Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Meaning of the Story of Noah

The occasion for this post is my having just watched Aronofsky's Noah.  To be charitable, it's an entertaining CGI spectacle, looking more like The Two Towers than anything out of Genesis.  The desolate scenes at the beginning remind one of another popular Hollywood genre, the "post-apocalyptic"--which is in fact kind of funny, when you think about it.

But that's the occasion, not the aim, of this post.

I was baptized and raised Presbyterian.  Therefore I went to Sunday School practically every single week for most of my childhood and received a fairly thorough grounding in the stories of the Bible.  Now, "Sunday School" is not, generally, a positive adjective.  A "Sunday School" conception of something ordinarily means something sentimental, simplistic, pious, saccharine.  But let's consider Noah.

Even in a time of diminishing biblical knowledge, the story of Noah is still known fairly widely.  Almost everyone knows about the Ark, the "floating zoo," the sign of the rainbow.  Almost everyone gets the joke about thinking Joan of Arc Noah's wife. 

The story in Genesis is very straightforward.  There is great wickedness in the earth, wickedness such that God regrets having ever created man, wickedness such that God decides to destroy the human race.  But Noah found favor.  So we get the building of the great chest, the entry of the animals, the opening of the floodgates of heaven and the bursting of the fountains of the earth.  The remnant survives, and God gives Noah a special sign, placing his bow in the heavens,a sign that he will never again destroy the human race.

Anyone familiar with fairy tales or fables knows that it's that last section that lays out the meaning of the story--the lesson or the moral.  It's not subtle or hidden.  The Sunday School take is that God will not destroy us, for all our faults.  It's a message of comfort.

Now that's a reading I don't typically come across when the story  of Noah comes up.  At best there is the picturesque saving-the-animals angle, or the related picturing of Noah as conservationist or environmentalist.  

And then there is the more contemptuous, contemporary "new atheist" take:  There are no waters above the heavens!  God is a genocidal  monster!  This polemical, more literal reading has the rhetorical advantage of making the story look like an assault both on science and humanity.  What fools believe in a God, in a world, like this?

It's the literalism that leads them astray, I think.  Keeping in mind the limits on what we can say with complete certainty about the past (as I tried to say some few posts back), there's no indication, in human or natural history, that a flood ever actually covered the surface of the earth or destroyed all terrestrial life apart from the pairs marched into an ark.  So if it's not history, what is it?

Over the years you pick things up.  So I've come across Utnapishtum's flood in the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Greek flood.  It's a common ancient story motif, and that shouldn't surprise us, given our ancestors' absolute dependence on the harvest, and the deadly destructive power of even small floods.  So the story was out there, to be put to use.

And I've picked up enough Hebrew to make a nine-year journey through the Tanakh.  And there I noticed, as is often the case, that the Hebrew name has a meaning.  Noah. נֹחַ "Comfort."  The form appears again at the beginning of the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, where a shift in tone is so marked that many scholars consider it a new work:

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי

"Comfort, comfort, my people."

Which of course brings me back to my old Sunday School take on the thing.



 וְזָכַרְתִּי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אֲשֶׁר בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, בְּכָל-בָּשָׂר; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה עוֹד הַמַּיִם לְמַבּוּל, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר.   וְהָיְתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת, בֶּעָנָן



"And I will remember the covenant between myself and you, the covenant with all living souls, with all flesh, and I will never yet again bring death with a flood, to destroy all flesh.  And I set my bow in the clouds...." 

It is a comfort, undoubtedly, a promise to never yet again punish the wicked by death with a flood.  And if we moderns can't help but think that there never was a flood at all, the message, the moral, becomes even more comfortable:  I haven't, I won't.

Because it is an important point, and properly belongs here at the beginning of the great story of humanity.  What to do about human evil?  Our first impulse is always to kill it.  Just kill the bad people, the troublesome people.  How many revolutions and movements, even in the last century, rested on just such a terrible cutting of the Gordian knot?  Kill the bad, leave the good, and the earth will be paradise again.

