Aboard the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop penned “A Model of Christian Charity,” perhaps the most famous sermon in American history, charging his fellow Puritans to live out their high ideals as they settled in New England.
His loftiest sentiments, now etched into the American memory, are these:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help for us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
The “city upon a hill” line is frequently appropriated as a promissory note for American optimism. Having followed the ordinances of God, we can expect, Winthrop says, that he “will command a blessing upon us in all our ways.” Less observed, however, is Winthrop’s sharp warning: “embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions … and the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.”
Given the current state of our common life, it’s understandable why some might think Winthrop’s overlooked admonitions were prescient. There is a palpable sense of malaise in our culture just now.
As we know, the political disputes of our own time are intense, apparently intractable. On almost every side of the social and political divide, many decry the current state of our culture and institutions, almost as though accepting that Winthrop’s warnings have come true. If the polls are to be believed, an astounding number of our fellow citizens express deep concerns about the direction of the American experiment, and a pervading sense of decline and decadence infects the body politic in a way transcending political party, class, religion, or region.
Rather than prompting sustained action, however, this gloomy sense of crisis appears coupled with impotence and alienation, even resignation. On many levels—governance, media, religion, family, healthcare, the economy, civil society, the military, and education—institutional malaise and gridlock seem obvious, to the frustration of many. We’re inundated with reports about the decline of the middle class, threatening costs of university, collapse of the family, exploding prison populations, failing racial relations, threats to religious liberty, failure of elected representatives to govern effectively, unfunded liabilities, unsustainable entitlement programs, and a startling decline of social participation and trust.
Something is broken. As one of the great spirits of our time, John Paul II, suggested: “There seems to be no doubt today that modern culture … is undergoing a crisis: already it does not appear as the principal animator and unifier of society, which in turn appears to be disunited and in difficulty with regard to assuming its mission of making man grow spiritually in every aspect of his being.”
At such times, we look to rise to the occasion; yet it’s not obvious that we are doing so. Politically, we observe unrest, even, at times, rage. Educationally, we’ve settled for very low goals of technical competence, failing often to provide even that. Our artists and poets entertain us, but those who might challenge our imaginations are few, and largely unknown, even as the most famous provide mere spectacle or rehearse a dreary litany of transgression. As for religion, believers largely capitulate to the zeitgeist, or huddle dazedly behind the ramparts, or irresponsibly flee to an otherworldy pietism.
The various proposals and policies anxiously suggested for dealing with decline forget, however, that managing symptoms brings no cure. Sound policy, no matter how needed and desirable, cannot reverse decline, for politics follows culture. Culture is prior to politics, and cultural disequilibrium can be shored up for only a short time.
“Culture” as a term is uttered more often than understood, but it is tied to something quite fundamental about the human: as social and rational beings, we live and work together not only for our mutual benefit and survival but as persons in search of ultimate meaning and purpose. Human life is human, rather than merely animal, because it is cultural—culture is the human way of being in the world—and at the core of every culture is an attitude to the great mysteries of human meaning, especially with respect to the greatest mystery, the existence of God.
It is here, at the greatest of mysteries, the very meaning of existence, that we notice the alienation of our own moment. A loss of vigor, our social and political problems, even our cultural dissolution, “seems to have at its base a true crisis,” says John Paul II, “it is basically a question of a metaphysical crisis.”
Pragmatic Americans generally don’t have much time for metaphysics. One of our original insights was that a peaceful and wealthy society wouldn’t deal with such questions, but in a spirit of benign neglect would get around to the steely business of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We tend to agree with Tocqueville, the great observer of the spirit of democracy in the United States, who dismissively remarked: “I have always considered metaphysics and all the purely theoretical sciences, which are useless for the realities of life, as voluntary torments that man deliberately inflicts upon himself.”
As understandable as Tocqueville’s sentiment is, it has proven false. All of our political institutions and freedoms presume a view of the nature and meaning of the human person, and all rely upon shared cultural assumptions—certain truths thought self-evident—about morality, self-governance, and meaning.
