Rebuilding the City Upon a Hill
R. J. Snell, The Agora Institute
Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University and the Templeton Honors College. Concurrently, Dr. Snell is the Executive Director of the Agora Institute. Dr. Snell earned his M.A. in philosophy at Boston College, and his Ph.D. in philosophy at Marquette University, where he was the recipient of the Rev. John P. Raynor Dissertation Fellowship. Research interests include ethics, natural law theory, Thomas Aquinas, and the work of Bernard Lonergan, SJ.
Aboard the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop penned some of the most famous lines in American history, promising the pilgrims that they would be “as a city upon a hill,” a bright light for all the nations to see. But he also warns that breaking covenant would mean devastation, becoming “a story and a by-ward through the world.” Given the current state of our common life, it’s understandable why some might think Winthrop’s overlooked admonitions were prescient.
There is a palpable sense of malaise in our culture just now. But it’s our good fortune that Winthrop and the others aboard the Arbella did not arrive empty handed, for among the cargo they brought with them, more important than anything else contained in their holds, was the cultural heritage of the West. Their new city, the city they hoped would brightly shine from the hilltop, was already settled, populated by inhabitants of three other, older cities—Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Like Winthrop, we are, deeply formed by how these three great cities dealt with the meaning of human existence, and in turning back to these sources we discover resources for cultural renewal and the reversal of our present decline.