Discover more from Faith for Living with Dr. Michael A. Milton
The Course of Empires
Thoughts on a Hope for America in the Secular Age
Subjective experience precludes objective analysis. In other words, as one experiences life at any given moment, one is either unaware or unable to evaluate the significance of the moment.
Einstein’s Train and Turner’s Angst
Before being the great theoretical physicist at Princeton, the famous Dr. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a poor student and a clerk at a train station in Austria—but a very curious clerk. Young Albert noticed that as the train sped by, the passengers seemed uninterested and unaffected by the forces around them. A refined lady of leisure sipped tea in a first-class car. She was the picture of decorum, yet she was encased in the 150-ton iron horse, snorting scalding steam and charcoal smoke at 100,000 pounds-force and rumbling across steel tracks sparks a-flying! Whether a light bulb magically appeared over Einstein’s noggin is another matter. However, young Einstein would develop his theory of relativity from this initial observation, earn a PhD, and change the world.
We may derive some further wisdom from the “relativity train” for ourselves. We recognize ourselves as the lady in first class. The heavy, black-iron locomotive is a picture of our times. No one used this image to express the angst of modernity more brilliantly than the inimitable and irascible English landscape artist J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). His Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) depicts a train moving across the English landscape on the new Great Western. The engineering marvel of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) seems to shame the other would-be wonders of the Thames Valley (surpassing the glory of nature as a hare is unable to compete and even overshadowing Brunel’s own Maidenhead Railway Bridge in the atmospheric distance). Turner’s Romanticism is suspended indicating his disapproval of the modern. With a dirty brush and quick strokes, Turner masterfully creates an impressionistic squinted-eye blur of a scene. I have seen the painting at the Tate in London. The resulting creation is both breathtaking and disturbing.
Many of us are riding through life comfortably as postmodernism screams through time, rushing headlong past the quaint and the familiar to a destiny unknown. Melodramatic? Maybe. Maybe not. Step outside. The wind of change lashes at you like a Category 5 hurricane. Moreover, you are abruptly overwhelmed by the deafening sounds of a discordant city in turmoil. The soot and steam engulf your senses, wrapping you in the creepy embrace of a strange new decadence. You are moving at breakneck speed. The familiar country blurs into a hazy, distant memory. Then, in a whirlwind, you hear child-like voices from a Sunday School class, morning recitals of the Pledge of Allegiance, and see the black-and-white image of a family bowing in prayer before Thanksgiving dinner. Before you can whisper, “Wait, that is my life, my past,” the scenes become dust in the wind, as if they never existed at all. Black and white holograms of Walker Percy, T. S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor flash across the sky like ghostly images, a sort of prophetic explanation for the chaos, and then, they, too, are gone—clouds dispersing into a storm. You have seen enough. You leverage all of your strength to shut the sliding door of the train car. The vacuum slams it shut. Finally. But are you safe? The fact is: the train has passed a point of no return, yet you didn’t even know you were on a train, much less one speeding for disaster. You want to scream, but you no longer possess a voice.
Welcome to the Secular Age.
The Signs and Symptoms of Decline and Fall
It is true, as Turner expressed and Einstein calculated: We journey through life mostly unaware of the significance of the moment. However, those who have studied the rise and fall of civilizations, such as Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) and Will Durant (1885-1981), and more recently, Dr. Tom Holland (b. 1968), and Dr. Iain McGilchrist (b. 1953), have identified critical factors in the decline and fall of a civilization. I am no fan of Gibbon or Durant. But we give credit when it is due. Each recognized variable is inexorably tethered to the other and represents an integrated economy of diverse forces. The factors are legion. Nevertheless, we can identify a few of those features within the constraints of this article. I would point to signs and symptoms of societal decline in three words.
The first word to describe the reason for decline and fall is complexity. Civilizations grow and become quite tangled. Complexity is inevitable in economics, domestic affairs, foreign affairs, defense, social welfare, or any other necessary functions of national order. The network of people, features, functions, and unplanned events expands exponentially, becoming unmanageable. Bureaucratic classes emerge to control the chaos, only exacerbating it.
The next sign and symptom of decline and fall is entropy. Much of our lives is spent defending ourselves against entropy. Entropy is the universal law of decline and decay. In theology, entropy is the consequence of the fall of mankind and the introduction of sin into Creation. But we need not appeal to theology or philosophy to make our point. Consider your life and those around you. Your gym membership might slow “the decline and fall” of your physique, but it cannot stop the entropic reality of this age. Grim? Terribly so. Real? Gym memberships are soaring—as is the national debt. So, yes, quite real.
The third value that we consider is apathy.
