Reading the Tea Leaves of History

“Hello? Is that you, Jesus?” 

Sam Bush / 3.7.23

Glancing at the news of the day, it can often seem like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. War, earthquakes, partisan squabbling, malevolent actors, economic uncertainty … the list is endless. Good news seems to be rare. When it does happen, when the skies part and the sun shines in all its radiance, the relief can feel divine. Even these momentary reprieves, however, raise further questions. Weighing world events on a cosmic scale, we read the tea leaves and conclude that God is asleep at the wheel, that history testifies to only periodic divine interventions interrupting an otherwise unceasing death knell. 

At the very end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s quite a thing to say right before disappearing into a cloud. While we can be reassured that he is still, in fact, with us, we are often left wondering about the precise coordinates. Whether it’s a recent election result, a promising weather report, or finding a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk, it often feels like we have no ability to clearly discern God’s movement in the world, who indeed seems to be as fickle as the weather outside. We may be encouraged to live by faith and not by sight, but that doesn’t stop us from tapping our canes in the dark and asking aloud, “Hello? Is that you, Jesus?” 

Take the revival, for instance. The word being whispered through several churches I know is that “something is afoot.” Whether it’s the events at Asbury Chapel or the events of one’s own local church, God seems to be acutely on the move. While recent events show plenty of the markings of divine engagement, we are still left in the dark as to what exactly is going on. Weeks later, as the feeling begins to fade, we can easily wonder if it was real in the first place.

Most of us can relate to at least some kind of revival and its aftermath. The euphoria of summer camp cools to a simmer at the start of the school year. An epiphany on a pilgrimage can be tainted by passing through the gift shop by the exit. In more than one sense, reentry back to one’s day-to-day life can feel like getting back from vacation. One can’t help but wonder if it was worth spending all that money on plane tickets if the stress of life is higher after a relaxing getaway. Even after a bountiful harvest, it’s usually not long until the seeds of doubt dig their way back into the ground.

The same applies to all revivals past. By any measure, the Great Awakening of the 18th-century was an extraordinary phenomena. The electric preaching of Wesley, Whitfield, and Edwards — mixed with the popular hymns of Isaac Watts — compelled thousands to confess their faith in Jesus (there are testimonies of George Whitfield preaching to 8,000 people without a microphone). But something happened in the aftermath of those stirring sermons. Even though everyone gave some kind of formal expression of faith in the moment, questions arose after Whitfield had left the building. For the first time, on a massive scale, people were wondering how to tell who the true converts were. Questions like “Am I saved?” or “Did it really happen?” started being asked. Many people were left to their own devices to grapple with the answers, often looking to their own lives to see if they were bearing enough fruit that was worthy of a Christian. In other words, if what happened really was the work of God, people should expect to see more lasting change in their lives than the memory of a past spectacle. 

For Karl Barth, reading the tea leaves of historical happenings (whether in one’s personal life or in the church) was almost always a mistake. He was adamantly opposed to attaching world events to divine engagement, mainly because our perception of divine things is so consistently off and our ability to judge is so fraught with difficulties. When we try to discern the work of God, we attempt to take the divine into our own possession and bring it under our own management to fulfill our own purposes.

At the moment when religion becomes conscious of religion, when it becomes a psychologically and historically conceivable magnitude in the world, it falls away from its inner character, from its truth, to idols. Its truth is its other-worldliness, its refusal of the idea of sacredness, its non-historicity. I see the decisive characteristic of the Bible — as opposed to the history of religion, of which obviously the history of the Christian church is a chief part — in that the Bible displays a quite striking continuity of faithfulness, constancy, patient hopefulness, and objective attention toward the incomprehensible, psychological, and unhistorical truth of God. The human attempt to betray and to compromise the secret of which all religion dreams has no standing in the Bible. (The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 69)

Barth took a hacksaw to the notion that divine activity could objectively and without question be identified. God, it seems, doesn’t leave any fingerprints. Because if God did leave fingerprints, they would instantly become blueprints for the future. No matter how well-intentioned, revivals could not be turned into a franchise of mini-revivals. If Christianity was to have any power at all, it would come from God alone. And it would frustratingly come and go as He pleases. God’s handiwork may be found all over the world, but the moment you pin it down it slips through your fingertips. God works within and somehow beyond the causations of time.

After all, claiming that certain events were indisputable signs of the presence of God raises an awkward follow-up question: what about the more mundane moments of history? Or its tragedies? If God clearly reveals Himself at an altar call, is He somehow less present the following Thursday?

Whether it be your life or world events, for Barth all of human history is a complete mystery that points to the undeniable certainty of Jesus. He is the intersecting tangent to the circle of time. Barth’s entire enterprise is overwhelmingly focused on the singular revelation of the word made flesh. Faith does not have to do with whether or not a church grows in the way we want it to, but with the death and resurrection of Jesus. While we may wish to attach causation to worldly events and commandeer God for those purposes, they are far from the content of our faith. On the contrary, God is both the subject and the object of faith. 

The fact remains that nobody has any clue what is going on at any given time. As the Apostle Paul says, “no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit” (1 Cor 2:11). We may see glimpses of light here and there, but we spend most of our lives in darkness — hands stretched out, feet stumbling along, eyes straining to see through the veil. 

While we can’t help but wonder if something is afoot, Jesus never gave his disciples a GPS for their journey to the ends of the earth. The disciples were only told how the story resolves, not when or how it would arrive. Until then, they were to preach the gospel and baptize, come hell or high water, awaiting the turning of the age when all shall be well. Because as tempting as it might be to try and read the brewed leaves of time, the tea God makes is meant to be drunk. He’s promised it isn’t poisoned. 

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