Emperors, generals, and armies were little influenced by African bishops and their books. But the grassroots organization of Christianity - in large measure sponsored by government suppression of their opponents - had spread far enough and wide enough in those days to make a difference. When the supposedly "barbarian" communities of the western Mediterranean made their peace and settled down in the fifth and sixth centuries, bishops and monks were the community leaders who made sense of the world, along lines not very different from what Augustine laid out. If you want a hero for this story, you want perhaps not Augustine but Theoderic. Theoderic was the Ostrogothic king of Italy from 490 to 526 CE, a time that contemporaries spoke of as a golden age, when you could leave your money lying by the side of the road at night and find it there untouched in the morning - an exaggeration perhaps, but an exaggeration that speaks volumes for the social order that underlay it. Under his leadership, sects of Christians who engaged in mutual persecution in other lands lived side by side in remarkable harmony. You can visit Theoderic's massive tomb today in Ravenna, or read his words on at least one Penn website: "civilitas", the Latin word for something like "civility" or even "civilization", was his favorite theme. Not bad for a supposed "barbarian".

But if books are mostly ineffective as instruments of social change in the short term, they can, however, be persuasive in the long run. It can and should be argued and understood that the peculiarly European vision of humankind that gives birth eventually to the university tradition we embody today in our robes and rituals and to a whole series of widening circles of inclusive imagination of human society goes back to this age. The sense of community that binds together western nations today, that gave rise to such diverse organizations as the Catholic Church, the European Union, and World Cup football take their origins in that late antique vision of a society whose inclusiveness transcends old and seemingly obvious divisions.

But what are originally visions of inclusiveness have a way of exhausting themselves. The Roman empire had lost its ability to embrace new peoples by the time of which I have been speaking, and it is only too clear that in our time the traditional religions of the book, though their wisest practitioners speak well and act fairly, have lost much of their persuasive inclusiveness. It is indeed precisely the mode of their claims at universality that puts them most in conflict with each other.

The challenges today are thus obvious and many, but the opportunity is great as well. Few would have thought in the first half of the twentieth century that France and Germany could ever live so much at peace as they do now, and at the height of the Pacific war, it was unthinkable that Japan and the United States could ever become the allies they have now become. Our current strife may find its own comparable resolution, if we are wise and generous and visionary. Whether the vision we need comes from theologians or politicians or holders of McDonald's franchises is very much in doubt. I take some encouragement from a ragtag band of aging hippies and young computer scientists who are planning to build a clock.

The clock they build - and the library that goes with it - will be designed to live for 10,000 years: the clock of the long now, they call it, and there is a mountain in Nevada under which they plan to build it. They are already preparing for the future in ingenious and whimsical ways. They would report today's date, for example, as May 13, in the year 02002 - the initial zero being their way of reminding us to begin preparing for the inevitable Y10K crisis, hurtling towards us in a mere 7,998 years. Their mission is to encourage all who hear them to think beyond this year, this decade, or this lifetime, to remember that we live in and share responsibility for a very long future. To look out to that future is to take a deep breath and to find a place for ourselves in a narrative in which our concerns are not so paramount as they inevitably must be on a day like today.

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