Now, as John Paul II notes, the person “asks himself in anguish: ‘Just who am I?’ The objective view of truth is often replaced by a more or less spontaneous subjective position. Objective morality gives way to an individual ethic.… As a result, manipulations of every sort arise and man each time feels more insecure, with the impression of living in a society that seems to be lacking in convictions and ideals.”
We have forgotten ourselves, and in our confusion have exchanged the truth about the human good for mastery. Despite our power, we are alienated, insecure, anxious, threatened, and fragile. It is no accident, for instance, that victimization has emerged as a pervasive and dominating norm in our time—we have made ourselves masters, governed by nothing other than our own autonomous choice, and thus live in deep and constant apprehension of the autonomy of others.
So while metaphysics may seem abstract, an indulgent luxury in the face of “real” problems needing our immediate attention, it turns out that nothing is more needed, or kinder to those stricken with the spiritual poverty of our time, than insistently asking “Who am I?” “What am I?” “What am I for?” An education in metaphysics is an act of mercy.
It is our good fortune that Winthrop and the others aboard the Arbella did not arrive empty-handed, for among their cargo was the cultural heritage of the West. Their new city, the city they hoped would brightly shine from the hilltop, was already populated by inhabitants of three other, older cities—Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Like Winthrop, we are, all of us, deeply formed by how these three great cities dealt with the meaning of human existence, and in turning back to these sources, returning to the wellsprings of our culture, we rediscover the truth of our being, and the resources for cultural renewal and the reversal of our present decline.
Jerusalem, in all its tangled history, begins with Abraham, whose own story is one of alienation. When we’re introduced to Abraham, then still Abram, he accompanies his own father, Terah, as they depart Ur for Canaan. They leave home, losing stability, family, and religion. Terah searches for something new, but in so doing becomes, as Leon Kass puts it, “a severed link in his own cultural chain.” One of Terah’s sons dies in Ur, another remains behind, and the son who does accompany him, Abraham, abandons Terah after destroying his workshop, rejecting his gods, and leaving him alone for sixty years before he dies without “heirs to bury him.”
This is a story of fragmentation, rootlessness, and disorder. Such wildness cannot pass on the patrimony of culture. Abraham is without home, family, religion; lacking cultural knowledge he does not know how to be a husband or father—consider his cowardly abandonment of Sarai into the Pharaoh’s harem, or the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. Still, despite these failures, he is the father of three great religions and the source of Jerusalem. How was this possible?
By the end of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, it’s grimly obvious that the experiment of humanity is failing. Murder, death, depravity, sexual crimes, genocidal impulses—humans commit every imaginable brutality. Even washing the world clean to begin anew with the one righteous man fails. The reader begins to despair, as does God, who voices his dismay at having ever made these wretched creatures. But then, God acts, deciding to serve as a tutor for humanity, instructing Abraham into a new way of being human. Childless, having abandoned his own father, Abram becomes Father Abraham because God instructs him, revealing something far beyond the ways of nature. Untutored, human intelligence seems incapable of knowing righteousness, and it is obvious to Cain, the murderer, that fear and force rule. “Whoever finds me will slay me” (Gen 4:14). In short order, his descendants boast superiority of perversion, as when Lamech crows to his wives that if Cain killed his sevenfold mighty Lamech has killed seventy-sevenfold. Soon after, God sends the deluge to wipe clean the face of the earth.
Later, God provides his instructed people a more definitive teaching in the Ten Commandments given at Sinai. As Kass notes, it’s easy to reduce the commandments to abstract moral principles, pragmatic rules, but they serve more as answers to the most fundamental questions of human identity. Hebrew scripture does not use metaphysical language in the Greek mode, but Sinai answers, with God’s own hand, the questions of human identity and purpose.
Consider the very first statement: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Is this a commandment, as in some interpretations, or a preface or claim of authority prior to issuing the commandments? Of course, the Bible itself does not use the term commandments, instead identifying the tables as words spoken by God. (Decalogue, or deka logoi, itself means ten words or statements, not commands.) They show God at work instructing, teaching his people what it means to be human.
