Gardens in Babylon

For His Dominion is an Everlasting Dominion

There is a capital in the east, a great city full of many peoples from all over the world, and it sits upon a river. Drawn there are the youth of all the states and territories, and of many foreign protectorates, to the halls of power where armies of civil servants administer the law. The city is full of parks and gardens and the treasures of fallen kingdoms. I write, of course, of Babylon.

American evangelicals living and working in Washington, D.C., like to invoke the prophet Daniel. Belteshazzar’s faithful service to an empire that swallowed up his people is a comfort to pilgrims who cannot help but notice their country that they love has ever less love for them, for Christ, or for his church. Daniel’s is a story that, on a superficial reading, might suggest the Christian in politics faces two futures: the power to do good, quietly behind the scenes, or martyrdom in the lion’s den. Few worry much about the far more likely outcomes—mediocrity and assimilation, for the sake of vulgar comfort. 

Christians hoping to make policy—working close to power, seeking the good of the city—ought perhaps to look more closely at another character in Daniel’s story. King Nebuchadnezzar’s descent from royal grace to dumb beast, and then blessed return to imperial glory, presents us with a confounding illustration of man’s relationship to creation’s great chain of being and God’s providential work. The sin addressed, of course, is pride, which comes before a fall. But the way of humility and restoration is not an immediate turn to the high, to abstract theological doctrine, but rather a reacquaintance with the low, with the things of men stripped away: Nebuchadnezzar undergoes, we might say, a rewilding.

The prophet writes:

All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of the twelve months, he was walking about the royal palace of Babylon. The king spoke, saying, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?”

While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”

That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.

And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever:

For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,

And His kingdom is from generation to generation.

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;

He does according to His will in the army of heaven

And among the inhabitants of the earth.

No one can restrain His hand

Or say to Him, “What have You done?”

At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my honor and splendor returned to me….

The moral lessons here are plain and familiar: humility and piety, the beginnings of wisdom. The political lesson, perhaps less so. We are citizens de jure—though maybe, de facto, merely voters and consumers—of a republic, not kings of kings. But empires are empires. And America’s public reason, too, the glory and honor and splendor, cannot return unless there is a rewilding for us of a kind, and thus the conservation of a commonsense account of nature as God’s creation.

Here, now, in this year of our Lord, it hardly needs demonstration—to voters of either party—that the American people have by and large forgotten that the roots of their liberty are deeper than their own mighty power and majesty. We are a house divided, like the garments at Golgotha. The ground on which our political order and all its just freedoms stands is a recognition of the laws of nature and nature’s God, but, what are those?

In turning to a discussion of nature, we find ourselves, as we should expect to do when heading in the right direction, on a narrow road. It is the path to a right relationship with the rest of creation, which is really to a right understanding of ourselves. But two ditches lie on either side of us.

On the one hand—we might be tempted to say the left hand—lies a radical flattening of all distinction between the human being and that other “everything else” that humans call nature. This can be professed to such a degree that our self-awareness is seen as an accident, even a kind of cancer, concluding that our proper relationship to the rest of the earth can only be found in self-effacement. Climate conversations have all the hallmarks of our post-Christian condition: cosmic sin without cosmic grace. We look to the heavens and see not the stars but the vast emptiness of space, and sing the praises of annihilation.

On the other hand—one commonly coded as right-wing or conservative—the earth is reduced to mere matter at hand, and all of mankind has become, not Imago Dei, the sons of God, but a potential demiurge. Nature in this perspective is only flux and chaos, which presents an illusion of order that modern man, as modern toolmaker, can manipulate for his own ends. These ends continuously grow, progress, with the mastery by technicians of new techniques. Mankind, too, then becomes caught up in this self-made emergent arc of history, just more matter for manipulation, as C.S. Lewis observed in the opening of the third chapter of The Abolition of Man.

