All Americans, excepting Native Americans, of course, have ultimately come from somewhere else. Either they themselves have come here from somewhere else, or their ancestors have. That is simply part of what it means to be an American. Many Americans are quite conscious of the fact and have made where they have come from part of their personal stories. They eagerly designate themselves as Irish-Americans, African-Americans, German- Americans, and the like. In New York, they even have parades for their hyphens. Others make it a hobby to dig deeply into their genealogy to determine just where they do come from. Recently, with the advent of inexpensive DNA testing, many have gone so far as to submit biological samples to find out where they “really” come from. Most are quite shocked with the results, finding out that they need to put away the kilts and buy lederhosen. Recently my brother adventured into this brave new world. While we know our family is mainly Scottish, English, and German, the test results came back saying that we are seventy per cent Scandinavian. This was quite a jolt, since we really do know where most of our ancestors came from, and it was Scotland, Germany, and England. Upon reflection, though, we realized that the DNA didn’t actually disprove that. What it did show, though, was the wide range of raping and pillaging that the Vikings engaged in across northern Europe a thousand years ago. Such are the ambiguities of ancestral heritage. You look for royalty, and you find a marauding Viking.
However, unless that kind of national or genetic heritage is cause for continual prejudice or ghettoization, it is not really very important to who we are: to how we act, to how we think, to what we value. The most important heritage we have is the one that teaches us how to think and act well and deeply, and to value what is lasting. That sort of heritage can come in several different layers. It ought to come to us above all in our religion. But it also comes to us in our national life; hopefully, that does not clash, or clash too overtly with our religious life. It also comes to us from what is called the Western tradition. These are all important inheritances for us. They all need to be protected. Thus, we all ought to have been struck when, in one of his better pieces of rhetoric, the president two weeks ago asked this important question in a speech in Poland, “Does the West have the will to survive?”
Now, I have no interest in this place in analyzing what the President may or may not understand the heritage of the West to be, or what he thinks threatens it, or what it would take to defend it so that it will survive. But I do have a great interest in the question itself, and so should you, for it is not simply a question of contemporary political options. It is also a timeless question and a biblical one, too. This is the question raised by our Old Testament reading for this morning, a question about how we hold and value what is most important to us, in every sense of that term.
Jacob and Esau were not like other boys, or other brothers. Why they were not was because of their heritage. God had given their grandfather Abraham a promise that he would become the father of a great nation. It would be through his line that the world would be saved. That line obviously went through their father Isaac, for he was Abraham’s only son. It should then have gone through Esau, for although he and Jacob were twins, he was the first born. So within the family rested the fate of nations. Not unlike royal families, where the future of the nation rests in the king’s offspring, this created a great responsibility, but also a great tension between the brothers, for in such families, the younger one does not always give in easily to his place in the scheme of things. Jacob certainly did not. He had his eyes on the birthright that normally should have been Esau’s. So the promise, the heritage of the family, certainly added to their intense sibling rivalry, which would have been strong anyhow since the two boys were so different. Genesis tells us that they wrestled already in Rebekah’s womb. It also tells us that Esau was Isaac’s favorite, but Jacob was Rebekah’s. This is not a family set up for harmony.
One day, Esau came back from hunting. He was famished. Jacob, who had been whipping up a stew in his kitchen, offered him some when Esau asked for it – for a price. Esau could have the stew if he sold Jacob his birthright. Being a man of the moment and not a long thinker, he immediately did so. Thus Jacob, not Esau, came to be the inheritor of God’s promise.
Now, Esau clearly failed to defend his birthright. He is rightly condemned for that failure. But the failure lies not just in the deal that he made with Jacob, which, he might have claimed, was made under duress and trickery. It lies really in the failure to value his heritage properly in the first place. It was worth something to him – a mess of stew. He thought he was getting value for value. Jacob, on the other hand, crafty and devious soul that he was, knew what it was really worth, and he was willing to trade anything to get it. Jesus once talked about a man discovering a pearl of great value buried in a field, and who sold everything he had to buy the field so that he could get at the pearl. Jesus meant that as an allegory of faith and the kingdom. It applies directly to Jacob. He is such a man of faith. Esau, however, stands for time eternal as a man who foolishly failed to value his heritage, and to save it and protect it, or to live for it and by it.
That is the way it is with heritages that matter. We need to defend them. But we also need to keep at the front of our minds that the first great defense of our heritages is our need to value them. The real failure to defend them comes not at the borders where external enemies threaten us – and there certainly are such enemies. The failure first comes in failing to understand and care for what has been passed down to us. That is our greatest threat.
The Western world’s great example of a heritage lost is the collapse of the Roman Empire. Most would date that collapse to August 24, 410 when the Visigoths sacked Rome. That event stood as a shock to a whole civilization. It can stand as a warning to be ready to withstand external threats. Those who are wiser, however, know that the collapse first came internally and far before that date. Edward Gibbon, the author of the magisterial The Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote of how things stood with late Rome’s spiritual life: “The various modes of worship...were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; by the magistrates as equally useful.” In short, their religion was no longer valued; there was no spiritual center anymore. St. Augustine, who wrote at the time Rome fell, was even more severe. He said that Rome had never really had the spiritual greatness it thought it had. It was a shell, and its virtues were really splendid vices. On either account, Rome was Esau, and it paid the price.
