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The Doctrine of Inevitability

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you, and neither is my software’s auto-correct function. I intended to write, “The Doctrine of Inevitability.”

Let’s be clear, however: there is no Doctrine of Inevitability in the Christian faith. There are doctrines of indefectibility and infallibility that bear a verbal resemblance, also doctrines of providence or of predestination or of prophetic inspiration that cover some of the same territory as our putative doctrine. Claims of inevitability have been made in the great debates of our day, and there are versions of it on both the theological “right” and “left.” But there is no Doctrine of Inevitability for Christians, no matter how often we act like there is, or how often one reaches for this rhetorical tool.

By “Doctrine of Inevitability” I mean something like this: a conviction that the future can be discerned in such a way as to avoid “the wrong side of history.” Some future point in time is posited, a point in time that seems inevitable in its lineaments, which will reveal the truth about all past moments (including our own) and stand in judgment of them. Insight is available that reveals the trajectory of the future, and inspires action now. Any sensible person ought to be able to see what’s ahead, and act accordingly.

I distinguish the Doctrine of Inevitability from other doctrines by which Christians have spoken about God’s involvement in history by one particular characteristic: its transparency. By contrast, a healthy doctrine of providence posits that God is active in the world, and that Christians ought to be attentive to events in order to discern the action of God. At the same time, the doctrine of providence bespeaks a robust sense that God is trustworthy and can be relied upon for good in spite of appearances to the contrary. There is an opaque quality rather than a transparent one. The same is true with regard to doctrines of predestination, where the reason for God’s decree of “predestination to life” is ultimately hidden with God, whether that decree in its particulars can be known to us or not. Again, mystery rather than transparency.

A doctrine of prophetic inspiration might come closest to the definition proposed for the Doctrine of Inevitability. After all, the prophetic word announces God’s intention to act and the final result as well. Christian sympathizers with the great social movements of the day are often eager to cloak themselves in the prophetic mantle. All fine, as far as it goes, and perhaps even correct when it comes to discerning God’s will in the world. Yet the abiding characteristic of biblical prophecy is that what it announces is not expected to be clear to any merely sensible person. The prophets are chosen by God, which is why a human resources department can’t go looking for one; their word is also scorned by the hearers, which reveals it to be less than inevitable, at least to them.

Statements about “the wrong side of history” are historically naïve. What seems likely to us at this time is a matter of prudential judgment: provisional and not definitive. There is no future point in time that will judge all other times, that is, on this side of the kingdom. History has a habit of unfolding in the way that prognosticators cannot foretell. Anyone who came to maturity in the 1970s may remember that span of years in which the triumph of Marxist-Leninism seemed inevitable, and the collapse of the Soviet Union unthinkable, even to those who rejected Marxist philosophical claims about the “dialectic of history.” Our present would have looked unlikely, given that perspective. Yet even our time is only one point in time that will be superseded by another. It too is provisional and inconclusive like every other point in time.

Borg-like pronouncements that “resistance is futile” are often revealed as rhetorical flourishes that are intended to bring about the desired end rather than genuine attempts to predict it.

What is the alternative to the Doctrine of Inevitability? Oliver O’Donovan has written persuasively in Self, World, and Time (2013) about each present moment as the time that is open to us for action:

The opening of the present is to the future, but not equally to the whole of the future but to the future immediately before us, the next moment into which we may venture our living and acting, the moment which presents itself as a possibility. (Self, World, and Time, p. 15)

The present is always pressed between the past and the future, and whatever it is, it cannot be a period of time, since it is always slipping into the past, overtaken by the future.

We find ourselves like salmon leaping in the stream, the present being our point of purchase on our upstream journey, disposing of the past and appropriating the future. (ibid.)

So there is the present moment, the “immediate future, the forward-looking future,” as he terms it; an “available future, the possibility that lies open to our action” (17). We live in hope, the hope of the Gospel; and it is that hope that informs our deliberations.

But we must not think we can reach out and grab it [the Kingdom of God]. Our first thought must be to allow the horizon to be the horizon, to resist the temptation of taking over the ultimate and managing it. Practical reason is not a way of organizing the future …. If we knew the story of the future hidden in God’s foreknowledge, we should be beyond deliberation, beyond action, even beyond caring. “The kingdom of God is not coming with observation” (Luke 17:10). Even of the Son through whom God acts in history it is said that the day and the hour are not revealed to him. The price of agency is to know the future only indirectly, that we may venture on it as an open possibility. The future of prediction, dreary with anxiety or buoyant with hope, has to be held at bay, so that we may use this moment of time to do something, however modest, that is worthwhile and responsible, something to endure before the throne of judgment. (ibid., p. 17)

Self-conscious glances ahead to supposed likely conclusions are beside the point. There is no Doctrine of Inevitability, and I venture to say that no one who invokes “the wrong side of history” in the great debates of our day really believes there is such a doctrine. Still, when we speak or act in a way that abdicates our own agency in the face of the inevitable we ignore the demands of our own discipleship and even our vocation as human beings. There is no Doctrine of Inevitability, and that’s the point. There is always the available future that lies before us.

The featured image is “Communism” (2009) by Flicker user Jessica. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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