On the evening of Nov. 10, droves of interested intellectuals trudged through the persistent rain to the Warner Library atrium, where Dr. RJ Snell presented a lecture titled “Rebuilding the City Upon a Hill,” commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. The Agora Institute was formed in 2011 under the leadership of Dr. Snell, a professor of philosophy at Eastern. Its website states, “We are committed to a dialogical pluralism that seeks to engage both religious and secular voices from various traditions on the nature of the good life and the good society.” Lectures, conferences, a weekly reading group, an academic journal (Adorans), and a Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture have been formed to aid in the fulfillment of that vision.
Dr. Snell’s lecture served as a metaphor for Agora’s past and future work. Its title originates from Puritan leader John Winthrop’s statement to Puritan settlers: “We must be a city upon a hill.” Dr. Snell explained the reason for our failure to be such a light with Pope John Paul II’s words: “Modern culture is undergoing a crisis.” This crisis is deeply rooted; Dr. Snell proposed that it stems from our choice to “exchange truth about the human being for mastery.”
Dr. Snell pointed to three cities from which we can learn to rediscover this truth: Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. In Jerusalem, we learn reverence, for on Mount Sinai, the Lord reveals to us our own nature; in Athens, we learn wonder, for there philosophy is a way of life- mystery, questions, and reason govern their thought; in Rome, we learn about the nature of God through the establishment of His church. Because “each civilization dies by indifference to the values dependent to it,” we are redeemed as persons when our culture is redeemed. He terms this “rebuilding” process “cultural dignity,” a rediscovery of our culture’s doctrinal past.
At the core of Agora’s work is a commitment to be, in John Courtney Murray’s words, “locked together in argument.” Dr. Snell put this idea into practice through a period of dialogue after his lecture, in which he engaged with those who posited questions, not just as serious conversation partners, but also as friends.