Saturday, January 14, 2006

Christianity & Thought---Another "Defense"


ZENIT News Agency, The World Seen from Rome

Reasonable Religion
How Christianity Loomed Behind the Success of the West

WACO, Texas, JAN. 14, 2006 ( The conventional wisdom that
Western success depended on overcoming religious barriers to progress is
\"utter nonsense,\" says the author of a new book. Rodney Stark defends
this thesis in \"The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to
Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success\" (Random House).

Stark, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, maintains
that, in contrast to other beliefs that emphasize mystery and intuition,
Christian theology privileges reason. This factor -- not geography, a
more productive agricultural system, or the Protestant Reformation -- is
behind the rise of the West, he argues.

The author observes that this view contrasts with the position of many
20th-century Western intellectuals. They maintained that the West
surged ahead of other cultures precisely to the degree that it overcame
religious barriers to progress. What credit they do give to religion was
limited to acknowledging Protestantism\'s contribution, as if the
previous 15 centuries of Christianity were of little import, says Stark.

In a chapter on the union between reason and theology in Christianity,
Stark lays out why he disagrees with these intellectuals. The rise of
the West, he contends, was based on four primary victories of reason:

-- Faith in progress within Christian theology;

-- The transmission of this faith in progress into technical and
organization innovations, many of them fostered by monasteries;

-- Reason informed political theory and practice, allowing personal

-- Reason was applied to commerce, resulting in the development of

A gift of God

From the first centuries of Christianity the Fathers of the Church
taught that reason was a gift from God and the means for increasing
understanding of Scripture and Revelation. Eastern religions, by contrast,
lacked the figure of a conscious, all-powerful God who could be the object
of theological reflection.

Judaism and Islam did have the concept of a God sufficient to sustain
theology. But within these religions the tendency was toward a
constructionist approach that conceived scripture as something to be understood
and applied, not as the basis for further inquiry.

Christianity sees God as a rational being and the universe as created
by him. Thus, a rational structure awaits human comprehension. And
rising to the challenge have been theologians in the Catholic Church, who
over the centuries engaged in careful reasoning that led to the
development of Christian doctrine. Leading thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas
Aquinas, Stark explains, celebrated the use of reason as a means to
gain insight into divine intentions.

So when the scientific revolution of the 16th century came along, it
was not a sudden eruption of secular thinking. Rather, it stemmed from
centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastic thinkers, and it
was sustained by the 12th-century Christian invention, the

Medieval progress

Stark dedicates a chapter to exploding the idea of the \"Dark Ages.\"
Long before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came about, European
science and technology had long surpassed the rest of the world. The
idea that medieval times were a period of stagnation \"is a hoax
originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century
intellectuals,\" writes Stark.

It was in these centuries that water and wind power were extensively
developed, allowing for enormous advances in the manufacture of goods.
And notable advances in agricultural technology increased yields that
enabled the feeding of towns and cities.

Far from opposing such technical advances, Christianity welcomed and
promoted them. By contrast, both the Ottoman Empire and China opposed the
construction of mechanical clocks, for example.

Nor did economic activity have to wait for Protestantism in order to
flourish, Stark contends. The monastic orders created a sort of
proto-capitalism. Spurred by increases in productivity due to technological
advances, the monasteries led the trend away from a subsistence economy,
toward a system of specialization and trade. In turn, this facilitated
the rise of a cash economy, as opposed to barter, and the creation of
credit and moneylending.

Monasteries also developed a work ethic and an appreciation for the
value of economic endeavor -- long before the advent of Protestantism.

Moreover, Christian (i.e., Catholic) theologians refined ideas in
relation to the charging of interest and the just prices of goods --
elements essential to the development of capitalism. Stark also devotes ample
space to outlining the development of capitalism in the Italian
city-states, which spurred flourishing economies centuries before the

Freedom and equality

While the conditions for developing capitalism have existed in a number
of countries, sometimes the essential element of freedom was missing,
thus impeding economic progress. Freedom, Stark argues, is a victory of
reason and one supported by Christian theologians who had long
theorized about the nature of equality and individual rights. In fact, the work
of later secular political theorists, such as John Locke, often rested
on ideas developed by Church scholars.

Christianity in general teaches the value of the individual and
emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility in moral decisions.
Linked to this is the concept of free will. This was a radical change from
the past, evident, for example, in literature. Stark suggests comparing
the Greek tragedies, where the characters are captives of fate, with
Shakespeare, where the protagonists are clearly responsible for their

Stark further argues that the birth of democracy in Western Europe owes
its origins, not to a recovered Greek philosophy, but to Christian
ideals. The classical world provided examples of democracy, but these were
not rooted in assumptions of the equality of all citizens. The ideals
taught in the New Testament, however, laid the basis for affirming the
fundamental equality of all persons.

Property rights, another vital precondition for capitalism, also owe
their origins to Christianity. Both the Bible and major theologians
defend private property. Aquinas argued that owning property is inherent in
human nature.

Christian teaching also greatly contributed to the concept of the
separation of church and state, and to the limitation of a sovereign\'s
powers over citizens. These two factors enabled the West to avoid the
dead-end of a political system that leads to the arbitrary and unlimited use
of political authority, which hinders the development of a modern

Reason and faith

Stark does not lay claim to any great originality in his ideas. He
points out that eminent historians such as Henri Pirenne and Fernand
Braudel long ago established that historical facts contradict the notion that
the Protestant work ethic was the force behind capitalism.

Then, in 1925, noted philosopher and mathematician Alfred North
Whitehead declared that science arose in Europe because of the faith in the
possibility of science, in turn derived from medieval theology. Yet these
truths have been obscured by popular myths, says Stark.

In concluding, Stark asks if Christianity is irrelevant to modernity,
now that science and capitalism are so firmly established. But, he
hastens to inquire, If Christianity were irrelevant how can we explain its
rapid expansion in many countries?

Stark observes that in Africa Christian groups are booming, and in many
parts of the world Protestant churches are converting large numbers of
people, or perhaps more accurately, Christianizing many who previously
had not practiced their nominal religion. Christianity has also grown
in China, despite government opposition.

\"For many non-Europeans, becoming a Christian is intrinsic to becoming
modern,\" Stark affirms. Reason and faith, it seems, are not destined
to be opposed, a truth that awaits rediscovery by many in the West.


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