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Christianity as Integral Part of Western Civilization Christianity as Integral Part of Western Civilization
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-03-05 10:30:23
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"All of these areas: economic thought, international law, science, university life, charity, religious ideas, art, morality-- these are the foundations of a civilization, and in the West every single one of them emerged from the heart of the Catholic Church."
                                                                         -Robert Royal

The conclave to elect a new Pope invariably will bring to the fore the old anti-Catholic, anti-clerical grudge feeding the “enlighten” Western intelligentsia’s need to question the validity of religion in general and the Church in particular. Doomsday’s scenario announcing the final demise of a moribund corrupt “gothic” Church that has done more harm than good to Western civilization have already begun as a rivulet and predictably will become a veritable torrent by the time a new Pope is selected. The careful observer can detect them in  Italian newspapers but also elsewhere in Europe and even around the world, not excluding the pages and the comment section of Ovi magazine.

However, it would not be the first time those predictions have been announced. They actually began with Gnosticism in the third century AD and have since occurred periodically and predictably; they have never come to pass, to the great consternation and disappointment of the  religion bashing announcers who even in their life-time began to suspect that this is a Church that not only does not die so easily but goes on to resurrect from the ashes and to rejuvenate and reform itself and has been doing so for two millennia.

I always tell those  present day announcers that given that nowadays there are some one billion plus Catholics around the world and some 55% of the seven billion earth’s inhabitants practice one of the Abramitic religions, that they ought to, at a minimum, marvel at the endurance of such a Church which has fooled (as they claim) billions and billions of people in her two thousand year history and continues to fool them as we speak. Even from a sociological perspective such an astonishing phenomenon is  out of the ordinary. But most of them, be they believers or non believers, alas, are not interested in researching the issue and informing themselves of the complex history of Christianity. They prefer to devise new vituperations and new doomsday predictions. 

I have dealt with this vexing issue of anti-Catholicism elsewhere in Ovi with an article titled “Anti-Catholicism: the Last Acceptable Bias” written some four years ago. In fact, I have been reiterating the point since I joined Ovi that one of the glaring reasons why the EU cultural identity has become a problematic and threatens to dissolve the union is that Catholicism, which is basic to understanding anything about Europe, as Christopher Dawson has taught us in his The Making of Europe, has been judged a medieval superstition by the above mentioned enlightened intelligentsia and simply discarded. Besides Dawson’s there are literally hundreds of studies that make the same point, and they are not confessional or proselytizing tracts; most of them in fact are works of philosophy and history addresses to any reasonable person. One thinks of G. K. Chesterton The Everlasting Man or C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity), just to mention two well known authors.

There is however a work on this theme, a bit more recent, which ought to be better known by anyone sincerely interested in the issue of religion in the West. I refer to the 2006 book by Robert Royal The God that did not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. The title is an obvious throw back to the 1949 book titled The God That Failed which collects together six essays with the testimonies of a number of famous ex-communists, who were writers and journalists. The common theme of the essays is the authors' disillusionment with and the abandonment of communism. The six contributors were Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright. Silone’s essay titled “Emergency Exit” (“Uscita di Sicurezza” in Italian) became rather famous in Italy.

So the question arises: which are the gods that failed and which is the God that did not. Let’s see. The God that Did Not Fail is a wide-ranging philosophical history of the entire history of western civilization, from the Hellenistic Golden Age to the current day, with an emphasis on religious thought, packed into 276 pages. It is Royal’s contention that religion is foundational to Western civilization. He puts forward several points relating to how the political and the religious have interacted  and have created a monumental thread throughout western history. The essential point however is this: the West cannot do away with religion in pursuit of greater freedom and liberty and modernity conceived as the most progressive stance possible without actually destroying those things since they are its politically and religiously derived ideals.

Starting with the ancient Greeks we are introduced by the author to the rise of reason under the philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle being the most prominent. Thus begins the current of thought underpinning our political, social and religious structures that will ultimately define who we are today. One of the foremost insights of the book is that the Greeks did not practice a radical form of rationality comparable to 18th century enlightenment seen by extreme modern rationalists as a suitable replacement of faith, but rather their was a rationalism that complemented the political, polytheistic religions of the city states and was actually driven by a religious imperative. Aristotle in fact calls theology the highest of philosophical disciplines. This may sound rather strange in the light of Athens' killing of Socrates and yet Royal insists that this was more a result of a democracy distinguished by a religion of the "Gods of the City" rather than by an ethical truth-driven system such as Christianity. Greek rationality was after all grounded in the realization by Socrates that the Oracle of Delphi was correct in proclaiming Socrates the wisest of living men only in as much as he was the only one to know that he knew nothing.

The author reminds us that the religions and philosophies that grew up in pagan and eastern societies were deeply pessimistic. "Epicurus understood that many of the vices we see--lust, greed, ambition, snobbery, violence--are ultimately the product of the fear of death...in these dimensions Epicurus somewhat resembles the Buddha. Neither believed in a God or gods who are of much help to the human race". Life was pointless, death inevitable. Against these truths, paganism was a pale set of rituals created to appease gods who cared little about human beings.

And then lo and behold came Abraham. He was an obscure nomad. But this insignificant man claims to speak to God, and God "starts him on a fateful journey that has still not come to an end in its effects...'I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you....I will establish my covenant...'" And, surprising as that may be to the Western intelligentsia some 4,000 years later about 55% of the world's population claim to believe in Abraham and his God.

Abraham's God is a God of love, unlike Zeus. With the advent of Christianity, society is changed forever. Most important was the belief that every person had an immortal soul. Christian beliefs would lead ineluctably to the conclusion that Caesar was no god; and a slave was his equal in the eyes of the true God, hence they were declared subversives and fed to the lions in the Coliseum. But Christians knew that death was not an end, but a beginning.