So that's what God, in the story, does.  But that's what God, by the end of the story, promises never to do again.  Or, for us sceptical moderns, what he never did, and never will do.  Because, in a real sense, that's the whole point of the biblical project.  For Jews, the story of Noah, in rejecting any wholesale killing of the wicked, sets the stage for the Abrahamic covenant, for the Mosaic law, for the ethical demands of the prophets.  For Christians, the story of Noah similarly rejects the darkest solution, and, incorporating the law and the prophets, sets out an alternative scheme, not to kill, but to redeem the wicked.  In both cases the point is not to purify the earth by the death of the wicked, but to redeem the wicked themselves, to save both the world and human beings from human evil.

So that's why I say the Sunday School version turned out to be essentially correct.  The story of Noah is one of comfort, a preliminary rejection of an easy, a tempting approach to human evil, to which God said "never again"--or even, "not then, not now, not ever."  The bow is not in our hands, nor even in God's; it is set in the clouds.  



Friday, November 28, 2014

If you find yourself in Ashgabat this week...


An artist friend in Albuquerque, Diana Stetson, has been in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, this last week curating a show titled "The Spirit of Two Deserts"  at the Museum of Fine Arts.  Diana, whose work we have known and admired for almost twenty years, has made earlier trips to Turkmenistan as a cultural liaison.  Reproduced above is a painting that my wife Jeanine contributed to the show at Diana's request.

We could not, unfortunately, attend the opening.  But I am happy to add this to the "shameless plug" category.       

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On the Day of the Armistice

Today is Veteran's Day, once observed as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of what now is called the First World War, when, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent.

This year is also the centennial of the outbreak of what contemporaries called the Great War.  For many historians it marks a major turning point in modern history, the end of the "long nineteenth century," (conventionally beginning with the French Revolution), and marks a particular end to a liberal vision of economic progress and the limitation of war through diplomacy.

On this day I usually re-read the last few paragraphs of Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).  Here they are in German.  I don't know where else in literature the unheralded change from first person to third is so poignant.

Ich stehe auf.

Ich bin sehr ruhig. Mögen die Monate and Jahre kommen, sie nehmen mir nichtes mehr, sie könnon mir nichts mehr nehmen.  Ich bin so allein und so ohne Erwartung, daß ich ihnen entgegensehen kann ohne Furcht. Das Leben, das mich durch diese Jahre trug, ist noch in meinen Händen und Augen. Ob ich es überwunden habe, weiß ich nicht.  Aber solange es da ist, wird es sich seinen Weg suchen, mag dieses, das in mir "Ich" sagt, wollen oder nicht.


Er fiel im Oktober 1918, an einem Tage, der so ruhig und still war an der ganzen Front, daß der Heeresbericht sich nur auf den Satz beschränkte, im Westen sei nichts Neues zu melden.

Er war vorübergesunken und lag wie schlafend an der Erde. Als man ihn umdrehte, sah man, daß er sich nicht lange gequält haben konnte; - sein Gesicht hatte einen so gefaßten Ausdruck, als wäre er beinahe zufrieden damit, daß es so gekommen war.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 2

