Is Ours a Christian Civilization?

By Callahan, Tim | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Ours a Christian Civilization?


Callahan, Tim, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


EVER SINCE 9/11 THERE HAS BEEN MUCH TALK OF A "clash of civilizations" in which ours is typically portrayed as "Christian." Is ours a Christian civilization? Yes and no. Certainly Western civilization is Christian in religion, to the degree that its members are religious. However, the question implies that the very fabric of Western civilization is Christian and that Christianity is what makes Western civilization what it is today. This is what Rodney Stark, author of One True God, asserts in his 2005 book The Victory of Reason, subtitled How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. In his preface, Dr. Stark says, comparing Christianity to other religions:

   Instead, leading religions outside the West
   called for asceticism and denounced profits,
   while wealth was exacted from peasants
   and merchants by rapacious elites
   dedicated to display and consumption.
   Why did things turn out differently in
   Europe? Because of the Christian commitment
   to rational theology--something
   that may have played a major
   role in causing the Reformation but
   that surely predated Protestantism
   by far more than a millennium. (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In point of fact, Christianity itself was, in some cases, morbidly committed to asceticism. Consider the anchorites of the early centuries of the Common Era who abhorred carnality and who practiced mortification of the flesh to achieve spirituality. The most famous of these was St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356), who, despite constant fasting and mortification of the flesh, is said to have lived to be 105. Apparently his flesh was particularly resistant to mortification. Commenting on St. Anthony and other desert anchorites in a book celebrating mysticism, John Michael Talbot points out that their antagonism toward their own bodies made their theology uneven and lopsided:

This incomplete theology led some Desert Fathers to equate self-inflicted tortures with spiritual maturity. They also mistakenly assumed that women were the cause of sexual lust, which led many communities to exclude women members. (An exception was made for an abbess named Sara who was "a woman in sex, but not in spirit"!) Jesus certainly advocated moral purity, but he never turned his back on women. And although Jesus rigorously prayed and fasted, he didn't make himself gaunt and emaciated the way the most esteemed Desert Fathers did. (2)

Not surprisingly, the longing for sex and other bodily pleasures provoked by their utter absence produced a perverse eroticism. St. Anthony stated that Satan often took the form of a woman while temping him. In his letter XXII, to Eustochium, describing his torments while fasting sackcloth, St. Jerome becomes almost sexual in his anti-sexuality. After speaking in graphic detail of his physical misery and confessing he fancied himself surrounded by the pleasures of Rome, he says:

Hermits have nothing but cold water even when they are sick, and for them it is sinful luxury to partake of cooked dishes. But though in my fear of hell I had condemned myself to this prison house where my only companions were scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself surrounded by bands of dancing girls. My face was pale with fasting; but though my limbs were cold as ice my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead. (3)

The anchorite's withdrawal from the world was certainly Christian, but it most certainly was not European. The European form of withdrawal, by and large, was into a monastic community, in which productive work and the accumulation of material wealth was the accepted norm. Considering that the anchorites of the Egyptian desert and the monks of Europe were both Christian, it seems far more likely that the "Christian commitment to rational theology" so lauded by Stark is specifically a European Christian view. …

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