We all know that one generation gives way to another in the hope that the sons and daughters will maintain—and deepen—the virtues and values that established their society. However, apathy results from the human propensity to take things for granted. Apathy is like an unseen moth of the most devours kind, breeding in a closet of irreplaceable mink coats. Apathy is an active bacteria in the subcutaneous tissue of the flesh, methodically and imperceptibly destroying the muscle and ligaments of the strongest athlete. It is not merely a loss of motivation but an all out attack by dark forces on the spiritual and physical centers of human wholeness, and, thus, human flourishing.
The businessman on a commuter train, making a deal with a customer in Hong Kong via the now-mundane familiarity of his iPhone, has no thought of gratitude for the philosophical and theological ideas that made such a feat possible. And why should he? But, you see, that is the problem. Unintended ingratitude may be forgiven, but the effect is the same as deliberate disdain. Like countless others, our subject leaves his Connecticut mini-mansion for work in Manhattan (or on Zoom), oblivious to the immense benefits he's inherited. There is a civic expression of this tendency. Whenever Benjamin Franklin said, “You have a republic if you can keep it,” he conceded (and warned about) the reality of human apathy.
These are but a few of the many tangible factors burrowing, worm-like, in the susceptible anatomy of civilization. Complexity, entropy, and apathy are like yeast being kneaded through dough or, more aptly, termites breeding and gorging on the foundation of a mansion in Beverly Hills (or Georgetown).
And then the Good Part, Right?
Good part? You are asking for a lot. I respond with the Bard’s line: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Macbeth’s exasperation is à propos. You might respond, “Okay. Enough. You have given us a diagnosis, but what is the cure?” The answer is not comforting to say the least. Many historians say that there is no cure. Among these, the more sanguine believe that at least we can provide a sort of palliative care to the dying. They mean that while we cannot restrain or reverse the decline and fall of a civilization, we can nevertheless make your journey comfortable as you begin your awful descent. Of course, such a concession is a little more than having your favorite meal delivered to you on a golden platter right before your hanging. Others among us do believe that decline can be halted and fall can be averted. We have known such miraculous intervention in our own lives that we have a hope born not of this world. So, whether we are believers or not, let’s turn our attention to this hope. Indeed, what do you have to lose?
So, let’s start at an unusual place for hope: Harvard. No scholar in American Studies has done more to highlight the importance of the Puritan covenant with God than Dr. Perry Miller (1905-1963) of Harvard University. Miller, an uneasy agnostic, invested a lifetime of scholarship in researching and demonstrating the uniqueness of the American experiment. Specifically, Miller posited that the Puritans’ covenant with God (that they and their progeny would be a nation of missionaries to spread the Gospel) deposited the most prominent spiritual strand in the national DNA. Others, from the chronicler of the new nation, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), to the eminent Oxford historian Dr. Paul Johnson (1928-2023), also wrote about this peculiar and observable energy in the American experience. The received understanding is as follows: The English (and Dutch) Pilgrims who settled in New England and the mid-Atlantic did so out of a Reformed (Calvinistic) Christian impetus. These Puritan adventurers formed covenantal relationships with each other and God. They prayed that God would establish them and look out for their descendants and that they would, whether blest or not, seek to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the Earth. Thus, John Winthrop in 1630: "We are entered into covenant with Him for this work (of establishing a new colony)."  This covenant becomes a unifying principle for national identity expressed in civic contexts. Thus, we have Ronald Reagan’s use of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill." 
Therefore, throughout the history of the United States, there is an unseen but genuine spiritual power at work. This dynamic confirms and convicts the American conscience, guiding Americans back to the original covenant with God. Paul Johnson explains the First and Second Great Awakenings (and similar experiences in American history) as examples of the spiritual vicissitude inherent in the American psyche. Interestingly, the civic expression of this covenant provides unprecedented liberty for people of all backgrounds and all religions. Paul Johnson wrote, “The Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly ‘City on a Hill,’ but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be a model for the entire planet."  This was not an accident. The freedom of religion is the first great right enumerated in the Bill of Rights. All the other rights flow from the first God-given right. Such phenomena are inherent in the Judeo-Christian worldview. The religious heritage of our founding is there for all to see. And here is the paradox: the principles that enumerate liberty for Christians secure freedom for all religions or those who want no religion. But it doesn’t work the other way.
