Circumstances have a way of bringing into everyday conversation terms and concepts that become frequent in their use.
Current attention has brought a term like “unprecedented” into our reflections on events that have dominated the public stage, and we hear it frequently in reports and commentaries.
While there are certainly unique features to much of what we are seeing take place, historians in the conversation helpfully point out that there are numerous parallels – from ancient history to modern – to many of the dynamics that we see in actions, trends and responses.
Those parallels offer a helpful qualification to things that are, indeed, “unprecedented” in their current impact on our collective life.
Another term that has prompted interest is the use of “inflection point” to describe the significance of a given moment of discovery or disclosure as a place where a new direction going forward is beginning.
Originally, it is a mathematical term, referring to the point of a graph of a mathematical function when the orientation of its curve begins to change.
In political parlance, it has become a key term to speak of something that marks a change in the direction of whatever process is being described.
Both personal retrospect and a study of history remind us of those turning points, pivotal points, “a-ha” moments and crucial events that mark a change in the direction of thinking and living on a personal level and even in the course of history on a larger scale.
For an inflection point to exist, there has to be a curve in process that reflects the mathematical function to that point; and there has to be a change in that curve’s trajectory going forward to reflect an adjusted interaction of the variables involved.
The inflection point is not determined by the size of the directional change. Rather, it is the fact of the change, however slight, that starts to point in a different direction.
All of this brought me to the realization that every moment in our journey is a kind of “inflection point” between a past that we cannot change (but from which we can increase our knowledge and understanding) and a future that our present decisions will shape.
Some such inflection points are more significant than others, such as a decision to embrace sobriety in response to a pattern of addiction, the decision to subject one’s need to be right to the discovery of a deeper level of truth, or the choice to seek wisdom in response to life’s challenging questions rather than answers.
Inflection points open the possibility of a change of direction that may even be imperceptible at the beginning, but which when followed will lead toward a different destination.
For this reason, it is easy and understandable to suggest that a certain event or circumstance can be an inflection point – but only time will tell.
The Bible is usually not cited for its mathematical insights, but the concept of history that is woven throughout the fabric of its testimony seems consistent with this suggestion that every moment is an inflection point in the covenant journey.
A past is there – remembered, refined, formulated and framed into a narrative that serves as a travel guide for the journey – complete with models of heroic faith and realistic portrayals of departures from the covenant partnership.
And that past calls for it to be learned and understood in its depth, not just in those parts that support what might be desired in the present.
Numerous examples are provided, often through the words of the prophets, where an adjustment is called for to re-align history’s direction with the trajectory of the covenant faith that seems prone to distraction by the shiny objects of success, power and privilege.
And the choice is made, time and again, to affirm and embrace a change of direction in the moral and theological curve toward the divine agenda for the covenant community within history’s processes.
The entire biblical testimony seems to be held together by these continual inflection points of the covenant journey.
The everyday image that comes to mind is that of the small, imperceptible adjustments made to a steering wheel to keep a car in its proper lane, even on a straight road.
Inflection points offer a broadening knowledge and deepening understanding of the past and a vision of a wholesome and sustainable future that come together to adjust present decisions for a faithful connection of the two.
Perhaps this provides a helpful conceptual tool for participating in both the biblical story and our current challenges.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).