'῎Αρξομαι δὲ ἀπὸ τῶν προγόνων πρῶτον· δίκαιον γὰρ αὐτοῖς καὶ πρέπον δὲ ἅμα ἐν τῷ τοιῷδε τὴν τιμὴν ταύτην τῆς μνήμης δίδοσθαι. τὴν γὰρ χώραν οἱ αὐτοὶ αἰεὶ οἰκοῦντες διαδοχῇ τῶν ἐπιγιγνομένων μέχρι τοῦδε ἐλευθέραν δι' ἀρετὴν παρέδοσαν. καὶ ἐκεῖνοί τε ἄξιοι ἐπαίνου καὶ ἔτι μᾶλλον οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν· κτησάμενοι γὰρ πρὸς οἷς ἐδέξαντο ὅσην ἔχομεν ἀρχὴν οὐκ ἀπόνως ἡμῖν τοῖς νῦν προσκατέλιπον. τὰ δὲ πλείω αὐτῆς αὐτοὶ ἡμεῖς οἵδε οἱ νῦν ἔτι ὄντες μάλιστα ἐν τῇ καθεστηκυίᾳ ἡλικίᾳ ἐπηυξήσαμεν καὶ τὴν πόλιν τοῖς πᾶσι παρεσκευάσαμεν καὶ ἐς πόλεμον καὶ ἐς εἰρήνην αὐταρκεστάτην. ὧν ἐγὼ τὰ μὲν κατὰ πολέμους ἔργα, οἷς ἕκαστα ἐκτήθη, ἢ εἴ τι αὐτοὶ ἢ οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν βάρβαρον ἢ ῞Ελληνα πολέμιον ἐπιόντα προθύμως ἠμυνάμεθα, μακρηγορεῖν ἐν εἰδόσιν οὐ βουλόμενος ἐάσω· ἀπὸ δὲ οἵας τε ἐπιτηδεύσεως ἤλθομεν ἐπ' αὐτὰ καὶ μεθ' οἵας πολιτείας καὶ τρόπων ἐξ οἵων μεγάλα ἐγένετο, ταῦτα δηλώσας πρῶτον εἶμι καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν τῶνδε ἔπαινον, νομίζων ἐπί τε τῷ παρόντι οὐκ ἂν ἀπρεπῆ λεχθῆναι αὐτὰ καὶ τὸν πάντα ὅμιλον καὶ ἀστῶν καὶ ξένων ξύμφορον εἶναι ἐπακοῦσαι αὐτῶν.

"I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour. And if our more remote ancestors deserve praise, much more do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire which we now possess, and spared no pains to be able to leave their acquisitions to us of the present generation. Lastly, there are few parts of our dominions that have not been augmented by those of us here, who are still more or less in the vigour of life; while the mother country has been furnished by us with everything that can enable her to depend on her own resources whether for war or for peace. That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valour with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by. But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men; since I think this to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage."

Here Pericles veers toward what he suggests is conventionality, the praise of the ancestors.  Again there is some parallel in our own pre-eminent funeral oration:  "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers...."

The reference to ancestors living in the land without any break ("αἰεὶ οἰκοῦντες," "ever living") has a significance that may not be readily apparent.  A.R. Burn, in The Classical Age (op. cit.) notes that this claim is made, not only by Pericles here in the funeral oration, but also by Thucydides himself in the first pages of his history, and that there was, among the Greeks a certain prestige to being a "native," to being "earth-born" from a particular location, from time immemorial, and that it was a claim that the Spartans, specifically, as Dorians, could not make.

Pericles significantly begins by praising the "ancestors, "προγόνων", but reserves even greater praise for "our own fathers, "οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν."  The ancestors are to be praised for founding the city, but the achievement of the fathers, which here receives grater praise, is the "empire which we now possess," "ὅσην ἔχομεν ἀρχὴν."

"Empire" is not quite the right word, I think, for "arche," "ἀρχὴ," though it is the conventional one.  Empire conveys an impression of hugeness, the modern empires on which the sun never set, or the ancient empires, Rome or China, which dominated their own known worlds.  There is another connotation of the word, an assemblage of diverse nations, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  And a third connotation, the notion in certain manifestations of Christendom that secular power was best unified in a Christian emperor set over other Christian rulers.

Obviously the Athenian "empire" was none of these things.  In size it was modest, and indeed dwarfed by the next-door Persian Empire.  It was an assemblage of Greek-only polities.  But it was this achievement of "arche" which Pericles most praises as the achievement of the fathers--not the ancestors.  There is a certain pride in the mere domination of other Greeks, and anyone having read the previous pages of the history will have known that it was this growing power of Athens that most disturbed the generally slow-to-act Spartans.