One could read the words as God making a philosophical point, teaching Israel something fundamental about their identity. And not just Israel, but everyone. Oddly, the initial text does not identify an audience. We’re told that “God said all these words, saying …,” but the text does not indicate to whom God spoke; no particular audience is mentioned. The “omission is fitting, for the speech appears to be addressed simultaneously to all the assembled people and to each one individually…. Moreover, although … uttered in the presence of a particular group of people, the content of the speech is … addressed to anyone and everyone who is open to hearing it—including, of course, us who can read the text and ponder what it tells us.”
Read in this way, the first instruction of Sinai, given to every person, is to remember that God brought us out of Egypt, even though, quite obviously, this cannot be true in the same way for us as it was for the assembly at Sinai. God teaches that there are two alternatives for human life; either we are in relation to the LORD, or we remain enslaved in Egypt, serving a Pharaoh who “rules as if he were himself divine.”
Egypt is not only a historical power but represents the permanent possibility of human bondage in all times and places whenever our very natural tendencies toward power and domination reign over us. In that light, the ten words are not only moral rules, but also a piercing insistence that humans are to be equal and free. Like all just rules, they are not expressions of sheer power or will but rather reveal and secure those goods constitutive of human flourishing. They may be rules we ought to keep, yes, but they also reveal our nature so that we may understand both ourselves and the purpose and justice of the rules.
For instance, in teaching that we are to “have no other gods, and do not worship images” God does not merely claim us as his own. There are no other gods, after all, as God knows, nor does he need us or our worship. The instruction is for our good, not his, since subservience to idols is a degradation of intelligence, will, and personhood, as is every belief or system violating human integrity. Similarly, the proscription against taking the Lord’s name in vain is not a preservation of God’s dignity, since his perfection can in no way be damaged by us. He is immutable, impassible; we can do nothing to him. This is for our sake, a protection against all those who claim to have mastery over God, some magical incantation of invocation of divine will. Again, as with the other teachings, our dignity is preserved from those who claim power unjustly and irrationally, an offense against human flourishing. So, too, keeping the Sabbath is not an arcane limitation, or a degradation of the other days, or a method by which to maintain our strength for subsequent work. It teaches that we are not God or rulers over the good, beautiful, and true. We do not master the good, we steward it as a gift. A double portion of manna comes on Sabbath, reminding that we live by mercy if we live at all, and ought to walk with humble gratitude in the world we did not devise—a statement true to this day, whatever our technical competence.
Abraham is taught to be a father, and his children—us—are taught reverence, limits, dignity, freedom, the value of the human who exists for her own sake and never as resource or grist for the powerful. Surrounded by pagans, ancient or modern, those who view power, pleasure, and the immortality of fame as highest goods, to them a voice cries out as Jerusalem’s foundations are laid; a leap in being occurs, a burst of human capacity unknown to those empires more powerful in chariots and spears, but all of them gone, all their palaces long vanished into the dusts of time and the deserts. Where are the Hittites? Decayed, gone. But Zion abides wherever men and women of good will obey the instruction to escape the bonds of Egypt. In that sense, then, we in the West have attempted to live in Zion and, perhaps, attempt it still.
Jerusalem is not Athens, for reverence and not wonder is the beginning of wisdom in the Bible. Wonder provokes a desire to understand for its own sake, for no reason other than knowledge itself. Aristotle tells us that all persons desire to know, and this contemplative thrust is the divine in us. Such sentiments are not Biblical, where understanding is not for its own sake but for righteousness. In wonder, however, the Greeks surpassed everyone, including Israel. Their politics were a mess, with the polis constantly writhing in intrigue and war and tyranny, yet despite this disorder, or because of it, genius emerged, a transformation of spirit occured, and the history making epoch of reason was born.
