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No. 38: The Case Against Western Civilization, Part 3

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 38
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
February, 1998

Part 3: Philosophy (continued)

If we realize that human beings are the images of God, and that man hates God, then we realize that all non-Christian political philosophy is founded on a fundamental hatred of other human beings, a hatred manifest in contempt. Rome, like Enoch, was founded on the blood of a murdered brother (Remus, slain by Romulus). Whether this event ever really happened or not, the story of it was Rome’s foundational mythos. Another part of this foundational mythos was the story that Romulus and Remus had been raised by a savage she-wolf, and thus that Romans were not creatures in the image of God, but in the image of the wolf. (Never mind that wolves are not really all that savage; they were thought to be, and that is what counts.) All non-Christian political philosophy embraces the idea that most people are to be slaves of the elite. Non-Christian political philosophy inevitably thinks nothing of going to war and killing thousands, even millions, of images of God in order to advance some scheme. Think of the thousands of teenaged Iraqi soldiers slain by Americans in Mr. Bush’s Gulf War, which was fought, he himself insisted, merely to keep down the price of oil! They inconvenienced us, so we slaughtered them!

Because human beings are images of God, and because human society is to mirror the fellowship of the blessed Trinity, the Bible contains as much (if not more) teaching about social matters (man to man) as it does about religious matters (man to God). Indeed, the Bible says that how men relate to God is displayed in how they relate to one another (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46). By way of contrast, the Bible says next to nothing about dominion over the lower creation. The ways to make musical instruments, the ways to yoke animals, the ways to refine metals, etc. — all these we can learn from the city of Enoch.

Third, one has to ask what is the actual content of the political philosophy that we are asked to borrow from the Greeks and Romans. The answer to that question shows just how anti-God their thinking was, for the classical (Greco-Roman — and Buddhist and Confucian) view was that the virtue of self-control makes us fit to rule and to obey the rule of law. Education and self-discipline are essential to overcome our natural tendency toward slavery. Now, what is so wrong with that? The answer is that it is totally Satanic. It makes man into God.

The Biblical picture is that it is not our control of ourselves, but our submission to God and His Word that makes us fit to rule and be ruled. However important and useful education may be, it is not the avenue by which we overcome sin. Rather, that avenue is faith-filled obedience. God tells us what to do, and we believe Him and do it, and that reshapes us. True society is formed not by a group of self-possessed mini-gods ruling everyone else, but by all people joining in obeying God’s commonly published and publicly available Book.

The older pagan still knew some of the truth. He had gods that were personal spirits, to some degree. Those gods occasionally spoke through oracles. He worshipped these gods, and obeyed them. To some degree. With the philosophers and political thinkers of Greece and Rome, however, comes a deepening of sin. The older personal gods are rejected as inadequate (which they were), but what replaces them is worse, for now man is god. Now nothing is worshipped. No higher power is obeyed at all. Instead, man supposedly follows something like "right reason," whatever that is.

Self-control rather than God-control becomes the ideal. We can set Biblical religion and the older pagans on one side of the divide, and Greco-Roman philosophy and much of Christendom on the other. The God-controlled man is active, doing what God says to do. The self-controlled man is passive, contemplating timeless ideals or seeking mystical union with "God" in private. The God-controlled man is enthusiastic and joyful, singing and dancing, clashing his cymbals, guzzling wine in moderation, celebrating 80 feast days in a year (as in the Bible), revelling in marital pleasure (as in the Song of Solomon). The self-controlled man is sober and never lets himself go, never claps hands, rejects musical instruments, multiplies fast days, celebrates celibacy and virginity, etc.

Moreover, at the bottom of this matured evil was the idea that man is on a quest for God, a quest for knowledge about ultimate things. This is exactly the opposite of Biblical teaching, and in two ways. First, the Bible teaches that God has clearly revealed Himself and that He clearly speaks in the Bible, so that there is no need for any quest. Second, sinful man hates God and is not on a quest for the true God at all, but is rather on a quest for anything that will block out his innate knowledge of the true God.

Now, just what is all this "great classical literature" about? Homer is about the sin of man trying to make himself too big in the eyes of the gods, who then humble him. There is a truth here, but it is no different from the truth you’ll hear from any pagan tribesman anywhere in the world. Moreover, as much as anything else Homer’s gods are actually jealous of Achilles and Odysseus, and little else is admirable about these gods either. So, why should Christian children be subjected to Homer? Or, why Homer rather than the Gilgamesh Epic or the Kalevala? The sole reason seems to be that Homer is part of "Western Civilization." But we are entitled to ask: Who cares? Why keep this baggage? Let college students studying the ancient world read Homer as a curiosity, but don’t use him in the attempt to form fundamental mind of the Christian future.

The great dramas of the later Greeks reflect a further move into the mind of sin and rebellion. Now the gods are brought into question by the "philosophical" mind. Fate, which determines a person’s life, is cruel and utterly unknowable, and the best we can hope for is some kind of quest for an answer — such is the fundamental message of the Oedipus cycle by Sophocles. Are the rest of these "great playwrites" any better? The perspectives of the Greek dramatists have virtually nothing in common with reality and truth. The Adventures of Superman comic books are more true to real life.

(The ancient Greeks were not alone in developing drama, and the modern theater did not evolve from Greek drama but from the liturgy and miracle plays of the Church.)

