I teach world civilization courses at Brigham Young University called History of Creativity in the Arts, Science and Technology. One of the questions posed and discussed in these courses is, “What is civilization?”
There are many thoughtful, penetrating answers.
Civilization is the sum total of human expression of beauty, economy, order, justice and growth. Civilization is human organization that lifts all individuals as one society. Civilization is a way of life, a culture. Civilization is the mark of an advanced, progressive, educated and thriving society.
Some answers are more pedestrian, though utilitarian, if a person needs a shorthand rubric for judging whether something is a civilization or not: Civilization consists of any society that has food in abundance; leading to specialized labor; necessitating organization; mediated through writing. (This definition is represented by the acronym FLOW).
One answer that I like because it is basic and I love words and languages, is this: The Latin word civitas is the root word for the word “city.” To be civilized is to be urbane, to be a person of the city. A civilized person has left the wild places of this world, untamed places where laws do not exist and where humanity is more animal than refined.
It is traditional to equate cities with civilization and culture. Civilization is what civilized city people produce. Civilization is seldom equated with forests, wild rivers, desolate deserts or soaring mountains. These represent nature, the natural state of the world.
Civilization is human agency seeking to overcome the natural world, to impose the human will on nature, to bend nature to human agency, whether we speak of controlling the physical, natural world around us or controlling the human nature that often seems to play at the edge of chaos.
Yet, while we traditionally equate cities with civilization and culture, the scriptures are ambivalent — and according to some interpretations, hostile — toward cities. Consider that the great self-disclosure of God to Moses and the Israelites was out in the wild places, the no-man’s land of desert and desolation, far from cities and civilization. Or consider Lehi, who fled with his family the wickedness of the city in the Book of Mormon.
When God decreed destruction on the ancient Israelites, cities were typically the targets, not mountains or wild fields or desolate wilderness, the areas civilization had not yet tamed. When the wickedness of the world is symbolized in a concrete representation, cities play the role: Sodom, Babylon, Rome.
But even spiritual and civilized individuals cannot shed the allure of cities from their thinking. Why? Because ultimately humans yearn to be in a community, to have organization, to have meaning, which a civilized society bound by rules and expectations can provide. Humans do not want the chaos and injustice of nature and the natural world.
The great Christian theologian Augustine (A.D. 354-420) argued that godly humans yearn for the City of God while rejecting the cities of this world. An earlier Christian theologian, Tertullian (A.D. 160-225), well-educated and well-acquainted with the best that the civilized world had to offer, piquantly asked, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” That is, what do the rules of this world — represented by the city of Athens, with all of its architectural, historical, intellectual and cultural grandeur — have to do with God’s rules — represented by the religious and holy city of Jerusalem? Even Zion, hoped for by many, is the great city of those fully in the at-one-ment because they are one in heart.
But Zion is no ordinary, human civilized city. And that is just it. According to one stream of thought, cities are an invention of humans, not the domain of God. Cities contain and cultivate the ills of the world, cutting humans off from the land, from each other and eventually from God.
Civilization and cities are typically about taming the world according to the rules of humans, not of God. In the wild, God’s rules still seem to be in play. Innocence is still possible because humans are entirely naked in the wilderness. In the wilderness, humans must depend upon God. In cities, humans lose their innocence as they cover themselves with the trappings of culture and society, seemingly safe from the realities and purposes of this world.
We need not reject cities and civilization to find God. Yet, how often do we physically or symbolically need to temporarily separate ourselves from cities, from civilization, for the simplicity of wilderness or mountain tops (temples are symbolic mountains) where the distractions of civilization do not impede our hope to have unfettered communication with the divine?
Perhaps we share Augustine’s desire to see the City of God.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D, biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching & learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.