While it’s true that reason is always a defining aspect of humanity, the “Hellenic philosophers discovered reason as the source of order in the psyche;” they discovered reason as the force and criterion of order immanent and operative in the human, not external. In doing so, the philosophers consciously engaged in a profound and personal resistance against the moral and social decay of their time. For the ancients, philosophy was a way of life, a set of practices and disciplines; it was not, for them, the writing down of doctrines or arguments, but instead about living well.
Just as Jerusalem came to life when humans underwent a fundamental shift of consciousness, a leap of being, so too Athens, as a symbol of order, arose when reason was discovered as the force and the criterion of order—such a discovery remade one’s entire life, it was a periagoge, a conversion.
Consider the usual definition of the human as “rational animal.” We hear this, dulled by easy familiarity, and think of it as a genus-species taxonomy. But the symbolic force of the phrase “rational animal” goes farther, articulating a call, a demand of human authenticity. As rational animal, we experience ourselves in a persisting state of restlessness. It’s a strange thing, really; the dog gets enough to eat and goes to sleep. The human gets enough to survive and begins to wonder about the meaning of it all, giving up both ease of sleep and mind, sometimes agonizing on whether he has it right, has it figured out.
Perhaps you remember your first experience of wonder. That jolting realization of the deep and abiding mystery of it all? The mystery of yourself? Here you were! Halfway between birth and death, from nothingness to nothingness, with the Nothing drawing nearer at every moment. Still, in the face of nothingness, you are. Mystery: why is there something rather than nothing? Mystery: Of all the possible somethings, why me? The rational animal “experiences itself as a living being … conscious of the questionable character attaching to this status.” We discover ourselves as a questioner, and as a questioner in a reality beyond our mastery. The philosopher experiences herself as called, as moved, drawn by some unknown but compelling force. And she feels this force as a kind of love, something akin to a mystical experience whereby reality reveals itself.
At the same time, there is something normative to wonder. It gives direction, it makes demands. No one who has ever experienced the irruption of reason as a way of life feels indifferent to it, as if one could now choose to ignore the luminosity of being without committing a perversity, an impiety, a deformation of one’s own character—like hacking at the core of one’s own integrity.
To repeat the lame phrase “rational animal” overlooks the daring shout present in it, for it is really a statement of human worth within cosmic order, an attempt to put words to the sense that the divine is somehow present to us, for reason participates or takes part in the glory.
Socrates famously left his studies of natural philosophy—science—to turn to the really human things, to know himself, and to help others in the same. The dialogues are full of this tension. Think of all the interlocutors who encounter Socrates as a threat to their sense of self and thus hate him. To each Socrates presents nothing less than a new authority—his daimon or spirit—and this new voice usurps the minor greek deities, but, more troubling, overthrows the idols that each person is ever prone to adore, namely, their own desires. Socrates offers another love, and he does his best to seduce these young men, not to his embraces, but to an erotic and all consuming, quest for the good. And these men respond violently, spitefully. Their loves are decrepit, in desperate need of conversion, but ill men have poor judgment, and men diseased in soul and mind, what Eric Voegelin calls a pneumapathology, are sometimes far beyond the call of the logos.
Others find their way. And none of those who do experience “rational animal” as a boring fact, let alone an academic game of this or that abstraction; instead, they discover that “the man who asks questions, and the divine ground about which the questions are asked, will merge in the experience of questioning as a divine-human encounter.” The divine ground reveals itself, is opened to us, “in the experience of unrest and the desire to know.”
In wonder, then, a new form of life opens, the life of reason, a life which refuses to accept anything other than the truth, anything less than the good, anything below the beautiful. In so doing, history unleashes a force constantly resisting and rejecting the sirens of disorder, for we know that these disorders dishonor us, however pleasant they happen to be, and so we would rather drink the hemlock, like Socrates, celebrating a healthy soul even as the poison courses through our bodies and brings the chill of death. Socrates last words are those of the rational animal, for he has not capitulated; he has followed wonder to the end.
Always there are tyrants, and the worst tyrannies are those over our own selves, for no prison or torture is as harrowing or dehumanizing as the ones into which we condemn ourselves. Against these, Socrates proclaimed that nothing could harm a good man—a person of right reason—except vice, for vice was its own punishment. The joyful unrest of questioning, then, was a new form of life, and the making present of a new order. Athens, with us still.
