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.

Peace out!


Nate said...

It's not necessary to link every little thing down a chain of events, in fact it's impossible.

We can however make certain guesses. European culture has a sense of individuality unlike any other place on earth. We can't know why, but we can guess. My entry post was simply, like most other historical writings a possible answer to a question, not a firm scientific solution. Those are impossible to find.

Christianity makes up a major part of Europe's culture, so really needs to be counted as a contributor, that's all I was saying. The black death was also a major contributor. Feudalism, which I mention in my post, was a major contributor.

All of those things together and much much more make up the culture which produced the things you mention. Take any one of the parts away and you are going to be left with something very very different, something that likely would have produced different literature to stay on theme.

It seems like you simply want to discount the importance of religion in the formation of our culture. That's fine to do, it's just not realistic.

I never made the case that religion was the basis of any of the things you mentioned, merely that religion played, and still plays, a big part in our thinking, whether you are an atheist or a catholic or a muslim or have no opinion at all, it still influences everyone in some way. Just like all other major parts of a culture.

And just so we are clear, yes much of western knowledge and thinking was preserved by the arabs. I was addressing the issue of what Europe might have turned out like if the muslims had not been turned back in france. It almost certainly would have ended the so called dark ages sooner, but they simply were not all that dark. While the arabs may have made strides that we did not, they were left behind quickly once Europe cam into its own, were they not? Again my post was just a what if, with my own theories, we just don't know a lot of stuff, and its pretty certain that the feudalism in Europe was much different in the sense that small land holders were never tamed, knights and minor lords held a lot of power. that's where I suggest our sense if individualism started, but there's is little evidence either way.

I'd be interested to get your take on my post if you get the time.


The Judge said...

"Christianity makes up a major part of Europe's culture, so really needs to be counted as a contributor, that's all I was saying. "

This is a much more tenable viewpoint than what you initially seemed to be suggesting. And for the record, I don't discount the importance of Christianity (much less religion) in the formation of our culture. In fact, I have no trouble in calling it one of our two major cultural matrixes, on a par with the Greco-Roman world. These two cultures, with their endlessly variegated mythologies, informed the development of the European awareness more than any other. (Interestingly, their most ancient roots are given approximately similar dating; both Homer and the Old Testament are presumed to belong roughly to 800 B.C.).

Many of Europe's achievements, especially since after 1500, should be judged on their own terms, and cannot be seen as direct off-shoots of either of these two cultural systems. But there's no doubt that the most referenced stories are those of the Christians and the Classics.

I think one of the major problems is that we tend to see cultural unity in places where there isn't any (presumably, we project it onto the past as a way of making sense of our present). Christianity itself has taken so many different forms over the two-thousand years of its existence, that you really can't speak of it as a single culture in any way that makes sense. Even glossing over splits like Protestantism or the sectarian tradition (the Cathars are probably the most famous), there's simply no way that a medieval commoner at the times of Joan of Arc could have a similar understanding of Jesus Christ as a contemporary citizen. A brief overlook at the history of the Bible's interpretation is highly revealing; the rise of hermeneutics and the idea that the Bible's messages weren't really literal was enough to revolutionise our approach to Scripture. And then there's early, primal, pre-Constantine Christianity, which must have been something else entirely. Would a Viking convert understand our current objections to contraception? Would we understand the appointment of Spanish Inquisitors as high officials of the Church? Compare the religious representations of Dante, Milton and Eliot and you'll get an idea of the shifts.

A similar case can (and must) be put for the Greco-Roman world, which spans more than one thousand years and has so many conflictual stories and traditions that you can barely count them all. Christianity, I believe, possesses the same variety (and potentially, the same dis-unity of identity). On this account, speaking of the West as a unitary group, as in "We, the West" is always very difficult. Other than sharing the Classical and Christian background, there's few obvious commonalities between a Brazilian and a Dutchman or between a Swede and a Russian.

(*continued below*)

The Judge said...

On the ascent of individualist ideologies, that's a fascinating question. As I mentioned, the Greeks were the first great individualists: their tragic heroes were all condemned to solitude, from Achilles onwards, many of their stories have to do with distinguishing oneself from all others, and some of their philosophies stressed self-reliance as well (Diogenes, for instance). In its contemporary form, however, I don't think it's too ancient. It should also be stressed that not all of the West is as individualistic as you claim. Marxism is a European phenomenon as well, as were all the ideologies, parties and rules that came out of it (including Russia and Eastern Europe). In fact, if there's one direct drive which contributed to shaping our current feelings on the subject, that surely was the Cold War. The ideology of the individual must necessarily have developed, if only to shape an opposite to pitch against socialism. No wonder that the USA are the most individualistic nation out there at the moment (more so, no doubt, than Spain or England). There were other forms of self-centred thought prior to World War I (think the glory-seeking icons of hunting, mountaneering, exploring), but I'm honestly not sure how to connect them to our present worldview.

But if by individualism we mean simply a strong desire to self-rule, then here's my view - every single nation in the world has ALWAYS had that. I don't think it's a prerogative of the West at all.

As for the Arabs, I wouldn't say they faded once Europe came into its own. It was the Mongols, not the Europeans, who gave them their first great trauma in Baghdad, and even then, they managed to pick themselves up well enough to become a prodigious military force in the Ottoman Empire, one of the major world powers at least until the Battle of Lepanto (1571). But Europe had 'come into its own' long before that (again, it's hard to say, since back then Europe was very much divided... some countries came into their own as early as 1077, others had to wait until 1861). I'd say that the Arabs have had their run, much like the Greeks or the Romans, and they went on for a solid millennium before losing their crown. Their civilisation didn't decline because it couldn't keep up with the Westerners (it took until 1918 for the Ottoman Empire to be dismantled), it simply faded away, like all empires do with time. Europe itself faded from global supremacy after 1945, and some argue that the USA are going to give way to China in some time (who in turn was in the dumps a few hundred years ago). Civilisations come and go, just like people. Lasting as long as the Arabs did is surely remarkable (and they're far from done... look at what's going on in Muslim North Africa these days!).

Anyway, that's my take. Hope it was satisfying. :P

Jeff said...

For the record, I followed your link from a post in which you expressed an interest in seeing the France-Brazil friendly, and not for the Bar Rafeli images, although I certainly appreciate those.

Your "About Me" statement is an enigma to me, I'm not too ashamed to admit. I was also looking for an "About" statement for the blog. Reading the long, esoteric posts to get my own sense of what it's about seems a bit daunting.

Jeff said...

I forgot to click the "e-mail follow-up comments" box, in case a furious debate breaks out.

The Judge said...

'Sup Jeff. If I have to be candid, the blog evolved away from its original purpose as a vector for rants of all sorts, and into a new form - essentially a waste-basket for the mind of an over-educated dickhead as I am. So now it mixes narratives about alcohol, cultural criticism, dialogue, sports journalism, theology and almost anything that I feel like throwing out there.

Given your source, I'm assuming you have a football background similar to mine. Heh. Perhaps you may find of interest the two entries from July 2008 entitled 'Chronicle of a Tragedy.' There's a few entries about the sport here and there, but those two are the most, er, dramatic. Regardless, thanks for stopping by, and don't worry - I doubt furious debates are about to deflagrate on this specific page.

PS: Never actually got to see that France Brazil match. Damn!