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Christianity, Western Civilization and me

22 April 2017

This is one of those “now it can be told” stories, because most of the people mentioned in it are probably dead. It’s a response to a lot of articles that I read about the impending demise of Western Civilization (or Civilisation if you prefer)

Many of these articles attribute this predicted demise of Western Civilization to loss of faith — usually the loss of Christian faith, but occasionally, as in the following example, loss of faith in Western Civilization itself: The Crisis of Western Civ – The New York Times: “Faith in the West has declined and, amazingly, people have been slow to rise to defend it.” Many or the articles complain that people in the West have lost their faith in God. This one is, I think, more honest, and is referring to loss of faith in the West itself.

The problem, from a Christian point of view, is that both attitudes are idolatrous.

The first attitude, which sees “faith” as faith in God rather than as faith in the West itself, nevertheless subordinates God to Western Civilisation. We need to revive faith in God in order to “make The West great again”. One is the means, the other is the end. It is as if the Gospel of St John said, “God so loved Western Civilization that he sent his only-begotten Son…”

The article also identifies Western civilization with modernity and liberalism, and describes illiberal regimes as “premodern” The Crisis of Western Civ – The New York Times:

…the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

The problem with that is that modernity, as we know it, begins with the Renaissance, not with ancient Egypt or ancient Greece. Modernity includes the Reformation and the Enlightenment as well as the Renaissance, but Western Civilization also includes the Middle Ages and even the so-called “Dark” Ages. You can’t just pick and choose the nice bits of history to include, and dismiss the not-so-nice bits as premodern, and therefore not included. Yes, Liberalism developed in the West, and I generally think that liberalism is a good thing. Like G.k. Chesterton, I say “As much as I ever did, more than |I ever did, I believe in liberalism, but there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” Western Civilization in its “modern” stage, encompassed liberalism, but also witchhunts and the transAtlantic slave trade.

So, if I am somewhat sceptical about modernity, let me get a bit postmodern, and say “where I am coming from”. I do not try to pretend, in “modern” fashion, that my narrative is the Voice of Science. My narrative is produced by my own history and experience. So let me say something about that. It’s not because I think that “it’s all about me”, but if I tell you how much it is about me, it will make it easier for you to judge how much is just my personal opinion and bias. And you can then reinterpret it through your bias, even if, in modernist fashion, you like to pretend that you don’t have one.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa where the dominant narrative was that only the National Party could protect White Western Christian Civilization for South Africa (and the world). At the age of 13 I consciously accepted some of the major parts of the Christian narrative (some might call this “being born again”), and after that I became increasingly aware of  the growing divergence between the Christian narrative and the National Party narrative (some might call this “cognitive dissonance”).

In the 1960s I went to study in the UK, and, somewhat to my surprise, I experienced culture shock. I had assumed that speaking the same language would be a protection against that. I became something of an African nationalist when I discovered how narrowly chauvinist some British and European views were.

In 1968 I took part in a seminar on “Orthodox Theology for non-Orthodox Theological Students, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. It consisted of a week of lectures at the WCC study centre at Bossey, Switzerland, and participation in the Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius in Paris. That stimulated my interest in Orthodoxy, and for a while I subscribed to the Eastern Churches Quarterly, from which I learned that the Orthodox Church had been in Africa since the first century, and that the Anglican Church, to which I then belonged, was a Johnny-come-lately in terms of African Christian history. The head of the Orthodox Church in Africa was the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, and the first to hold that office was St Mark. I did not learn that in any university church history course, in either the UK or South Africa. Such  courses were pretty Eurocentric.

On returning to Southern Africa, I spent the first few years in Namibia. There were no Orthodox Churches there. The Anglican bishop there, Colin Winter, invited me to go there, making it clear that the diocese had no money to pay me, but I could work there as a self-supporting deacon if I could find a secular job, and report to him on what I was doing or what I thought I could do.

I did some research into that, and discovered that a former priest of the diocese, the Revd Ron Gestwicki, an American, had worked mainly among Herero-speaking Anglicans, and had also set up a theological education scheme for clergy of the Herero-speaking independent churches, notably the Oruuano Church and the Church of Africa. When the previous bishop, Robert Mize (also an American), had been deported in 1968, the Revd Ron Gestwicki had also left, so the work he had been doing had stopped. I checked the diocesan records, and got an idea of what he had been doing, and was most impressed by it. He seemed to have done  a lot with impressive energy and devotion.

Herero Anglicans in Namibia

I wrote a report for Bishop Winter, suggesting that I should try to revive some of the work Ron Gestwicki had been doing, but not on the same scale, as if I had a secular job, I would not have as much time. But there was also something different. I had been in touch with the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, which had been asked by a group of African Independent Churches (AICs) to provide theological education for their clergy. The Revd Danie van Zyl had been appointed to oversee the project, and had developed, in consultation with the AIC leaders, and impressive syllabus. I recommended in my report that we link up with that project, and also mentioned that I thought the Christian Institute syllabus was much better than Ron Gestwicki’s one. When he read that, the bishop blew his top, and said I was denigrating the work done by Bishop Mize and Ron Gestwicki, even though that had not been my intention.

I had, however, seen the outline of Ron Gestwicki’s syllabus, and thought it most unsuitable. Quite a large part of it was teaching the history of Western Civilization, the writings of Western philosophers, and European and American history. It seemed to me that that was not Christian teaching, but Western cultural imperialism, and there were plenty of things that clergy in Namibia would need to learn before they learned those things.

The Christian Institute theological course never actually got off the ground, in spite of its good syllabus. Danie van Zyl left, and was replaced by another Western theologian, Basil Moore, who westernised Danie van Zyl’s syllabus, and then was banned. As a result of these failed experiments, I became quite interested in theological education and training for ministry, and later became involved in such things.

All this made me very aware of how “Western” and western-centric much theological education was. And the thread seems to run through Ron’ Gestwicki’s syllabus to the article that I quoted from at the beginning of this blog post. There seems to be, especially in North America, an attitude towards Western Civilizati0n that seems almost idolatrous. There have been good things in Western Civilization, but they are good because they are good, not because they are Western. Likewise there are bad thinga, but they are bad because they are bad, and not because they are Western. We should be less concerned about preserving or propagating civilizations, and more concerned about preserving the good, and reducing the influence of the bad. And if we are Christian, then the Kingdom of God is more important than anyone’s civilization, culture, nation or ethnic group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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