Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A major cultural debt

The prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who is an atheist, has acknowledged that "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."

At first sight this claim seems counterintuitive, if not downright bizarre. Weren’t liberty, human rights, and democracy--to name just three--achieved essentially by OVERCOMING Christianity?

Is Habermas just pulling our leg? I don’t think so, for if there is anything that uniformly characterizes the German thinker’s longwinded books it is the absence of humor. Still, he is a smart guy. Assuming that Habermas has been quoted correctly, what could he possibly have been thinking?

Some distinctions are needed at the outset. I believe that Habermas means what used to be termed Christendom. That is, the reference is not primarily to the faith of the New Testament; in my view, and as I have tried to show in previous postings, that is simply the manifestation of a wayward Jewish sect. Only one factor noted, conscience--especially as a nagging, corrosive presence--can be ascribed to that source, as seen in the writings of Paul. By and large, though "Primitive Chritianity" is not in question: that is why a reference to the Council of Nicaea is unhelpful.

It is also important to exclude, by and large, Eastern Orthodox Christianity. That branch of the faith disembogued in the autocracy of the Third Rome in Moscow.

As I see it, what Habermas is talking about is the achievement of a quarreling lot of peoples clinging to the extreme Western edge of the Eurasian land mass during the period that is still misleadingly termed, by some at least, the Dark Ages.

The first component is demographic. The invading hordes who brought down the crumbling Western Roman Empire triggered a period of complex ethnic negotiation and amalgamation. This process led to the emergence of the competing nation states of France, England, Spain, and the rest. As in ancient Greece and China, political pluralism fostered healthy competition and divergence of views.

In addition to the incipient nation states there was the power of the papacy. The papacy as an agent of democracy? What a grotesque notion! Not so, for during the High Middle Ages the papacy was locked in a battle for supremacy with the Holy Roman Empire, a struggle sometimes known as the Investiture Contest. Most Europeans know about one key episode in this struggle, when Emperor Henry IV, ostensibly the all-powerful ruler of the West, was compelled to go to the castle of Canossa in 1077 to beg forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII. In the end, however, the dispute between the emperor and the pope was a draw--each power was to exist in its own sphere This is the origin of our modern doctrine of separation of church and state, which has no counterpart in the ancient world--or for that matter in Islam.

Medieval Christianity contributed to democracy in other ways. One was the custom of the monastic orders electing representatives to attend a kind of summit meeting in Rome. From this custom arose the idea of representative government as found in the “estates” or parliaments of various countries. As we know it, representative democracy differs from the participatory democracy of the ancient Greek city states because it is not necessary for the citizens to assemble in person--we send a representative instead.

Gradually these representative institutions became strong enough to challenge the power of the monarch. The parliaments excersised their prerogative by requiring that the king obtain their approval before appropriating money. This tradition survives in our own practice (not always carefully observed) of assigning the details of the budget to the Congress.

The nobility also played a part in resisting the arbitrariness of royal rule. The most famous incident of this kind is Magna Carta, which the barons extracted from King John at Runnymede in 1215. Although the Great Charter originally only protected the rights of the aristocracy, the monarchy had been brought to the edge of a slippery slope that led to fundamental guarantees of rights to all citizens. Of course, traces of the old language still remain, as when Britons speak of “the crown” (that is, the government) and being an “English subject.” Everyone knows, however, that Queen Elizabeth reigns, but does not rule.

Moreover, from their customary law traditions Western European Christianity evolved a unique concept of the rule of law. To early Germanic rulers was ascribed not the practice of making law but of finding it. In this “supreme fiction” the law was regarded as a stable, preexisting entity, and not just a kind of silly putty to be reshaped as any powerful person saw fit. By contrast, Roman emperors could modify the law by decree whenever they wished.

These are just a few examples of the way our liberties owe a debt to medieval Christianity. Many others could be cited.

There were also major contributions to literature, the arts, and the natural sciences. Let me cite just one example from each. Rhymed poetry began among the so-called barbarian peoples of early medieval Europe, replacing the quantitative poetry of Greece and Rome. The technique of oil painting emerged about 1300 in Northwest Europe, to be perfected later by the Van Eycks and their successors. About the same time, eyeglasses appeared in Venice. The principle of modifying sight by the intervention of a vitreous medium was the essential forerunner of the microscope and telescope. Without eyeglasses there would be no Galileo and no modern astronomy.

Today, in the view of many observers, Western Europe finds itself adrift in the face of determined adversaries within its gates. Europeans seem to have no core values. In fact they do. But acknowledging these strengths means discarding, once and for all, the historical amnesia that an insouciant secularism has brought in its wake.



Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

What a provoking post! What you are describing is a complex historical process, little of which owes anything to the doctrines and core of Christianity. That the popes sought temporal power and eventually lost it, that the church sponsored sumptuous art, that nation states arose out of the wreckage of ancient Rome and its Christianized shadow, eyeglasses (?) ... we may owe all this to Christian Europeans, but to Christianity? Far from. I doubt democracy was unknown in the ancient barbaric tribes.

