So far we have noted the unique cosmology of the Hebrews and their notion decentralized stewardship. But there is yet another peculiarity about Hebrew thought that contributes directly to economic behavior: Linear time and progress.
Ancient Near East culture had a cyclical view of time. Time moved in repeating patterns. Worship and daily life were about conforming to the patterns the gods had established.
The Hebrew cosmology suggests that the world was created incomplete but with an end in mind. God created humanity and instructed them to fill the earth and to exercise dominion; bring it to its potential. The idea that time is a sequence of non-repeating events moving toward an end is nascent in the Genesis cosmology.
With the fall of humanity came the promise of redemption and ultimately a new creation. The specificity of this plan unfolds over the course of the Old Testament. God intends to use Israel as a magnet to draw all nations to himself. Israel fails in its mission and awaits a day when God will redeem them. In the centuries before Christ, many championed obedience to the covenant as a way to speed God’s action. As Rodney Stark has written, they were processing through time, anticipating redemption.
Jesus enters the picture announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God but not in a way the Jews expect. The redemptive mission is not just for Israel but for all of humanity and creation. But for our purposes, what is critical is to realize the shift in perspective related toward time. Rather than looking backward to Moses and living according to a set of covenantal rules and practices, the view shifts forward to the consummation of the Kingdom. The ethics and reality of the future are to be lived as if they were in the present as best we can. There is a sense of giving witness to God as Israel was intended to do, but there is a more active explicitly outward directed mission as well. We are not only passively processing toward the Kingdom we are actively progressing toward the Kingdom praying that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.
Scholar uses an analogy to describe the progression of time for the Hebrews. Imagine navigating a river or lake. The Hebrew perspective was one of being in rowboat rowing the oars with our back toward our destination and our eyes toward what we are leaving as a reference point. We tend to view time as though we are in a canoe, orienting ourselves by what is on the horizon in front of us. What all this means is that we are in a story (a progression of events), God is control of those events, and we are participants in the unfolding of those events. The enlightenment/Modernist heresy is that it keeps the idea of progress and participating in the shaping of human events while evicting God from the equation.
Economic development studies repeatedly show that time orientation and confidence that life can be other than it is now are two of the most critical factors in catalyzing economic development. I read recently about a Christian economic development team working with Indians in Guatemala. The assisted in building grain storage facilities for the Indians. But these Indians had such a fatalistic view of reality that when bins needed repairs to keep rodents out and the grain in, they simply did nothing. It was then that the mission workers began to preach regularly about God’s power and sovereignty. Some began to catch the vision of what God is about and the community was transformed.
The idea that we are progressing to an end and that change is possible is so much a part of our reality it is like talking about water to a fish. When surveys are done of the poor in developing nations around the world today, the most frequently identified concern is not material need. It is hopelessness and fear … no sense of progress or power to affect events.
While we may not always agree about what constitutes appropriate progress and what end we should have in mind, the idea that there should be progress toward an end is deeply in the Judeo-Christian heritage.