Nevertheless, he will "pass by" their recent history, for reason of everyone's familiarity with Athens' military valor.  Rather, he will concentrate on the unmilitary, the "unvalorous" causes of Athens' dominance,  "what the form of government ("ἐπιτηδεύσεως") under which our greatness grew, what the national habits ("τρόπων") out of which it sprang."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

More on Rahner

I am continuing to read Karl Rahner's Grundkurs des Glaubens, a little over three quarters of the way through.  As I think I might have said in a earlier post, there's a dilemma in choosing whether to read a text like this in German or in translation.  My intermediate grasp of German makes my understanding undeniably inept at times, but at least I'm conscious of the uncertainly, which the reading of an expert translator might conceal.

Be that at it may, as I go through Rahner I start to get the impression that in some sense his method is a detailed, twentieth century application of the well-known aphorism from the first book of St. Augustine's Confessions:

et tamen laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae. tu excitas ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.

God has "made us for himself," and we cannot rest apart from him.  In my last post on Rahner I had descibed his initial analysis of human existence and transcendence as a philosophical application of the thought of Kant and Heidegger to the relation of God and man, his initial portrait of God being thereby the quintessential "God of the philosophers," not yet the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

But in another sense Rahner's analysis, though philosophical in form, seeks to give a rigorous exposition to something which, if not universal, is certainly widespread:  the feeling of God, the intuition of God, that conception of transcendence that comes, not from Kantian analysis, but but from the mere everyday experience of human life, human freedom, human wonder at the world.  Religion, in fact, is not some hobbyhorse of the leisured.  For rich and poor, ruler and ruled, sophisticated and naive, the sense that the world is filled with God (or gods) runs throughout history and around the globe.

So, though Rahner indeed takes as his starting point some rather daunting analyses from technical Western philosophy, in language that few have the training to understand comfortably, he uses those categories to try to express an experience that is almost universally human.  In that sense his "God of the Philosophers" intends to capture, not just the sense of the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," but the divine sense wherever human beings may locate it.

That wideness is his starting point, not the realm of the Christian faith, or the Catholic Church.  As a Christian, though, and as a Catholic, he has to then bring that general sense back to the Faith, so that his analysis indeed leads to what he aims for in his subtitle, "An Introduction to the Concept of Christianity," not simply an introduction to the concept of religious transcendence.

So his method aims to connects up the general to the particular.  If the sense of the transcendent indeed comes into history, it does so in terms of the Christian concept of God.  If that historical breakthrough is to achieve full concreteness in some form of "Heilbringer," savior or bringer of holiness, we can find such a historical fulfillment uniquely in the life and work of the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

The course of the argument is from the concept to the historical object, from the general idea to the particular manifestation.  But that connection, from universal to particular, works both ways.  If the general sense is identified with the particular Catholic faith, then the Catholic faith must necessarily in some sense be identified with that general human sense of the historically present sense of the divine.

"Wir haben sehr oft im Lauf unsere Überlegungen zu betonen gehabt, dass es durchaus eine gewissermassen anonyme and doch wirkliche Beziehung des einzelnen Menschen zur Konkretheit der Heilsgeschichte and somit auch zu Jesus Christus in demjenigen gebt and geben musss, der die ganze konkrete geschichtliche and dabei ausdrücklich reflektierte Erfahrung in Wort and Sakrament mit dieser heilsgeschichtlichen Wirklichkeit noch nicht gemacht hat, sondern die existenziell reale Beziehung bloss implizit hat im Gehorsam gegenüber seiner gnadenhaften Verwiesenheit auf den Gott der absolute, geschichtlich daseienden Selbstmitteilung, indem dieser Mensch sein eigenese Dasin vorbehaltlos annimmt, and zwar gerade in dem, was darin in Wagnis dieser Freiheit nicht übersehen and verwaltet werden kann."

