"When Per Hansa speaks repeatedly of “my Kingdom,” it is not merely the few acres of land, the house, barn, and crops that he envisions but the power to possess and control these things, to claim ownership of them, and eventually to see them and all nature as extensions of his being. Freed from time and its impingements, he interprets space as total possibility. By contrast, Beret thinks of herself as an inheritor, and all people as indebted to the past and rooted in it, dependent upon it for their well-being. She looks upon reality not as spatial extension of ego, imagination, and vision but as an already created world in which humans take their place as creatures. Insofar as they create anything, they do so within a creation already given and with origins deeper than what the mind imagines.
Simonson, I think, is acute in his assessment of these types manifest in the characters, Per Hansa and Beret. Speaking of Per Hansa, Simonson typifies what may be called the American perspective in this way: “Freed from time and its impingements, he interprets space as total possibility.” Then in relation to Beret, Simonson typifies what may be called the European perspective as “inheritor...as indebted to the past and rooted in it, dependent upon it for...well-being.” It seems to me that one could see in these types the peculiar dilemma of the American Christian, the peculiar ambiguity within which the American Christian must work out salvation in fear and trembling. Consider the following.
The Puritans came from England to this continent, where, as if shocked into new and startled awareness by diving into the cold waters of the Atlantic, they emerged on these shores with a consciousness of passage from one place and time to a new place and time. But the newness was itself new, and so the difficulty was in foreseeing the implications of this new place and time for the consciousness of an American self. They stood at the brink of an American self wrestling with identity, but as yet they were not consciously “American.” Certainly, the conditions for ambiguity and ambivalence in identity were incipient: they foresaw the possibilities of new directions and forms open to them in this strange and wondrous land; but they still looked back to their roots in
But the American romantics – for example, Whitman in his Preface to “Leaves of Grass” (1855) and in “Democratic Vistas” – sought to resolve the ambiguity and ambivalence of American identity by eliminating such. How? By severing the pull of the old. Their imperative: exalt the American self; loose it from its old ties; set it sailing on the vast expanse of the new. Declare this self as new and limitless, as seemed the very land in which the American dwelt. Exhort it to slough off the stuff of the old and revel in the inexpressible glories of its capacious new environment.
However, American romanticism could do so only insofar as it diverged from traditional Christianity, for this Christianity knew and preached that the self and human life had limits, constraints, necessities. It taught that existence, more vast than and prior to any individual or aggregate self, was not comprehensible or imaginable by the self, American or otherwise. Indeed, this Christianity admonished the self against the fundamental sin – namely, pride, the attempted usurpation of the divine being and acting. Furthermore, it grounded truth and “authentic” being in history – in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and parousia of Jesus. It forced the Christian to hold firmly to both poles, past and future.
Hence, the peculiar dilemma, the peculiar ambiguity, of the American Christian. To cut loose from the past electrifies with the promise of the possible, of the new. The spaciousness of the land is indeed inbred. There it possesses and shapes the very form of the soul. To cut loose; to dive into the cold waters and emerge with spanking new awareness in the land of promise; to shake off the old and find the light bright and swept free of motes of dust: these possibilities vivify the very core of the American self. Yet the Christian in America cannot unambiguously or unambivalently be this American self, for the Christian knows the significance of the past – Calvary catches up and transcends the Rocky Mountains. The Christian knows that the new offers peril as well as promise. The Christian knows the penultimate and the ultimate pangs and losses in the jettisoning of the past. The Christian knows the ambiguity of time and space: together and separately, they offer promise and threat; they signify gain and loss, inextricably mixed. Time and space are both blessing and curse. To move on is to leave behind. To stay behind is never to move. Time and space invigorate and pull with the promise of possibility. Just as surely, they weaken structure and deliver longing and loneliness. The American Christian can do no other than grasp – as one would grasp a plow, or a cross – the ambiguity, the peculiar dilemma, the hard glory.