Many Americans, many Christians among them, have fallen into one of these two ditches, and the leviathan regime we live in straddles this narrow road, a foot rooted in both sides, set to prevent our passage. This regime, one oriented to the total rationalization of life through technology, is both a giant artificial man and tower reaching to the heavens. So let us go back to the beginning, and look at Genesis, chapter 11:

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Our languages are still confused, though now we build a new edifice over the whole earth. Who has not found their personal awareness wrenched, disoriented, back from a somewhere and a nowhere at the same time, as they look up from their screen to humdrum here? The towering graph of technological acceleration has peaked (for now) in a digital information sphere that promises to re-present to us the world it has devoured and digested. But its upward sweep charts a long collapse of distance—time and space—as unlocked energies were poured into communication and transportation to make all mankind a mass. Where are Americans, then, in that mass? Lost, mostly.

American moral order was in its foundations built on a shared public theology, which, distilled in the Declaration of Independence, affirmed that a creator God made man with a particular nature, and natural ends, under natural law. The American founding, with its potent mix of classical political philosophy, Protestant political theology, and modern enlightenment theory, sought to reconcile cosmos and convention, nature and tradition, physis and nomos, in public life by making in its original act an appeal to a creator and man as creature—or, we might say, by referring to a conventional theological account of human political nature.

Today, after more than a century of increasingly relentless secularization, Americans have lost this familiar account of both created nature and of a creator God. And so, we have lost the compelling basis for the commonsense account of human nature that was assumed by the framers of the American system as heirs of Western Civilization. Intellectually, we find ourselves in the aftermath of a second Babel, then, tenuously united by a false idea of rationality that itself has been cast down, scattering us and confusing our languages. Materially, never more united and connected and conformist, part of a great digital hive; yet never more atomized, alienated, alone.

The natural right theory and natural law public theology of the American colonies was grounded in the moral philosophy and theological training of early America’s universities. Readers should recall that they were founded in large to educate the clergy. The expansive consensus around nature developed during the colonial period appealed to both classical and modern thought, and it held through the first half of the 19th century. But with the introduction and triumph of Positivism in American life and the related triumph of industrialization in the highly educated north, a crisis of public theology emerged. The clearest cause and symptom of this crisis was the displacement of the clergy as the foremost public intellectuals of American life.

It was suicide. It usually is. America’s clergy displaced themselves, largely, as they submitted their faith to new philosophies of history. Creation was replaced by self-creation. This discovery of history in the fully modern sense—no more Herodotus—consisted of an alleged realization that humanity’s freedom is radically limited only by earlier uses of that freedom, and not by human nature or by the whole order of nature. Such a view took hold in the United States through Auguste Comte and his school of Positivism, which would come to transform both law and the sciences. As John Marini has summarized, Comte

“insisted that the progress of the mind moves as a kind of ascent through three stages. In the first stage, theological knowledge informed human understanding. In the second stage, theological knowledge was replaced by metaphysical, or abstract, but destructive knowledge. In the last stage, the highest and final stage of the development of the mind, human knowledge is informed by what Comte called scientific, constructive, or positive philosophy. At the positive stage, the scientific mind is complete, and man can rationally order society.”

If we look back at American history since the Civil War, we see the triumph of a philosophy of history as self-ordering through the rationalizations of technology, especially in the transition from a Christian clergy-led culture to a university-led one. And thus, technicians and managers and scientists have become the new priests of our time. As the communist Alexander Kojeve said, distilling the import of the left-Hegelian inspiration of Comtean thought, “It is sufficient to say of Man everything that the Christian says of his God in order to move from the absolute or Christian Theology to Hegel’s absolute philosophy or Science.”

In this march to godhead, what we have succeeded at is radically dividing ourselves from the rest of creation, losing sight of nature and natures. The sincere religion of universal humanity—mankind as self-made in history—largely died in the bloodshed and upheavals of the 20th century. It has been replaced today with the petty power conflicts of biopolitical identity, individuals aggregated by intersectional factions that are paradoxically both self-created and essentially inherited. A coherent account of the natural world, ecology, has been displaced for a religion of the environment, or history without humanity. We live, then, in a moment of crisis that is also an opportunity, for a sense of natural order can perhaps be made compelling again even as it seems to stand in total question.

Genesis tells us that the Lord God put man in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord brought the beasts of the field and the birds of the air to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. But in naming the animals he found his aloneness and his need for Eve. Man as a created creature is—prior, so to speak, to the three act play of salvation history—a gardener and a namer, who knows himself in relationship to the rest of creation. Indeed, his natural end is dominion, mastery, stewardship of the earth. Nature is a God-given mirror in which we discover ourselves as Imago Dei and can be a garden in which we join Christ as co-creators.

