Our age is so obsessed with the future and so impatient with the past that we need to remind ourselves of the liberating role of memory. If you think about it, the stories of the remarkable decisions and heroic deeds in the past make history memorable, and they in turn can inspire the present and rescue it from the stifling impression of inevitability. The truth is that well-taught history and well-written biography are both vital to freedom and anything but boring. As we remember the story of Moses, or Francis of Assisi, or Abraham Lincoln, or Florence Nightingale, or Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa, the past can inspire us to rise above our present moment, just as the heroes of the past rose above the lethargy of their own present and its seemingly iron-clad circumstances.
The “dead hand of the present” may be every bit as oppressive as the “dead hand of the past.” Some of the forces from the past, such as language, tradition, and law, will always act as powerful shapers of the present, but the memory of the past can also inspire and liberate the present so that inevitability gives way to innovation. In Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, “Memory is, in short, the fulcrum of freedom for man in history.” Complacency makes the past appear unchallengeable. Haven’t things always been this way? But freedom summons up creativity, innovation, change, growth and discontent, and challenges the aura of inevitability that the past lays on the present.
Unquestionably, the human will is central to the biblical view of human freedom and responsibility, but for both good and ill, for creation and destruction. According to the Bible, an inclination to evil through the corruption of the will now lies at the heart of human nature and its use and abuse of freedom. Humans can willfully defy God and the structures of their existence, and through their abuse of freedom bring evil into the world. Indeed, far from diminishing as time goes by, as the progressives fondly believe, this willful defiance will rise to a crescendo at the end of days in the person of the Antichrist. At times, this evil can be so potent that it can be countered only by the backstop of God’s providence. Thus “under God” is no cliché. Providence is the ultimate check and balance, the final moral limit to human power.
Adapted from Carpe Diem Redeemed by Os Guinness. Copyright (c) 2019 by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.