Perhaps it might be better to say that the convoluted-ness of the Christian scripture and its beneficial obfuscation in the Latin language freed later Christians to a large degree to reconstruct European culture in an endogenous way, not overly beholden to Rome or Judaism, but encompassing much of the Germanic heritage as well. Diversity is a good thing, I'd agree.

The one thing I would give Christianity explicit credit for is concern for the individual- a nascent concept of human rights and human worth, however frequently belied by its own communitarian projects and warped psychology.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Hegel said that early Christianity could not attain its true character because it was fettered by the pagan environment. It was only when Christianity was projected onto a tabula rasa, viz. the untutored Germanic peoples that it came into its own. That was his explanation of why, say, the Gothic cathedrals did not arise in the Middle Ages and not in antiquity.

Of course there is no such thing as "true character," that is essentialism. Perhaps one could say that the neo-Christianity that is a collaboration of the Romance and Germanic peoples is the key. (But then why didn't contact with the untutored Slavs have the same effect?)

Several historians of technology have pointed to the Bible as enabler, particularly the notion starting in Genesis that humanity shall have dominion over the created world.

Much of later antiquity was dominated by Stoicism with its belief in living in accord with nature. This precept doesn't give much of a boost to technology. Here is where eyeglasses come in. They are preeminently an "unnatural" prothesis. And ultimately the optical principle offered a kind of domination of nature by being able to spy on it, from the rings of Saturn to the tiniest microbes.

Of course there were important technological advances in East Asia; we need only mention printing, the compass, and gun powder.

Where Europe is concerned, though, Habermas would seem to be right.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

PS Of course it should be "the Gothic cathedrals arose in the Middle Ages." Too many nots produces overnegativity.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose the Council of Nicea in 325, convened and presided over by Constantine, could be considered a "democratic" impetus in Christianity. Nevermind the 300 bishops hand-picked by the emperor to do his bidding vote his way on things.

I suppose it was the Reformation and the quarrels over biblical interpretation that lead to liberalism, the Enlightenment, and David Hume and Adam Smith. I suppose it was the Ango-Catholic Wars and suppression of religious freedom that burst asunder all oppression, and thus we owe the Church of England our taxes and support so the Monarch has a place for coronations. And all those Benedictine Abbeys and buries confiscated by Henry VIII, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth breathed religious freedom and tolerance into humankind.

This Habermas analysis is among the most outrageous observations I seen you repeat. I agree he is serious. The question is, Are you?

11:50 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

You are out of your depth, TGS. Just reciting the old conventional wisdom doesn't make the cut.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

Nor does it make the cut to cite what Hegel said about Christianity attaining something termed its "true character".

I would suggest that Gibbon was far better historian than Hegel. And that there is no true character to Christianity at all. Paul made it his own, as did the church fathers after him, and the medieval popes after them. Doctrines were reversed, then reversed back, over time- witness what happened to Paul's writings in the early days, and again today. We didn't get to where we are by staying in the same place. Or by paying terribly much attention to what our predecessors wanted us to do.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...


5:30 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Just to summarize. Separation of church and state, representative government, individual rights, rule of law--all were bequeathed to us by the Middle Ages. To say otherwise, insouciantly transposing these achievements to the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, is to subscribe to the antiquated Whig Theory of History. That has been exploded long ago.

The specific facts of history as they have been ascertained will always be victorious over myths--of whatever origin.

Biblical interpretation is irrelevant to this discussion, and rightly ignored by Habermas. And what I wonder are the "Anglo-Catholic wars"? When did they occur?

8:08 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

Right, and during the Middle ages in Europe, one had to be Christian, under pain of death, so presto... Christianity bequeathed us everything good.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Now you're catching on : - ).

Every epoch--think only of our own--has good features and bad features. As several generations of historians have shown, this mix is as true of the Middle Ages as any other.

I think there is general agreement that my series on the Abrahamic religions, begun two years ago, has been hard-hittting and unflinching. There is much that is noxious about Christianity in particular. I have not hesitated to say so. But one must be fair.

In fact, I began by reading Dawkins, Harris, and HItchens. I found their approach distinctly unsubtle--and often cavalierly inaccurate when it came to historical facts. To put it bluntly these writers are just too lazy to do the real work that would be required to sustain their theses.

I have tried to chart a middle course between simplistic religion-bashing and naive defences like Armstrong's. It is now time, I think, to look at the historical realities. They are not UNIFORMLY unfavorable to religion--as Hitchens absurdly claims.

2:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are certainly welcome to refute your scathing attack on Karen Armstrong by defending Habermas' identical claims.

So "art does justify" Christianity, just as Armstrong and Habermas insist. Chartes, Saint Peter's, the Divine Comedy, Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles, and the illustrated Book of Hours justifies the Reign of Terror described by Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization, justifies the imprisonment of women in monasteries, justifies the institution of 400 years of slavery, the house arrest of Galileo, the condemnation of condoms to prevents AIDS, because it gave us beautiful art.


