by Stanley Schwartz 

The onset of summer brings with it a renewal of pleasure reading, and the first book I opened was Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, a critical survey of historical forms of social and political order. Within a few pages, Voegelin piqued my curiosity with the concept of an omphalos, a Greek term referring to the navel of the world where “transcendent forces of being flow into social order.”[1] For ancient societies, the omphalos was a place, such as Delphi or Babylon, from which the social order flowed through special contact there with the divine. This is reflected in the fact that renowned figures from the omphalos were consulted in crises and often decided the issue as representatives of that society.

What surprised me in Voegelin’s conception was that he viewed Bethel, where Jacob saw a ladder descending from heaven to earth, as Israel’s omphalos.[2] However, the center of worship Jacob founded at Bethel did not serve as the meeting place between God and His people, but became a great center of idolatry.[3] Rather than uniting and representing Hebraic society, Bethel’s heresy divided of Israel and Judah. In locating Israel’s omphalos in Bethel, Voegelin failed to understand that God’s people were not defined by place, but by obedience to His covenant law and practice of the virtues it presents.[4]

The discussion of omphalos seems applicable to contemporary American society, particularly in light of Terry Tait’s reflection on gun violence published in The New Herald. While ancient societies could appeal to an omphalos during crises, Tait presents an America in conflict over its national direction when he notes the “difficult, public, and apolitical debate” which would be necessary to resolve the gun control issue. Yet Tait also seems to propose that America is in fundamental agreement: “All Americans want to be safe in their schools, in their offices, and in their communities. The only question we need to ask is how do we get there?” However, I would argue that the difficulty of the debate reveals both the uncertainty of policy as a means for resolution and the absence of a necessary common ground. Tait notes the failure to address shootings with legislative action, and the ongoing wave of school shootings (one of which occurred in my own hometown of Noblesville) demonstrates that crisis has not forged consensus.

America is paralyzed because it possesses neither a Delphic omphalos of place, nor Hebraic omphalos of virtues. A shared hope of safety does not provide a reliable omphalos of order. Additional safety could hypothetically be achieved in many ways, for instance by arming or disarming citizens. Relying on other nations’ policies, as some have suggested, is insufficient. Americans must rediscover the location of their core principles of meaning, or recreate them. Can a foundational preference for freedom, individualism, and civil society be restored to priority, or should more recent emphases on security, public preference, and political authority be more formally ordered to guide devotion? America must attempt to find its omphalos, rebuilding her soul before cleaning the dirt from her fingernails.

Stanley Schwartz is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana studying history and economics as a senior at Cedarville University. 

Notes:

[1] Eric Voegelin, Order and History (London: Forgotten Books, 2017), 27.

[2] Ibid, 28.

[3] See 1 Kings 12:25-33

[4] Joshua 24, wherein Israel renews its relation to God, mentions a diversity of places where God has worked, but focuses on a command to Israel to obey the Lord and not other gods–the first of the Ten Commandments, enshrining that commitment in stone. Ideas and commitments, not places, bound Israel to their God.