23 August 2011

The misconceptions of ‘cultural’ Christianity

Two recent events have brought into focus the idea of Christianity being the cultural bedrock of Western civilisation. The first is the Norway massacre carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, and the second is the ‘Mark No Religion’ campaign conducted in the lead up to the Australian 2011 census just past. The concept of ‘cultural’ Christianity laid at the heart of both events; Breivik was not religious, yet saw himself as defending Europe’s ‘cultural Christendom’ against Muslim invaders, while the ‘Mark No Religion’ census campaign sought to educate Australians on the distinction between being a follower of the Christian faith, and being an irreligious member of a Christian-influenced culture.

This idea of a cultural Christianity inseparable from Western identity and values contains several errors. Kenan Malik has written an informative article that spells out what these errors are. I summarise it below:

  1. Many of Christianity’s ethical and philosophical ideas have their origins in ancient Greek and Jewish intellectual traditions. Whether it’s the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule or universal compassion, key Christian values have their roots in pre-Christian cultures. 
  2. Far from being the source of all good and decent elements of Western civilisation, Christianity’s unique contribution – the concept of Original Sin – has arguably undermined humanity’s confidence in its own innate goodness. Christianity’s bleak, cynical view of human ethical agency has had pernicious effects that reverberate down to the present day. 
  3. Although the Church kept alive some semblance of a learned culture during the Dark Ages, it also contributed to that intellectualism’s stagnation and decay by favouring Christian dogma over pagan knowledge. The curiosity, critical thinking and empiricism of the Greeks were spurned by Christian thinkers like Tertullian and Augustine, the latter writing in his Confessions that the desire to discover “the hidden powers of nature” was a “disease”. 
  4. Those same Greek thinkers (like Aristotle) whose ideas were rejected by the early Church were embraced by Muslim intellectuals. Thanks to them, Classical knowledge and philosophy survived long enough to be transmitted centuries later to a more welcoming European audience. Much of Western accomplishments in science, philosophy and mathematics were enabled by the Muslim Middle East. 
  5. Western values like democracy, equality, toleration and freedom of speech are largely products of the Enlightenment and the subsequent centuries leading up to modernity. Furthermore, those aspects of Western ideals that pre-date the Enlightenment do not have their genesis in Christianity, but, as noted above, in ancient Greek philosophy. Yet the modern forms of such ideals are neither distinctively Christian nor Greek.

There is however one facet of Western civilisation that arguably owes its existence to Christianity, or specifically the Catholic Church – the rule of law. In The Origins of Political Order: Volume 1 (Chapter 18: The church becomes a state), political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes:

The rule of law in Europe was rooted in Christianity. Long before there were European states, there was a Christian pontiff in Rome who could establish authoritative laws of the church. European rules regarding marriage and the inheritance of property were dictated not initially by a monarch but by individuals like Pope Gregory I, who passed clear instructions to his delegate Augustine, sent to convert the pagan king Ethelbert of Britain to Christianity.

The main point of Kenan Malik’s essay is that the panic over the decline of Christianity in places like Europe is unwarranted. Malik argues that Western values are not synonymous with Christian ones, and that the latter isn’t essential for the former to survive. He concludes:

The reason to challenge the crass alarmism about the decline of Christianity is not simply to lay to rest the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition. It is also because that alarmism is itself undermining the very values – tolerance, equal treatment, universal rights – for the defence of which we supposedly need a Christian Europe. The erosion of Christianity will not necessarily lead to the erosion of such values. The crass defence of Christendom against the barbarian hordes may well do.


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