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The Evolution of the West: What's Next?

I just finished reading an excellent book by Nick Spencer, titled “The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values”.

For a naturalized citizen born in a very different culture like myself, this book provided a sweeping overview of the Western history from an important (Christian) perspective that I find very helpful and persuasive. It is contextual, interpretive and open minded versus argumentative or dogmatic. It offers profound lessons and even applications for dealing with the key challenges of our own time. For example,

Historically, “Christianity put forward a new idea of a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives.”

We should ask ourselves in this day and age of free market and endless consumption if we still possess the will and love to associate with each other beyond blood and money? Our recent politics as well as day to day life experiences suggest that we might have lost at least a big chunk of the early Christian or pioneering spirit. We will have to regain that spirit if we hope to advance the civilization further as Christianity did out of the darkness of the ancient world. The question is who and how to accomplish that? My answer is that every citizen has the responsibility and access to means which are order of magnitudes more abundant and powerful today than in the early days of Christianity’s painful birth.

Another example,

“If Christianity has been a friend and foe to democracy, it is perhaps because democracy has the potential to be friend and foe to true human flourishing.”

In addition to the greed of capital and market driven materialism, our age suffers from serious entitlement and political correctness. The two, materialism and political correctness, often lock horns in such heated battles as to effectively choke off all other and more productive forms of human flourishing. This is exactly what drove Donald Trump’s presidential victory last month. The loss of entitlement due to globalization has stirred up such strong resentment and fear in those at the bottom of the economic spectrum that they blindly threw the establishment under the bus even though they had little idea who they were voted in its place and what the new president elect would do beyond empty promises. That is in no way to excuse the shameful greed of those at or near the top of economic ladder. However, the fact remains that unless we discover and develop deeper values in our culture beyond electoral democracy, there is little hope for us as a people to recover from our present predicaments. Historically, such deeper values have not come ‘naturally’ from the status quo on either side of the economic spectrum but rather emerged gradually, reluctantly, hesitantly and painfully from the battles of existing foes. Chances are that our age will be no exception.

A third example,

“The Fellows of the Royal Society were doing nothing less than forging a new Eden … the natural philosopher has become not only religiously motivated but religiously empowered.”

Oddly, although the author identified Christianity as the “accidental midwife” of science and modernity, nothing was said about the potential of this miracle child for humanity’s future flourishing. It is as if one chances upon a piece of gold while hiking a new mountain range, returns home with joy but misses the opportunity of discovering a gold mine nearby or even directly under his feet! This is doubly ironic when the author worries aloud latter on in the book that “there arose in Western societies a generalized culture of “authenticity”, or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment … the Western cultural pattern moved from orderly shape, to complex pattern, to indiscernible chaos.” He is, of course, describing the scene of postmodernism, represented most prominently by the cultural creatives in Hollywood and elsewhere, including among the upper echelon of the political left. This is not an unfamiliar scene in the history of science where a pattern of revolutionary but orderly changes have emerged and continue to emerge from extremely diverse and competing ideas and themes. Is there a deeper lesson that humanity could learn from science than merely efficient means of material production that ushered in the age of modernity?

A final example,

“One non-Christian businessman remarked, ‘what is important is the ability the cathedral has to make people slow down for a minute and ponder. It allows you to think about yourself, about things like guilt and the welfare of others - all of which come back to having faith in something … it’s about faith, not religion - it doesn’t force you to believe in God or believe in the Bible … it instills faith in people - allowing people to make up their own minds’

This is indeed a key challenge but hardly unique in our age. New ideas and pathways have always had to compete for finite supply of oxygen (human energy) against prevailing and far more dominant paradigms. Again we would do well learn a lesson from early Christian life. Brutality begets brutality. Materialism begets materialism. If we want to free ourselves from the choking hold of materialism and political correctness of our age, we will have to invest in building cathedrals as early Christians did where ordinary people could slow down for a minute and ponder. This is absolutely necessary but of course not sufficient. We must still mold the supernova of postmodernism into more orderly and cosmic shape according to new and sound scientific principles. In other words, we must take on the responsibility for and learn how to create our own culture according to a set of cosmic principles or Human Cosmos.

So why is it important to revisit and understand the evolution of the Western civilization, Christianity in particular? I agree with the author, “we will have an attenuated idea of who we are and what we value, let alone of where we are going and how we might get there, if we fail to recognize where we have come from and why we think the way we do.” But of course, even though “the tree of Western values did grow in Christian soil but it would be a mistake to imagine that soil had some precise blueprint for what the tree would eventually look like.” That responsibility falls on each of us as creative beings.

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