Once Athens has appeared, Jerusalem cannot simply be repeated—the questions have developed, pushing the tensions between the two cities in a new direction, as Benedict XVI explained:
We can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.… From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, [Christianity] was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.
Theology, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps he greatest of medieval thinkers, was consequently understood as a science, open to reason, not a blind leap and certainly not rooted in an arbitrary act of will. No accident, then, that medieval theologians were called “schoolmen” and that the great universities of our civilization emerged under their care. Faith seeks understanding—fides quarens intellectum—which has a moderating effect on faith and expands reason beyond its finite bounds: both are humanized. In our own time, we know all too well the results of fervent faith without reason or fervent reason lacking hope and love.
In addition to its reasonable faith, the Church proclaimed the fundamental goodness of the world, freeing humanity from any capricious or unintelligible world order. For Christians, the cosmos is friendly because the first reality is personal—the Trinue communion of persons. Created in the image of God, humans are originally reasonable, good, and free. Further, all things are good, of value. For the Greek philosophers, contingency meant unintelligibility, and only that which was eternal was coherent. The doctrine of Creation challenges this, for everything other than God is utterly contingent—it need not be, dust it was and to dust it shall return. All creation is a non-necessary gift. God need not have made it, but since he freely chose to do so, reality is not indifferent to persons. Further, since creation depends on the generous and ecstatic outpouring of God’s communion, all creation carries and speaks this generosity in itself, and in a particular way the human person.
While completely dependent, nothing human is thereby diminished. Not only does God will all creation to be, but also to be good, containing its due and proper perfection. And God saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10). Further, while all that is, is good, the human is moreover a manifestation of God, a trace of glory. Of all creation, only the person is willed for their own sake, and every person is a deep amazement, a wonder.
This sense of order and goodness—Christian optimism—stemming from a God so full of order that he bursts forth to pour his luminosity into creation, pervades the majestic summae—the treatises on theology—and the cathedrals of the time. Henry Adams put it this way: “You must try first to rid your mind of the traditional idea that the Gothic is an intentional expression of religious gloom. The necessity for light was the motive of the Gothic architects. They needed light and always more light, until they sacrificed safety and common sense in trying to get it. They converted their walls into windows.” The cathedrals pierced the heavens and the heavenly light filled the space, for God had already ennobled matter by becoming matter, by becoming a human. Not only was every human a daughter or son of God, but God had become one of them, a brother, and every human activity carried divine approval and sanctification. Because Christ was human, everything human is sanctified. Christianity is a profound humanism, it posits and welcomes the autonomy and integrity of the world, knowing that faith need not rule, for everything is already God’s. It freely offers what it has to any who would have it, just as it eagerly, and without any fear, embraces all that is true, good, and beautiful in the world.
The three founding cities are not identical, sometimes pulling along different paths. This is a productive tension, however, for it makes Western culture. The West is eccentric, we have borrowed from the insights and leaps made by our forebears, keeping everything together in an ongoing conversation.
If anything, what defines us is this spirit of conversation about how to best navigate the intricacies of our heritage. As an open and dynamic society, nothing is maintained merely because customary; instead, we negotiate, for this is our custom. We are a people locked together in common argument rather than by ethnicity, heritage, or class. It is in the public square or agora, in the meeting halls, in the benches and floors of Parliament and the Senate that we have become unified, a people breathing together as one, a conspiracy for the common good (con + spirare = to breathe together).
Metaphysical revolt throws all this into doubt. Our way of life, and the institutions which secure that way, are sustained by deep commitments about an ordered and intelligible universe, self-governed and reasonable persons, natural law and natural rights, the good as shared in common rather than hoarded in isolation, responsibility for ourselves and others, the inviolability of human dignity, the rule of law rather than of will, family as seedbed for happiness and religion, private property, free conscience, the necessity of virtue and self-control, and a serious and pious regard for the wisdom of the past. Lacking these commitments, or even opposing them, many have fallen prey to the tyranny of relativism. For a time of alienation, when freedom is defined without reference to the true or the good, the beautiful becomes spectacle, education becomes mere efficiency, religion becomes violent or pietistic, and a bored indifference settles in, happier with the pleasures of entertainment than with struggles for genuine and authentic flourishing. We are too easily satisfied.
