This post was originally written in 2019 . . . .
In an essay he wrote a few years ago called “The Four America’s” conservative columnist David Brooks pointed to the need for a new unifying narrative for America. What he called the “Exodus” paradigm held from our founding as a nation until recently. We told ourselves that America was essentially replaying the story of the Israelites, who fled religious oppression in Egypt, and came to the promised land to be a light unto the nations. Americans too fled oppression in the old world and came to a new one, establishing a special and unique nation that could broadcast freedom to the rest of the world. We existed to inspire others to follow in our footsteps.
Obviously this national myth no longer holds the imagination of our culture. In some ways we can lament the loss of this sense of mission and purpose, but I also think that the story never quite fit to begin with. Granted, every myth compresses and synthesizes, but our treatment of Native Americans and slavery stand as massive exceptions that the myth simply cannot hold within it. Our relative ignorance of these “anomalies” in our story* for centuries then naturally led people to focus almost exclusively upon the “exception” to the story, and so the pendulum swung entirely in the other direction. I am no friend of the modern progressive left, but reluctantly, I understand why they exist. We will have to endure them at least a little longer, it seems, perhaps as penance for our sins.
In addition, the Exodus story works wonderfully for a pioneer people, but less well for a major superpower. And, finally, even a cursory look suggests the possibility that the Enlightenment had just as much, if not more, influence on our founding than Christianity.
Brooks then suggests four other off-shoots from this myth, though admits that neither of them work even as well as the Exodus narrative.
- The Libertarian myth sees us as “a land of free individuals responsible for our own fate.” It celebrates choice and the free market. It borrows from the freedom element of the Exodus story, but economic choice isn’t as powerful as religious choice. And–simply focusing on personal choice and responsibility cannot sufficiently unify us.
- The “Globalized America” narrative celebrates a sliver of the “America as beacon for the world” from the Exodus story, as well as the dismantling of old hierarchies celebrated by our founders. But this story fails to provide an America distinctive enough to give us an identity.
- “Multicultural America” borrows from the “Exodus” story with its narrative of oppression and the idea of a melting pot nation. But in always focusing on the exceptions and purely personal identity, no common core can be built to rally around.
- The “America First” story gives us a common core and reinforces American distinctives, unlike the above three options. It has a brashness that can be bracing, especially compared to the other options. But it leaves out the inclusive aspect of the American story. It can tend to produce a “patriotism for the sake of patriotism” whirlpool. It gives America no transcendent reason to exist beyond its mere existence.
I agree with Brooks that neither of these four approaches are even as good as our discarded “Exodus” story. I agree that we need another narrative, but am not sure how we’re going to get one in our polarized culture. But as to what polarizes us a country–we don’t agree on this either. This is not only America’s problem–most everywhere else at least in the developed world seems to have the “first world problem” of no unifying narrative.** But we do not look deep enough for the cause of this rift, and blame different sides for the wrong reasons.
Though democracies have done much to alter traditions, they cannot change the basic ways in which the world works and the ways we perceive the world, at least on a subconscious level. Ancient creation stories agree in many ways, perhaps most fundamentally in that they conceived of creation as a harmony of contrasting forces. “Salvation” in a Christian sense is about the marriage of Heaven and Earth, and of course, the Incarnation is Christ the God-Man uniting Heaven and Earth in one Person. I do not intend this post to be an explicit argument for the truth of the Christian story, but I do believe it contains the most coherent and best “version” of all the ancient cosmologies. Biblical cosmology overlaps with many other ancient cosmologies, and this only serves as a point in its favor. Acknowledging these huge questions, from here on I will proceed by discussing ancient cosmologies in general.
The modern age measures time in what I would consider to be rather an insane way:
The second (abbreviation, s or sec) is the Standard International ( SI ) unit of time. One second is the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 (9.192631770 x 10 9 ) cycles of the radiation produced by the transition between two levels of the cesium 133 atom . . .
This has advantages, as it allows to universalize and quantify precisely, but it happens completely outside of our experience, and thus, time can have little real meaning for us. The way we parse out units of time remains essentially arbitrary. For the ancient world, time had a manifest reality because it brought observable change. Day turns to night, and then night turns to day. Seasons change, and death and new life come with these changes. Thus the ancients conceived time as something moving, fluid, in flux–like water, but also solid and experientially verifiable.
Space gives us stability. Time allows us to become, but we need to “be” something to “become” anything (apologies to Brad Goodman). Time needs space to act upon. The relationship between time and space can only work well when we have a strong concept of the unity of heaven and earth. Possibly, we could have an acceptable range of this relationship. Some parents are more strict and some more permissive, but as long as one avoids the red line on either side, families can be stable and healthy.