How can this general revelation be made generally relevant again? For nature to be a shared standard, as it was in the architecture of our republic, requires a common apprehension of its scope and, responding to its apparent regularity, a shared sense of reason. Such a reason must begin with the commonsense understanding of the average citizen, and cannot be imposed by intellectuals. The natural must become conventional through familiarity. If mere intellectual persuasion were all that was necessary, the classic appeals to the Founding by conservative intellectuals, or straightforward preaching from the pulpit concerning God’s created order, should have made widespread headway in preserving human nature in an age of technicity. It turns out that words divorced from realities are no protection from further divorce and the drift of lives lived via simulacra.

You are reading this on a screen, with the appearance of letters stamped in ink—by lead type made with human hands, onto pulped wood paper—simulated with little points of light summoned by ones and zeroes. Remember how false the greenery of your surroundings are; neither garden, nor wilderness, but spaces, architectural negatives, half-filled to distract your anxious mind from concrete and asphalt. But there are alternatives all around us. Consider the worship in your heart for God when you walk through Yellowstone. Consider the dis-ease that roils Americans all around us, inflamed and bloated by the food-like products of our industrial agriculture, and the peace of the pastoralist even as he readies to defend the flock. Consider the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the backyard vegetable patch, the wonder of the child watching an egg hatch. And consider, for a moment, with nuclear reactor towers nestled between mountains on the horizon, an American continent again covered in great herds of millions of bison. 

As someone might tweet, we all need to touch grass. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we have forgotten what it means that we are animals, created by God, fellow creatures before we were made namers and given dominion. To put a gloss on the Frontier Thesis, the settling of the West helped maintain for our pioneer fathers a commonsense classical and Christian understanding of nature and natural limits alongside the modern optimism of the American project and industrial progress. In their war on the wilderness, the railway men were necessarily cognizant of its wildness. Today, we must find ways to rewild, to recognize the futility of the tower to the heavens we are building, in pursuit of an ever more rationalized total regime, and instead make creation apparent to ourselves and the common man again.

In the hanging gardens of Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar looked about himself and saw only the work of his own hands. So, God took the kingdom from him, and he was driven from among men, and his dwelling was with the beasts of the field. But when a suitable seven times had passed, he lifted his eyes to heaven. And then God restored his understanding, and his reason returned with words of praise for the Lord of all—and God returned to Nebuchadnezzar his empire and throne also. He was restored, a man fit to rule in Babylon.

If in humility we—Americans, moderns, Christians—reacquaint ourselves with an earth of the seventh day, in need of gardeners, namers, dominion makers, then perhaps we can avoid our great tower’s fall. If we could imagine, because of long acquaintance with wild things and wild places, what it would be like to have hair grow like eagles’ feathers and nails like birds’ claws, then maybe the judgment will be stayed for a future time, and we will become, with our wild virtues, citizens worthy of rule. For how, without knowing nature, can we know her laws, or know her God?

Image Credit: Nebachadnezzar by William Blake (Tate Impression), 1795

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Micah Meadowcroft

Micah Meadowcroft is research director of the Center for Renewing America. Before joining CRA, he was the online editor of the American Conservative. He served as White House liaison at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration, and assisted in speechwriting there. He holds an M.A. in social science from the University of Chicago, where he wrote on political theory. His B.A. is in history from Hillsdale College, where he also minored in journalism. He and his wife and newborn daughter live in Virginia.

2 thoughts on “Gardens in Babylon

  1. The above article shows that it isn’t just absence that makes the heart grow fonder, so too does selectivity. For while the article brags about how God-loving and fearing thoes Americans from the past were, the Scriptures and history beg to differ. Here we should remember that the Scriptures, like the verse quoted below, tell us that how we relate to God is often measured by how we treat one another:

    If someone says, “I love God,” and yet he hates his brother or sister, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother and sister whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

    And so was it out of love that we slaughtered Native Americans and forced them to move so that we could have their land. In fact, one of the reasons for the Revolutionary War was because the British signed a treaty with the Native Americans which would prohibit westward expansion by the colonists. That upset those Founders who were land speculators like George Washington.

