The Bible, in the book of Judges, frequently and ominously comments on the tendency of people to lose sight of the history of deliverance and the need to continue living in obedience to God by stating that a generation arose that did not know some deliverer or another . In contrast to this, the author Jane Austen lived nearly her entire life among the shadow of warfare with the American Revolution and the conflicts against the French Republic and then the Napoleonic Empire , but she was still able in her works, despite their honest portrayal of an England drastically affected by immense and prolonged military effort, making husbands particularly scarce for her comely gentry heroines, to picture England safe once again despite living a life in a period where there was little geopolitical peace until after her death. On the one hand, we read in the pages of scripture, and we can see in our own world, a tendency for people to neglect the historical memory of other people in the face of their own chronological snobbery, and on the other hand we can see that some people, those who we label as geniuses of one kind or another, who are able to envision a world beyond the narrow confines of their experience.
Let us note that this vision is far from an unmixed good. The melancholy history of our world is full of people who saw visions of a world and who possessed the charisma and fortune to seek to put those visions into practice, and a great deal of those visions ended up being dark nightmares. Such was the result, after all, of the terrors of the French Revolution, the well-deserved destruction of antebellum Southern society in the aftermath of their foolhardy efforts at rebellion, the charnel houses of 20th century Nazi Germany and those nations unfortunate enough to be occupied, the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, the purges, cultural revolutions, and outright genocidal hostility of the urban cultures found in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or the rapine and barbarity of Japan’s euphemistically named co-Prosperity Sphere. The ability to envision a different world than we have known is no guarantee that this world will be a better world than have known. The lengthy record of dismal failure of the efforts of dreamers and revolutionaries is a cautionary tale to those whose sense of historical memory exceeds their hope and optimism in the goodness of human efforts apart from the guidance and restraint that comes from godliness and the indwelling presence of the Spirt of God. Yet the failure of these efforts has in no means discouraged those whose wishful thinking exists in the absence of any firm rooting within history or tradition, which provides a test of reality to the material of dreams and visions.
Yet we also need to remember that just as dreamers and visionaries can fail by being unconnected to reality, so too can those who blindly support tradition fail by being unconnected to any sort of vision of a better world. Witness, for example, the long retreat of the absolutist monarchs of the post-Bonaparte 19th century, or the persistence of injustice and racism in Jim Crow America after the Civil War and the lamentable failure of Reconstruction. Even if we lack such historical understanding, we need only look in our own time at the frightening specter of the traditional appeal of the barbaric sharia law of Sunni Muslims, with the brutal punishment directed at some people while other crimes like, say, rape, going unpunished except for the double victimization of victims by their assaulters and then again by the law for having brought shame on their family name. No vision can be found in any of this, except the fears of vulnerable and insecure authorities who are afraid that they can only maintain control through brutal punishment and restrictions on those they consider to be on a level barely above that of mere property. Perhaps a bit too insecure to justify an unjust social structure on the grounds that they have the power to do so, and unable to justify the existing social order as being of benefit to everyone, they instead appeal to tradition, as if mere age could give dignity to something lacking any other sort of dignity or honor.
What are we to do about this? It is clear that dreams and visions require the connection to reality in order to expose what looks good in theory to the stern test of putting it into practice. It is also clear that in the absence of a vision of a better world and of growth and progress that traditions can become brutal and barbaric being kept without regard for the people who are subjected to those traditions and under authorities that act with no concern for anyone’s well-being aside from their own. In a sense both vision and tradition provide a test on the other. The way we have always done things is the ballast that keeps a kite from being caught up in the winds of fashion, while a kite could never fly at all without some sort of wind to carry it above the muck and mire of the ground. We must keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, but life is only worth living if we are reaching for the heavens above. We must therefore keep one eye looking to the past, to examine its legacy with an eye to what must be preserved, what is an outright embarrassment, and what has been lost that is worthy of recovery and restoration, one eye looking to the future, to the ideals that have never been fully put into practice, so that we can mold our present conduct and act in the present both to preserve and to grow as best as we can.
It is worthwhile as well to wonder why we need to look at the future and the past at all, given the difficulty of the task of both sifting the past like a sympathetic archeologist or antiquarian trying to restore the glories of the past while simultaneously looking at the future in the guise of a moderate idealist and reformer of our contemporary corruption. The reason why we must dedicate ourselves to such a difficult task is because we exist within a variety of difficult constraints. For one, we all spring from families and cultures and institutions that nourish us and which help identify us, from which we gain our education and our worldviews, and which deserve our loyalty and honor, as imperfect and flawed as those institutions are, and as corrupt as the leadership of such institutions often is. Remembering that we are flawed and imperfect but also worthy of respect and honor simply by being created in the image and likeness of God ought to temper our resentment at the imperfections of those around us. Additionally, the respect and honor that is merited simply by being human requires both that we seek consent and consensus in turning dreams into reality, lest they turn into nightmares, and that we push towards ideals that lead to increased honor and respect and concern for the well-being of others being put into practice in ways that overcome the narrowness and provincialism of our backgrounds. Let us close with a reflection from memory. I remember once going to a wedding of an older woman and a younger man, and the father of the bride happened to be a friendly, if nearly toothless, gentleman of what appeared to be Guarani descent from the border of Argentina and Paraguay, while the groom was clearly of criollo descent. My friendliness to the elderly gentleman struck others as somewhat surprising, but I did not judge him for his background, but rather wished to honor him as the father of the bride on this day in which his daughter was married. Why should we not give honor to others, and strive to overcome our biases and prejudices, as we strive to obey God and be ennobled through growth and nourished by our connection to the timeless truths of our Lord and Creator. Certainly what we strive for is not an easy task, but if life is to be worth living, we must in some fashion make this world easier and better to live in, even as we strive for a better world yet to come than humanity has ever known.
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