Friday, 18 March 2011
Reading History Through the Lens of Christianity
I've been engaged in a number of debates on Christianity over at the blogs of Mike and Jack for several months now. Jack's latest post prompted some protest from me in the comments section, and this in turn led me to an exchange with Nate. The thing got quite lengthy, so I've decided to turn it into its own blog-post. For anyone who's interested in partly-theological-but-mostly-historical discussion, here's the stuff.
This is the original post by Nate:
We have to assume that if the religion of the west had been different than so too would everything else. Shakespeare certainly would have been living in a different world, and so would have had different influences.
If the Muslims had not been turned back in the 700′s than it is very likely that the forms of government would have been different, in addition to the obvious cultural changes.
While Christianity isn’t by necessity responsible for any scientific or literary accomplishments, the world in which they were attained was shaped by Christianity, the results of which cannot be underestimated.
And here is the second post, expanding the points, and providing a link to an entry of his own:
Yes everything we have could well have been created/discovered with no Christianity.
However, to think that we would have had the same achievement with a different culture/religion is just crazy. We may have made greater strides, but I don’t think so.
That post isn’t right on topic but it kind of covers what I’m talking about. You just can’t discount such a large part of a culture and expect the same results.
So let's pick things up...
Firstly, and with all due respect, as long as we're investing indirect causes with direct merit, we can attribute Shakespeare to anything we want. I could argue that everything in Western culture happened thanks to the Etruscans (the ancestors of the Romans), including Christianity, because, of course, without them history would have been different to the point of being unrecognizable. So everything wonderful in Western culture is Etruscan in origin!
Your reading of history is selective, and I would discourage you from projecting meta-narratives to explain causal relations between events taking place five-hundred years from each other. No more is Leonardo Da Vinci responsible for Hitler than Christ(ianity) is responsible for Shakespeare. Elementary chaos theory tells us that events so far apart are impossible to be directly causally related: if you switched the reset button and started everything again with the same settings, in the long run it wouldn't repeat the original scenario; it would lead to hugely different results.
An example of your dubious reasoning lies in crediting the Dark Ages with "the freedom and restlessness that came to shape modern Europe and so the entire west." The values that you are talking about were actually popularised in Europe by the (secular) French revolution, an event so far removed from the Dark Ages - and so unpredictable in its causes and development - that it cannot be given a deterministic explanation. Indeed the casual/inevitable debate on the FR has absorbed historians for centuries. And your claim that the Arabs "never achieved what the rude, christian Europeans did" is baffling. Western culture as we know it was actually preserved in the libraries of Arab civilisations and only rediscovered in central Europe thanks to the cross-fertilisation occurring AFTER the dark ages. Without the Arabs, we might have no memory of Plato and Aristotle, to name but two luminaries who were absolutely cardinal in the intellectual rebirth of Europe. Without the Arabs, we might never have come out of the Dark Ages at all. Regardless, are you familiar with any of the achievements of the Arabs at all? Do you know why our stars have arab names like Aldebaran or Betelgeuse? Have you read the poetry of Ibn Ammar, Ibn Khafaga, Ibn Hamdis? Do you know why we've got the number "zero" on our keyboards instead of having to type MMMMCCCXXXXVIII to say 4348? Your statement is typically dismissive, but if we're comparing the 'rude, Christian Europeans' to the Arabs in their time-frame from the end of the Roman Empire to 1258 (the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, comparable to the defeat at Adrianople) I'd say that yes, the Arabs achieved every bit as much as the Europeans, and considerably more. And then there's all that stuff about 'individualism' as a prominent value in Medieval culture, which has no grounds whatsoever. Not only were values highly varied according to the strata of society we were looking at (peasants weren't expected to follow the rules of chivalry, for instance), but family and blood-ties were far more significant than individualism. Your lineage defined both your past and future. (In fact, pre-19th Century individualism reached its peak a thousand years before the Dark Ages, amid the Greeks). Oh yeah - and what exactly is 'the strongest and most resilient culture and ideals the world has ever seen'? Wouldn't that be China? Or Hinduism? Some of the most important Western countries (USA, Germany, Italy) aren't even 300 years old as self-ruling nations. Or wait, do you mean THE WEST? You mean that that's a unified culture?? And then how does it have more weight and history than THE EAST, whatever that is in turn?
Anyways. Even if your reading of history as a linear process were tenable, your assumptions leave me just as puzzled. Yes, we may never have had the same achievements without Christianity. Similarly, we may have avoided the endless atrocities that the West is guilty of committing. Alternative historical scenarios remain not only unknown, but unknowable. Maybe without Christianity we would have had far greater advances and now there would be world peace! As long as we're speculating on the unknowable, it's as plausible a scenario as the next. I'm not even sure that the good things we did outweigh the bad. The world would certainly have been better off without the Western colonial empires, for one.
Look, surely you can't fail to see what irks me in these arguments. If you told me that Christianity had merit for the Divine Comedy and for Paradise Lost and the Sistine Chapel, I'd be with you. How could I not be? But if you're going to argue that Christianity is at the heart of King Lear and Impressionism and Shostakovich, you're lying to yourself and to me. There's so much that is wonderful in Europe (and beyond) that cannot be called Christian in its origin, and the insistence you guys display in arguing otherwise is symptomatic of the type of religious thinking I don't like: the idea that everything my religion says is absolutely right, and everything everybody else says is absolutely wrong (textually voiced as, He who is not with me is against me, Mt 12:30).
In closure, if you'll accept a reading suggestion, I think you'll find this book very interesting: The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb. It's a brilliant piece of work and it seems very much in line with your concerns. No, it's got nothing to do with ballet (I've been getting a lot of this Black Swan stuff on my blog lately). It's about understanding causes and unpredictability in our history, and it's a wonderfully accessible and illuminating read.