Charles Murray on Christianity's Role in Forming the Modern West
I'm late coming to this book by Charles Murray, who is better known for more controversial views on intelligence, but it offers a thought-provoking thesis about the role of Christianity in forming the modern West:
This brings us to [the] role of Christianity in modern Europe. Mine is far from an original conclusion, but in recent decades it has not been fashionable, so I should state the argument explicitly: The Greeks laid the foundation, but it was the transmutation of that foundation by Christianity that gave modern Europe its impetus and differentiated European accomplishment from that of all other cultures around the world.In other words, minus Christianity, there might have been no 'modern' world of science and technology, nor of other great accomplishments, a thesis that indeed "has not been fashionable" lately, as Murray notes, and is thus almost as controversial as his views on intelligence.
Christianity did not bestow that impetus immediately. It took more that a thousand years. Through its early centuries, Christianity as practiced was not individualistic. On the contrary, early Christianity was absorbed in the collective Christian community to which individuals routinely subordinated their own interests. It was Christian theology itself that was potentially revolutionary, teaching that all human beings are invited into a personal relationship with God, and that all individuals are equal in God's sight regardless of their earthly station. Furthermore, eternal salvation is not reserved for those who renounce the world but is available to all who believe and act accordingly. It was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before.
The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him. Aquinas taught that human autonomy is also a gift from God, and that the only way in which humans can realize the relationship with God that God intends is by exercising that autonomy. Aquinas taught that faith and reason are not in opposition, but complementary.
In sum, Aquinas grafted a humanistic strain onto Christianity that joined an inspirational message of God's love and his promise of immortality with an injunction to serve God by using all of one's human capacities of intellect and will -- and to have a good time doing it. (Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, HarperCollins, 2003, pages 402-3)
One might point out that by Murray's own words, "a humanistic strain" external to Christianity was just as necessary in the formation of our modern world, but I take it that without the "inspirational message of God's love and his promise of immortality" provided by Christianity, then the "injunction to serve God by using all of one's human capacities of intellect and will" might not have been as readily obeyed.
This deserves further analysis, but I'm currently under the weather and thus lack the energy to follow through.