12:26 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Art, as covered in Medmod, is but a lesser component of the debt of Western Civilization to the so-called Middle Ages. In the posting, I addresed mainly institutions, concepts, and technology. All of these merit further exploration.

As I indicated, every historical epoch has good and bad features. For the present I am concentrating on the former, because they help us to understand who we are.

Habermas is a serious thinker, and not to be identified with the vacuous Armstrong.

Watch out TGS, you too may merit house arrest!

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not into bondage and discipline, but many medieval monks were into "self-flagilation." I guess that is less toxic than the Roman Emperors and their murder and mayhem of their lovers. It might conceivably have given rise to the Marquis de Sade.

Now, YOU are claiming that the DARK AGES and the HIGH MIDDLE AGES should all be regarded as contributing to human liberty, institutions, and the advancement of civilization. Are you seriously claiming Gregory of Tours, Boethius, Gregory the Great, and Leo the Great, not to mention Beowulf, Song of Roland, Augustine of Canterbury, and John of Salisbury are more "civilized" than the ancient Greeks and Egyptians?

Now, I, too, admire Gothic architecture, but the Gothic arch, as you well know, came to Europe through the Moors in Spain, as did the reinvigoration of Aristotle and the philosophy of language in William of Occam, and nothing in Thomas Aquinas, for all his metaphysical speculation on the nine hierarchies of angels, much less his confused "Natural Law Theory," distorting Aristotle, advanced human civilization one iota from Ancient Greece, except for its Hebraic content.

Even the great poet Dante, looked back to Virgil, to describe his three afterlife states of purgatory, hell, and paradise. Even by Shakespeare's and Milton's time, the "new" Renaissance rejected the Scholasticism of the Moors, the Gothic Cathedrals, the Book of Hours, and what Emile Male in The Gothic Image found more trinities and superstition than today's Evangelicals.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In EVERY single case of Habermas' citations, the REACTION to Christianity's tyranny is self-evident, dating to the Magna Carta and the Church's appointment of kings. The Renaissance -- which liberated itself fully from the tyranny -- still had to pay fealty to Pope, Monarch -- having abolished the sovereignty of the Abbot and his Benedictine buries, or else convert to a new Christianity called Anglicanism, Calvinism, or Lutheranism.

Yes, Palestrina and Allegri devised wonderful music from Pope Gregory's elementary Gregorian Chant, Bach wrote his masterpiece the "B-Minor Mass" as a Lutheran using the Roman liturgy, and Mozart found time to write a requiem and missa brevis (believing it all "art" not theology), while Beethoven found a new lyric, the Ode to Joy (despite his three Masses the Court required). Even Berlioz composed religious music to satisfy the Romish emperor, while in Britain all sacred music after Byrd and Taverner evaporated until Parry, Elgar, and Stanford wrote Anthems Queen Victoria could be crowned by her Archbishop of Canterbury (while all Roman Catholics and Puritans could be slain by HRH as did the Pope and his Legionaires of Pedophile Priests).

And you seriously think these "history, institutions, and traditions" contributed to civilization? I'll be the first one to admit the contribution of Benedictine Monasteries after the Fall of Rome, but such tyrannical institutions persevered until the Reformation, where the Abbot ruled supreme (even over the Pope). The High Middle Ages were "high" only because they looked "beyond" the Church, beyond the tyranny, and helped to foment the Protestant Reformation, Sir Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and other "free-thinkers" of the Enlightenment.

While "faggots burned at the stake," while the Counter-Reformation gave us Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, an enlightened scientist, like others, was "under house arrest" for his free-thinking. At least he did not endure the Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth "freedoms" that birthed Anglican tyranny in Britain.

Whoever else claimed it, the truth has always been that EVERY freedom, every free-thought, every change came from CHALLENGING the AUTHORITIES of the medievals, beginning with the Magna Carta, the 1054 Schism, Thomas Aquinas, William of Occam, and Dante. By then the High Middle Ages had already seeded the future of the Renaissance and Reformation by incorporating ANCIENT thinking into their times, and LOOKING BACK to Antiquity, Humankind found its natural endowment to question tyranny and oppression, as they worshiped in Cathedrals they did not built, offered homage to gods they did not believe, and proffered obeisance to popes they detested.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

In this witches brew all sorts of phenomena and periods are jumbled together. It would take several volumes to deal with all the misapprehensions and allegations proffered therein. Obviously, I will not attempt this task now. As an architectural historian, however, I can say defiinitively that Gothic architecture has nothing to do with the Middle East. A dense array of monuments demonstrates that the pointed arch, the rib vault and other hallmarks of the Gothic originated in northern France in the second quarter of the 12th century. There was no "Saracenic influence." See, for example, the two monographs of the late Paul Frankl.

OF COURSE the Middle Ages was indebted to Greece and Rome--just as we are indebted to the Middle Ages. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

5:11 PM  

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