Orthodox Witness and the Four Cities of the West

Writing at National Review, Michael Gibson, a co-founder of 1517 Fund, writes about the need for a fuller exploration of Western civilization. His observation offers some interesting insights for Orthodox Christians interested in political theology and the Church’s witness in the Public Square.

We must balance, Gibson argues, the Roman Empire’s tendency for “universalism” with the virtues embodied in the other great cities (and so cultures) of Western civilization: Athens, London, and ultimately, Jerusalem.

“For conservatives and libertarians to save the West,” he writes, they “must return to its roots. There is more to the West than Rome. We must return to London, Athens, and Jerusalem.”

As a practical matter “This will involve channeling our traditions of exploration, the quick Greek intelligence pushing competition among diverse Greek city-states, the dynamism unlocked by the common law of London paired with the idea of progress, and the heroic revelations and commitments of Jerusalem.”

First, Athens. By ancient accounts, Aristotle compiled some 170 constitutions of city-states to write his Politics. Competition was not reserved for the Olympics; it pervaded all activities. It drove advances in drama, philosophy, science, and mathematics. “The West” is too homogeneous a whole. If nations truly differ, their peoples can explore without fear of being outlawed by universal law. If universities truly differ, research programs will chart new courses into the unknown.

London: The rule of law is one of the strongest factors in the origin and causes of the wealth of nations. But it’s not sufficient as an explanation. According to the economist Deirdre McCloskey, the industrial revolution started in England and nowhere else for a reason — its pervasive spirit of tinkering and invention, of improving one’s lot through trade, of prudence matched by risk — all this led to the enrichment of the world.

Lastly, Jerusalem. The Judeo-Christian theory of truth contrasts with the Greek. While scientific theories describe universal truths that hold for all time, the truths of Jerusalem are specific to a people, to a time, to a place. The theme is most powerfully expressed by the story of Abraham, in which God’s command to Abraham defies public reason. If we are to resist the madness of crowds, we need to mark our faith in independent judgment as sacred.

He concludes with a call for a diversity of “political order.” Rather than governments “in the mold of a single empire, he calls for “a myriad of independent states — monarchies, republics, democracies, something altogether new — competing to bring out the best in each other and their members.”

Such diversity of communities is central to Orthodox spirituality. While they share an underlying dogmatic, liturgical and ascetical unity, local (i.e., national) Orthodox Churches have their own ethos or flavor.  A visitor to any Orthodox parish in America is unlikely to confuse a Greek parish for a Russian or either for a Serbian, Antiochian or Ukrainian.

In fact, this diversity among Orthodox parishes can be so striking as to cause a visitor to wonder if these communities are all part of the same Church. This reflects not only our concrete differences but also the uncritical reduction of unity to uniformity.

The political philosophy, to return to Gibson, rooted in Athens, London, Jerusalem and Rome is a natural fit–or at least a not uneasy ally–with Orthodox Christian anthropology and sociology.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory