Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Western Civilization and "Cultural Knapsacks"

In my previous post I made a blanket reference to "western civilization." What do I mean by that, and why do I consider whatever that term means to be superior to the numerous alternatives out there? (I hesitated to even type the word, "superior," for in our modern world, the only sin we still frown upon is that of intolerance. But it's out there.)

Back when I taught world history, I used to refer to a "cultural knapsack" in which a group of people would collect various customs, beliefs, behaviors, philosophies, etc. A group can pick up these elements through various kinds of cultural diffusion--when my group, which has invented, say, the wheel, interacts with your group, who has developed, shall we say, written expression--and this interaction can be through war, through trade, through love and marriage--well, at the end of the day, we both wind up with both writing and the wheel.

So what's in America's cultural knapsack? Without getting far too detailed and academic, a little democracy and logic from Greece, some representative republican stuff and codified laws from Rome, a dollop of Judeo-Christian religion stirred into the mix in the first through fifth centuries. Both Eastern and Western Europe had those. The western half of the declining Roman Empire also got some Germanic "barbarian" institutions, including such things as trial by jury and what would become chivalry. Where the Eastern empire developed more autocratically, with a strong emperor and an admixture of church and state, the west managed to become decentralized and feudal, with separation of the sacred and the secular. In my favorite medieval country, England, the nobles eventually forced their king to accept Magna Carta, and the ideas that even a king could be subject to the rule of law, and that those who pay the taxes have a voice came to be.

But that is not all. The birth pangs of proto-capitalism in the Italian Renaissance intersected quite nicely with the tumult of the Protestant Reformation. Back in merry old England, a group of reformers whose theology was rooted in Calvinism began to believe that hard work was a virtue and that material prosperity was a sign of grace for the elect. Some of them eventually despaired of their efforts to "purify" the Church of England. These Puritan pilgrims set out on ships (which would have been impossible without the scientific revolution) for the New World (also discovered by western Europeans). They landed in a place with no "ancient history" to overcome, a tabula rasa, a land that was purely "modern." Of course, they displaced the indigenous peoples (and now, thanks in part to their western sensibilities, they are civilized enough to regret it). But they put into place an experiment in creating a country anew. And they did a pretty darned good job.

Compare and contrast that with what is in other cultures' knapsacks. Our culture was born after western Christians had learned the lessons of the 1600s that killing each other over doctrine was counterproductive. The middle east has folks who still haven't figured that out. Our pilgrim forebears had the "protestant work ethic" deep in their cultural DNA. Have you ever wondered why we could drop a McDonalds into the middle of Moscow but couldn't make capitalism work there? A thousand generations of programming. Why do the Chinese not throw off the shackles of their totalitarian regime? Because there is no Magna Carta, no limited feudal Germanic king in their background. They have been dominated by the emperors, by the khans, by the Mongols, and now by the communists, but have never really been free (as we westerners understand it) at all.

Obviously, these statements apply to groups in general, certainly not to individuals. As the age-old debate of "nature vs. nurture" goes with people, so can we apply this thought process to races, cultures, and nations. Moreover, I would further postulate that there are universal truths and principles that apply regardless of your "programming." As a Christian, I would say that these principles are rooted in the will of God. To the extent that any system "works," it only does so to the extent that it is in line with ultimate reality, the laws of nature as established by the Creator.

At any rate, I believe that the unique combination of cultural "ingredients" that make up the "recipe" for the American branch of western civilization (democracy, equality, freedom of speech, thought, and religion, the rule of law) are best suited to creating a world in which we can most freely "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Tim 2:2). And while it is far from perfect, I have no problem preferring that model over all its closest competitors.


Greg & Kim said...

(This is all in reference to that Newton analogy that was over my head (but I think I got the general point) and your statement about a government’s success is due to the degree it conforms to God’s laws. I agree completely with everything else you said.)

I definitely see how the elements of Christianity embedded in our system of government (laws based on treating others as you would like to be treated, the idea of leaders as servants, etc) have helped democracy to be successful. ‘Course, the Marxist tenet of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” sounds an awful lot like the early church, as does the idea of making sure everyone is provided for. However, Marxism fails miserably in execution b/c it does nothing to account for human corruption, and so the human corruption takes over entirely. Simply put, it can never work.
In fact, when it comes down to it, it seems that the success of Western civilization/America is more practical and even Darwinian in nature. Europeans were physically dirty—covered with germs. Much of the indigenous population of North America was wiped out from brief contact with them from early forays. Some settlers even arrived to empty villages of tribes long since dead of disease—and promptly took up residence. Even if we hadn’t wiped so many out unintentionally with germs, though, it still would have happened. Not necessarily b/c we were more brutal (the Apaches were nothing to sneeze at), but we had superior weaponry, and were particularly skilled at guile (measles-infested blankets, anyone?). That deception also served us well when Polk took the land from the Mexicans. We couldn’t goad them into starting a war with us, so there was that whole business about the “spot resolution” (which Lincoln, to his credit, either called for or questioned—I’m digging back to high school here. You know what I’m talking about.)