    Also, was it out of love that we received stolen humans from Africa and enslaved them? Was it out of love that we split up families of Africans on the slave market? Was it out of love that some fought a war to defend that slavery and the antebellum ways of the South? Was it out of love that after a brief respite from slavery, that Jim Crow emerged. Here we should remember that many prominent American Christians believed in white supremacy.

    We should also note the plight of some white Americans after the Revolution and how that contributed to the making of our current government. Here we should note that one of the main reasons for the writing of The Constitution was because America’s new elites were frightened by the widespread dissent and uprisings like Shay’s Rebellion. The dissent and uprisings were at least in part due to the state taxes levied on farmers in order to pay off war debts. Farmers were then losing their land for failure to pay their debts including taxes and loans. Evidence of the elite reaction to that dissent can be seen in Henry Knox’s letter to George Washington about the uprising of farmers in New England. In describing those involved, Knox seemed to have overlooked the fact that many of those rebels were veterans of the Revolutionary War. And so part of The Constitution was written to protect the the then current position of those new elites. Read what James Madison said during the Secret Debates of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 according to Yates’s notes:

    If these observations be jsut, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.

    What were the observations that Madison referred to? It was his prediction that agrarian law would be passed if elections were opened to all classes of people in England.

    And so how much love for God did Americans have considering their treatment of others who were different? Here, how much could we apply what was written in James 2 to answer that question despite the fact that the discrimination that Jame objected to was based on wealth? Also, how much of the past does Meadowcroft want to return to? Does he want America to return to a more hierarchical society than it is still today?

    By Meadowcroft’s account, Americans from the past would pray the prayer of the Pharisee, from the Parable Of The Two Men Praying, if they could see us now. But right there is another reflection of how people relate to God is measured by how they treat and regard others.

    Perhaps we should write our own parable that would show what America from the Past and today’s America would be saying about each other using the Parable Of The Two Men Praying as a model. Only this parable would be called: The Parable Of The Two Pharisees Praying.

    In the meantime, we should follow most of Daniel’s example of how to live in exile since that is how the New Testament describes our plight.

  2. Curt Day,
    History of any country, even one as new as the United States, would have very complicated histories.
    You can claim things:
    “we slaughtered Native Americans” “Was it out of love that after a brief respite from slavery, that Jim Crow emerged.”
    but it is from a mindset that isn’t actually interested in either Christianity, or American history.

    Clearly, any nation would have dirty laundry in its past (even Protestant-founded United States), and it might be useless to try to counter your ideas of American history with other ideas of America history, but I will anyway.

    Native Americans often killed each other. The majority of ones that died early on was mostly from disease (before any real germ theory).
    Some groups established relationships with them, sometimes for trade, other times for spreading Christianity (which did happen).
    Some groups were attacked by natives. Some saved native American allies from other native Americans.

    In regards to “White Supremacy” and blacks, most often is just “I am different, and like my own people.”
    Every race is different, with different cultures, and different goals.
    This does results in much conflict when different races with different goals interact.
    This is power politics. This is reality. Christianity can’t stop it, not without absolute power (which only God would have),

    You may complain about “Jim Crow laws” but I can respond by showing examples of “Race Riots.”
    People aren’t “racist” for no reason. There is always a reason, but sometimes that reason makes the “racist” look better than the “victim.” The reason you even know these things is because there is a massive brainwashing campaign to give white people the “original sin” of racism.

    So no, it was not “hating your brother” to have violent conflicts with different people who weren’t Christian.

    Meadowcroft’s article doesn’t even to have anything to do with views of race and Christianity.
    It has more to do with how enlightenment, technology, ect. replaced the religious values established, and how we need to understand Nature, Nurture, Creation, instead of just “rationalist ideals.”

    Now, one part of Nature is a “more hierarchical society.” It is intended for some to be leaders (who should be God-fearing) while others are the followers.
    Hierarchy is throughout God’s creation.

    Note to Micah Meadowcroft:
    It might be in your interest to delete both our comments, but feel free to keep both up if you think that is better.

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