Overcoming the Tyranny of History

History is tyranny.Vertigo

A seemingly inescapable part of human life is its history (and the baggage it brings with it). So much that shapes our identity: language, culture, economics, health, personality (and the list goes on), are largely products of history. As such, all of these things are outside of our control, not a part of our choosing. I am white, Anglo-American, lower middle class, with high blood pressure and attention deficit disorder. None of these things were chosen by me – and sometimes I would like to have chosen otherwise. But history would seem to be destiny.

However, history as destiny is heresy, or at least a marriage to the devil. History is the stuff of which we are made, but it is not the stuff of God’s making. History is the collection of dead things, events and people who have passed into dust. We remember almost nothing. Of the trillions and trillions of things that take place in any one moment, we generally mark but one as significant. Yet it was itself but a small sample of things that happened in that moment.

We experience history as tyranny. Many of the struggles of nations and peoples are a constant reliving of history’s fortunes: the land for which my fathers died; the land for which my fathers killed your fathers; the land for which you are prepared to kill me; and so the history we have lived becomes the present we are living, and too often the future we shall live.

True Existence Is From the Future

But this is not the Christian faith. The Church is called, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” And although some will describe it as the “historical” Church (for it has existed since the beginning), it is actually nothing of the sort.

St. John Chrysostom offers the correct Christian understanding of human existence:

It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.

The verb tense in this statement is extremely important. Though it was God who brought us into existence, it is we ourselves who fell away from the existence for which we were created. We became, if you will, “historical” creatures. But St. John notes that God “raised us up again” (past tense), and did not cease to do all things (past tense), until He had brought us up to heaven (past tense!), and had endowed us with His kingdom (past tense) which is to come (future).

It is a strange mix of tenses. We have been brought up to heaven! He has endowed us with His kingdom! We have been endowed with something that is to come!

This strange mix makes sense only when we realize that our existence in Christ is not historical, per se. We live in “history.” But we are creatures of the kingdom which is to come. Theologically we say that our existence is eschatological. The life that I am living day by day, is being created from the future.

The Scriptures say the same thing:

 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20 NKJ)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2 NKJ)

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-4 NKJ)

The true self, the man who I am becoming, is the free gift of God. History meets it and history is overcome (for you died). The true self is created and refashioned in the image of Christ (we shall be like Him). In that Kingdom, it is possible to say:

There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Col 3:11 NKJ)

Indeed, it is only in this eschatological form of existence that it makes sense to say there is neither Greek nor Jew…slave nor free…. My past is not the Lord of the present nor that which shapes the future.

The Eschatological Connection

We are all connected. We share a common history and we suffer for it. I stand by my father’s grave and note beside him his father’s grave. There are two empty plots beside my parents (one for me and one for a brother). My future was planned and paid for long ago. A small 3×6 plot of land in Pelzer, SC, is the world’s final word on my history. And I am right to stand by that plot of earth and rail at its tyranny. Death is an enemy.

But there is a greater connection and a true hope. The connection with the past is death. My life is my connection with the future, as the future is defined and created in the Risen Christ. Christ as the “End of all things,” is the proclamation of the gospel and the cornerstone of theology.

 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8 NKJ)

And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. (Rev 21:6 NKJ)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” (Rev 22:13 NKJ)

The word-play with verb tenses is similar to that of St. John’s. Christ does not say, “I was the Alpha, I will be the Omega, etc.” He is the beginning – He is the end.

The Sacrament of the End

To participate in Christ is to participate in the End. This is an utterly foundational understanding of the sacraments. The Eucharist is the Messianic Banquet. It does not remind us of something that happened, or make us think of something that will happen. In the Holy Eucharist, that which will be already is.

This is the healing connection. It is our mystical participation in the true life of Christ, that which was and is and is to come, that which overcomes history – a history that was and is no more. It is this healing connection that lies behind the types and allegories of the Old Testament. The Passover of the Jews does not merely “foreshadow,” the Pascha of Christ: it is the Pascha of Christ, hidden beneath the forms of history. For the Pascha of Christ was already before the Passover, because Christ, in all His fullness, was before the Passover. He is the “Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Every lamb ever sacrificed after that has some participation in The Lamb. The End was present in the beginning and has been shaping the world since its foundation. Christ is truly the Logos of all things, and the fullness of the Logos is only made known eschatologically. It is Christ as the End of all things that reveals the presence of Christ in all things.