This is the concept of the "anonymous Christian" popularly identified with Rahner.  The felt transcendental relationships are in fact relationships to the Trinity and the incarnate Son, whether acknowledged or not.  Whether those relationships are ever explicitly realized by the individual is a separate question from whether they exist, whether they are real, whether they are salvific.  Here we come back to St. Augustine.  It is not simply the Catholic who is made for God.  It is not only the Christian who cannot find rest outside of God.   And this sense of recognized devotion to the unknown (or denied) God relates and is affirmed by the important, if not novel, assertion of Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

"Qui enim Evangelium Christi Eiusque Ecclesiam sine culpa ignorantes, Deum tamen sincero corde quaerunt, Eiusque voluntatem per conscientiae dictamen agnitam, operibus adimplere, sub gratiae influxu, conantur, aeternam salutem consequi possunt. Nec divina Providentia auxilia ad salutem necessaria denegat his qui sine culpa ad expressam agnitionem Dei nondum pervenerunt et rectam vitam non sine divina gratia assequi nituntur."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 1

'Οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ τῶν ἐνθάδε ἤδη εἰρηκότων ἐπαινοῦσι τὸν προσθέντα τῷ νόμῳ τὸν λόγον τόνδε, ὡς καλὸν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐκ τῶν πολέμων θαπτομένοις ἀγορεύεσθαι αὐτόν. ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρκοῦν ἂν ἐδόκει εἶναι ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν ἔργῳ γενομένων ἔργῳ καὶ δηλοῦσθαι τὰς τιμάς, οἷα καὶ νῦν περὶ τὸν τάφον τόνδε δημοσίᾳ παρασκευασθέντα ὁρᾶτε, καὶ μὴ ἐν ἑνὶ ἀνδρὶ πολλῶν ἀρετὰς κινδυνεύεσθαι εὖ τε καὶ χεῖρον εἰπόντι πιστευθῆναι. χαλεπὸν γὰρ τὸ μετρίως εἰπεῖν ἐν ᾧ μόλις καὶ ἡ δόκησις τῆς ἀληθείας βεβαιοῦται. ὅ τε γὰρ ξυνειδὼς καὶ εὔνους ἀκροατὴς τάχ' ἄν τι ἐνδεεστέρως πρὸς ἃ βούλεταί τε καὶ ἐπίσταται νομίσειε δηλοῦσθαι, ὅ τε ἄπειρος ἔστιν ἃ καὶ πλεονάζεσθαι, διὰ φθόνον, εἴ τι ὑπὲρ τὴν αὑτοῦ φύσιν ἀκούοι. μέχρι γὰρ τοῦδε ἀνεκτοὶ οἱ ἔπαινοί εἰσι περὶ ἑτέρων λεγόμενοι, ἐς ὅσον ἂν καὶ αὐτὸς ἕκαστος οἴηται ἱκανὸς εἶναι δρᾶσαί τι ὧν ἤκουσεν· τῷ δὲ ὑπερβάλλοντι αὐτῶν φθονοῦντες ἤδη καὶ ἀπιστοῦσιν. ἐπειδὴ δὲ τοῖς πάλαι οὕτως ἐδοκιμάσθη ταῦτα καλῶς ἔχειν, χρὴ καὶ ἐμὲ ἑπόμενον τῷ νόμῳ πειρᾶσθαι ὑμῶν τῆς ἑκάστου βουλήσεώς τε καὶ δόξης τυχεῖν ὡς ἐπὶ πλεῖστον.

"Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law, telling us that it is well that it should be delivered at the burial of those who fall in battle. For myself, I should have thought that the worth which had displayed itself in deeds would be sufficiently rewarded by honours also shown by deeds; such as you now see in this funeral prepared at the people's cost. And I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperilled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been set forth with that fullness which he wishes and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature. For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity. However, since our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, it becomes my duty to obey the law and to try to satisfy your several wishes and opinions as best I may."