So, the author continues, the Hebrew-Christian idea of history as linear and purposeful is opposed to the classical concept of a cyclical recurring inevitable order and chaos. The Old Testament begins with the very words “in the beginning” and then proceeds to narrate the linear trajectory and even intimates the final telos or goal of history. Only the monotheistic Jews possessed this idea. The Greeks considered history a bit too messy and subjective to be subject to rational discourse and investigation. It is important to point out also that while the Hebrews set the religious stage for Christianity the Romans created a powerful political and social construct that would fuel the eventual rise of the West, particularly relevant here is the concepts of civic duty and responsibility as enshrined in Virgil’s epic poem "The Aeneid," that same Vergil this who guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory.

Ancient society, except for the Jews, had no idea of charity. But soon after the advent of Christianity, "Galen was puzzled by the power of Christianity to create virtuous behavior among the uneducated." Christians, to the amazement of the pagans, risked their own lives to help others. By 380 AD with the advent of Constantine Christianity is the majority religion. Constantine had the political cunning to realize that it could be a powerful social glue to keep the empire together for a couple of more centuries. So did Charlemagne when he declared the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century AD.

After the fall of the Roman empire, monasteries kept Latin and learning alive and preserved the vestiges of Greco-Roman civilization alive via the ancient manuscripts that they copied word for word and would be rediscovered in the 14the century, the century of Italian Humanism, thus preparing the way for the great rebirth of Greco-Roman civilization which synthesized to Christianity produces the Renaissance. Theology would also prove to be a huge benefit for Christians. If there was an ultimate truth, and God was rational, as Aquinas maintains, then it was incumbent upon man to figure out what was right. Very different from the mindset in the east, where only compromise in the eternal swing between yin and yang, not ultimate truth, is sought.

The founder of the Sorbonne university said, "'Nothing is known perfectly which has not been masticated by the teeth of disputation'" This was indeed the very core of medieval thought. The great universities grew, science developed, and the Renaissance eventually blossomed in the 15th century. The purpose of the book is simply to convince the reader, believer or non-believer that: "All of these areas: economic thought, international law, science, university life, charity, religious ideas, art, morality-- these are the foundations of a civilization, and in the West every single one of them emerged from the heart of the Catholic Church."

Christianity combined these elements: Greek Rationality, Roman Virtue, the Hebrew concept of God Creator who providentially cares for his creation, linear history, and life endowed with purpose - along with its own new tenets, most particularly God endowed dignity of the individual and rendering onto Caesar what was Caesar's and onto God what was God's and thus allowing for the eventual separation of Church and State. It is an indisputable fact that only the Christians showed any signs of charity to help the poor and the under-classes of Roman society.

In conclusion, it can be safely said that this book exposes a lot of the false myths we have come to assume are facts about the history of Western thought and their relationship to Catholic Christianity. It is in fact the contention of this book that Christianity which was born out of the Classical world eventually came to allow and define, almost unintentionally, the modern liberal democratic republics of today. This of course goes against the conventional wisdom of the day that likes to pit the modern republics of today against medieval obscurantism, but to be sure the founding fathers of the EU did not see it that way. They spoke of the absolute necessity of a morally guided population in order for democracy to work and that so far historically that remains the exclusive ability of monotheistic religion to deliver it, at least in the western world.

In contrast, the western ideas that have tried to do away with religion, Radical Rationalism, Nietzscheism, Freudianism, Nazism, Communism, are all catalogued as the gods that did in fact fail and fail miserably. Another failure is the proxy, facade war between reason and science on one side and religion and the humanities on the other that is often more to do with politics than science or theology per se. This is the world of the two cultures that still needs a viable bridge as it has been argued elsewhere in Ovi.

Indeed, while science explains nature, religion gives meaning to it, and human life as described by science alone is an inherently valueless thing, despite logical positivism and the cavalier entrepreneurs of today reducing man to a consuming automaton. Royal sets out to prove and convincingly so, that the secularists who vehemently argue that religion needs to be eradicated from civilization have it all wrong. He insists that Christianity created the western mind, with its unique blend of individualism, science, and democracy. He writes in the introduction to the book that those who are secularists today are "currently engaged in a deeply incoherent and, in multiple ways, dangerous experiment." Plenty of food for thought here! Let those who have ears, let them hear.


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Emanuel Paparella2013-03-05 12:56:05
On the appropiatly perceptive Blake painting accompanying this article on the lead page, here we have Junghian synchronicity or serendipity: whenever I think of Blake I think of Vico and Croce, and vice bersa, and indeed Blake was not an irrationalist as some have misguidedly asserted. Blake, like Vico and Croce rejects a too abstractly rational rationalism, that cold mechanical logic which excludes emotion, forgiveness, loving, sensuality, intuition, imagination, What Vico way back in 1730 had dubbed in his New Science “the barbarism of the intellect.”

To continue yesterday's brief conversation with Ernesto Paolozzi on Croce via comment section, Both Vico and Croce’s philosophy imply a marriage of the contraries, what Blake calls the marriage of heaven and hell. For him as well as for Vico and Croce, contraries are not negations at perpetual war.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-05 18:30:06
P.S. Actually the marriage referred by Blake was that of heaven and earth. Sorry for the oversight.

Leah Sellers2013-03-05 22:55:10
William Blake's Work has always intrigued me, Brother Emanuel. And you're right, dear Sir, he was quite Rational and Insightful as well as brilliantly Creative.
Also,Gnostics aside, one wonders what the Zoroastrians would say about the goings-and-comings-on of Christianity today.
Hmmm...just a little Bread and Wine for Thought and a Spiritual Uplift.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-06 12:41:17
Stay tuned Leah; there is a follow-up coming on anti-catholicism as the last acceptable bias.

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