The famous historian Arnold Toynbee once said that for some, “history is just one damn thing after another.” For such people, history is just an assortment of happenings that have no meaning or purpose. But in all of the so-called “historic” faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—history matters, for it is the arena for God’s work in the world.
Now of course all sorts of substantive disagreement exists about how and where God works in human history. But all three of these faiths agree that human history is nonetheless the canvas upon which a great story unfolds. “Redemption” is the theological term often used for this magnificent unfolding drama. Because it’s a “religious” sounding term, it’s off-putting to many, but the word “redemption” is just an old economic term, that means to buy someone or something out of bondage. So it is a good metaphor for the perennial hopes that surface time and again. In this drama, in the face of the insanities and oppression and diseases, we often find ourselves powerless, and life and history simply unmanageable. And often at the point of powerlessness, we resort to the notion that history is meaningless: as some of the characters will say in the songs tonight, “I don’t give a damn,” or “there’s no damn way.” These are echoes of having given up hope on any sort of new redemptive work.
In this light, so-called “faith” is not some sort of “religious” thing irrelevant to the real world, but a skill to read history correctly. Faith becomes a skill to interpret the magnificent drama aright. It becomes the skill of discernment, and the ability to hold onto the hope for something new in the midst of the old. As William Stringfellow taught us,
discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events … to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair ….
And so tonight we look for such tokens, signs of hope and power at work in the midst of what may appear sometimes as merely one cursed thing after another. But we trust that the unfolding story is the canvas upon which the Author of All Things is working something New, in the midst of the Old.