Today's guest article was written by Dr. Andrew Stebbins.
If someone asked you to name the single most important influence in the formation of Western civilization, would Christianity come to mind? In the current cultural climate, Christianity’s positive contribution toward history is grossly underestimated or even ignored.1 The result is a populace disturbingly, and maybe even dangerously, ignorant of its own cultural heritage.
With this article and others to follow, my goal is to help correct this view by demonstrating Christianity’s incalculable value to the history of the West. This topic is enormously complex and can only be covered in limited fashion here. Nevertheless, over a short series of articles I hope to spark encourage you to delve deeper into this important field of research.
We begin with the initial premise that ideas matter; people act upon their beliefs, which are an outgrowth of the key assumptions forming the intellectual foundation for their worldview. According to W. Andrew Hoffecker, “One’s worldview gives coherence to how one thinks and lives, provides moral parameters, and directly motivates behavior.”2 People from different cultures see and respond to the world around them in different ways. For example, Americans view cheating on a test as categorically wrong (even if often done), but for the Chinese, refusing to do so for a friend might be viewed as immoral. The following section on monotheism highlights perhaps the most important of those key assumptions contributing to any given worldview: a culture’s understanding of the nature of divinity.
The idea that there is only one God “may well have been the single most important innovation in history.”3 For our purposes monotheism’s importance lies primarily in the fact that it is the only viable source of absolute truth. Only a single creator God can establish such truths. Monotheism also allowed for the formation of the rule of law, whereby God stands over and above His creation, and establishes immutable laws that are equally applicable to all people without exception.4 With no such conception of God and His law, individual people or cultures occupy God’s throne, dispensing justice as they see fit. Man-made laws are as changeable as the human mind and may not be applicable to the ruling power.
For example, God commanded people to not murder one another. This command may seem “self-evident” to most yet in many non-Western cultures female infanticide has long been a common and accepted practice. Only absolute truths based on an objective foundation (a single creator God) can help us determine if it is right or wrong to kill female infants.
As we’ll see moving forward, absolutes are fundamental to Western civilization. In this regard Judaism’s monotheistic worldview was the invaluable first step.
Equality, the Sanctity of Human Life, and Individualism
Closely related to rule of law are the notions of equality and the associated sanctity of individual human life. If all people are created in the image of God but fall short of His glory, and if Christ came to offer an incomprehensible sacrifice in order to bring the gift of salvation to all human beings, then all people are spiritually equal in the eyes of God.5 When this doctrine emerged, it represented a profound and critical realignment of cultural priorities. The same biblical reasoning applies to the dignity and value of individual human life.6 Modern Western culture perhaps takes it for granted that life is sacred and people are equal, but it did not have to be, nor has it normally been this way. In purely cultural terms, absent the monotheistic Christian worldview, such notions are counterintuitive (people obviously aren’t equal, and life is cheap).
Global penetration of these ideas fostered a historically unprecedented individualism that flouted traditional culture virtually everywhere and ultimately had profound cultural implications. Every human being mattered.
Having established the significance of individual persons, Christianity also influenced civilization’s view of the individual in relation to other persons. Within the discipline of sociology lies a concept usually referred to as “chains of interdependence.”7 Generally this refers to interpersonal connections in society in which each person is in some sense dependent on all others. The concept includes the effects of changes in those interdependencies on the surrounding culture. Christianity, and especially Reformation Christianity, has had a deep and lasting impact in this area.
The notions of Christ as both God and personal Savior, with whom one can have a personal relationship, fostered a dramatic shift in cultural focus from interpersonal social ties to the relationship between a person and their God. The ramifications of this idea would prove significant.8
Any serious and unbiased observer of social development will acknowledge that “religion has played a leading role in directing the course of history.”9 Christianity was sociologically pivotal in the development of the West in the sense that it provided the forms of thought without which those institutions defining the West would likely never have come to fruition. Those institutions include rule of law, democracy, capitalism, science, education, and the family. The ensuing articles in this series will describe Christianity’s role in the emergence of each. While certainly not exhaustive, it is hoped that the ideas and institutions discussed will support the thesis that Christianity was the single greatest driving force in the development of Western civilization.
By Andrew Stebbins
Dr. Andrew Stebbins received his PhD in sociology from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia in 2009 and currently teaches at the Central Ohio Technical College in Newark, Ohio.