Strangely, the speech begins by questioning the propriety of the funeral oration itself.  Pericles downplays the value of any speech compared to actions.  This may be a convention, a sentiment has not gone unrepeated in our own history:

"...in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

But Pericles' concern is not so much with adding or detracting as with inciting envy, φθόνον.  It seems a strange concern for a commemorative funeral oration.  But maybe not.

After moving, some years ago, to the American Southwest, certain parallels between the Native pueblos and the city-states of Western antiquity suggested themselves.  Please don't think I'm claiming any sort of detailed acquaintance with either.  But I did begin to note certain similarities that likely have their origin in a small polity--a strong magistracy checked largely by short terms of office, a mostly consultive assembly of recognized "elder statesmen," and an integrated religious/cultural system that polices as well as celebrates.  Another characteristic is this concern about inciting envy, a notable tendency to discourage individual achievement that might cast any aspersion on the average citizen.

Pericles' oration, in turning the focus from the fallen to the whole polity, maintains this emphasis on the community over the individual.  This difference brings to mind a remark that Kenneth Clark makes at the beginning of his Civilisation, that "civilization" means, for him, a society that fosters the flowering of individual genius.  That is very far from the view of Pericles, who, in extolling the glories of Athens, mentions not one single individual.

It's an important point, to keep their perspective separate from ours.  This is a polity, after all, that exiled Thucydides and executed Socrates.      


Saturday, October 18, 2014

History, memory and the interpretation of relics

Recently one of the big web magazines ran a by-now stock piece questioning whether Jesus of Nazareth existed.  This sort of thing pops up regularly, resting on such shocking facts as discrepancies between the gospels, their conventional dating, the latest best-selling proof that Jesus was a Zealot or a magician or a mushroom, or the failure of Plutarch or Suetonius to write about religious controversies in the province of Judea.  They also garner astronomical numbers of impassioned comments.

For myself I try to stay away from such things and keep in mind the opening sentence of the Appendix (“Sources for the Reign of Alexander”) to Simon Hornblower’s The Greek World, 479-323 BC:  “The surviving accounts of Alexander’s reign were all written down centuries after the events they describe.”  In a sense all history rests on rather slender reeds.

It seems to me axiomatic that history is not a science in the sense that, say, physics is a science.  Natural laws (so far as we know) are constant over time, so that, if I have doubts about the accuracy of a law of physics, I can try to verify it this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next year, and it should come out the same.

Now there is a science of history in the sense that there are conventional methods used by professional historians to evaluate evidence:  canons of interpretation, standards of verification, sub-disciplines like graphology, and sister disciplines like archaeology.  But a proposition like "Jesus lived in first century Judea," or "Alexander conquered the Persian empire" can't be tested like the gravitational constant.  Sometimes new evidence is unearthed.  Sometimes old evidence is re-interpreted.  And I would be very surprised if sometimes the standards for evaluation didn't change.  But these differences are normal because the subject matter of the disciplines is different in one very important respect:  The force of gravity is always out there to measure; the Persian empire fell in the distant past.  We can't reach it to verify it directly.

So, in that sense, it's quite possible that Jesus didn't exist.  It's possible that Alexander was simply a founding myth to explain the appearance of the Hellenistic dynasties that sprang up in the territory once ruled from Persia.  It could even be that Plato and Xenophon were so taken with a fictional character in Aristophanes' Clouds that they adopted him as their spokesman for various ideas.  All of these things are possible only because scenarios can by imagined which might leave behind the same remains from which we have inferred the real existence of Jesus, Alexander and Socrates.

Now most of us don't care two straws about such possibilities.  We know that such things as lies, forgeries, and conspiracies exist.  But we are content to let the professionals weigh the evidence and publish their conclusions.  Otherwise the past, about whose entirely-conventional course we are mostly ignorant, would become an incomprehensible and almost infinite morass of exploding possibilities.