If historians such as Perry Miller and Paul Johnson are correct, the spirit of the Pilgrim’s Covenant subtly yet profoundly influences the American narrative. Indeed, according to our Puritan founding forebearers, their covenant with God to be that “Shining City on a Hill” is the distinguishing mark that created American Exceptionalism. It is what made the nation good. And its goodness made the country great. Meld this notion with biblical teachings, and you will find a resilient hope that shines brightest during our nation's darkest hours. Thus, just as Jonah, the hesitant prophet, delivered God's truth to Nineveh, the Assyrian Empire's imposing capital, leading to its reprieve from judgment, so too can today's waning nations call upon God with repentance and faith. When they do, the ticking of the clock of divine judgment stops. Life, blessing, renewal, and hope are rejuvenated among the people. Such optimism finds its foundation in theological and biblical grounds. It is for, at least, this historical and biblical truth that we can continue to have hope.
The freedom of religion is the first great right enumerated in the Bill of Rights. All the other rights flow from the first God-given right. Such rights are inherent in the Judeo-Christian worldview. That is the paradox: the religious heritage of our founding is there for all to see. Yet, the principles enumerated achieve freedom for all religions or no religion.—M. Milton
In Ephesians 2:11-22, the Apostle Paul illuminates the believers in Ephesus about the divine miracle of transformation. He beckons them to recall a time when they stood without hope, as highlighted in Verse 12.
” But now in Christ Jesus you were once off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who is made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (13, 14).
As civilizations decline, like the Ephesians prior to God's gracious intervention, every individual also faces spiritual decay. However, just as no culture ( viz., a gathering of people in expressive associations) is beyond the reach of God's grace, no individual is too lost for divine salvation. Societies or civilizations scale up from individuals to families and then to nations, encompassing the broader family of mankind. Terms like "civilization," "society," and "culture" essentially describe humans in relation to one another. The heartening message of the Gospel is that neither an individual nor any human collective is outside the bounds of God's mercy.
So, yes, there is hope. No, the decline is not a fatalistic fix. “But now” remains the hope for human beings at every stage of life, every generation, and every place along the spectrum of the rise and fall of nations. The Cold War poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) wrote, “‘Christ is risen.’ Whoever believes that Should not behave as we do." 
Someone once asked Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) if people change. The brilliant Welsh surgeon-turned-pastor answered that if he did not believe that people could change, he could not believe the Gospel. However, if “change” means transformation of the will, he went on to write that people cannot change themselves. Only God can transform human nature. At the point of our innate waywardness and God’s revealed Way, our hopelessness finds hope. The Lord can cause even a man like Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of the people of God, to become the great Apostle Paul, the preacher to the Gentiles. So it is with civilizations. And so it is with you and me. It is no wonder that one of the leading lights among our Pilgrim founders, Governor John Winthrop, ended his sermon on the Arbella in 1630 with a Mosaic appeal to the Americans:
Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity.
So, yes, there is hope. No, the decline is not a fatalistic fix. “But now” remains the hope for human beings at every stage of life, every generation, and every place along the spectrum of the rise and fall of nations. The Cold War poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) wrote, “‘Christ is risen.’ Whoever believes that Should not behave as we do.”
 Our lay observations can be measured against the demonstration of Prof. Costa Papaliolios at “Relativity Train,” Harvard University Natural Sciences department page, January 1981, https://sciencedemonstrations.fas.harvard.edu/presentations/relativity-train.
 Madison et al., “Convention and Ratification - Creating the United States | Exhibitions - Library of Congress.”
 Acts 5, Scene 5. See, e.g., Walter Gierasch, “13. Shakespbare’s Macbeth, I, Iii, The Explicator, Volume 30 (1971), 137-142.”
 Such as William Ophuls. Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
 John G. Wofford, “Happy Puritan | News | The Harvard Crimson,” The Harvard Crimson, Faculty Profile, March 4, 1955, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1955/3/4/happy-puritan-pfrom-the-lettuce-fields/.
 See, e.g., George M. Marsden, “Perry Miller’s Rehabilitation of the Puritans: A Critique,” Church History 39, no. 1 (1970): 91–105; Scott Michaelsen, “John Winthrop’s" Modell" Covenant and the Company Way,” Early American Literature 27, no. 2 (1992): 85–100; Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, vol. 2 (Harvard University Press, 1983); Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, vol. 81 (Harvard University Press, 2009); Perry Miller and Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Harvard University Press, 2009).
 John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in Collections of The Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd ed., Sixth (Boston: The Society, 1838), 7:31-38.
 See, e.g., Ronald Reagan, A Shining City: The Legacy of Ronald Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 1998); and Paul Kengor, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (Harper Collins, 2009).
 Paul Johnson and Nadia May, A History of the American People (Weidenfeld & Nicolson New York, 1997), 13.
 Czeslaw Milosz, “Six Lectures in Verse, Lecture V,” Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004 (Penguin Books Limited, 2017), 208-209
 See, e.g., Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hope in the Ruins: Acts (6 Volumes in 3): Chapters 1-8 (Crossway, 2013).
 Deuteronomy 30:19-20.