Monday, May 20, 2013

Christianity's Role in Western Civilization's Rise

The excerpts that I will share come from a book that I have been reading, entitled "The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World." The authors, Chris and Ted Stewart, outline 7 events from world history that preserved the growth and influence of freedom in society. One of these details the establishment of Constantine as the emperor in Rome and his subsequent conversion to Christianity. Constantine's decision to adopt Christianity as the state religion greatly altered the course of world history, and it is here that I will share their arguments for why Christianity's role in the rise of Western civilization has been overwhelmingly positive.

  • It is impossible to overstate the enormously positive impact of Christianity on the West's advancement in technology, wealth, and political thought. But that is not the popularly understood view. Indeed, it is just the opposite. If one were to try to gauge the average person's opinion of the role of Christianity in the development of the West, that person would likely say that it was an obstacle that had to be overcome---that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, stood in the way of progress at every opportunity. As just one example that captures this intellectual sentiment, Phillip Jenkins, a noted historian and writer who is considered a moderate voice in evaluating Christianity's impact on world history, wrote: "Between 450 and 650 AD, during what I have called the 'Jesus Wars,' inter-Christian conflicts and purges killed hundreds of thousands, and all but wrecked the Roman Empire." For more than a generation, sentiments such as this, and many others much more harsh, have been taught in most high school and college history classes, repeated by public figures, emphasized by intellectuals, and accepted as fact by many cultural and media elites. But in many cases, that assessment oversimplifies what happened. And some of the cases of the most severe criticism simply aren't true.
  • Professor and author Thomas E. Woods has mustered convincing evidence to establish the overwhelmingly positive role of Christianity (as it was then personified in the Roman Catholic church) during the era after the fall of the Roman Empire. The church offered major contributions in the development of civilization, science, and free governments:
  1.   It was the Catholic church that was responsible for what has become known as the scientific revolution through its creation of the university system.
  2. Catholic priests were pioneers in the fields of geology, Egyptology, astronomy, and atomic theory.
  3. Medieval monasteries were responsible for either preserving from classical times (generally accepted as the era of the Greeks and Romans), or initiating on their own, significant advances in agriculture.
  4. Medieval monasteries pioneered the use of water power, factories, and metallurgy.
  5. The church was pivotal in the preservation of the written words of the ancients---perhaps even literacy itself.
  6. Early Christian theology was the foundation of the Western legal system (the rule of law) as well as international law.
  7. Christian philosophy led to challenges to slavery in both the Old and New Worlds.
  8. And, of great import, the moral code of the West, including belief in the sanctity of human life and marriage, derived from Christian teachings.   
  • Despite these achievements, great negativity has crept into modern thinking when it comes to evaluating the influence of Christianity in human progress. Many contend that religious faith is at the root of most of the world's historical woes, blaming it for poverty, war, atrocities, bloodshed, genocide, slavery, and even the most subtle intolerance or personal bigotry. How many wars have been fought, how many people killed, in the name of religion? The question is frequently asked. Woods responds to this viewpoint: "That Western civilization stands indebted to the Church for the university system, charitable work, international law, the sciences, important legal principles, and much else besides has not exactly been impressed upon them with terrific zeal. Western civilization owes far more to the Catholic Church than most people---Catholics included---often realize. The Church, in fact, built Western civilization. Western civilization does not derive entirely from Catholicism, of course; one can scarcely deny the importance of ancient Greece and Rome or the various Germanic tribes that succeeded the Roman Empire in the West as formative influences on our civilization. The Church repudiated none of these traditions, and in fact absorbed and learned from the best of them. What is striking, though, is how in popular culture the substantial---and essential---Catholic contribution has gone relatively unnoticed."
  • Another scholar who has devoted much of his career to writing on this subject, Rodney Stark, explains in a number of his works how Christianity affected the development of the West. He argues that it was Christianity's devotion to reason that distinguished it from other religious faiths and allowed its adherents to progress as they did: "While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth....From early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase their understanding of scripture and revelation....Encouraged by the Scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason infused Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice."
