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.