These days many people are trying to defend ‘Western Civilization’. Yet, at the moment, Western Civilization seems to be moving into Version 3.0, and the form it will take is not fully clear. So what, actually, are they trying to defend?
The First West
The first Western Civilization, of course, was pioneered by the Greeks, with influences from the Middle East and from their own Heroic Age. They made breakthroughs in ‘philosophy’, a much broader term than is in use today, including what we now call scientific thought and political and moral philosophy.
A later form of their civilization, called Hellenism, spread through the Roman Empire, reaching to the borders of India. The Hellenistic culture was the ‘global’ civilization, against which the Jews and others contended in the Wars of the Maccabees and in other struggles afterwards.
Jesus came into the midst of this, and while He made the Jewish culture his priority, His apostles moved to bridge the gap between the Jewish culture and the larger one. Indeed, N. T. Wright tells us that the heart of Paul’s gospel, the ‘mystery’ of Ephesians, was indeed the ending of the division between Jew and Gentile and the formation of one international and multiethnic Church in place of the tribes of Israel.
Beginning at about the time of Marcus Aurelius, plagues [as serious as the later Black Death] and disintegrating social conditions began to disrupt the Empire. The more patient and caring response of Christians was a good witness to the faith during this time. This story is best told in Rodney Stark’s, The Rise of Christianity – a book that ought to be translated into every major written language in Africa and China.
The Roman Empire nearly fell in the mid 200s but was pulled back together by Aurelian, who built the walls around the city of Rome, which we still see today. Later, Diocletian tried to establish a nearly totalitarian state, and he soon turned his hatefulness against the Christians, subjecting them to their last and worst persecution at the hands of the Romans.
Then came a transformation. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, was convinced [partly by a vision] that he needed to ally himself with the Christians in order to consolidate his control. Up to this time, I think it can argued, Christians had not played much of a power game, but their ‘faithful presence’ (to use James Hunter’s term) had quite frankly put them in a position of picking up the pieces of the civilization that was falling apart.
Religious liberty was ended not by Constantine, but by Theodosius I – first in the East in 381, then in the West in 394. And yes, with my modern mind, believing in religious freedom, I think that was a ‘mistake’. But, on the other hand, it cannot be said that the Roman Empire was mostly won to Christ by the sword. Rather, it can be argued, that the decaying culture fell into their hands like an overripe fruit. So, I can argue for James D. Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’, which can end in one of two ways. At one extreme, the culture falls into our hands without effort on our part. At the other, we get carried out of the room kicking and screaming.
The Second West
St. Patrick had no army. Neither did St. Boniface and St. Willibrord, who evangelized Germany and Frisia. Now, it has to be said that Charlemagne resorted to forced baptism during the wars against the Saxons from 778 to 804. [After 804, all West Germanic speaking people on the Continent were under the Carolingian empire.] There were probably two reasons why the Carolingians resorted to forced conversion at this point.
One reason is that the Carolingian Empire was beginning to identify itself as the Western counterpart of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, a specifically Christian empire. That was made official when Charlemagne was crowned in the year 800.
The other reason is that Islam had now appeared and had conquered territories from the Pyrenees to the Indus River, very much with an army. Perhaps the Christian version was an imitation of jihad – it seems to me that the Crusades, 1095-1291, were such an imitation, just as the Templars and Hospitallers were initially an imitation of Muslim military orders but in a Christian context.
And so there was ‘Christendom’ – a supposedly Christian civilization. This was the Second West. And a lot of the intellectual energy in it was devoted to the question of what, in the first or classical West, was of lasting value. Indeed, up until the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, that seems to have been the question.
In fact, today’s Christians in newly-Christianized communities around the world, who are wrestling with the value of their past culture versus the Gospel, could do well to study this. I don’t suggest this because we Europeans and Euro-Americans are any smarter, but we went through all this a long time ago.
First, Neo-Platonism was an influence; then Thomas Aquinas and his cohorts rediscovered Aristotle [usually in translations that had been made from Greek into Syriac, then Syriac to Arabic, then Arabic to Latin] and tried to make as much use of Aristotle as was consistent with the faith, as they understood it. This ‘Thomism’ was eventually promoted by the Roman Church to a quasi-official status.
During the late Middle Ages, in Christendom there was the fantasy of a great Christian king on the other side of the Muslim world – it was unclear whether he was in Africa or Asia – called Prester John.
