyond recovery, increasingly beyond the threshold that overturns the order of the soul.

I submit that the Angel of History is a mirror. In our contemplation of this figure, we are given an image of the postmodern human, a figure transfixed by the force of progress, but steadily losing the sense of wholeness and integrity, steadily losing the order of the soul. Which brings me to the next theme I wish to probe.

Angels of History and the Will of God

The first step in this exploration will be upstream into history. I want to get below the full force of the storm for a bit and take a look back toward its origin, back toward one of the drivers of the storm. This will be a small expedition into cultural archeology.

In the course of my work I recently received a book with a title that immediately commanded my attention – An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire, by British theologian, Michael Northcott. We have here another angel of history, but, it is clear from the title, an angel of a very different sort.

On investigation, I learned that this image comes from the time of the American Revolutionary War. Soon after the publication of the Declaration of Independence, a Virginia statesman, John Page, wrote the following in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: "We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm?"(6) This angel reappears in George W. Bush’s first inaugural address. In speaking about the destiny of the nation, and its determination to confront all enemies with the force of American strength, he says the struggle will ultimately be successful because it is "the angel of God who directs the storm."

We are here dealing with one of the master narratives of the Western tradition – the story of the "will of God." The history of this narrative as applied to the founding of the United States is well known and not surprising given the theological world view of the time. What is surprising, and more than a little suspect, is that a refurbished vision of this kind is now being promoted as a way to understand contemporary world history and America’s role in shaping and controlling the world economy. It is more than surprising. It is alarming.

It is especially alarming because there is considerable evidence that a significant number of players in the current U.S. administration, and many of its key supporters, actually believe as a matter of religious faith that the US has become the world’s victorious superpower because it is the will of God. The US, as a chosen nation, is divinely ordered to prevail until such time as the apocalypse is unfolded and the end of history is at hand.

The idea of an apocalyptic end to human history does not trouble them. It is clear from their reading of the Bible that God wills it. To be an agent of the apocalypse is to be doing the will of God. Reflecting on this theological mindset within the governing structure of the current administration, Bill Moyers recently observed, "The delusional is no longer marginal." Those in the current administration who do not exactly share this Americanized biblical world view, still support the policies it requires for military and economic reasons. The delusion is useful.

How have we gotten into this situation? How has it come about that the idea of the will of God has now become a malignant threat to the human future and to the future of biospheric integrity in general? Where does this kind of idea of the will of God come from?

If we turn to the Hebrew scripture and the story of the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan, we can see very clearly where it comes from, and how it began the journey which led it to become one of the master narratives of Western civilization. Historically, the first codification of a supreme deity appears in the Egyptian cultural tradition long before the tribes of Israel were removed from the Nile delta into the wilderness of Sinai. Although cast out from the wealth of Egypt, the Israelites carried Egypt's unique religious innovation – the idea of monotheism – with them and employed it to powerful effect, both as a force for tribal cohesion, and as the conquering force of divine will.

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