February 11, 2006


What “Dark Ages”?: a review of The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark (Michael Novak, February 2006, New Criterion)

If you hold the following three propositions, the massive evidence marshaled in this book asks you to reconsider them: (1) For eleven centuries after the legitimation of Catholicism under Constantine in 323 A.D., the Church kept liberty in chains and progress in check, imposing backwardness on the “Dark” Ages; (2) Only after the overthrow of Catholic unity by the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment did systemic invention, science, and freedom appear, and speedily make the West great; (3) Capitalism originated under the impulse of the Protestant ethic.

Stark, a sociologist of some fame for his past work, and now a professor at Baylor University, has been led by his own studies to revise his earlier judgments regarding all three of these propositions. He could not help noting (like the sociologist Robert Nisbet before him) that the Christian church introduced into the Greco-Roman world the conception of historical progress, breaking the vision of the cycles of eternal return. Moreover, the name of the Christian God (in the first line of the Gospel of John, for instance) is Logos: translatable not only as Word but also as Insight, Intelligence, and Reason. Impelled, further, by the conviction that each woman and man is made in the image of God, the Creator of all things, Christians introduced into the larger world a perfectionist vocation—to be co-creators, as it were, in making the world a better place—and a vocation of inquiry. Thus, not stopping merely with the words of Scripture, the early Christians pressed on to develop wholly new concepts of person, trinity, the liberty of the children of God, and the like, and to seek out the heretofore hidden implications of the Scripture. In other words, a principle of inquiry and intellectual progress was built into Christian theology itself, right from the very beginning. Stark traces the expansion of this principle into every other sphere, especially the economic sphere, during the next millennium and a half.

Near the end of his book, he quotes from a study group of Chinese scholars who have been trying for at least two decades to figure out the success of the West, as compared with China itself and Islamic culture:

One of the things that we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

Many others in China seem to have made a correlative judgment. Whereas at the rise of Mao in 1949 there were perhaps two million Christians in China, today there seem to be one hundred million, tested and toughened by persecution and martyrdom. Upwardly mobile Chinese seem especially attracted to Christianity, which they see as the key to modernity.

And here is how Stark begins his concluding three pages:

Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth… .

The modern world arose only in Christian societies. Not in Islam. Not in Asia. Not in a “secular” society—there having been none.

This, then, is Stark’s thesis. He does not make as clear as I think he could its premise, viz., that Christianity based itself upon the wisdom of Judaism, including its (so to speak) metaphysics, or vision of reality and its idea of progress. One of the social effects of the rapid growth of Christianity, then, is that it made known around the world the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a Hebrew metaphysics, as tiny Judaism alone could not have done.

The post-modern world is likewise dying because it has lost this necessary foundation, while America moves from strength to strength.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2006 12:00 AM
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