Tradition and the End

History is tyranny. In its changelessness it refuses to forgive. What has been done has been done. But, again, the Scriptures are clear: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (ἐλευθερία)” (2 Cor. 3:17). The work of the Spirit is always inherently eschatological – wherever the Spirit is present – the freedom created by union with the End (Christ) is made present.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be truly free (Jn. 8:32 and 36).

The truth is eschatological in nature as well, for the truth of anything is only known in its end.

This is the strange aspect of Tradition that many do not understand. Tradition is not a function of history, but a work of the Spirit. The Church is not called to a conservative position – to guard its history with care. We are called to hold fast to that which was “once and for all” delivered to the saints. It is given “once and for all,” not as an aspect of history, but as the work of the Spirit, where history’s tyranny cannot reign. Thus the knowledge and truth given to the Church is not subject to the fading memory of aging history. Tradition is the very presence which makes all things continuously new. Those culture forces that others tout as “new” and “progressive,” are but the latest effects in history’s chain. They invite only bondage. Tradition, rightly understood, alone sets us free.

The healing we find in Christ, triumphant over history itself and the tyranny of cause and effect, is always the healing of a new creation. The Church lives the Divine Life of Christ in this world. That life, revealed in its fullness at the End of all things, is always, wherever it is present, already the End of all things. Tradition is not the shape of the past, but the shape of the future which ever draws us towards that final union.

Then comes the end, when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death….  Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:24-28 NKJ)

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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18 responses to “Overcoming the Tyranny of History”

  1. Eric Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for this

    It is most helpful medicine for that part of Christs body to which I belong, which is enslaved, enthralled and enchanted by ‘History’ and it’s dead offspring ‘Progress’

  2. Kirk Avatar

    This one even made sense to me. That being very unusual.

  3. Amy Avatar

    Thank you Father, I find your posts beautiful and inspiring. Please know they are much appreciated.

  4. David Avatar

    How do we reconcile the 1 Cor passage with the Creed: “Of his kingdom there shall be no end”?

  5. Robert Avatar

    David – by means of the Living Tradition.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christ Himself is the End, and yet He is Everlasting. The Kingdom has no end, because it is in Christ. Christ is not the End in the sense of “that which ceases.” He is the End in the sense of “that towards which all things are moving, etc.” The Kingdom will have no cessation.

  7. David Avatar

    Tangential, but important–what do we make of the disagreements between different Fathers about the materiality of the Kingdom and chiliasm? Can we be people who look at both St. Irenaeus’ idea, that the Kingdom will be deeply material AND a fulfillment of the Jewish hope for the kingdom, and at the vision of the later Fathers that the Kingdom will embrace the whole cosmos and transform everything? In essence, can we hope for a Kingdom

    In continuity with history–particular, and in recognizable fulfillment of the biblical hope

    In discontinuity with history–transforming all matter and embracing the whole cosmos and ending the cycle you talk about in the article

    Material, though matter in perfect union with spirit

    And unending, forever?

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Oh my. Not sure how to answer it. Certainly not in a definitive manner. For myself, I see the resurrected body of Christ as the single example of what the expected Kingdom looks like. It has both a specific sort of materiality, that clearly transcends what we know of materiality. So, for me, it’s a both/and. I don’t much care for Chiliasm (a literal sort of 1000 year Kingdom). I’m a whole cosmos kind of guy.

  9. David Avatar

    Father, I sympathize–I share the same vision, though I hope that the endless, cosmic Kingdom will have some Zion-centrality/some features of literal kingship. I can never quite get over the way Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ question concerning the kingdom of Israel isn’t a rejection of the idea itself–“It’s not for you to know when” is different from “Don’t worry about that, it’s not happening.” I lean in eschatology towards something like chiliasm minus the thousand years plus the whole universe, I think. I present that not to say, “Hey, aren’t my ideas neat?” but more as a, “Show me where and what I’m missing, so I can grow.”

  10. Mark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, some people think of eternity as an infinite amount of time. It’s probably more accurate to think of it as no time at all. So much of our attempting to understand is tied up in the notion that our time/space “reality” is all there is. The New Testament talks a bit about our being “in Him” and that He has entered into the holy place not made with hands a mere copy of the true one, but into Heaven itself (and I presume, His Body with Him).

    Many of us seem to function as naturalist materialists; that there might be any else that is greater or more real is meant mostly for C.S. Lewis’ children’s books.

