Paul and Rome

PART 1 in the series: Islam and the West

This series will be done bit by bit, maybe one out of every five or ten posts. For more info about the purpose of the series see “Islam and the West’ under “pages.”

We are in a period of global crisis and transition, one which challenges the West in ways previously unimagined. Whether the challenge comes from Islamic extremism, the dynamics of globalization, climate change or economic dangers, it’s unlikely we’ll emerge from this without having undergone a real cultural transformation. It is impossible to understand and comprehend what that means if one does not have a clear sense of what is meant by The West or Western Civilization.

The term “the West” is bandied around a lot, often in criticisms of the West as a source of militarism, greed, and materialism. Indeed, in academia the West is often distrusted as a hegemonic cultural force, silencing voices and ideas from other cultures and societies. This has led to less emphasis on people learning the history of western culture, and therefore not really understanding who they are, why they think as they do, and why the world around them functions the way it does. Therefore, such people can’t really comprehend the transitions taking place and understanding the threats and potentials. Moreover, this actually works against understanding and dealing with other cultures because by not seeing the West as a culture built over time, people assume our way is the ‘natural way’ and other cultures are strange, primitive, or irrational. I think that kind of error in thinking is one reason so many supported the war in Iraq, believing Iraqis would welcome us and ‘naturally’ adopt western institutions and attitudes.

To begin, my own bias: despite justifiable criticism of actions undertaken by Europeans and Americans, and despite the consumerism and materialism of the modern West, I am a product of that culture, and I believe in basic western values. I disagree with those who want to ignore or discredit the West. There is much to be proud of. Yet it is a culture, with no more claim to being “right” or the “best” culture than any other culture. We need to ditch the notion that somehow the West is superior or represents an inevitable line of progress. Thus I’m not a proponent of uncritical celebration of the West as it is – one of the attributes of this culture is the ability to use critiques to force improvements and solve problems. A line from the song Cut to the Chase by the band “Rush” captures the essence:

“It’s the motor of the western world
Spinning off to every extreme
Pure as a lovers’ desire
Evil as a murderer’s dream”

The first question is When did the West begin? That could be the focus of numerous historical debates, but here’s my succinct answer: the West began with the Roman Republic, and took its basic form when the Roman Empire united Greek philosophical thought and Hebrew religious traditions in its embrace of Christianity. Law and governmental structure in the Roman Empire had distinct western attributes, such as separation of power and checks and balances (Montesquieu, credited with suggesting checks and balances, had been looking back at the Roman Republic). As the Republic expanded in power and militarism, these political institutions failed, creating corruption and ultimately a collapse of the Republic in favor of Empire (is there a lesson for us there?).

At this time a pivotal figure in the development of western culture came on the scene: A Roman citizen and a Jew named Paul. Palestine had been conquered by the Romans, and the Jews were in religious crisis. Conquest by the Babylonians earlier had eradicated the many different religions of the region, where each tribe or people had their own God. The Hebrews had originally been polytheists (the God of Israel was but one of many Gods), but over time it developed into monotheism. By the time of the first century there were competing voices trying to define what it meant to worship the Hebrew God. One of these voices was a pacifist spiritual teacher named Jesus, who apparently went village to village exchanging what we might call ‘faith healing’ for food, and teaching a doctrine of humility and submission. He emerged as a threat to the Jewish authorities who convinced the Romans to crucify him. They expected the story to end there – and it might have, if not for Paul.

Early Christian sects had diverse views on a wide range of subjects, many of which would shock modern Christians. But one debate was especially intense. Should converts to Christianity first become Jewish? After all, God made a covenant with Israel, and if Jesus was the messiah for the God of Israel, wouldn’t gentile converts need to first convert to Judaism in order to lay claim to that covenant? This would mean, of course, following Jewish customs, dietary laws, and more painfully, circumcision for males. Paul, considered a leader in the early Christian church, was asked to decide this issue. If he had said they had to become Jews first, the Christian sect may have died out. Instead, he decided that people were ‘justified through faith’ (looking back to the story of Abraham) and the old Jewish laws, holidays and traditions need not apply. This had two consequences. First, Jews were less drawn to the Christian faith, as it now seemed to be abandoning basic Jewish traditions. Soon it was a sect of primarily gentiles. Second, Christianity was to become a hot religion in the Roman Empire. Women especially converted as it gave them a higher status than traditional Roman life. And though there were persecutions, for the most part Christians were tolerated. Finally, as the Roman Empire started to collapse, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion, and it later became the primary religion of the Roman Empire.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, Christians found themselves divided. They had been pacifists, and one of the reasons they were finally embraced by the Empire was that the Empire wanted Christians to fight to defend Rome from the barbarians. But their faith was other worldly – they should be in this world, not of it. Turn the other cheek. Stay pure and holy in this world, suffering what may come, knowing that this is a test to see if you have faith to enter paradise. Should they abandon that and take up arms? But if they don’t, and the Empire perishes, won’t Christianity be wiped out by barbarians with no such teachings or faith?

