Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Aliens in Zion” first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Touchstone.
Aliens in Zion
Louis Markos on Why I Can’t Be Just Another Earthman
Though their knowledge of English was sketchy at best—the only English word that they understood firmly was “awesome”—I managed to have a brief, broken conversation with two young men from Austria sitting near me on the bus driving through the canyon in Zion National Park. In an effort to forge a non-verbal link with them, I asked one if he could hum for me the Austrian national anthem. He responded quickly, and somewhat defiantly. “I,” he said proudly, “am an Earthman.”
“Do you mean,” I asked, resorting to a word whose Greek etymology, I hoped, would translate into German, “that you are cosmopolitan?”
“Yes,” he said eagerly. “Yes, I am cosmopolitan.”
That was the reason he would not sing. He did not view himself as an Austrian, but as a “citizen of the world.”
My first response was positive. After all, I thought, was not World War II caused in great part by European and Asian nationalism? Is it not a good thing that the myriad nationalities of Continental Europe should merge into a United States of Europe that would boast a single, combined culture to complement its single monetary unit?
That was my first response. My second, more reasoned, response came a bit later. True, I conceded to the American egalitarian inside of me, many of Europe’s wars were caused or intensified by nationalism, but that does not mean that nationalism is a simple, unequivocal evil.
There is a deeper, more essential kind of nationalism that resides in the hearts of men whose love for their country is akin to their love for their family and their patrimony. Most of what we most cherish in European culture was not born out of an abstract cosmopolitanism but out of a strong and concrete patriotism.
Those great authors we hail as being not for an age but for all time, would not have achieved their transcendent status had they not been nourished by a very specific, if not parochial sense of identity: the Greek (Athenian) Sophocles, the Roman Virgil, the Italian Boccaccio and (Florentine) Dante, the Spanish Cervantes, the English Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, the German Goethe, the French Molière, the Russian Dostoevsky.
After its account of the Flood and its aftermath, the Book of Genesis lays out the table of nations: that is, the many people groups or nations that sprang out of the loins of the three sons of Noah. Nowhere is it suggested that the formation of these separate nations is a bad thing.
Indeed, in the next chapter we are warned what human pride, when united by a single language and culture, is capable of doing—or at least attempting. The inhabitants of the plain of Shinar build their “one-world” Tower so that they will not be scattered over the earth, but their pride only ensures their scattering.
Paul, in his speech before the Areopagus in Athens, asserts that it was ultimately God’s will to create the various nations of men and to set their limits and boundaries: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26).
Jesus himself appears to approve of—or at least to acknowledge without rejecting—the persistence of the nations in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:32). Even the closing chapter of Revelation, in its description of the New Jerusalem (the New Zion), tells of how the leaves of the Tree of Life will heal the nations (22:2).
It is instructive that when Paul sought a metaphor to describe the Church Universal, he did not look to the ocean or to the sky or to the cooking pot—metaphors that would have suggested an egalitarian loss of distinction—but to a human body composed of discrete, integral parts. As the Church is one body made up of many parts, so does our globe encompass a single humanity made up of many nations.
It is also instructive that Dante the Florentine, though he suffered greatly from partisan politics, wanted the readers of his Comedy to know that he, like the God he served, had little regard for those who refused to take sides or to identify themselves with a cause. Those who in life refused allegiance to any flag—Dante calls them Neutrals or Opportunists—are treated in the afterlife as human refuse, kicked out from both heaven and hell, forced to chase endlessly after an ever-receding banner while their bodies are bitten by wasps and their flesh devoured by maggots.
If Europe ever loses the distinctions between nations, the loss may very well make the continent more peaceful. But at what cost? I have often pondered the mixed blessing of what I like to call the John Lennon version of world peace: if we are all high on drugs, then we cannot fight wars. I see a similar future for a nationless Europe: peace without heroism, safety without conviction, tolerance without any true ideas to tolerate.
Having given up on their homeland and taken up a rootless “citizenship” in something so abstract as “the world,” the two young Austrians I met on the bus have forfeited something precious and irreplaceable: a shared place-specific memory and loyalty. Apart from that, they can have no sense of a binding and formative history to shape or define them, no patriarchs or founding fathers to guide or direct them, and no understanding of what those before them suffered that they might be who and what they are.
They are not eager to die, but they are prey to terrorist and cultic recruiters. And even more prey to the false gods of individualism and materialism, who promise to fashion for their devotees a new identity out of economic status and power.
Having no fixed homes, these rootless Earthmen will build a moveable culture based on ephemeral things. Nightclubs and stadiums will take the place of museums, international bestsellers and Hollywood movies the place of national classics, media events the place of national holidays, pop stars and gurus the place of national heroes and patriarchs. They will live in the now, but it will be a now of material gratification, not the eschatological now of God’s kingdom. They will travel abroad more, but they will go less in search of history than of thrills and experiences: white water rafting, mountain climbing, bungee jumping, skiing.
If we are only Earthmen, then we do not truly belong to the earth. Our national identity is part of who we are as embodied creatures. It is only our Creator—the Lord of Zion—who is above all nations.
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), and Literature: A Student's Guide (Crossway). His On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis was released by Moody in October 2012.
“Aliens in Zion” first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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