Today, that promise has been fulfilled; probably a majority of the world’s Christian believers live on the opposite side of the Muslim world from Europe. But by the end of the Middle Ages the only Christian society the new European explorers could find was Ethiopia, and the Portuguese had to come to its rescue when they arrived in the area in the 1540s.
‘Christendom’ was weakened by the shocks of the Reformation and the Renaissance. These took place at precisely the time when western explorers had discovered the Americas. They had also figured out how to get into the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, located at the back of the Muslim world.
In 1580, when Philip II of Spain succeeded to the throne of Portugal, the first world-circling kingdom in history was formed. But, driven partly by the printing press, the Renaissance brought another wave of pre-Christian Greco-Roman learning in, and the Reformation enabled people, on the other hand, to have direct access to the Scriptures.
By 1648 the Europeans had grown weary of religious wars and were inspired by the advances in science led by Copernicus. Initially, scientific research was based on a Christian worldview that insisted that miracles were essential to the faith, but at the same time, that they were, well, miraculous and exceptional. At the same time, scientists believed that the character of God was reflected in an orderly and predictable universe.
However, other ideas were beginning to excite the West’s imagination. Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes had already written political theories without Biblical input. European society tried to stay together by stressing the things they still agreed upon. But gradually the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and the counter-enlightenment of Rousseauian Romanticism, began to hollow out ‘Christian’ civilization. Intellectuals chose instead such cults as Deism and Unitarianism, which denied the Incarnation, but still affirmed that God had a determinate and reasonable character [unlike the dominant forms of Islam] and still preferred the core of Christian ethics to Islamic or other ethics. In France, some intellectuals like Diderot [not Voltaire] went as far as choosing atheism. The French Revolution even began to tamper with Christian sexual ethics, but it was suppressed in 1815.
Nevertheless, ‘Christian’ civilization was pretty well emptied of substance in the nineteenth century. There were actually some moral advances, like the abolition of slavery and the increasing concern about the conditions of industrial workers in the ‘new’ economy. But new idolatries, such as nationalism and socialism, sprang up as well.
Then, in 1859 and 1871, the works of Charles Darwin appeared, igniting a wildfire in a dried out intellectual landscape. The 1860s saw a binge of little wars that led to the appearance of new or consolidated nation states in Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada, and Japan. These threatened a long-standing balance of power. In particular, Germany had not had a particularly centralized authority for 600 years, and the continent had become accustomed to this.
The Third West
Then, running from about 1875 to 1975, came what I call the Supernova. Like a star running out of fuel, the Western world exploded, conquering most of Africa and the Pacific along with parts of Asia that they had not, up until then, subdued.
Technological superiority, new power rivalries in Europe, and the needs of capitalist industry drove these conquests. And then, from 1904 [the launch of the Japanese-Russian War, and the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale] to 1954 [the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the last major aftershock] the Second, or Christian, Western Civilization destroyed itself in a great series of bloody wars called World War I and World War II.
By 1975, the Western political dominance of the world had shrunk to less than it had been in 1875, when the Supernova began. Europe had become a small white dwarf.
The Christian missionary movement rode this wave, usually ahead of the European and Euro-American military conquerors. Often still claiming to be ‘Christian’, military invaders sometimes used persecution of missionaries as an excuse to send troops. But unless the missionaries were sponsored by the relevant governments – and they were less likely to be than in the old Iberian days – the missionaries often tried to defend the rights of the native populations against intrusive governments. When the European colonial tide receded, Christianity began to flourish, including Protestantism, Catholicism, and especially the new form of Christianity called Pentecostalism, which had originated in 1906.
Many languages, not already written, were translated into text. The Bible became available in numerous cultures that had never before been able to read it. Christian scholars in these lands worked on the issue of how to be Christian without being ‘Western’. They also wrestled to understand how Christianity related to their existing and former cultures – the same issue that had dominated Western intellectual life until after the Reformation! In any case, the Gospel was coming to the non-Western world, and it wasn’t bringing ‘Athens’ with it.
So Christianity, at last, became a worldwide religion, and not a ‘Western’ one. Hilaire Belloc could declare as late as the 1930s that “Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.” Today, that is a self-evident absurdity. The divorce between Christianity and Western Civilization moved on to its final stage starting in the 1960s, when, as Polish writer Ryszard Legutko put it, the Enlightenment finally reached sexual and family life. All pretense was abandoned.
The Second Western Civilization, or Christendom, had passed, and the Third West was born. As of now it is still taking shape, and the exact form it will finally take has not yet been clarified. There are some extreme ideas [in my opinion] being promoted, that may make the Third West unsustainable.