The answer would come from Augustine, which I’ll discuss in a later blog entry, but note that the dilemma facing early Christians is not dissimilar to that we’re facing in the secular West today. On the one hand you have moral values which argue for treating others ethically, on the other you have fear of the consequences of acting morally in the real, material world.

Paul’s decision has had far reaching implications. Even today our secular culture is a kind of secularized Christianity, as western values – even secular and atheist values – have been strongly influenced by the impact of Christianity on our culture. Second, though Rome would be destroyed, the West would not. The Christian church would retain enough power to keep Roman ideas and traditions alive, even through the so-called dark ages. Thus one can’t understand the West without understanding the teachings and history of the Christian church.

Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)

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  1. #1 by Ron C. de Weijze on May 31, 2008 - 14:42

    ‘The West’ has negative connotations on the political Left, due to Marxist’ and Islamist aspirations for equality of all mankind and global, hegemonic, spread of the own ideology. Not so on the Right, where local traditions, as part of the Judean Christian heredity, are treasured. So talking of bias: you are a child of the West, not a Christian and one who discusses those negative connotations more broadly than the positive ones. However the beholder of these comments may not be totally unbiased either.

    We can never claim to be right or the best, but that doesn’t mean we should quit comparing and embrace multiculturalism. Democracy may not be the best we could think of but many of us state, following Churchill, that so far it is. And as far as I know, this proposition is not contested even though it is not dogmatically hidden and defended as the totem of the tribe, thus facilitating criticism and the growth of knowledge. On the other hand, it is massively misused, unintentionally and, strategically, intentionally, by the enemies of the West and western values.

    I guess there is a lesson in the Roman transition from their republic to their empire for both republicans and anti-republican globalism (as referred to above) nowadays. The mass movements we should keep track of imho, are those of (group) polarization: how people’s mentalities critically shift towards one pole of values (making them the norm). This is primarily a republican attempt, generating resistance that will first topple over in anti-republican hearts that long for international socialist / -Islamist unity and indifference.

    Although I do believe in Paulinism, I do not feel his decisions were his own, nor were Jesus’ for that matter. People were not resisting the fulfilment of agreeable prophecies, rather, they were interested in anything synthetic and new, especially when self-purifying scriptures (‘the good books’) and the all too human effects of power concentrated in leaders and elite, slowly but surely were undeniable. God, the eyes that see everything, was in all these onlookers, interested in ethics, as He still is (I guess). So it wasn’t Paul’s decision, but God’s or all these people’s.

    Jesus was definitely more than just a pacifist teacher in this context. He must have felt the tremors of Judean Christian ethical thought run through society and teleologically projected its ultimate fulfilment that would most probably take his own life, next week more probably than in a number of years. Not saying nay to that is why he deserves all the titles he received as far as I’m concerned.

    Confidence in their own Christianity, facing modernity in city centres or in rural area’s where inner city immigrants massively immigrate from, a village at a time, does split them apart. Half the group sides with the imperialist socialists and Islamists, either on the one hand confident that their own values and norms will not be dismissed by enemy ‘imamism’ or already defeated and seeking appeasement, or on the other hand resisting the ramsj and sell-out, joining the opposition if they still can (when no political terrorism has prevented it yet).

    The parallel between early Judeo Christianity and today’s wrestling with imperial Islamist imperialism is less than complete. Judaism and Islamism are ‘Abrahamistic’ arch enemies, so how could Christianity want to incorporate the one and two thousand years later the other? Though I must admit it is a fine strategy of the humanists, anti-theologians and socialist/Islamist political opposition groups.

