The next-to-last Congress of the 20th century was gaveled into session earlier this month.
Had this been two Januarys ago when a group of fire-breathing Republicans was first charging on to Capitol Hill after a 40-year exile in the minority, the occasion might have had an epoch-making feel. But, for better or worse, many of the original aspirations of these self-styled revolutionaries were not met. President Clinton is back in the White House. The leader of their revolution, Newt Gingrich, is struggling. So the opening of the 105th Congress passed without grandiose claims or reflections on politics at the end of the century.
Yet, precisely because of the sober spirit presiding over the day, the occasion did reflect back on the century in an important way.
One of the places that this was being defined could be found this fall - not out of the drumbeat leading up the elections but in a quiet place on public television where a group of scholars and writers gathered for 10 evenings to talk to Bill Moyers about the Book of Genesis.
Among Genesis's innumerable meanings is a theory about how truth is gained. Starting with the famous opening "In the beginning," the book seems to assert that finding the greater truth in both human and godly affairs comes out of a journey through time. That it takes a multigenerational effort and the insights and experiences, trials and errors, of many people to construct a good and just world.
Not just a pithy slogan
The people who joined together on PBS to talk about Genesis wrung many different ideas about God and truth out of the stories in the text. Genesis, indeed the entire Old Testament, seems to say that truth about both divine and human affairs is too big to be contained in a single line of reasoning. It is not reducible to pithy slogans or easy generalizations. The premise is that knowledge about truth comes from living, that it is complicated and diverse, and is ultimately beyond the full grasp of any human being.
Such a view demands humility from those trying to find the truth. And the characters in many Biblical narratives are frequently humbled in the process of meeting their destinies: Abraham must give up his son Ishmael and send Hagar into the desert. Joseph is put in prison. In fact, these emotional setbacks are often important steps in journeys to enlightenment. And, as some in the PBS discussion group seemed to point out, such humbling experiences are what ultimately humanizes many of Genesis's soldiers, sages, and nation-builders.
This model of how truth is gained is so different from the course commonly accepted in the West, which is based on the Socratic model. In the latter, truth is ahistorical. It is not embedded in the many experiences of living but exists as abstract principles and immutable laws. In this view, knowledge of truth comes through reason and argument, not out of the collective wisdom of diverse experience.
The premise is that those with the best minds, the best education, and in some cases the highest moral characters are most likely to find the truth.
In politics, as I.F. Stone argued in his book "The Trial of Socrates," this view is inherently autocratic, and often ruthless. It posits that truth can be found by only a few and that, by definition, people's opinions are not of equal merit. It is further assumed that, not possessing the advantages of the highest intellects and education, most people would not live by the highest principles. Therefore, to make a good society people must be forcibly hoisted to the higher principles.
This was the premise underlying Bolshevik thinking as Lenin wrested control of Russia at the beginning of this century. The Socratic paradigm also characterized the cruel logic that justified the fratricidal policies of Stalinist and other communist countries from the middle of the century all the way through Cambodia's killing fields, when Pol Pot tried to hack the country into the peasant utopia he worked out in his head during the discussion groups he participated in as a student in Paris.
The good society
The premise for democracy, on the other hand, is based on the Biblical model. At the heart of democracy is the idea that the good society evolves through time, and that it requires the input of many voices and points of view to bring it to maturity.
The divided government that has been more the rule than the exception in America during the last 50 years has meant that our laws and policies often contain the accumulated wisdom of a cross section of this country. This brings our society closer to the larger truths about America than a narrower vision based on the premises and perspectives of only one of the political parties, however valid those ideas may be in their own right.
Perhaps the electorate's preference for divided government comes from an instinct that develops among the governed in a two-centuries-old democracy. In this way, our democracy may owe more to our unconscious affirmation of the Biblical paradigm than it does to the Greeks and Romans, on whose imperfect democracies some of our governing institutions are based.
Calling for humility
But divided government requires humility from democracy's leaders. Right out of the crucible of an election, new leaders often feel so empowered by their own vision of the truth that they resist any thought of compromise. But governing frequently forces ideologues into pragmatists.
The Republicans of the last Congress certainly started with the intention of bending the republic to their collective vision. But they ran straight into the larger truth of America when they encountered not only the different views of the Democrats but also, under the stress of governing, the many shadings of that vision that existed among themselves.
During the last two years, when Republicans could not, or would not, humble themselves enough to accommodate differing views on some issues, as in the case of the budget debate that precipitated the government shutdown, they often failed.
When they bent their vision to include some of the reality of others, such as on welfare reform, they had more success.
If these current Republicans are a somewhat chastened group, then so much the better for both their own agenda and the country at the end of the century. The large-scale demise of communism in the Soviet Union and Europe was a triumph of the Biblical paradigm in politics over the Socratic.
In that light, the subdued spirit that characterized the start of the 105th Congress should be celebrated, if only because it contrasts with some of this century's most tragic political beginnings.
* Alexander Kronemer, a free-lance writer, is an economist in the US Department of Labor with a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard University.