On Misreading Winning and the Mandate of Heaven (St. John of Damascus)

On Misreading Winning and the Mandate of Heaven (St. John of Damascus) April 2, 2020

Times look bad  and the temptation is to extrapolate from who is “winning” just now and draw Big Conclusions. 

Let’s all avoid this foolishness.

Orthodoxy often needs saving from people who look at what is happening now in their part of the world and confuse that with God’s will.  The error is easy to make given God, God’s goodness, and God’s work in space and time. God does control history and justice will prevail, the right triumph, and all pain be given purpose. Eternity will heal many wounds.

That good news comes with a caution we keep ignoring! This moment right now, right here in Texas, among the events I happen to notice (or are pointed out to me by media!) is not a big enough sample to say for a surety who the winners and losers are. There was a moment when “science” and politics seemed on the side of segregation and racism. Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton, was elected to the White House and Jim Crow seemed on stable ground. Christians and others who opposed twisting religion and science to serve white supremacy, especially in the African-American community, did not look like winners. The God of history hated segregation, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. Siding with any of that evil was and is a losing project, but this was and is not always easy to see. The “trending topics” in social media can drown out our perception of the goodness of God.

“Losing” can save an old order from corruption and preserve the good. 

How could this be?

Not only could this be, it often is.

There was a moment when the natural defenders of Orthodoxy, the Eastern Romans, almost destroyed Orthodoxy by abandoning orthodoxy. Adopting the Faith had sustained the Empire. The Eastern Romans produced a culture that preserved Greek and Roman culture and contributed a rich culture from a fusion of both with the Faith. There would have been no (so-called) “Renaissance.” Like all human creations, the Eastern Empire started with a mix of good and bad. Nothing is fully Christian altogether, not even the splendor of Constantinople. The weeds grow and so if a place is to remain more helpful than harmful, hard times come. Eventually an end will come lest going on too far corrupts all the good that had been done. 

Sometimes God uses nations that seem “worse” to chastise His people.

In God’s good plan, Islamic nations seized control of much of the Eastern Roman Empire. While centuries of glorious history, including times of prosperity and power, still were ahead for the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, portions of the old Empire such as Egypt would never be recovered. Palestine was lost.  Damascus, historically a center for Christian Roman thought and culture, fell under Islamic culture.

The Eastern Romans, reeling from unexpected defeat, were tempted to imitate Islam. Was it the icons and their veneration that had corrupted the Empire? Islamic states were iconoclast: no images. Should the Christians have been the same? After all, a simple reading of God’s commands forbid idols and idol worship. Did those prohibitions apply to Christians? A group of iconoclast emperors arose, some quite capable militarily. If God was on the side of the iconoclast Muslim rulers, then hadn’t history spoken?

In an “exile” from the Eastern Empire, John of Damascus began to write. He was safe to attack the ideas of the Eastern Empire in the land of their foes. His brilliant series of treatises on the divine images changed the debate. He showed from the Scriptures and from tradition that “icons” could be defended. He developed a distinction between veneration and worship. God alone can be worshiped, but many good, true, and holy things were fit for the high reverence of veneration.

He won the argument, but partly because he was beyond political control or silencing.

An ill wind blew good and orthodoxy was saved. Meanwhile a more compact Eastern Empire shook loose from theological divisions and would enter new periods of greatness. The Lord works in history, but in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.

So we pause in the pandemic and wonder: are we punished for our sins, which are great, or is God doing something more complicated? 

We repent, pray, and carry on with our jobs. In a few centuries, the message will be obvious. History will have moved toward orthodoxy, justice, right practice in some important way. Best to side with the good God, best we can, and not try to guess the meaning of present winners and losers.

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