III. The Cross and Civilization
Jesus gives abundant life. As the Crucified and Risen Man, he also creates new possibilities for history, forms a new epoch of history, the Christian era, and forms the possibility of a new civilization. To understand fully what Rossenstock-Huessy means by this, we need to examine his sketch of ancient social forms.
Following Augustine, Rosenstock-Huessy argues that civilizations are formed according to the direction of their loves. Love is expressed in call and response, in speech and listening. We turn to listen to the one we love, and when a community turns to listen to the voice of the beloved, a civilization is born. The speaker can call us from the past or future, from inside or outside, and as the appeal and speaker changes, as listeners turn to new lovers, a new civilization is born.
Civilizations are also responses to death. Throughout history, “God becomes known to us in all the powers which triumph over death” (CF, p. 92). All human civilizations prior to Jesus organized themselves to avoid death, or treated it as purely negative, yet in these attempts we can discern a “growing knowledge of God” (CF, p. 93).
In tribal civilizations, god is the power that keeps a tribe alive after its members died. For tribes “God is identified with the spirits of the tribe’s ancestors,” and tribes overcome death “by simple denial: the ancestors aren’t ‘really’ dead, but have simply migrated to a happy hunting ground” (CF, p. 93). For the tribe, love is directed toward the ancestors, and the living direct their attention to the dead because “the dead look at the living,” which, Rosenstock-Huessy says, is “the basic law of the tribal constitution.”
As Morgan says, the tribe is “dominated by the past. Everything is sacrificed for the past. The spirits of the ancestors govern. They are highly suspicious of youth and oppose all change.” The future is “represented by the stone altar on which innovators are sacrificed—the widespread sacrifice of the firstborn child is an expression of this attitude.”
Cosmic, or temple-building empires, come into being in a sudden shift from the tribe. Flood legends narrate a cataclysmic baptismal boundary between tribal past and imperial present. In pagan empires, God was known “as eternal cosmic order revealed by the stars and imitated by the stone walls and temples and pyramids built for worship.”
Temple civilizations do not overcome death by denial but by circumvention: “the sun-god and his temple enjoy deathless duration” (CF, p. 93). Imperial temple-building peoples attempt to “bypass” death by “climbing to the sky.” In tribes, the dead speak to the living, but in cosmic empires, the heavens speak to the earth. Heaven tells a tale of eternal recurrence: Sunrise and sunset follow one another each day, and the constellations move in recurring patterns.
For cosmic empires, time stands still: “There were no real endings or genuine beginnings, no novelty, no true future.” Instead, the imperial civilization is “stunted into a kind of eternal present,” emphasizing space instead of time and establishing “timeless” political systems.
Israel introduced a new love, new time, a new speech, and hence a new civilization. Jews claimed that God was the power who created and who then “could enable His people to discount the passing of all visible things and wait for His future coming as Messiah.” Death is not “denied or ignored,” as in paganism, but for the Jews it has “only a negative significance. It is something to be endured.”Importantly, Israel endures in hope. The Lover who speaks to Israel is the God of the future who speaks from the end of time: “This is the new direction of its love—toward the one Living God, the ever-coming God.” And this means that the mode of Israel’s existence is oriented to the future, but it is oriented in patience, in anticipation and not in consummation. Abraham left his own land and waited for the fulfillment of God’s promises, and this waiting-in-exile is a crucial contribution of Israel to ancient civilization.
Finally, the Greeks created a “mixture of the tribal and imperial ways of life.” In contrast to earlier civilizations, Greeks united not through exercise of political authority but by a spiritual kinship. Greeks were united by the sea, and the seaport was a place of entry for outsiders into each individual Greek city-state. Greeks could look at themselves from outside, through the eyes of strangers, as well as from within.
Greek pluralism in myths and politics gave rise to a universal poetry that united Greeks (Homer, then the tragedians), and also to the universal thrust of philosophy. Greeks created “the life of the mind, of liberal arts and sciences inspired by the muses, the free realm of ideas, as a way of finding unity outside political pluralism.”
Achilles and Priam can recognize each other’s humanity, and the Iliad’s scene of their mutual tears is the great icon of Greek humanism. This presented also yet another way of evading death: So long as men remained spectators, they could forget that life depended on suffering and death.
How does Jesus affect this situation? In part, Jesus does for civilization what he does for individuals—he makes possible a positive stance toward death, and this produces a civilization that can shed the old with equanimity, an anti-tribe that does not cower before the gaze of the ancestors.
At times, Rosenstock-Huessy says that Jesus unified all earlier civilization, all earlier human speech. Jesus was thus “the first to turn mankind’s direction toward unity,” and he did this by “placing himself at the source of the times, the heart point, from which we may come ever again to the formation of tribes, empires, humanists, and the true Israel.” He made the “fullness of time” available by standing at the source point of all times.
At other times, he says that Jesus unified man specifically in bringing time into a unity. Each ancient civilization had grasped an aspect of human time, but could not integrate times into time. What Jesus revealed is the fact that “humans can progress from fragmentariness to completeness only by the cross, only by surviving the death of old allegiances and beginning new ones.”
This was the theme of Jesus’ whole life. He lived under the law in order to do away with the law, to die to the law. His entire life scoured away the old to make way for new. He renounced “success” in his own life, giving Himself to the founding of the church, and through this “unsuccessful” career makes himself the most successful man in history. He gave Himself to death to gain abundant life.