The Christian Influence in Western Society

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Ask yourself why people from all over the world flock to the West.  They do so because they recognize at least subconsciously the inherent greatness of the Western Civilization over their own ethnic, cultural and religious traditions.  If all societies were equal there would not exist any advantage in immigrating to a Western nation.  If we took a look at all the independent states one cannot but conclude that the most successful states are exclusively western in culture and origin (Japan and China excluded as they remain a special cases).  This is not a mere accident, but a function of certain factors which propelled the West to the forefront of human civilization.  Central to all these factors was the unity in religion.

For a millennia before the Reformation all nations in the West were united under a single religious banner.  Catholicism was not imposed on the West but became a uniting factor in providing an ethical framework for both public and private interactions.  While the West was divided into many nation states, this underlying common ethical unity provided for a stable society which could prosper.  Though the Reformation was a time of religious and political upheaval, there was a common recognition by all factions that this ethical framework should be conserved.

A common secular misconception is that Christianity was an impediment to gaining knowledge.  Universities such as Bologna, The Sorbonne, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Cologne, Salamanca, Naples and Padua were Christian institutions tasked with educating and training the clergy and bureaucrats.  These institutions were staffed by the clergy and served as centers which disseminated knowledge and ideas.  Without these religious institutions the West would have languished in ignorance.

Furthermore, the Church provided a precedence based legal framework for interaction and conflict resolution.  This legal framework, Roman Law, was accessible to all persons in Christendom through the offices of the ordinaries.  All cases heard in these courts were compiled and distributed to all Roman Law courts so as to provide uniformity in rulings and judgments.  The Roman Courts even had their own appellate process and was a fully fledged legal system.

All Western legal systems are based today on this Roman Law.  For example the English took the Roman Court rulings in England as the basis for Common Law.  This continuity of legal tradition provided a certain legal stability and uniformity of laws governing human relations and interactions.  Even Protestants in Europe recognized the advantages Roman Law and adopted it for their own benefit.  This legal uniformity provided people the confidence necessary to undertake contracts and engage in business.

Much has been said about the West’s Hellenic tradition.  Here too, there is a great misconception spurred on by secularists and anti-clericalists.  In reality the Hellenic tradition lay dead or dying for a thousand years of Western history.  While it is true that Platonism influenced early Church Fathers such as St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius it had but a minimal philosophical influence on Christian culture as stoicism held sway.  The Hellenic revival was solely the work of the scholastic churchmen such as St. Anselm, St. Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon and Peter Lombard.  Radical Aristotleanism continues to be the officially recognized philosophy of the Catholic Church.  The works of the ancient Hellenics would be all for naught if it were not for these Churchmen’s rediscovery of Hellenic thought and incorporation of these ideas into the Christian philosophical and theological expositions.

Without doubt the greatest achievement by the Western Civilization was its acceptance of reason.  Here again the scholastics, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, played a important role in showing that true reason and true faith could never contradict one another, and that any perception of an apparent discrepancy lay in the inadequacy of knowledge regarding the given subject.  This sentiment was expressed by Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger in his lecture on metaphysics and epistemology at the University of Regensburg when he stated that inter-religious dialogue can take place only once reason is accepted and violence is renounced.

The greatest patrons of the fine Arts were undoubtedly the Church’s hierarchy.  The Church did not act an idle spectator but actively promoted and sponsored art and music.  The Vatican remains perhaps the greatest museum of art in the Western world featuring art commissioned exclusively for it by some of the greatest artists such as de Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and many others.  Baroque and classical musicians were often commissioned or sponsored by church officials to create music or as Kapellmeister by churches.  It is no wonder that Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart, Hayden, von Dittersdrof, and Biber produced sacred music for their patrons.

Christianity created and influenced the development of the Western Civilization.  There has been a continuous and sustained Christian influence on Western Civilization.  Because of the organic nature of this contribution there can be no clear distinction between Western Secular thought and Western Christianity. 

Socialists, secularists, positivists, post-modernists, neo-liberals and anti-clericalists disdain this religious tradition and want to recreate a society more to their own liking and in accordance to their own alien philosophies.  These ideologies require a break with our Western tradition.  As such these ideologies do not respect on the organic nature of our civilization therefore are revolutionary in their aims.  It would be a grave mistake to attempt to divest the Western Civilization of its Christian origins.  As conservatives we must acknowledge that conserving our Western Civilization also means recognizing and encouraging the contributions of our Christian heritage to our civilization.

While it is true that the West today is a secular and pluralistic society one must respect this underlying Christian origin of our society and its traditions and customs.  There is no better day to celebrate our Western Christian heritage than at Christmastime.  After all, it is on this day that we commemorate the birth of Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ.

Peter Gnanapragasam
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