'Faith in history creates two handicaps. First it makes you passive...' wrote Edward Luce recently. He was talking about the danger of believing that the current state of politics in the US – or the UK – is only a temporary blip in history, something that will correct itself.
Most of us are more familiar with Edmund Burke's philosophy, 'Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it,' which challenges us to take a deeper look. And when we think of the wars, the genocides, and the ethnic cleansing of the last century, surely we must look back and learn. We must sharpen our focus with hindsight so that wherever we see the signs for concern, we consider what we can to do to divert what might otherwise seem inevitable.
If looking back can educate us, it can also galvanise us. While looking at history through the lens of war or disaster, we can easily fall victim to despair. A recent book called Factfulness – one which Bill Gates recommends as one of the most important he's ever read – is a much-needed antidote to that kind of doom and gloom. It looks back at how destructive poverty and disease have been and instead sets out the trend towards a decline in global poverty and the disappearance of once widespread diseases. Gates would say, 'It's easier to accelerate progress if you know how far we've already come.'
So, in these times of national and global uncertainty, surely we could be forgiven for looking over our shoulders. We see a struggling NHS this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, remembering the reasons why it was established in the first place. And perhaps as we look around too and continue to discuss Brexit, we could also ask ourselves why Europe unified in the first place. It wasn't just to address the struggling post-war economies. It was also in response to the very real consequences of nationalism which we see across Europe again today.
Looking back and trusting that it will all work out in the end is tempting. However, if we truly believe that somehow we are better people today, that more information, opportunity and exposure to other cultures, have made us a better people, a moment on social media will inform us otherwise. In that sense, faith in history – faith in an inevitable, improving timeline – can make us passive.
Our faith is of course informed by looking back. It's informed by key New Testament passages like the Sermon on the Mount. But it's all too easy to romanticise what Jesus taught and forget how revolutionary it was. The Beatitudes conjure up images of a kingdom which is radical and offensive. One that confronts sin and comforts sorrow. One that addresses hunger and requires humility. One that describes the impossible and yet imagined it as if it were inevitable. One that Dallas Willard named a book after, The Divine Conspiracy.
Jesus embodied this heavenly kingdom. He saw a future hope breaking into the present. This kingdom would be seen and felt where God's rule and reign was welcomed. And we only have to read Revelation 21 to see that this is more necessary and attractive than ever: 'Then I saw "a new heaven and a new earth," for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."'
There's an old saying, that heaven isn't 'pie in the sky when you die' but it's 'steak on the plate while you wait'. Our future hope comforts and confronts us in the midst of the very real challenges all around us. In many ways, history simply cannot help us.
The author LP Hartley wrote, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' But for us as Christians, we could say – the future is a foreign country. Heaven is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Except that the Bible tells us that we are exiles here, in our time, in our country.
It is not our country's past, its history that defines us. It's not just our past or how we've been raised. Social anthropologist Margaret Mead challenges that assumption: 'The notion that we are products of our environment is our greatest sin; we are products of our choices,' she says.
We get to choose. We're invited into an entirely new way to live, from an entirely different perspective. And how we respond to the world around us is all about our choices. We cannot afford to be passive observers, even students of history. Let us learn from those who have gone before us, but let our future hope, our future home, inform the choices we will make today and therefore place in our hands, in our time, something the world is crying out for.
Our history has not yet been written, and each of us has to play our part in writing it.
Karen Sturrock is a lawyer turned copywriter. Follow her on Twitter @karenlsturrock.