One of these is the denial of natural gender, which no world culture had ever imagined before. The idea that gender is not tied to the nature of one’s private body parts is the most extreme form of this. Less radical, but still unprecedented, is the idea that persons of the same gender are able to marry each other. No culture, Western or otherwise, had ever imagined such a thing.
Another extreme belief is that ideas that hurt people’s feelings should be suppressed, not necessarily by the state, but by other forms of authority. This is still being resisted, thank God.
The self-hatred of many of the intellectuals of the New West, out of guilt for the injustices of the past, has led intellectuals to favor ‘The Other’, whatever that might be. For example, they are inclined to favor Muslims, even though the Islamic culture is harsher on many aspects of the New West – such as the validation of homosexuality – than Christianity has been.
A gay alt-right politician in the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, rebelled against this, suggesting that Muslims should be repressed and restricted because they will not accept ‘Western’ values, such as the validation of homosexuality and of women walking around in supposedly alluring outfits [the thought that these were ‘Western values’ would have sounded rather odd to Augustine, Aquinas, or even Hilaire Belloc]. More moderate gay voices, like Bruce Bawer and Andrew Sullivan, have spoken out, fortunately, against this self-hatred in the Third West. They have also stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of speech, even for those critical of their lifestyle.
On the other hand, the Third West does look back to Christendom, as Christendom once looked back to the Classical Age, to try to find things that can still be of value in it. Many of the ideas of feminism, of the welfare state, of controlling discourteous speech, could be considered not as suppression but as exaggeration and distortion of some Christian emphases. ‘Jesus’ has, in fact, been edited to separate Him from the Bible and to justify a lot of these changes.
The ‘Me Too’ movement may have its excesses, but opposition to sexual harassment of the Harvey Weinstein type is something that Christians can definitely support. In one case even the Roman Catholic Church has shifted its view. It may once have been the ‘Church of Torquemada’, but now it has taken on the view that ‘life imprisonment without possibility of parole’ is infinitely preferable to the death penalty, even for the most depraved chainsaw murderer.
Europeans, at least, seem aware that many of their greatest treasures and artifacts came from the Christendom era or the Second West. In Denmark, 4% of the population attend church regularly, but 75% check the box on their tax return that devotes a little portion of their tax check to maintenance of church facilities. Churches may not be as crowded with worshipers as they once were, but they are certainly crowded with tourists. I have said to my wife that “The Europeans don’t worship God in churches, but they worship churches!”
In the United States, the elite classes do not seem quite so appreciative of the Christian heritage, but I think that owes to the fact that the US still has a fairly large and aggressive Christian minority that secular adversaries believe must be opposed. And even nominal ‘religion’ is more widespread in America than in Europe.
And, by the way, I’m not sure that anybody, or any culture, is in the end, ‘non-religious’; we all have our idols and superstitions. The ecological movement, though not completely alien to Christian thought – are we not stewards of the earth, accountable to a Landlord? – has taken on some of the forms of a religion.
And the United States has sometimes been a bit ambiguous as to whether it is part of the European-led ‘Western’ world. [I might discuss this in another post]. But though the Religious Right is still strong enough that our president feels the need to make a ‘Deal’ with it, it has been largely eclipsed by an ethnic nativism of a very European type. Even the definition of ‘social conservatism’ in the media seems to have shifted from the old moralistic concerns of the Moral Majority to a more ethnic and race-based agenda. So perhaps, in this respect, we are converging with Europe.
The eventual shape of the Third West is not yet clear and in some ways it remains elusive. But, in retrospect, I am quite convinced that the main story of the twentieth century is comprised of two conflicting realities:
The first, and most positive of these, has been the movement of Christianity into the position of being a worldwide, and primarily non-Western, religion.
The second, which is far less positive, is the formation of a neo-pagan West. Although some might call this secularism, I’m not sure that there is such a thing. In any case, this neo-paganism seeks to displace ‘Christendom’ and to erase the West’s Christian heritage.
I cannot predict the future. Perhaps a new Christendom will arise on the China-Africa axis. I do expect that within the next 200 years a Chinese Thomas Aquinas will arise, to reconcile China’s historic culture with the Gospel and the Scriptures, as the original Thomas did with Western classical culture. Perhaps there will be Aquinases in Africa and India and indigenous Latin America. All I know is that the old paradigms are over, and this shift is the major event of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.