That famous philosopher from New York - the Yankees, that is - Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” That’s so Yogi and so true.
When I was young, I read - I think it was in Popular Mechanics - that we’d all own flying cars by the turn of the millennium. I couldn’t wait. I’m still waiting.
In 1904, the New York Times ran a story on the debate raging over the automobile. Some experts claimed the human brain was incapable of processing enough information to travel at speeds exceeding 8 mph. The article went on to predict vague, “disastrous results.”
Joe McKinley, writing in Reader’s Digest, cites a 1966 Time essay that claimed remote shopping would never catch on. According to the essay, “…while entirely feasible, (remote shopping) will flop - because women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.”
Yogi was right: It is tough to make predictions - at least accurate ones. The prediction that the automobile was a passing fancy was dead wrong. It turned out that the telephone was not a faddish toy. Y2K did not devastate the country. NASA’s prediction that we would soon walk on Mars proved mistaken.
So why is everyone so quick to make predictions regarding the right and wrong side of history? Over the past dozen years it has become a mantra of sorts. During the Obama years, as Jonah Goldberg pointed out at the time, administration officials were regularly predicting that some particular international bully was going to find himself on the wrong side of history.
There are numerous mistaken assumptions that lie behind this way of thinking. First, it anthropomorphizes history and makes it humanity’s judge. Or it might be more accurate to say, it apotheosizes history, giving it God’s place as judge. But history is not a person, whether human or divine, and is incapable of rendering judgment.
A further error lies in the common but mistaken idea that history - in the sense of the progression of time - will somehow make things right and good. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the flaw in this thinking and wrote in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”
After quoting King, Jacob T. Levy, writing in Vox, calls the idea that “the passage of time reveals moral truth” a “superstition.” Jonah Goldberg goes further in The New York Post, suggesting the idea was popularized by Karl Marx and was used by communist regimes to justify the murder of “millions of inconvenient people.”
It has become popular to claim that anyone who disagrees on a moral issue is “on the wrong side of history,” as if history is a door with two sides, one of which opens onto some utopian society. But this has not been our experience. History doesn’t have sides nor does it take sides. It is simply the story of which sides we have taken.
It is irresponsible (and morally bankrupt) to take a side on a moral issue based on what we expect some future majority will choose. To take sides on a moral issue requires an ethical foundation, not software-based predictive analytics. That foundation will be made of something; often a philosophical understanding of, or a religious revelation regarding, humanity’s purpose and meaning.
For Christians, that ethical foundation lies in biblical revelation, which the church understands to be the word of God. Various influences have so eroded that foundation that society now nails together moral platforms on contemporary issues without any ethical foundation other than the illusory “right side of history.”
When someone claims their position is morally superior, ask the basis upon which they make that claim. If all they have to stand on is a “right side of history” claim, they have nothing to stand on at all. Remind them that a philosopher (of sorts) once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.