  2. #2 by scotterb on May 31, 2008 - 15:14

    Interesting ideas, Ron, I’ll take them into account. I do reject the division of the West into “left” and “right.” The “right” of 1800, for instance, was monarchist and anti-Democratic. I think left and right are flexible changing labels of the moment, and it makes more sense to see all these different ideas flowing from diverse aspects of western thought. Most modern conservatives, for instance, wouldn’t agree with Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of errors. I also don’t see how Judaism and Islam could be arch-enemies — historically the Jews have had more problems with the Christians than with the Muslims. On multiculturalism: that is the challenge of globalization. How do we incorporate the reality of many cultures now being pushed together into societies which (following Burke) require some kind of stable political culture. If we can handle that challenge (neither xenophobia nor extreme multiculturalism), we can handle globalization.

  3. #3 by Ron C. de Weijze on May 31, 2008 - 17:21

    Haven’t ideas about relative equality and indifference versus local or individual idiosyncrasy always run through history? People’s positions are flexible, not the concepts they call their own, that are clear and divided if not differentiated across the political spectrum. Twenty or so years ago I was still a leftist but when I saw the ship hanging toward port so I went over to starboard.

    Judaism and Islam are arch enemies when you trace their origins according to each, back to Jacob and Esau, although the Islamist claim was a hijacking of the Old Testament stories, after they turned out to survive the Roman Empire and promised to come in handy for rogue and robbing desert tribes.

    Multiculturalism is no longer a challenge but a downright failure. It seemed to get foot on the ground where post Shoah cultural pessimism and following nihilism sold out western culture as of no value whatsoever, to have it replaced by socialism and Islamism. However, their ideology of moderate Islamism and moderate Christianity turns out to be a farce. The Turkish prime minister assured us recently there is no moderate Islam. And assimilation to resident cultural values has for ever been the norm both for historical leftists and rightists, in our terms but with the same meanings.

    Globalization is just full blown industrialism of the liberal democrats and has nothing to do with improving the quality of life, apart from undercutting democracy by its own flaws (counting everybody’s vote as one where no-one seeks truth but only democratic power in numbers and outbreeding) and parasiting on it.

  4. #4 by scotterb on June 2, 2008 - 14:26

    I am far more optimistic than you are Ron, about the development of western culture and civilization. Since the French revolution we’ve seen vast changes, a de-Christianization of Europe, the rise of the age of ideologies (sort of alternative religions in a way), and I think we’re now entering a post-ideological age. Europe’s been divided into ethnic identities that have focused on combining ethnicity and nation. In the US, we have an approach that at it’s core is focused on principles — black, white, Muslim, Jew, whatever, if you can agree with basic core principles, you are part of our community. These principles are multicultural in that they allow people to still practice and believe what they want, yet they themselves should not be sacrificed out of deference to concerns about offending other cultures. But globalization is here, population migration has always been a part of history and is continuing, and I don’t think that will change. I think we can handle it though, recognizing that we have a dynamic, changing culture. As to Muslims and Jews, I cannot see how they can be seen as arch enemies. Clearly Muhammad didn’t consider them such, he had close Jewish allies and ordered special respect for other ‘people of the book.’ It’s not the religion that’s the problem, it’s how humans twist religions to fit their biases and agendas.

  5. #5 by Ron C. de Weijze on June 5, 2008 - 13:30

    I cannot be optimistic about de-christianization. Alternative religions are plagues. Post-ideologism is the final blow. The melting pot in the US to me has always exactly been christianity. That is why I hold America dear. America, at least when I lived there (exchange student, 1975-76) was NOT multicultural/globalizational. There is one identity and that is christian, take it or leave it. Of course there are sentimental back doors for your own roots but assimilate you shall, and not to muslim, jew, whatever other root system than christian. Migration has sped up more than anyone can chew, unless you belong to the white elite that feels sorry for others not having been so fortunate and are now trying to buy back their personal pride by giving away what isn’t theirs in the first place: the country and the positive discrimination for anyone but those who deserve it. What you insist the self acclaimed last prophet did or didn’t does not add up to what the koran, dictates from his mouth.

  1. Plotinus and Augustine « World in Motion
  2. Just and Unjust wars « World in Motion
  3. Jews, Christians and Muslims « World in Motion

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