Now, the lesson that we ought to take away from this is that the first and most important part of defending our heritage comes in valuing it properly. But what does that mean? Well, it means that we live according to it. That is to say, it means living as if we really meant the best that our heritage has to hand on to us. We can’t just talk about it. It can’t be a formula or an ideology. T.S. Eliot pointed this out in the 1930s after Chamberlain’s shameful capitulation to Hitler after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Eliot noted that England considered itself a Christian nation; it was clear at that point, however, that it was not Christian principle that directed its action. Instead, it had become a mere collection of banking and business interests, and those institutions were now making its decisions.
Living as if we mean it particularly means valuing the institutions that let a heritage be handed on, and doing what it takes to protect them. In the West, those institutions are things such as our laws and courts, our governmental systems, our press, our schools and universities, churches, our museums, our art, our literature. These are the things that let everything else in our lives have some sense of integrity and order, some sense of imaginative possibility. Within their very functioning in a our lives, they pass on a way of life as a living matter. When doing what they should, they pass on value, for value is a matter of life. So it is no surprise that what it takes to protect these institutions is also a way of life. Protecting them means supporting them by our respect. But that is two way street because it also means expecting from them and the people in them truth, honesty, integrity, honor, and a sense of dedication and service. That then means participating in them ourselves as people of dedication and service, honesty, integrity, and honor. And, it also means, as the psalmist says, “ despising the reprobate,” that is, those who undermine those virtues. Possessing a heritage means using its best parts to criticize its failures.
But there are two things that stand behind all this, and it is in paying attention to them particularly that these virtues come to life so that all this talk of truth, etc. is not just high minded, but empty rhetoric. Those two things are education, and religion. On both counts, I dare say, we may well now be in danger of not having the will to survive.
Education is a matter of heritage, or at least it should be. The psalmist says that he will tell what he has heard and known, “things that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from our children; we will tell them to the next generation, the glorious deeds of the Lord..., and the wonders that he has done.” That is the imperative of having a heritage, passing it on to the next generation. So, in our art and literature, we pass on not cultural gravy to spice up the economic roast, but our deepest efforts of how to live humanly. But in the present state of American education, that is not what we have been doing. Business as a subject and as the dark overlord of administration has been effectively driving out the humanities. There is a lot of technique, but the art of living has been shoved aside. Learning is a matter of leveraging the system to get something out of it. University libraries, if I am to believe what my professor friends tell me, are deaccessioning books as fast as they can to make more room for computer labs, and English and Philosophy professors are being let go for Business Administration and Computer Science ones. Education ought to be a matter of learning attention, and, as Simone Weil once wrote, attention when developed to its utmost becomes prayer. Yet, we have been teaching distractedness and catering to self interest.
There is another issue here, too. Rather than education being the means of raising the consciousness of a whole populace that needs all the virtues that I mentioned a moment ago for the necessary institutions of a culture, it has become competitive in such a way that the best education belongs to very few outside the upper middle class, which can afford all the tutoring, camps, and unpaid internships that get you into a top ranked school. Thus it is an ironical conclusion that, in our very competition, our individual drive to get ahead, or to get our kids ahead, we really do not have the will to survive, at least as a democracy, because we have excluded eighty per cent of our people from the sort of education that would lift their spirits and let them be full and valuable participants in the institutions needed to pass on democracy. When eighty percent do not and cannot inherit, in time there will be no heritage left. There will be something else.
The other thing that matters to our will to survive is religion which is where our ultimate will lies. It is played out, is lived out, in all these aforegoing aspects of our lives. I am no fan of generic religion, nor do I believe that what God promises us in Jesus Christ is for the sake of propping up the culture, or valuable chiefly as a form of crowd control. Yet, a people with no religious center whatsoever is a people with no very large horizon or very deep values. Any number of non-believing philosophers such as John Dewey, Jurgen Habermas, and Julia Kristeva, have seen that and argued for the need for some kind of faith within a culture. While the call is somewhat ironic since they themselves don’t believe, they have recognized that a people without horizon or depth will in time come to doubt that it is ever worth stretching oneself to serve another, or to go to any effort of self sacrifice. This is true of a welfare culture that is the result of entitlement and not compassion, as conservatives note. But it is also true in a culture where economic Darwinism and naked capitalism reign. In this sort of Darwinism, what will survive will not be the human best. Similarly, we need to recognize that intellectual hostility to religion will not ever result in the triumph of human rationality, but in a sort of instrumentalism that makes everything into a matter of cold calculation for advantage. Overall, there will be no cultural coherence. The result of all that will be a sense that there is nothing inside the human being, no transcendence, no tragedy, just a general pointlessness. There will be no challenge, and there will also be little compassion or dedication or service.
So, it really is an important question to ask whether the West has the will to survive. We need to ask it of ourselves and our institutions. In another context, Esau and Jacob both also asked it about the promise that God had given their ancestors. One answered one way, because he did not value that promise at all. He didn’t think the promise was about value. The other, Jacob, answered quite differently, and he was willing to do what was needed to pursue it. His choice comes down to us, as it does to every generation. Will we value what we have inherited? Will we live according to the best our heritage has given us? Or will we sell our birthrights in foolish actions for a mess of pottage?