In a 1967 lecture on the “cruciform character of history,” Dartmouth professor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy—the anniversary of whose death is today—observed that the pace of contemporary life makes it easy for the young “to forget the greatest riddle of mankind,” that is, “the peace between fathers and sons, and grandsons.”
It is an ancient riddle. A good bit of the Old Testament depicts troubled transitions from generation to generation. Even Samuel, David, and Hezekiah had hellion children, and Isaac was nowhere near the model of faith that his father was. The depressing cycle of apostasy and judgment in Judges is a failure of in inter-generational faithfulness, and the history of the Davidic dynasty is the same story. By the end of the Old Testament, the promise of blessing “for a thousand generations” begins to sound like a cruel joke.
But the story is not done. Malachi (4:6) promises that the Lord is coming to come to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and children back to their fathers, a promise that begins in the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 1:17). Jesus carries on John’s work, but in a paradoxical way. First Jesus brings a sword to divide between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and everyone else (Matt. 10:35; Luke 12:53). Since his sword is a sword of sacrifice, though, he divides and dismembers in order to transform all to smoke, which ascends as a pleasing aroma to his Father. Having passed through sword and fire, generational wounds will—so we are led to hope—be healed.
Yet, peace between generations remains chimerical. Rosenstock-Huessy saw inter-generational conflict at the heart of modern revolutions. He claimed, with typical hyperbolic flair, that the Russian Revolution was decided as early as 1863, when Turgenev published Fathers and Sons. If such catastrophes are to be avoided in the future, he argued, humanity will have to relearn some basic laws of history.
Speech is the medication for healing the wounds of time. When fathers speak, they throw a line into the future, and try to secure some influence on the world that will last after their death. When sons speak, they also seek to shape the future, but they will form a healthy future only if they also throw a line to the past, and try to retain and recover what their fathers have did and taught. Mutual speech between fathers and sons, along with mutual and respectful hearing, intertwines into a coherent and peaceable present time.
One of the keys to faithful speech, Rosenstock-Huessy thought, is to recognize that we are all always living in several generations at once. Fathers don’t disappear as soon as they have sons or when their sons are grown; they stick around, sometimes much longer than sons wish. Fathers also have fathers, and can speak as fathers only by remembering they are also sons, not only representatives of the past but molders of the future. Sons fail as sons if they spend their energies twisting free of the constraints of the past while forgetting they are also fathers, responsible for their sons who will shape of the future. A human being “can’t be the image of God if he serves the spirit of his own time.”
Ultimately, the riddle of intergenerational peace is a theological one. As fathers turn to sons and sons to fathers, they replicate on earth the cross-generational loyalty found in God. Within the Trinity, there is an older generation, so to speak, and a younger generation, the Father and Son, but these are in perfect harmony. The Father glorifies and honors his Son, and the Son does all He sees the Father doing, and renders perfect obedience to his Father. As Rosenstock-Huessy remarked, the Spirit is the generational bond, uniting Father and Son in an unbreakable, eternal bond of love. The Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost fulfills the promise of Malachi, since the Holy Spirit is the One who transcends the “spirit of the age”—both the spirit of the fathers and the spirit of the sons—and unites them. As he wrote in The Christian Future, “Father and Son unfold the quality of being, by spreading it through two generations. And the Spirit, lest he be confused with the wit of the moment, is explicitly said to descend from the interaction of two generations, the Father and the Son.”
Rosenstock-Huessy died thirty-seven years ago today, when the world was a very different place. Fortunately, he did not serve the spirit of his age, and as a result he offers wisdom from which, decades later, we can still learn much.
Peter J. Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow.