One indicator of the health of a society, or of groups within that society, is the attitude taken toward history. There is a deep psychic involvement of individuals and groups in the entire subject of the past, whether it be the past of universal history, or that of smaller human units. It is not surprising that groups alienated from their fellows—and such groups are usually made up of individuals estranged from themselves—tend to be contemptuous of history.

Many alienated and inwardly sick persons are, like Marx, disdainful of the environment or the class that produced them. More often than not, this disdain has deep religious roots, and involves the spiritual heritage of the families from which these dissident persons come. This causes the thoughtful person to examine the more general attitudes that have been taken, in religious as well as secular circles, toward history in our time.

Few trends within the theology of the recent past have been more conspicuous or more controlling than the trend toward the splitting of history into two kinds, corresponding roughly to the Kantian division of knowledge. Seen from one point of view, this is what the Bultmannian movement has been all about. What concerns us here is the impact of this bifurcation upon the thought climate of our time.

We are familiar by now with the distinction between Historie and Geschichte. The former concerns itself with the analysis of the largest possible quantity of verifiable facts from the past. The latter is concerned primarily with discovering phenomena from the past that are meaningful in the present individual situation, and that challenge personal interest and commitment.

In biblical studies, this division of history has created a number of problems of interpretation, and has given rise to whole new traditions of hermeneutics. The crux of the problem here has been, of course, that of reconciling God’s revelation, which has come to us as history, with the understanding of general historical facts.

The tempting option has been to adopt a view of historical interpretation that will put “existential faith” beyond the reach of the usual norms for ascertaining historical facts. Thus some theologians have retreated into a dichotomy of secular versus saving history. They have opted for this type of “solution” as a result of accepting as normative for Modern Man the uniformitarian view of life. Since the Book that claims to be God’s revelation is permeated through and through with events that simply do not fit the generalizations of either a unilinear history or a uniformitarian science, these theologians have faced difficult decisions.

Men like Bultmann, deeply concerned both with preserving theological integrity and with keeping the ear of the man trained, informally at least, in contemporary scientific theory, have sought to separate history from the kerygma—from the core of the Christian proclamation. Others, like Ebeling, tend to be more conservative and to discover the genuinely historical elements underlying the kerygma. Working along somewhat independent lines, Wolfhart Pannenberg seeks to separate today’s historical method from its past rootage in positivistic historicism. It is heartening, to say the least, that not all thinkers are satisfied with the radical splitting of history into two divergent forms.

The problem arises with the layman. He seems to find it almost impossible to find stability in meaning apart from fact. Not only does the bifocal view of Historie-Geschichte fail to challenge him to commitment; it has tended to destroy his respect for history. The plain man is perplexed by the notorious recklessness with which existential theologians treat historical data.

It is heartening that the layman refuses to imagine history as being merely tangential to existence—that he cannot be challenged by any “kerygmatic word” unrelated to the universal history with which he has at least some familiarity. He is inclined to wonder whether a current generation of theologians is qualified to break the continuity with past historical understanding, and to determine what and what alone can be meaningful for the modern world.

But if the religious layman fails to see the full implications of the current rejection of the historical rootage of biblical faith, there are those who are not slow to seize upon the larger implications of the downgrading of this segment of our cultural heritage. We refer to the drop-outs of today’s society, those who have become cultic in the outright rejection of history as it has been taught and understood.

Not all, of course, of the rejection of history by the alienated is the direct result of the equivocal treatment of the past by the theologians. Part of this reaction is due to the sneering and muckraking attitude of some of the newer breed of teachers of history. But it remains a source of astonishment, to those who try to understand the mentality of the “far out” students, to find the extent of these students’ ignorance of and contempt for history.

Some of us have, in conversations with them, heard the assertion, “Why study history? It is a device to project the ways of the Establishment.” And if one protests that the study of the events of the past might cast some light upon such a problem as the appeasement of totalitarian states and their rulers, he hears summarily, “Your generation is uptight over Munich!”

One ignorant of America’s past may be easily convinced by his leftist mentor that “in our nation, tolerance is but a technique for oppression.” If he knew his history, he would know that this is a man’s unjust calumny against the nation that gave him shelter as a persecutre of an elitist dictatorship resting upon a strong base of alienated and violence-prone students. A generation ignorant of history may easily believe that mass starvation in our world is a recent invention of their incompetent parents, or that sexual hangups originated in middle-class suburbia the day before yesterday.

Theologians of our time cannot disclaim entirely responsibility for the discounting and ignorance of history upon the part of a generation so ill informed. They must shoulder some of the blame for the lostness of the alienated who despise those by whose sacrifice they have their credit cards and their bloated allowances. It might help to redeem the situation if they would remind those who disdain the past of the words of George Santayana to the effect that “he who will not learn from history will have to relive it.”


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