“The hinge of history turns on a heartbeat.”
Roger Cohen of The New York Times turned that phrase to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989.
Many forces conspired to bring down the wall: decades of repression in East Germany under Communist rule; China’s Tiananmen Square uprising earlier in the year that had been put down by force; Soviet Premier Gorbachev’s decision not to follow China’s example in squelching the spirit of freedom; and the decision by the government to allow unhindered travel by citizens to the West.
But it was Harald Jaeger, the border guard at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint, who, in the midst of confusion and thousands of East Germans pressing the border, decided on opening the gate instead of opening fire.
The year 2009 marks the anniversaries of two other seminal figures of history whose ideas have influenced the way we think about history: Charles Darwin and John Calvin. Their views on how the world operates, especially as interpreted by their successors, could hardly be at greater odds.
For 100 years now, Darwinism has seen nature and history progressing by laws or rules that are discerned by a survival instinct built into the fabric of reality. All life forms adapt in order to survive, and make choices to advance the greater likelihood of continued existence. Those species that make felicitous choices survive, and those that don’t, don’t. Extended to human life, history is the product of human choices for the same purpose. When we act wisely in pursuit of enduring life, we survive; when we don’t, our line or clan or nation disappears. No need for God in this equation.
Calvinism looks at things from the top down, so to speak, rather the bottom-up approach of the newer scientific Darwinism. Five hundred years ago Calvin asserted that history is the outcome of decisions God had made from before time began. God’s sovereignty over God’s creation means God’s careful management of the choices humans make in order to fulfill the orders of their Maker. When the faithful are overheard declaring that things, good or bad, are simply the will of God we must accept, they are echoing Calvin’s hunch that history turns on divine not human decisions. Little need for humans in this equation.
Are these the only alternatives?
Christmas comes this month for Christians. Darwinism cannot imagine a God who enters into history and human nature to take part in it and influence its direction. Such a thing would violate the freedom of creation. Calvinism has trouble seeing the child in the manger as fully human being. It imagines him even in the stable concealing his true identity as if he were an actor in a play and not a real player on the human stage.
A better analogy may come inadvertently from the novelist Laura Kasischke. She was asked whether she knows ahead of time what’s going to happen in a book, or is it more of an organic process. “At a certain point,” Kasischke says, “I have a sense of an ending, but … I’m generally as surprised as anyone else by what happens to my characters and what they do or say.”
What if Christmas tips us off to God as novelist? God has purposed that creation will end well, and has committed to working on it from the inside out, allowing the characters to surprise the Author without ultimately thwarting the story. Jesus as Son of God could have failed like the rest of us to give himself fully to loving the world to death, literally. His success turned on his faithfulness and God’s at the same time — the two conspiring to the same end on behalf of us all.
Christians believe that the hinge of history did indeed turn on a heartbeat; or better, two hearts — one divine and one human — beating at last as one.
George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is a regular feature underwritten by Advocate Publishing and by the neighborhood business people and churches listed on these pages. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.