I have argued elsewhere that Christianity was instrumental in the rise of the West. Progress in law, economics, science and society have largely been based on Christian foundations. Sociologist Rodney Stark is just one of many experts who have made these sorts of connections.
But is such progress necessarily a good thing? One blogger wrote a comment to a recent article of mine, asking this question, and I told him it deserves a longer response. Thus this post, in which I offer some general observations to issues raised in his comment. (The article and his comment can be seen here: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/17/christianity-reason-and-the-rise-of-the-west/ )
One of the issues the blogger rightly and incisively raises is whether material and economic progress are goods in themselves, or need to be welded to moral considerations. Are rising standards of living necessarily a good thing? Are improvements in living conditions always morally and spiritually beneficial?
I think the answer to these sorts of questions is yes and no. Surely for people who are used to no running water, no regular food supplies, no electricity, and so on, the introduction of those things would be seen as a very good thing indeed. They would be seen as a tremendous blessing and answer to prayer. Eradicating poverty, want and deprivation seem to be good ends in themselves, and one can certainly find Christian warrant for them.
There is nothing virtuous per se in living in extreme want. Of course some believers may choose to live a life of self-denial and hardship. But that is another matter. It is incumbent upon Christians to seek to help relieve the debilitating and impoverishing conditions that people find themselves living in.
At its most basic level this simply means fulfilling Christ’s word when he spoke about the importance of giving someone a cup of cold water (Matt. 10:42). And James could say that true religion is visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27).
So in a sense to perform acts of charity, to seek to raise the standard of living, to help those in distress needs no justification. It is a natural out flowing of the Christian life. It is part of being salt and light in a needy world.
And in one sense material plenty is better than material want. To work toward a basic standard of living is a good thing, although what that standard is may be a moot point. To an extent there is nothing necessarily spiritual or virtuous about poverty, hardship and destitution. Of course some believers throughout the centuries have sought to make such conditions marks of spirituality and holiness, but we have no clear biblical admonition to do that. Instead, we are encouraged to be content with what we have (Phil. 4:11; I Tim. 6:9; Heb. 13:5).
However such appeals to contentment should not be read as total prohibitions on bettering our condition. There is a place for material advancement and wealth creation. As is often the case, a fine balance is required here to satisfy the constraints of the biblical data.
Having said that, material plenty can also be a curse. It can send leanness to the soul. This has been true of both individuals and nations. Scarcity and difficulty tend to keep people on their knees, helping them to pay more attention to their souls and the world to come.
But when people find themselves in the midst of material wealth and heaps of consumer goods, this can come at the expense of spiritual matters, and drown religious concerns out altogether. There is always a danger with wealth, and Scripture had plenty of warnings about riches and the concerns about this world.
So wealth and development come as a mixed blessing. They are not ends in themselves, perhaps, but are a blessing from God, if set in proper perspective.
Progress and its Discontents
A related issue my blogger raises is the whole notion of progress. How does one define it? Can there be too much progress? Is progress morally neutral? This is not the place for a lengthy discussion on the concept of progress, but a few brief observations can be made.
From a biblical point of view, progress in general is a good thing. The so-called dominion or cultural mandate of Genesis 1:27-28 would have us to civilise the world we have been given. Thus the biblical direction is from a garden to a city, as distasteful as that might be to some greenies. Indeed, it seems our final resting place will not be some pastoral scene but a city, as the book of Revelation insists. Thus turning the wilderness into habitable spaces is part of our biblical calling.
Another point worth observing is that many of the critics of capitalism and Western progress are quite happy to make their denunciations while enjoying the benefits of what they despise. Their protests and critiques usually are made with the assistance of Western technology and consumer goods. Thus they write their attacks on the West using the latest laptop computers. They encourage each other to attend protest rallies using the latest mobile phone technology. And they are happy to fly around the world in 747s to attend rallies decrying the baneful effects of Western progress.
For all its mistakes and shortcomings, Western progress is in large measure something to be thankful for. But, as my blogger points out, there have certainly been costs involved with progress. There has been exploitation, violence and coercion associated with development and progress. And it is to be regretted when such oppression and dehumanisation has taken place. But two things can be said about this.
One, I have written elsewhere about the downside of an open-slather approach to science, technology and progress. The idea that we should do something simply because we can do something needs to be rejected. Much technological progress is too dehumanising and depersonalising. Many of the new biotechnologies come to mind here. The works of Leon Kass and others should be consulted in this regard. See for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2002/10/27/32/
The same can be said about material and economic progress. More is not always better. Wealth creation is biblically mandated, but how we use that wealth and what attitude we have toward our riches are important biblical concerns. In this light, much of the so-called prosperity gospel needs to be challenged here.
Two, while there has been a downside to Western development and progress, I reject the simplistic notion of Marxism, especially Lenin, that Western capitalism is by its very nature exploitative and rapacious. Lenin’s idea that the West has only developed at the expense of the developing world is simply nonsensical. The evidence is not there for such generalisations. That is not to argue however that at times Western companies and transnationals have not been involved in unjust and exploitative behaviours and activities. But the claim that the West is wealthy because it simply has ripped off the developing world just does not stand up to close scrutiny.
A final point my blogger makes is the fact that other religions have also contributed to progress and development. Yes and no would be my reply here. Some religions, like Judaism have made many contributions to the civilised world. Others have been much less involved in Western progress. As Stark and others have demonstrated, only those religions that have had a place for reason and logic have had a real impact on science, progress and technology. The Judeo-Christian worldview certainly gives reason a good run.
Thus important thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead and Robert Oppenheimer – neither of them Christian – have argued that modern science could not have developed were it not for the Christian worldview that provided the soil from which it arose. The greatest achievements of Western civilisation are mainly, but not completely, the results of the Judeo-Christian mindset.
Thus Christianity especially should be given much more credit for its many achievements, and a lot less flak over its supposed flaws. Christians have done much mischief, but taken as a whole the Christian religion has contributed an enormous amount of good to the world. We can take some justifiable pride in those achievements.
These considerations do not exhaust the many issues and questions raised in this large debate. Much more can be said. But it is hoped that these reflections will add some nuance and balance to some of my previous posts, and help us as we seek to think biblically about wealth creation, progress, development and the West.