God’s Plan In The Lesson Plan

British Education Secretary Michael Gove proposed for a “narrative of British progress” to be taught in history courses. Giles Fraser unpacks the submerged Christian assumptions behind such thinking:

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.

Not that all religious people accept this mythology. Even [Herbert] Butterfield, who was himself profoundly Christian, refused to see history as evidence for the hand of God guiding us towards some inevitable conclusion. On the other hand, we all love a story: one with a beginning, middle and end. And to see history as simply one damn thing after another seems to rob it of that larger meaning that many want to read into it.

Deciding between these competing views of history requires us to recognise that some of our secular ideas have a hidden theological substructure. “What presents itself as the ‘secularisation’ of theological concepts will have to be understood, in the last analysis, as an adaptation of traditional theology to the intellectual climate produced by modern philosophy or science,” was how the political philosopher Leo Strauss put it.