    It seems silly now, but I once tried to “grasp” the concept of infinity. All I discovered was that my mind had limits. “Thinking outside the box” may be a good source of inspiration for those trying to invent some new consumer item, but there is a “box” we just can’t think outside of. Fortunately, this doesn’t limit God from graciously dropping letters into our box. In a kind of a strange way, we already are what we are becoming aren’t we?

    But here’s a different tyranny: I have a friend, a dear brother, who some years ago became an ardent Calvinist. He and his wife also became counselors. Though we talk infrequently now, I used to hear him talk about the trajectory of a person’s life. Though I’m sure it could be understood differently, the notion he seemed to propose was that an individual’s history (used much as you have described it) destined him to a certain end, as though God had somehow predetermined it. Thinking about it just now, it seems all all the myriad choices we can make boil down to just two.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David still being too linear. The life of what we call the past is then same life we have now and can grow into. The particulars can be entertaining but they need not trap us.

  12. G.Michael Avatar

    Thank you very much for all this father.

  13. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Freeman…this article reminded me of something written by St. Nicholai Velimirovich in his marvelous book Prayers by the Lake. “Aimless wanderers and loveless people have events and have history. Love has no history, and history has no love…. Truly, events are the aim of the aimless and the history of the pathless. Therefore the aimless and the pathless are blocked by events and squabble with events….Truly terrifying is the abyss of those who are in love with the events that are dragging them downward. “

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think one difficulty that comes for many people when thinking about the Age to Come is the failure to understand that our very mode of existence will be changed. Our mode of existence is already changing (as you spiritually mature). The Age to Come will exist in a manner that is appropriate to how we will exist then.

  15. David Avatar

    Father, true. I am prone to forget that, I think, because I have no idea what that will mean.

    Can we be both/and people about this, or do we have to choose one? Can’t we say, “Jesus will return to reign as Israel’s King and the world’s true Lord, AND everything will be so new and different and our mode of existence will be so much more glorious that it’s hard to put into words what any of it will look like.” In this scheme, it would be a Kingdom, with identifiable marks of a Kingdom, but also a Kingdom that is radically and utterly different from any and all earthly kingdoms in every aspect of how it functions and the life of its citizenry and the realm over which it rules? I suppose when I consider this, I can’t see any good reason not to embrace both the very literal-seeming biblical hope for Jesus to reign as a real king in Zion AND the hope for cosmic renewal and resurrection life. I don’t think of the Age to Come as just an extension of present earthly life, but I do think that if heaven is coming to earth and is already secretly here, then it has to involve some sort of earthly dimension: the heaven-on-earthly Kingdom, I suppose.

    There might be good reasons for rejecting such a vision, but I can’t see them, which is why I ask, so I can correct my course if there are.

    (Also, please forgive all the questions. I don’t mean to pester.)

  16. drewster2000 Avatar


    Your statement got me thinking:

    “the notion he seemed to propose was that an individual’s history (used much as you have described it) destined him to a certain end, as though God had somehow predetermined it. Thinking about it just now, it seems all all the myriad choices we can make boil down to just two.”

    You yourself were just talking about how we have a box that we can’t think outside of – but that fortunately God drops letters in that box. Maybe this helps answer your own dilemma. God is not limited by our box. Neither is he limited by our history, which would play tyrant over us, but He uses these things; He works through them.

    An example: Just because you’re good at throwing a baseball doesn’t destine you to dying of a heartache while pitching the 1949 World Series at Wrigley Field. Does that make sense? The abilities, tendencies, characteristics, opinions, hopes & dreams, etc. definitely have an influence on us, but they don’t destine us.

    Referring back to the original article, these things are part of our history. Many of them can easily be considered good, even gifts from God – but in Christ the power they have to run/ruin our lives is broken. As Fr. Stephen says, “The connection with the past is death. My life is my connection with the future, as the future is defined and created in the Risen Christ.”

    Your brother’s ideology is attractive in that once you figure out your destiny, the only struggle left is to follow it. So we’re not mindless robots that have to obey, but the only difference between us and the robots is that we can say no.

    In truth our life in Christ is much more dynamic than that. We definitely live the struggle of saying yes and no when dealing with differences between our ways and that of Christ, but simple yes and no answers are not enough by themselves to live the life He has created for us.

    This where humility comes into the picture again. We must be ready to live the life God puts in front of us daily, instead of clinging to the history of our past that is ugly but at least safe because we are already familiar with much of it.

    hope this helps, drewster

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Why not being content with not knowing the answer?

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