I was around in Southwark for the 40th anniversary memories of the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God. This year is the 50th anniversary. In this week's Church Times the excellent Mark Vernon runs though the issues again before Richard Harries puts it all in to a personal context.
Honest to God caused a huge debate. Robinson called for a re-think of theology and the purpose of the church. En route he drew on Bonhoeffer's thinking, but didn't quite go where I think Bonhoeffer himself might have been heading. Big headlines didn't help the seriousness of his case, but it did lead to discussions everywhere about God. (In today's world this is the responsibility of the New Atheists who, in trying to diss God and theists end up getting people talking about God and theism – fulfilling the Law of Unintended Consequences, I guess.)
What Richard Harries does is place the phenomenon into the wider cultural and political context of the 1960s, and particularly its idealism. Which, of course, immediately points up the danger of reading history through a contemporary lens. The debates about Margaret Thatcher did the same: it was easy to spot those who hadn't lived through the 1970s and those who had.
The loss of idealism is troubling. Students these days are hardly likely to annoy the hell out of taxpayers by demonstrating; they have to concentrate on minimising and then paying off massive debts before they have even started.
The contrast is acute for me when I go to Kazakhstan and talk with young people who, whilst being realistic about the 'challenges', are immensely proud of their 22 year old country and seriously optimistic about the future. The only way I have been able to think about this is that they are building something and shaping a future – a bit like European countries after 1945. Contrast that with the tired cynicism that characterises Europe and we seem not to be building something, but merely trying half-heatedly on to something we have inherited.
This is also true of European ecumenism. At a round-table discussion with Herman von Rumpoy last year in Brussels, I ventured to suggest that the European narrative derived from two world wars and the shedding of oceans of blood had run its course. Yes, we must learn from our recent history, and, as Bertolt Brecht says in the conclusion of his play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, recognise that 'the bitch [of fascism] is on heat again. But, I fear that the narrative emerging from mid-20th century Europe does not hold the same power for my children's generation as it does for those of us shaped by the war. We need to create a new narrative that engages the subconscious psyche of a new generation for whom the twentieth century is 'history' and not 'memory'.
OK, it is not exactly a deep observation; but, it is one that haunts me. I think it is a task that is urgent and yet being largely ignored. All efforts go into trying to secure what we have (largely, the institutions that define Europe in terms of administration and process), rather than creating something imaginatively new.
This is on my mind also because I have just finished reading Cees Nooteboom's book Roads to Berlin. It is a strange book. In three parts, the bulk of the text comprises reportage and memoir from immediately before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989/90. It is immediate and has the vivid benefit of recreating the atmosphere in Berlin as the world changed – all seen through the eyes of an outsider (he is Dutch) living through, yet detached from, those epic events. In parts 2 and 3 he reflects back on those events and on Germany and 'Germanness' twenty years later.
It is an uneven book, but better for it. It is unpretentious – although there were many references I didn't get, and this made me feel both uneducated and a bit stupid. But, it is a good read for anyone who wants to think about history, how we live through and reflect on it, how we need to look at ourselves through the eyes of an other if we are to think clearly about who we are and how/why we have become who and what we are.
The trouble with history is that we always think that 'now' is the ultimate – the end – when it is only tomorrow's yesterday and will look different when looked back upon by outsiders.
Oh well. Back to contemplating the future of Luis Suarez…