There was a well-known German Lutheran theologian who was forced to emigrate from Germany to the United States in the 1930s because of his outspoken opposition to the Nazi regime. He was about 40 years old at the time and didn’t know a word of English. He eventually became University Professor at Harvard, but along the way, he struggled greatly with the English language. One of the words that he had difficulty pronouncing was „space“, and so when he lectured on the problem of „space and time“, it always sounded as though he was saying „spice and thyme“, which invariably evoked a chuckle from his students.
The problem of space and time was not only an academic concern in his lectures, but also a topic of conservation with colleagues as he compared the US culture to his native European one. He was of the opinion–and I think that he was right–that Americans have a totally different understanding of time than Europeans. And this difference is nowhere more pronounced than in the understanding of history. For most Americans, history is more or less synonymous with American history, although they realize, of course, that American history involves the Europeans at many points–such as, in the case of the two World Wars of the twentieth century. But if we look back in history beyond the Colonial Period, we Americans tend to contract historical events into stylized periods such as the “Middle Ages” or, more pejoratively, the “Dark Ages”. Should the Middle Ages happen to come up for discussion, it is frequently in the context of a comparison between the ignorance then and the enlightenment now. In truth, however, the so-called “Dark Ages” were not as dark as our knowledge of these centuries. It was, after all, during the Middle Ages than the Arabic numbers (discovered by the mathematicians of India) were introduced into Western thought, thus replacing the Roman numerals, which were extremely clumsy in complicated calculations. Just try the following simple calculation using Roman numerals: 66/3 + 87 – 23 (LXVI/III + LXXXVII – XXIII), and you will gain a new appreciation for the contributions of the Middle Ages. The famous Fibonacci numbers were also discovered during this period, and important legal distinctions were introduced through the Decree of Gratian around ad 1140, which facilitated the eventual development of human rights. The medieval world gave us the game of chess, the writings of Chaucer and the first piece of feminist literature, “The Book of Margery Kempe”. Finally, it is worth noting that our modern universities are direct descendants of the European universities of the Middle Ages. Both the University of Bologna and Oxford University were founded in the eleventh century.
A greater appreciation of history would not only be intellectually stimulating; it would also enrich our culture in a number of ways. As I returned to the States three years ago, I was struck by the extent to which fundamentalism has become the norm of the Christian religion. When I first studied theology at Vanderbilt University in the 1960s, we were reading liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer alongside philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Bonhoeffer’s call for a non-religious language of Christianity and Tillich’s existential interpretation of biblical mythology gave us the impression that we had finally moved beyond the narrow dogmatic views of the past and that we were now on the verge of developing a form of Christianity that would be truly beneficial in the modern world. There was no talk at that time of creationism vs. evolution, but rather there was a serious attempt to interpret the mythology of creation in existential terms. To be sure, there were religious fundamentalists in the 1960s, but we viewed them as a dying breed. We were convinced that the future belonged to liberal understandings of religious content. What has transpired in the States during my ex-patriate years is, however, the exact opposite of what I and many others expected in the 1960s. To my great surprise, liberal Christianity has disappeared from public view, and fundamentalism has taken over the mainstream of Christian thought. The reasons for this are complex, but this development is without doubt related to my comments on time and history.
As soon as history is contracted into stylized periods and the past is viewed as more or less insignificant for the events of the present, there is a tendency to read religious literature like the Hebrew or the Christian Bible in the same manner in which one would read the daily newspaper. In the absence of a clear historical consciousness, one reads the New Testament, for instance, as though it were a piece of contemporary literature that has direct relevance to our daily lives. In extreme form, one reads it as though it were a “recipe book” for daily living, with no appreciation for the cultural and societal differences that have occurred during the intervening 2000 years. One forgets easily that the English version of the New Testament is already an interpretation in itself (every translator knows that he or she must interpret in order to translate). The forgetfulness of historical distance that comes with the contraction of time gives impetus to a fundamentalist view of religion. I have discussed this primarily from the perspective of Christianity, but I think that the same is true of Judaism.
If temporal distance is contracted in American thought, then spatial distance is correspondingly dilated. Returning from tiny Switzerland to the US, I was almost overwhelmed by the spatial distances between things and concomitantly with the enormous size of everything. I hear Villagers complaining about the closeness of the houses to each other; they really don’t know what close is. The living space allowed to an individual in the States is truly remarkable, and this carries over into personal relationships where conversations are conducted at distances between the participants that would be offensive in many other cultures. When I first went to Switzerland, I lived in a small village on a lake, and for years, I didn’t own a car. Everything was available in the village and within walking distance: the Town Hall, the Church, the grocery store etc. And since everything was spatially close together, the refrigerator and the oven were also small. A Thanksgiving turkey would have been useless; there was no place to store it and the oven wouldn’t hold it. In my mind, the vast space in the United States is one of the great assets of the country. In many ways, it has been responsible for producing an openness in the American personality. Not feeling spatially constrained makes it easier to move around in personal relationships. It would be a significant step forward if we could transfer some of this openness to our understanding of time and history. We as a people are fascinated by the exploration of space; we should be equally fascinated by the exploration of times and cultures past. The history of the Western world is to some extent our history. Without an understanding of our past, we cannot understand our present any more than adults can understand their present lives without some understanding of their childhood.
Whether you are celebrating Christmas by reading the New Testament, or you are celebrating Hanukkah by reading the Torah, or perhaps you are trying to avoid all such celebrations by reading literature of times past, try reading these documents with full awareness of historical distance. Only when we place them at their proper historical distance can we begin to fathom their potential for our world.
By the way: It was Paul Tillich who said: “Spice and Thyme”.