So we require some consensus-based narrative, certain enough to ground our ordinary human understandings, but open enough to allow the normal correction, revision and re-assessment that regularly accompanies historical reflection.  But it can be tenuous.  Consider memory, and the basis for our understanding of the past.  I am thinking, at first, of the long discussion of memory in Augustine's Confessions.  It's well worth a look.  He considers how insubstantial the present is, how vanishingly small, each duration, of lesser and lesser extent, itself divisible into a past, present and future.  The now that is our eternity is an infinitely small slice of time, and consider how little of what we know and who we are is comprised of the present sense impression of this very now.

Rahner uses an expression I didn't get at first:  "suchenden memoria," "seeking memory."  I'm not entirely convinced even now that what I think of it is what he meant by it.  But it's a good phrase for the continuing present,a "now" not separate from past and future, a "now not passive," but "now" as a meeting, a present memory, all that I am and have been, all that can be called to mind, actual and potential, recent and long past, but oriented toward a future, seeking, willing, intending, pushing into that next ever-changing indivisible succession of moments.

What I know, all that I know, all that I can know, of the past, is what exists, and continues to exist, in my present.  I have memory, personal memory, of all that I have experienced and not forgotten.  I have second-hand memory, what others have remembered and told me or written down for my reading--what we attorneys call "hearsay."

The one other way we learn of the past is inference from what I call relics.  We know and remember that some things vanish with time, that some other things continue, much altered, and that some things continue, little altered.  These I call "relics," the things that remain, altered or unaltered, the things to which, like gravity, we can still have recourse.  "Relics" does indeed have a religious sense that I am trying to expand on.  Religiously they are links to the past, but tenuous links.  We picture them as knuckle bones and scraps, a material connection to a much larger material and spiritual reality, just as the remains in the Roman forum, which anyone today can still see and walk through, are in a sense the knuckle bones of the ancient Roman city.  The image is also apt, I think, because of the obvious difficulty of working back to historic reality from the bones alone.  The madeleine sent Proust back, a relic of the past, but you can't reproduce the recovered narrative from the madeleine.

So, in addition to now, I have personal memories that seem mostly accurate.  My first visit to New York City when I was eight years old, for example.  I remember historic events that happened in my lifetime, but mediated.  John Kennedy was assassinated about a hundred miles from where I lived on that terrible day in 1963.  I saw the funeral on television, in black and white.  I made a scrapbook, since lost, of the Dallas Morning News stories.  The historical events were experienced second-hand.

Moving out from these, I have been educated, have read, over a lifetime, hundreds of histories, biographies, novels, epics, letters, and have seen paintings, sculpture and films, depicting their own time, or times other than that of their creation.  So out of this I have a very vivid, detailed, and concrete sense of the past.  That I have literally forgotten more than I know only reinforces that sense of historical knowledge.  I am reminded of things I once forgot, such as how Prussia gained ascendancy over the Austrian Empire.  This past is very real to me, but my knowledge of it is a construction from many sources, and contains a hefty portion of interpretation and judgment.

And it occurs to me that, apart from my own judgments, my own sense of the history of the world (or any smaller history within that larger field), is necessarily going to be different from that of others, not only because of the idiosyncratic content of my own judgments, but because every single person's set of memories, experiences, classes, books, sights and sounds, direct and indirect, is individual to himself.  It is no wonder that we see the world so differently from each other.  The wonder, in fact, may be, that even with those disparate sources of input, we come to so much in common.

We have to assume, I think, that the past is common to all.  Memory is individual, and the relics are so numerous that none of us can have direct experience of all or even most of them.  Nevertheless, we remarkably have a rough consensus.  It cannot be proven.  But I don't know how we can have a common life without that unproven common past we all seem to come out of.