Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Charles Murray on Christianity's Role in Forming the Modern West

Charles Murray
Human Accomplishment
(Image from

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.

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)
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.

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.

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At 6:27 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Not having read the book, I'd still say this looks like a typical case of "post hoc ergo propter hoc".

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Could be. I haven't read the book either. I encountered a quote from the book and checked out the source and context because I'm interested in this issue -- and have been since my history-of-science days at Berkeley.

Murray's is rather the opposite of the Blumenberg thesis, which argues that Christianity had to be overcome in order for restrictions on theoretical curiosity to be lifted . . . though Blumenberg's views are actually more complex than that, I realize.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:11 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

This topic - Christianity's place in the modern Western world - is currently in the hot seat over at Mangan's (see the comment thread).

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm, the comment thread was . . . vociferous, at times, but interesting.

I do think that Christianity contributed to the rise of the West, in great part because Christianity made a distinction at its very basis between the spiritual and the temporal, opening up enough cultural space for independent thought to develop a legitimacy of its own.

But whether or not Christianity played a more active role of encouragement is a profoundly vexed question. It seems to have worked in both ways.

Jeffery Hodges

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