For example, ancient Egypt leaned heavily on the side of space. They lived within a narrow strip of land, with the “chaos” of desert and death right next to them. Even their greatest architectural achievements mainly had the psychological effect of weights pressing on the ground. The Nile flooding formed in integral part of Egyptian life, but they put all their energy into controlling the Nile flood. Theirs was a “masculine” civilization all in all, and some historians criticize them for being too rigid and not sufficiently adaptable to change.
Babylon favored the fluidity of time (too much so, I would say, but we’ll let it pass for now–they had a long and storied history, after all). The Euphrates bisected their city, and they sought not to control the river–they had no great need to do so anyway–but to utilize it for their benefit. One of their main deities, Ishtar, was goddess of love, war, marriage, and prostitution, and sometimes was pictured with a beard. Aristocratic males were known to cross-dress and temple prostitution was the norm. Babylon was the quintessential cosmopolitan city–home of every philosophy and religious idea in existence in their known world. Theirs was a “feminine” civilization, in the sense that they had little devotion to the concept of a stable, unified form.
We can debate the merits of both civilizations, but should acknowledge that although they had different answers as to the balance between time and space, both at least were conscious of the realities of both. Our problem is twofold: 1) We lack even basic awareness of these concepts on a metaphysical level, and 2) We have abandoned the “marriage” of Heaven and Earth (a mirror also for “Time, and “Space” respectively) in Christ, and so have lost any hope of holding them in tension. With both freed from each other, Time makes war on Space, and vice-versa.^
Some argue that Time reigns supreme. In favor of the victory of Time, we see the rapid expansion of “time saving” technologies. Cars and planes compress space, but nothing compresses space quite like the internet. We erode boundaries of privacy, and we live in a “hot-take” world of moving information. Very few media outlets can afford patient reflection. Time’s triumph–thinking in terms of the “fluid” aspect of time–seems most evident in our culture’s support for people changing genders.
But, not so fast . . . “Space” does not take this lying down. If Democrats propose open borders, Trump will build a wall. In countries such as Poland and Hungary we see a resurgence of a strong nationalistic mindset. As we do more to celebrate exceptions and fluidity in the west, at the same time we have more absolute boundaries enforced by the culture as to what we can and cannot say. College students demand rigid “safe spaces” on the one hand while simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of every possible identity–a perfect incarnation of the intense stalemate between time and space. And–every spot on earth is mapped out, which means that space has complete definition. No country would possibly consider negotiating space with another country to resolve a dispute. Lest our modern avoidance of this seem perfectly natural, it stands in sharp contrast to politics before perhaps 1789, where king’s would routinely trade provinces here and there as diplomatic chips.
So today we have both “Time” and “Space” making a strong play for dominance, and just like the whole family suffers when dad and mom fight, so too we suffer in the midst of this contest. But children have little hope of solving their parent’s problems. We have more control of ours. We need the King to return to end the vicious squabbling of princes. When the dust settles, then we may see clearly enough to tell ourselves the story we all need to hear.
*I suppose there are those that would not call slavery and our treatment of Native Americans as anomalies to the story. Israel did have slaves–and some might draw a parallel to our treatment of Native Americans with what Israel did at Jericho. I disagree with this interpretation, but I want to acknowledge its existence.
**I know some do not want a unifying narrative because they fear the unity that this provides, and the concentration of power it gives. We saw the destructive potential of this in the early 20th century. But you can shove this basic human need under the carpet for only so long, and the longer we wait, the more chances for a destructive “pendulum swing” identity to emerge.
^Those familiar with Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World podcast will note my debt in what follows to episode 62, along with Matthew Pageau’s The Language of Creation.
Comparing civilizations on the Time/Space axis can be fun and illuminating. Clearly America, along with Babylon, heavily leans in the direction of “Time.” We have pioneered many so-called “time saving” technologies. The great Tyler Cowen proclaimed that our decline in physical mobility is a worrisome problem. We love our cars, and some argue that we lost our mojo as a civilization the moment the frontier closed. Bob Dylan mythologized the rolling stone, and who can possibly forget Journey telling us that the wheel in the sky keeps on turning, and that he doesn’t know where he’ll be tomorrow?
We have countless writers and other aspects of our culture that celebrate movement, the open road, etc. I can think only of Wendell Berry as perhaps our only cultural contributor of note who writes in celebration of Space.