Defining Western Civilization: Christendom By Any Other Name

There can be little doubt that Western Civilization is and will for the foreseeable future remain the dominant civilization of the world. The nations of Western Civilization have, over the past several centuries, spread their languages, their cultures, their ideologies, and their political rule to every continent. Despite the decline of Europe, the home of this civilization for the bulk of its lifespan thus far, the ideas of the West continue to be the major shaping influences of the modern world, though the focal points of that world have since moved to North America and are now moving to Asia. Ideas such as communism, democracy, and human rights are finding new homes in India, China, and Japan, far from their birthplaces in Germany, Greece, and Italy. While this renders the term “Western Civilization,” with its directional emphasis, a quaint anachronism, the ideas themselves have taken on a renewed vigor in their current host nations. The first step toward understanding the reasons for the dominance of Western Civilization and for responding to its movement into new and foreign terrain is defining Western Civilization itself.

To define Western Civilization, the term itself must, in a sense, be dismissed. It is clearly not merely “Western,” meaning European, but rather universal in its embrace and pertinence. The “Western” idea of liberty is equally true and meaningful in both France and China. A close look at the history of Western Civilization even before its globalization in the modern era reveals that it has never been strictly “Western.” Its most ancient ancestors, in fact, lie altogether outside of the borders of Europe. The genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in his blustering attack on Christian heretics “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Christians demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

From the foregoing, a definition of Western Civilization can be formulated which removes the misguided focus on geography and favors instead a more complete understanding of the history and nature of the civilization itself. Western Civilization is not strictly European or entirely Western. It is, rather, that collection of disparate cultures which has united itself around the fundamental notion of the Incarnation. Western Civilization is, in short, Christendom.

The immediate objection to such a formulation is the observation that Western Civilization has, beginning with the Enlightenment, entered a period of turning away from its Christian heritage which has resulted in the modern so-called post-Christian societies of Europe and the emergent post-Christian societies of North America. With such a turn to secularism in the former domains of Christendom and with such nations as India and China, which are not now and never have been majority Christian nations, taking on and internalizing ideas which originated in the West, some may see the designation of Western Civilization as Christendom as unnecessary and antiquated. To adopt such a position, however, is to ignore or to be ignorant of the overwhelming influence Christianity has had upon the formation of this civilization. As Dawson points out,

In fact, no civilization, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last nine hundred years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilization is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world.11

Although Christianity may be in the process of becoming a minority religion even within the historical borders of Christendom and although the ideas of Christendom are now put into practice with more vigor and among nations with far larger populations in lands yet unbaptized, the force of Christianity in the shaping of Western Civilization cannot be ignored or downplayed. Even the very ideas which are replacing traditional Christian religiosity among those living within Christendom’s native lands are the product, or perhaps the byproduct, of Christianity. Scientific materialism, for example, would hardly be a tenable worldview without the process of the development of scientific thought in the West, a process which largely occurred not only at the hands and in the minds of believing Christians but also, and more importantly, as a result of the impact of Christian ideas. The Christian scholastics of the Middle Ages, for example, in their attempts to reconcile the contents of the Christian faith with the philosophy of Aristotle, “laid a solid foundation of logical thought on which later science could build.”12 The early giant of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo Galilei, was himself inspired and driven by his belief that “this grand book, the universe, … is written in the language of mathematics.”13 This Platonic notion refracted through the lens of his medieval Christian heritage drove Galileo to attempt to formulate mathematical proofs for Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. There are, in addition, more subtle ways in which Christianity made modern science and its sickly cousin, philosophical naturalism, possible; for example, the idea of monotheism renders the cosmos intelligible as natural forces are freed from the provenance of various competing deities and instead placed under the providence of a single divine entity, thereby imbuing the universe with an orderliness and meaningfulness it could not formerly possess.

Whatever Western Civilization may become in the future, it remains the product of Christianity and is as yet inseparable from that foundation. That many of its members are turning away from that foundation and that other civilizations are attempting to adopt its ideas in a piecemeal manner without also adopting that foundation is a challenge Western Civilization is only now beginning to face for the first time. How radically Western Civilization will be altered, whether its products can survive outside of their natural habitat and without the food sources they have hitherto depended upon, and, indeed, whether Western Civilization can survive these upheavals at all are yet to be seen. Until that time, Western Civilization remains what it has been since its inception two thousand years ago in the incipient stage of that great synthesis of Judaism and Greece; it is Christendom.


1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

11 Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 23.

12 Stromberg, 32.

13 Galileo, The Assayer.

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