The point is, as wonderful as democracy the system is, it cannot be conflated with Christianity, or even God’s will. You and Obama taught me that. To be honest, I was a bit offended when you seemed to mock Obama (or the Dems in general—can’t remember) for wanting to be diplomatic or conciliatory toward our nation’s enemies. To paraphrase, “Obama thinks if we are just NICE to the bad guys, they’ll just go away!” As in, “what MORON would ever think to love our enemies? Could there be anything more stupid than turning the other cheek?” At the time, I was like, So the Bible applies to homosexual marriage laws but not to warfare? Who draws these lines? Then, Obama gave a speech about not being able to apply the Bible to everything (making a reference to the Sermon on the Mount being so radical that it’s doubtful that our Department would survive its application). The conservatives attacked him for it, but I thought it was a perfect argument for them. Of course you can’t apply the Sermon to national defense. That’s b/c governments are about survival and Christianity is...not. When you turn the other cheek, there is a big chance that you are going to die for it, like so many have before you. As a Christian, that’s fine, b/c in theory, you’ve already died to yourself. As a nation, it’s not, b/c you can’t make that choice for someone.

So anyhow, at this second in my life, I'm really seeing the beauty of separation of church and state. I still have a lot to work through (so what IS the Christians role in gov't?) But it does bother me that so many people seem to confuse the two, or even to attribute one to the other.

MichaelPolutta said...

This response is to Greg or Kim, whichever posted the previous comment.

"However, Marxism fails miserably in execution b/c it does nothing to account for human corruption..."

This is, in my opinion, not the only reason Marxism fails. It is not even the primary reason. I think the primary reason is that Marxism does not take into account human incentive. There is no reason for ingenuity, or risk and reward. Marxism has no incentive other than fear.

Also, "the Marxist tenet of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" actually does not sound at all like the early church. The early church GAVE according to need, not TOOK according to ability. There is a DEEP and FUNDAMENTAL difference here that must not be missed.

Further - and again, this is my opinion - "Separation of church and state" has been so wildly misconstrued relative to the thoughts of the nation's founders that I have an automatic negative reaction to the phrase as it is commonly used. That said, I agree with your point about not running a government as a church or religion. Now, THAT said, I fear that our government has become religion for far too many in our country.

Greg & Kim said...

Amen to government becoming a religion to so many in our country. When people look to government for their salvation, the results are disastrous. In the same way, though, when we wrap Christianity too much into government, what we get is a bastardized version of Christianity. That's pretty disastrous in itself. I think that the concept of "separation of church and state" is more for the protection of the church than the state.
As for the Marxist quote, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," that quote says nothing about either giving or taking. It's just talking about the flow of goods and services. And that is how the early church "flowed." It doesn't work for a system of government b/c people don't naturally give out of their own free will, and so it must be taken (again, the "not accounting for human corruption" thing). Christians, on the other hand, do give out of their free will (at least in theory).

Anyhow, I don't want to hijack Larry's blog, and I feel that I have. If you want to continue this, I posted a blog about us as a Christian nation, and I'm open to any further input you might have over there, if you're so inclined. Thanks for your thoughts!

Coach Sal said...

Kim, we agree a great deal. When I speak of government (or any other worldly system) succeeding due to conformity with God's laws, I don't necessarily mean only those revealed in scripture. You might put it better that things work when they are in line with reality or natural law, both of which are created by God. To echo both you and Mike, Marxism doesn't work because it does not account for reality (which includes our fallen nature).

Western democracy, on the other hand (particularly the American version), takes into account not only those "truths we hold to be self-evident," but also a careful balancing of competing selfish interests. Not only our governmental checks and balances, but even old Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market" manage to "work" because they are in line with reality.

On the related topic of Christian theology vs. foreign policy (and leaving aside any discussion of President Obama's view on theology, which is itself an interesting issue), you are 100% correct that we are NOT a Christian nation, and should not attempt to be, in a formal sense. I think one reason our system works so well is due to the Christian elements in our "cultural knapsack," but at the end of the day, Christianity is personal and individual. As you and Mike both touch on, there is a major difference between the Biblical injunction to give and forcing "charity" through a welfare state. And, as you note, what is perfectly Christian behavior by an individual (such as turning the other cheek) is dangerous naivete at a national level. I have more personal sympathy for wrongheaded politics when they are motivated by faith than when they are motivated by greed, power-hunger, racial guilt, Wilsonian/Bushian idealism, or numerous other things, but that makes them no less wrongheaded (and again, we'll leave aside trying to ascribe motives to President Obama or any other living politician).

One last thing (and then I may go to your blog and continue the conversation there, or I may get sucked into a new direction entirely). You mention the issue of "Gay Marriage." Of course, as a Christian, I do have religious reasons for some of my objections to that institution. But I have very similar religious objections to premarital fornication and most divorces, and those do not move me to seek legal remedy. I oppose "Gay Marriage" because, as policy, I think it is disastrously wrongheaded and is fraught with serious dangers to the future of our culture. To bring the thread back to its original point, I think one of the main reasons it doesn't work is because it is contrary to natural (God's) law. But if I thought it did no societal harm, I would leave my Christian objections on a personal level. Maybe more on that some other time.

bekster said...

I'm still trying to catch up with all of your posts, but I did have time to write a new one over on my blog if you'd like to read it...