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Our Debt to Ancient Israel, Living Still

December 24, 1987|MICHAEL NOVAK | Michael Novak is a theologian and author who writes a column in Washington.

During this year of 1987, the Constitutional Convention that took place 200 years ago in Philadelphia has been much on the minds of Americans. And Jerusalem has also been much on our minds (especially at this season). Apart from events that took place in that holy land, the Constitution of the United States could scarcely have been conceived.

For example, the city in which the 55 Framers of the Constitution assembled was named for the Jewish and Christian commandment to love one's neighbor: Philadelphia, "the love of brothers." On the Seal of the United States the founders inscribed two mottoes, both of which have origins in the faiths of Judaism and Christianity (although the actual Latin texts echo Virgil and Cicero): Annuit Coeptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum.

The first asserts: "(Providence) smiled upon our undertakings." The second picks up the messianic motif of "the new order of the ages." For the Framers this motif had two moments: both a turning back (revolution) to the first principles of "the system of natural liberty" and the establishment of a new set of institutions, designed to accommodate the free persons that Judaism and Christianity had revealed humans to be.

Above the inscription Novus Ordo Seclorum , a visual depiction of that "new order" is presented: a picture of an uncompleted pyramid, suggesting the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. The early Americans imagined their own "going out from Europe" across the trackless ocean as a parallel to the "going out" of Moses across the trackless desert from Egypt to Zion. They thought of America as a "second Israel," and of Americans as "an almost chosen people." They understood themselves and their experiment in terms that they had learned from the travails of Judaism.

For such reasons the Framers pictured the three-sided order that they were establishing as "under God"--under the Eye of candor, conscience, Providence, set at the top of the uncompleted pyramid, apart from it, transcending it, holding the entire social order to standards rooted in the mind of the Creator.

Such standards transcend any actual human accomplishment. They can never be met through earthly endeavor. No level of material prosperity or of social peace can satisfy them. No society, however prosperous or successful in sheerly worldly terms, can escape the probing commands of a jealous and demanding God: commands of honesty, liberty, justice, fidelity to law and brotherly/sisterly love. In the light of these, no finite achievement is ever enough. Through such history-transcending commands, the idea of progress took root in world history.

Thus, halfway between England and America, on the deck of the tiny Arbella in the year 1630, John Winthrop, soon to be governor of Massachusetts, preached a sermon forever linking America to Israel:

"We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory . . . . For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God . . . and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."

Who is this God of Israel to whom Winthrop links America's destiny? God is the Creator. This God--strictly speaking unknowable, unseeable and ineffable--reveals in Genesis that he made man and woman in his image: that is, to be creators.

From the Bible we know something else, too. Whatever the unseen God is, he is capable of insight and reflection; he is Light. He is also capable of choice, will, decision; he makes things to be, and he sees that they are good. Appropriate names for him are insight and choice.

Made in God's image, human persons are also creatures of insight and choice. Therefore, free. Therefore, responsible. Therefore, ethical creatures, held to the law of their being, to the law of God who made them. Therein lies human dignity. Every human is under inescapable judgment by one who knows even his secret thoughts and the movements of his heart.

This is the human being Judaism presents to the human race. Human dignity is rooted in personal insight and personal choice. The free person is held accountable by the Transcendent One who cannot be deceived. In this image of the human being there is, obviously, enormous religious power, designed to transform the world.

From this teaching springs the obligation of Jews and Christians in history to become creative forces. Jews and Christians have been taught to be creators, to think clearly, to take initiative, to seize responsibility, to be agents of transformation. Such is the religious vocation of Jews and Christians.

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