The institutions of our common life do not create, and have proven incapable of sustaining, the deep values upon which they depend. We decline insofar as we reject what it means to be human. Our institutions, created to secure human flourishing, are like a fire without oxygen, and slowly burning out. Rejecting God, we lost the human; losing the human, we lost our cultural dignity.
For those of us with Christian faith, despair is not permitted, for it is sin. Not just any sin, but the one unforgivable sin, for it asserts that God is indifferent or impotent. So, we do not despair. Instead, like our spiritual mothers and fathers, we shape and direct our wills to the conversion of the pagans.
But it is not enough, not remotely enough, to think of converting souls only. Humans are not souls, but persons. Since it is culture which distinguishes humans from the animals, and since humans are to be redeemed in their totality—redeemed properly as human rather than splintered and disintegrated—culture must be redeemed. Not warred against or conquered, and certainly not escaped, but not surrendered either.
And so the three cities need rebuilding. Their walls repaired, streets repaved, gardens tended. The work of centuries, a slow evangelization. Not a momentary decision, this, not a program or slogan or gimmick. We will need to be like gardeners turning the soil in winter, not knowing whether we shall ever see spring’s new life, but knowing that the cultural soil, bare now, must be tended. In soil, no matter how eroded and degraded, there is always the dearest freshness deep down, for soil was made by a God who made man from that soil, and who himself become a soiled man.
Required, then, is a massive and dynamic concentration of effort, will, intelligence, prayer, study, education, building, tending, keeping, filling, and governing. An effort looking not months ahead, but decades and centuries into the future with all the hope, energy, and youthful joy of our ancient tradition. Ever ancient, ever new.
In many ways, rebuilding a culture requires the same virtues as building a cathedral. In his wonderful Mount-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams recounts the extraordinary “energy and unity with which” the Western world “flung herself” forth during the great Romanesque and Gothic constructions. He says:
The outburst … was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, color, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.
And they built well, at great cost, just as we must now do. The Abbey at Mount-Saint-Michel, Adams continues, is made of granite, even the hidden crypts and storage rooms no one ever sees are “superbly built, of the hardest and heaviest stone within reach, which has nowhere settled or given way.”
Even now, a massive project is underway at Mount-Saint-Michel. Since the eighth century, the mount has housed a monastic community, but was a military stronghold well before that. Built on an island roughly half a mile off the coast, it was accessible only during low tide, with high tides almost fifty feet high sweeping attackers, or pilgrims, out to sea, earning it the nickname “St Michael in peril of the sea.”
Over the years, silt and marshes have encroached and the island joined the mainland, losing its separation, no longer surrounded (and protected) by the sea but threatened by the rise of sand. Now, after massive expense, millions of tons of silt are dredged, the sea floor lowered, acres of marshes returned to the sea, and the Abbey stands isolated yet again.
The imagery is striking. The ancient church comforted and housed those braving the dangers of pilgrimage. In time, the church lost its particular character, joined too completely with the mainland. For the church to be properly itself, a great work was needed, and again it attracts pilgrims from all over the world, those who return sanctified to their ordinary, worldly tasks. Building extravagantly for God, the human city is rebuilt.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was first delivered as a lecture at Agora Institute at Eastern University (November 2015). A video of this lecture may be found here.
 In this section, I rely a great deal on the work of Leon Kass. See his The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), and “The Ten Commandments: Why the Decalogue Matters,” Mosaic Magazine (June 1, 2013). All quotations in this section are from Kass.
 My reading is strongly influenced by Eric Voegelin, “Reason: The Classical Experience,” in Anamnesis, translated by Gerhart Niemeyer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978). Quotations in this section are from that text.