If it be argued that the Greek poetic style of these writers is what makes them great: fine. Obviously that will not qualify them for use in Christian education and character formation. Those liberal arts college students who major in Greek can study �schylus’s poetic diction.

When we turn to the Roman writers, like Livy and Plutarch, the situation is only seemingly better. The model man for these writers is the self-possessed, stoic man. He is anything but the David of the psalms. And as for God, or the gods, well He or they are just plain absent. Reading this literature inculcates two false things: that God is not a player in the historical situation, and that the virtuous man is the stoic man. Such dangerous pagan literature can be appreciated by mature minds, but is just intellectual pornography for young minds, continually reinforcing the notion that man is the only god there is — which brings us back to pagan political philosophy.

The ancient theologian Tertullian asked "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?" and answered "Nothing!" He was right.

The great evil of "Western Civilization" lies precisely in the compromise of Christendom with the political philosophies of Greece and Rome. The rejection of worship was allowed to have a separate space called "nature," where political activity was thought to exist in a realm of contemplation, while worship, often perverted into religious contemplation, was put in a separate area called "grace." The political thinking of Greece and Rome, which proceeded from the city rather than from the garden, from Enoch rather than from Eden, was allowed almost full sway in Christendom. The Bible was allowed some say, but not the comprehensive authority that God intends and demands. Roman law, or the "common law of nations," was regarded as equal to Biblical standards and social teaching.

A long and far from finished struggle went on to free the Church from rule by the city, rule by the state. This struggle went on throughout the middle ages in the West and in the East. The Papacy gained ground in the West only by eventually becoming like a state itself, while in the East the Church usually became little more than a department of the state. Protestantism faced the same struggle in Germany and England, and Christians who refused to bow to the state-run "church" were persecuted from time to time. Meanwhile, Buddhist-like Anabaptist groups dropped out of society and rejected state-rule while also rejecting any call to form a Christian civilization on the basis of the Bible. Only in a few places did the Church become fully free from the city and begin to act as the foundation of civilization instead of an aspect of it. Even in the United States, however, most of the churches split during the Civil War, with southern and northern denominations where originally there had been but one. The Church still has a long way to go in understanding that she stands as the foundation of civilization, and not as a department of any culture.

Meanwhile, imbued with Greek philosophy, the Church continually turned away from worship to contemplation. The veneration of icons and images is nothing if not contemplation; there can certainly be no conversation with a silent picture. The original great "saints" were desert monks, who renounced God’s command to live in community with His people, and mystics who effectively did the same thing. (Biblical religion is not mystical but obediential.) The Lord’s Supper became something to contemplate rather than an action to do, and this was true even in Protestantism. Sexuality, music, and food (including alcohol) were viewed as dangerous, just as they had been by the Greek philosophers and by the early, stoic Romans. Contrast how the Bible exuberantly celebrates all of these.

If we look from the institutional Church to Christendom as a whole, the situation is far worse. Pagan notions of holiness, radically different from Biblical ones, led in the post-Constantinian churches to the adoption of magical views of the cross, the sacraments, images and icons, relics, holy men, and the land of Palestine. The last of these eventually issued in the horrors of the crusades, which were justified on the basis of evil and demonic notions concerning the supposed "holiness" of the land of Palestine.

Ignoring what the Bible teaches, Christendom too often kept the agricultural and other workers basically enslaved as serfs to lords and princes and cities. Land was held by the wealthy few. The desire to have land for oneself eventually became such an idol that huge numbers of Europeans came to the Americas determined to get land for themselves at any cost, and the cost was borne by the blood of the American Indians for generation after generation. The ideal of free ownership of land was denied to black Africans imported to the Americas. And where did all this come from? From Greek and Roman political philosophies.

Also from the Greeks and Romans came the notion that trade is a matter for the city or state to determine, denying freedom of trade to the worker and farmer and artisan. The Constitution of the United States wickedly authorized the federal government to set tariffs, removing from the citizen the right to buy and sell freely. Here we see again the Enoch principle that society flows from the city and its rulers instead of from the people and their lives. After all, where does the idea come from that the civil government should have the exclusive right to coin money or have anything to do with regulating trade? This evil notion is now advocated by supposedly-Christian politicians like Pat Buchanan. No Christian can righteously maintain that the power of the sword (the state) should be used to deny poor people in other lands the right to sell their wares to free people in America. Protectionism is cruel, vicious, and ungodly. The same can be said of trade embargoes, which do not shake the power of the rulers of the nations boycotted, but which do cripple the helpless and the poor.

Meanwhile, the political teachers in Protestant lands read their Plutarch and Cicero religiously, wrote under pseudonyms taken from Roman history, like Publius and Brutus, and built their monuments and governmental buildings after classical models. The natural result of all this reading in pagan (stoic) sources was a pervasive philosophical or stoic attitude in society at large. "Real men don’t cry." "We should not have musical instruments and enthusiasm in worship." "When his child was killed, he took it philosophically" — meaning that he showed no emotion. How far all this is from the Biblical picture of manhood and of worship!

We can rejoice that this grotesque mixture called "Western Civilization" is now coming to an end. Perhaps future generations will build from the Bible, instead of from the sheer Satanism of Greece and Rome. We can hope so. More likely, the future of Christendom will arise in lands not influenced by Greece and Rome, lands outside the monstrous compromises of Western Civilization.



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