In a speech delivered in October 2014, David Brooks offered a fanciful contrast devised by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik between the external and internal Adams. External Adam, or “Adam One,” pursues an “external résumé” of career advancement, rising status, and financial success. Adam Two cultivates “eulogy virtues,” his motto is “Charity. Love. Redemption,” and he values a “serene inner character” and a “quiet but solid sense of right and wrong” more than his portfolio. Assertive Adam One wants to “venture forth,” while virtuous Adam Two desires to “return to roots.”
This linkage of virtue with rootedness is common among conservatives and Christians but rarely examined. In what are the “rooted” rooted, and how are their roots relevant to their moral lives? Are people who move away from their hometowns less virtuous? Is a farmer more virtuous than a factory worker? Should we join in the lament of nineteenth-century German philosopher Paul Yorck von Wartenburg that, “Once a being who never moved, the human being has become a mobile creature”?
In advocating rootedness, Yorck explicitly rejected both Christians and Jews as rootless. The former pretend to live “above history,” while the latter have no feeling for “psychical and physical ground or soil.” He’s not far wrong. Israel multiplied under Egyptian slave masters, and Jews rose to prominence in Babylonian and Persian exile, as they learned to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. This wasn’t a matter of making a virtue of necessity. The land of promise was not Abraham’s land of origin, nor was it the land of his fathers’ graves. As a matter of deliberate design, biblical faith doesn’t stay home or return to roots; it ventures forth. Oedipus, Yorck argued, was devastated by his homelessness. Abraham, not so much.
The Gospels bring this to fulfillment by announcing the Advent of God himself, the good news of the Son uprooted from heaven to pitch his tent in our flesh. Shockingly, Jesus tells prospective disciples to let the “dead bury their dead,” and then uproots his disciples from their homeland to send them to the nations. By his Spirit, the God of Advent forms a church that continues the adventure of Jesus. Like the narrative of Abraham, the latter part of Acts is a travelogue, with Paul traversing the Mediterranean to reach a city he does not know.
Rootless as it may seem, though, the Church isn’t wholly without roots. It’s rooted not in place or soil but in love (Ephesians 3:17), rooted in Jesus, the final holy land (Colossians 2:7). Christians hope to bear the image of the heavenly Adam, rather than the Adam who is “of earth, earthy” (1 Corinthians 15). The Church isn’t bound by race, land, or blood, but by communion in the flesh and blood of Jesus. Our common “ancestor” is the heavenly Father. Christians can be uprooted, replanted, and bear fruit anywhere and everywhere. Wherever a Christian goes, he discovers kin. Every land is God’s land and a potential homeland.
It’s no accident that the first Christians were urban Christians. Christianity became the religion of the European countryside when there wasn’t much in Europe besides countryside; revivals burned through the American frontier when America was mostly frontier. When cities returned in the later middle ages, the Church was often at the center of the urban environment. As cities boomed in late-nineteenth-century America, Evangelicals discovered innovative ways to meet the overwhelming challenge of modern cities.
All this isn’t merely historical or theoretical. Christian infatuation with “roots” is, I fear, a first-world luxury, one that mis-positions the Church for the work of the twenty-first century. The mission challenge of our day is an urban challenge.
A few years ago, demographers announced that for the first time in recorded history the majority of the human race lives in cities. Between 1950 and 2014, the urban population grew from 746 million to 3.9 billion, and the number of mega-cities with 10 million residents or more nearly tripled, from 10 to 28, in the brief period between 1990 and 2014. There’s every indication that urbanization will continue for some time to come.
We face the same tasks as the first urban Christians, wonderfully captured by Rodney Stark:
Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.
We can’t do this if we’re staying put, returning to roots, or flocking to the countryside. Rooted in Jesus, the last Adam, Christians are still called to carry on God’s urban renewal among the restless and the rootless.