Can seventeen hundred miles of driving by yourself qualify as a personal “retreat”? If so, then I recently enjoyed one.
Last week was spring break at Wheaton College, and I took advantage of the time to visit family in Tennessee and Georgia. I’ve now made the trek more than thirty times since moving to Wheaton in 2010. In addition to the pleasure of reconnecting with several generations of relatives, I’ve also come to enjoy the pleasures of the drive itself.
That’s not something I could have predicted, as I’ve been known to get irritated when I drive. I blame this on my father and take no responsibility. Dad hasn’t been able to drive for years, but in his prime he elevated impatience on the highway to an art form. He rarely used profanity to express his displeasure (although he had a creative assortment of euphemisms), but he did like to label the miscreants who violated his rules of the road. These tags had nothing to do with the culprits’ ancestry, by the way. Dad classified drivers by their age. If a teenager was tailgating him: “Dadburn it, I got me a young buck right on my tail.” If a senior citizen was slowing him down: “Dadgummit, we’re behind an old codger.” And if someone his own age was inexplicably less than perfect? “Doggone it, that scutter’s old enough to know better.”
As a rule, I struggle with the same impulses when driving close to home, but I enter a different state of mind on road trips. The difference, I think, is psychological. These trips come during school vacations. I’m in less of a hurry. I’m able to relax enough to savor the solitude and relish the opportunity to read (books on tape) and reflect. Relaxing, reading, reflecting—that sounds like a retreat, doesn’t it?
Parker Palmer says that your true vocation is not an obligation you strive to fulfill but a natural expression of how God made you. One of the reasons I believe I’m called to be a teacher is that my mind naturally turns toward the classroom even when I’m away from it. And so as the miles passed by, before I consciously realized it I was meditating on the conundrum that defines my vocational life: how to convince inhabitants of our present-tense culture to see—or perhaps, more accurately, to feel—the power of the past in their lives.
We are creatures who live in time. “Time is the very lens through which we see,” as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce. Unavoidably, as humans we make sense of our lives retrospectively—from hindsight. And yet Americans are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s wonderful phrase, and what is more, we’re content with that soul-impoverishing isolation. We’re not just ignorant of the past. We’re contemptuous of it.
This is just as true of American Christians, although we have even less excuse than our secular neighbors. We claim to stake our lives on a faith that, at its heart, is “a vigorous appeal to history,” to quote Georges Florovsky. The core tenets of our faith rest on theological interpretations of historical events. If history is the story of humanity, we believe that God has ennobled that story beyond measure. God Himself set the story in motion. Its central characters bear His image. The Lord of the Universe actually entered into the story, identifying with its characters and walking the earth as one of them. He continues to be involved in the minutest details of the story, an epic that is unfolding according to His design and decree. And yet for the most part we mirror the culture’s debilitating presentism.
Why is this?
The answer is surely complicated and beyond our ability to nail down completely. But here are some likely culprits. First, as numerous historians have pointed out, as Americans, we remember our founding as a radical rupture with the past. Our Founding Fathers, we like to say, turned their backs on the Old World and brought something entirely new into being: a “new order for the ages” as those strange Latin words (novus ordo seclorum) declare on the back of our dollar bills.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the view that all but the most recent past was irrelevant had become a truism. “We are the great nation of futurity,” trumpeted the journalist John L. O’Sullivan, popularizer of the catch-phrase manifest destiny. “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history . . . which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only,” O’Sullivan informed readers of the Democratic Review. “We have no interest in the scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena.” It was an arrogant, ignorant, anti-intellectual, and popular assertion.
Second, if we’re evangelical as well as American, we’ve also been trained to be skeptical of most church history. As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we’re suspicious of tradition and tend to think of the millennium and a half between the time of the Apostles and the arrival of Martin Luther as an enormous black hole. But even that’s probably too generous. The reality is that most of us think of Church history as starting with Billy Graham (if we’re “old codgers”) or even Rick Warren or Joel Osteen. The growth of non-denominational churches has only heightened this sense of disjuncture with the past.
A third factor, I suspect, is technological. Relentless technological change conditions us to view anything from the past as inferior. The pace of change, furthermore, compresses our definitions of time. We describe a year-old phone or laptop as being from a previous generation. “How can you get by with such a dinosaur?” we ask. As Bendroth notes, one of the easiest ways to dismiss historical figures is to imagine how lost they would be in our present. As I write this, a popular cable TV company pitches its services by likening consumers without the latest technology to quaint nineteenth century settlers who churn their own butter and spin their own yarn. Looking for a symbol to represent ignorance and backwardness? No problem. The past is full of them.
My recent road trip drove home another cause of our present-mindedness: the relentless movement that has characterized American life for much of the past two centuries. This is because, in addition to visiting my father in Tennessee, I also made a quick overnight trip to see my father- and mother-in-law in southwest Georgia. Hunter and Brenda were living in the Atlanta suburbs when I first met them thirty-two years ago, but from our first conversation I understood that Hunter’s heart was in the rural community where he was born and raised. As soon as he had the opportunity, he left suburbia and built a house in the country only minutes from the farm he grew up on.
Living in this still rural community, Hunter sees reminders of his past in every direction. The church where his family worshipped (established in the 1830s) is a mile away. The school where his friends and neighbors all attended and his mother taught is just down the road. His best friend from childhood lives across the highway. As we drive to dinner, he tells me who is buried in the cemetery off the road, explains who used to own the abandoned store we just passed, points out the house where the president of the senior class of 1956 still lives. In Hunter’s world, so different from my own, the past is a tangible frame of reference for the present.
In The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth observes that another reason that we disregard the past is that we simply don’t think of it as real. As our communities become revolving doors—ever-shifting conglomerations of strangers—we lose the sense of physical connection with a personal past. The generations that have gone before us become abstractions. It becomes easier to ridicule them and, eventually, to ignore them.
Driving home, I began to wonder whether the alienation that we feel from the past is inseparable from the isolation that we feel in our present. Surely the two are reinforcing. After all, in addition to a shared love, isn’t a shared history one of the things that characterize our richest and most rewarding relationships? Might our rootlessness be reinforcing our present-mindedness?
I welcome your thoughts. Back in touch in a bit.