How Bad History Makes Bad Theology

I’ve written quite a bit about the Progress Narrative on this blog (and on The Wild Hunt) because it’s probably one of the most problematic ideologies for Pagan and Polytheist thought. Most of us unconsciously accept some degree of it without knowing it as such, so it’s worth outlining it briefly.

During the so-called Enlightenment, European thinkers began arguing that the state of knowledge they had attained was higher than their ancestors.  The important concept here is ‘higher,’ as the progress narrative relies on a kind of heirarchy where the present is always an elevated state while those in the past were in a lower state of enlightenment.

Hobbes’ formulation of life outside civilization being ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ is probably the best known iteration of the Progress Narrative.  Basically, people in the past or outside the enlightened state of Europe lived savage lives, wandering around in the ‘dark ages’ without the light of reason to guide them.

This narrative comes through particularly in liberal (as opposed to leftist) conceptions of social justice. In their framework, in the ancient past, women were considered lesser people, and it’s only through the legal framework of ‘rights’ that they are finally free. Gays have more rights now, Blacks are emancipated, etc. etc.

While this seems almost commonsense, it isn’t.  The problem with the progress narrative is that it ignores societal examples that run contrary to its story about our enlightened present.

The question of slavery is a very good place to see this.  I saw an article shared widely by polytheists on social media today which quite perfectly displays the problem of this narrative.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, as was common at the time, but the ideals he worked for – individual rights, liberties and democracy – as limited in scope as they may seem to us today, nonetheless cleared the path for the next stage, which one of greater emancipation. In other words, Jefferson was a necessary step towards something else. He wasn’t perfect – just as a car in the initial stages of an assembly line isn’t a finished vehicle – but he helped laying the ground for what followed, which in turn contributed to the freedom of today. You could say that History is a cumulative process where one brick stands on another. And if you remove a lower one because it doesn’t look like those on top, the latter may collapse by lack of the former. It’s kind of like Jenga.


(it’s important to note that the quote I cite above is not written as a historical narrative, but is a work on theology)

Such an argument de-selects contrary evidence willfully.  For instance, slave ownership was actually an exceptional state in the colonies.  The majority of people actually didn’t own slaves, because slave ownership required money.  That is, slave owners were part of the Capitalist class, the rich.

Furthermore, the defense of someone being a product of their times only works if we ignore the fact that there were many people during that time who argued that slavery was immoral, including Jefferson himself (despite declining to actually do anything about it).

Not only that, but the enslavement of people from the continent of Africa in the British colonies was an exceptional practice. By this I mean that there was a time when Europeans didn’t do this–it was not an already-existing practice when Europe began colonizing the lands of the Americas.  Rather, the rich in Europe started the practice in order to gain wealth (in economic terms, “Primitive Accumulation”) during their imperialist ventures.

So, in the 1300’s, Europeans weren’t trading slaves for plantations.  In the 1600’s, they were.  If the ‘progress narrative’ holds true, than slavery was actually a higher state of enlightenment, not a lower state, or a ‘stage’ Europe had to pass through in order to get to a higher state.

History isn’t a cumulative process.  It isn’t a process at all, but a narrative. History is the story we tell ourselves about the past in order to understand, explain, or justify our present.

I’ve argued repeatedly that how we see the gods and the others has as much to do with how we view history and the political as it actually does the gods.  Despite this essay’s appallingly bad history and really dangerous ideas, I have to thank the author for completely proving my point.

8 thoughts on “How Bad History Makes Bad Theology

  1. You’re describing exactly what happened, too. Europeans created this whole narrative to not only create a hierarchy of civilizations (or really, just a binary), but built whiteness alongside it and held up slavery as a virtue. In order for this to work, they had to rewrite their Christianity to forgive enslavement (and condemn disobedience) in this life. Somewhere in this hell-knot we got a prosperity gospel that taught the lower classes that they could find their way to the top of the heap by toeing this line, which is why we have a class of poor people who vote for racist plutocrats.

  2. Of course, historical proponents (and latter-day apologists) have argued for slavery-as-practice as a teleological end, as well: slavery as a supposed means for elevating or raising up otherwise “savage” races/cultures while profiting the slavers and their institutions. Folks like to ignore how the religious and secular institutions deformed themselves to accommodate and justify oppression as progress, as just, as moral.

    Also, when you finish Agamben (be sure to look at his Potentialities, and not just Homo Sacer), I might recommend a look at Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology to see what Agamben responds to, and then Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment–assuming you haven’t already done so.

    1. Which the increasingly hard-right turn some polytheists have been making, I’m thinking it’s time to read Schmitt, yes. :/
      Will hit Potentialiaties first, though. 🙂

  3. Yes. I am constantly frustrated by this progress narrative. I find it just as much among leftists as among liberals: what else, after all, is Marx’s view of history as a march towards full communism? Revolutionary thought is just as frustrating: it is not progressive, as such, but it is eschatological.

    In all cases, my response is the same: there is not future date at which all will be well. The struggle is now, always.

  4. Interesting. I’d originally glossed over the article and missed the quoted paragraph. The idea that any of the dead can be gods is something that seems obvious to me. And I agree with the author that it’s entirely appropriate to accord worship to those among the more recent dead who are worthy.

    You’re right to point out that history is narrative and not process. As such, it’s a site of the contestation of meaning. Worshiping the dead based on their contribution to and association with the State seems as though it could easily transform into worship of the State itself. We needn’t look back even 100 years to see how badly that can go.

    I understand that in ancient Rome the elevation of the dead to godhood required some sort of community ritual, called apotheosis. I hope that our community will exercise good judgement regarding those of the dead we elevate in this way. I for one would rather be praying to George Washington Carver than to George Washington. But that’s just me.

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