The fertilizer for anyone’s mind is to a great extent the books we read. I generally like to read things like The Problem of God in Modern Thought, or Faith, Reason and the Existence of God. This is a bit of a problem for a pastor who has to preach every week. You may be relieved to know that I am reading Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” and Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello.” The former is surprisingly good and terribly important. But the later, Gordon-Reed’s book on Thomas Jefferson and his slave family, is fascinating. A friend of mine noted that when he visited Monticello 20 years ago, no mention was made of Jefferson’s slave holdings. Last year, when he visited, there was no lack of information on Jefferson’s slave family and of his personal friendships and intimate relations with them. But the book is fascinating aside from the somewhat prurient interest the public has in the fact of Jefferson’s sexual relations with Sally Hemings.
I like it because she struggles openly with the problem of history. With the difficulty of telling a story that has prurient interest. And more importantly, with the problem of the meaning of history as it relates to a race of people who were not allowed to have a history. For example, most Africans, after arriving in the New World where simply given a name utterly unrelated to where they came from. I am reminded of the great passage from Hebrew literature that remarks how important a name is — and how the exiled could rest at least in their confidence that God utters their name.
Anyway — I wanted to share three sentences penned by Annette Gordon-Reed in her introduction to the book. The sentences take on additional interest knowing, as you now do that Gordon-Reed is African-American. She writes history in the 21st century as one who in her youth, in the 20th century was not allowed to drink from the same drinking fountain as her white peers at the New York Law School did when they were children. She writes:
“History is to a great degree an imaginative enterprise: when writing it or reading it, we try to see the subjects in their time and space. Imagining requires some starting point of connection. Even though we acknowledge that the connections will not be perfect — we cannot really know exactly what it meant to be a Hemings at Monticello, or a Jefferson, for that matter — we have to reference what we know of human beings as we try to reconstruct and establish a context for their lives. Historians often warn against the danger of ‘essentializing’ when making statements about people of the past — positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places. Warnings not withstanding, there are, in fact, some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place. If there were none, and if human historians did not try to connect those elements . . . historical writing would be simply incomprehensible.” p. 31-2.
I have come more and more to think like she does here — to think that those who do not have the imaginative capacities, who have, for whatever reason jettisoned their imaginations, cannot engage in the task of universalizing. Here’s what I mean. Clearly there is a philosophical problem — a danger, as she puts it — in the temptation to essentialize. In fact, many of us Christians we have essentialized God, and have as a result made God some distant, otiose, and all-powerful being. Hardly a being worth giving oneself to. The capacity for imagination cannot be something which stands against our capacity for reason. Our reasoning ability allows us to see that imagination is the beginning of thinking and solving the problems of humanity.
To be able to imaginatively universalise is precisely where a better world begins. There is something constant across cultures and across races that connects us. The prophetic literature of my tradition argues that the task is to imagine a new world:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions. –Joel 2:28-29
What shall they see? They shall see themselves in others and others in themselves. And then:
justice [may] roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. –Amos 5:24
Well — that’s a theologian’s take on Annette Gordon-Reed. Our task, be we poets, historians or politicians, verges ever on the imaginative enterprise.
Let me close imaginatively with a poem about this imaginative task of universalising that we might live better in a common weal. It is by the Russian Poet Yevtushenko, who was only allowed to leave his country and travel in his later years. Then, Yevtushenko journeyed through the Amazonian Rain Forest. One night in Leticia, Colombia, on the shores of the Amazon River, he saw a large fire burning on the south side of the river. He asked his Colombian hosts if they should not all cross the river to help put out the fire. They shrugged and replied: “No importa; es del lado peruano.” (“Who cares; it’s on the Peruvian side.”) Appalled, the Russian wrote a poem in Spanish:
* No hay lado colombiano
No hay lado peruano
Solo hay lado humano
(“There is no Colombian side; There is no Peruvian side; There is only the Human side.”)
Blessings in our various efforts to reach the human side.