  • Early Christians campaigned against the totalitarian powers of Roman emperors and European kings. Later Christians would act as emissaries for peace, fighting against the horrors of slavery and for the rights of the "Indians" found in the New World. Women's suffrage found a home in Christian churches. Many of the civil rights movements of our modern time were supported by Christian organizations, and, for generations, Christians have worked to alleviate hunger and disease. Even today, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised and dispensed by Christian charities.
  • Christianity led to capitalism. Capitalism emphasized individualism, hard work, personal reward and failure. This allowed for the creation of wealth and economic opportunity, which then led to technological advancements in the West. Two other things to consider: First, capitalism could emerge only in cultures where individual freedom existed. Such places only existed in the Christian West. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Second, it was Christianity's devotion to reason and logic that resulted in the pursuit of science and technological advances. Some cultures may have dabbled in scientific discovery in very narrow fields, but it was only in Europe that science truly developed. For example, while other civilizations may have taken baby steps into alchemy and astrology, it was only in Europe that these musings evolved into chemistry and astronomy. The fundamental belief structures of other faiths and cultures, with their focus on mysticism or polytheism, simply did not motivate their followers to develop scientific knowledge, as did Christianity.
  • Christianity was devoted to an attempt to understand the purpose of God's creations. If God created the world, the Christian asks, for what purpose? If God is bound by certain natural laws, what are they? Stark explains: "The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God. In order to love and honor God, it is necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of His handiwork. Because God is perfect, His handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, it ought to be possible to discover these principles."
  • Christians taught that there was such a thing as agency, or free will; that we are responsible for our own conduct; that God rewards and punishes based upon the exercise of our free will, not on fate or luck or whim. This distinctive belief---extraordinarily rare in other world religions---is one of the most fundamental of all Christian beliefs. It was belief that led Christians to contend that all should have the right to exercise free will, and that depriving one of the right to exercise free will through slavery was wrong. That is why, by about the tenth century, slavery was almost obliterated in Europe, then eventually throughout the New World colonies as well. This is important to recognize, especially in light of the fact that moral opposition to slavery is not universally the teaching of other faiths.
  • Another of the most important foundations for Western political thought is the belief that certain rights are derived from God, not from man. This principle of "natural rights" is most eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Some contend that this idea was the product of the brilliant political thinkers of the seventeenth century, John Locke being the most masterful and eloquent of them all. But the concept of natural rights dates much further back than that, deriving almost exclusively from original Christian theology. Long before the European philosophers and the Founding Fathers, early Christian philosophers contemplated and wrote about these concepts, exploring agency and the rights of the individual versus the role of government. 
  • Locke's own views on equality and freedom were so thoroughly the result of his Christian beliefs that one commentator suggests that Locke's Two Treatises of Government is "saturated with Christian assumptions" and that "Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul) may not appear in person in the text of the Two Treatises but their presence can hardly be missed."
  • The teachings of Christian scripture supported other concepts that became essential foundations of Western political thought, including the recognition of private property rights and limitations on the power of kings. Limiting the power of the monarch results in the ascendancy of the rule of law---that is to say, when the king himself must abide by the rules, everyone else must, and the rule of law is established as supreme.
  • In discussing the impacts of Christianity upon the emergence of Western culture, it would be foolish---and painfully obvious---were we not to acknowledge a disappointing historical fact: Those who professed belief in Christianity were far from perfect. For ages, Christian churches have been the home of many corrupt men and women, and, far too often, sinful conduct has been displayed in the name of Christianity. Too many governments, church officials, and individuals have, in the name of Christianity, been responsible for historical episodes that cannot be called anything but evil. Some professing Christianity have displayed grievous examples of extravagance, lust, gluttony, greed, and every other of the seven deadly sins. For too long, the Christian church attempted to keep the people under its control by withholding the holy scriptures from them. In the name of Christianity, some scientific and technological advances have been blocked.
  • Yet while it is true that the professed followers of Christianity have not always been a source of advancing the common good, we should not let this tragic fact blind us to the overwhelmingly positive impact that Christianity has had upon the world. The irrefutable fact is that Christianity and its biblical teachings created the foundation that led to the establishment of Western civilization and all of the good that has flowed from that civilization.

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