Christianity is central to Western values and culture

May 31, 2015 by


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch-American dual citizen activist, writer, and politician. She is known for her views critical of female genital mutilation,

Kevin Donnelly –

As noted by American academic Samuel P. Huntington 20 years ago, the “great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural”.

One need only observe the ongoing conflict between extremist versions of Islam and Western culture to see the truth of Huntington’s observation. Given the prevalence of what he describes as “the clash of civilisations” the question that must be addressed is: what makes Western civilisation unique and what ­aspects of our culture are most worth defending?

One response argues that there is nothing unique or special about Western culture. Those committed to multiculturalism and diversity and difference suggest Western culture is made up of various influences and traditions.

Australia, for example, since 1788 has embraced immigrants from around the world, each with their own customs, habits, beliefs and way of life that are acknow­ledged and celebrated.

In its more extreme form those advocating multiculturalism adopt a relativistic stance where all cultures are considered of equal worth and those seeking to champion Western civilisation are criticised for being Eurocentric, binary, patriarchal, elitist and ­reactionary.

During the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s the radical cry on many campuses across the US was “hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go”.

The result, as detailed in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, is the death of rigorous and ­balanced academic studies in the liberal-humanist tradition.

As argued by La Trobe Uni­versity’s John Carroll in this month’s edition of Quadrant, the cultural Left’s view of Western culture is one where “art has to be shocking; values have to be deconstructed; meanings have to be exposed as rationalisations for entrenched privilege and wealth”.

A second response, as detailed by Pierre Ryckmans in his 1996 Boyer Lectures, is to argue that while particular cultures may be variegated it is important to recognise that cultures also have unique and distinctive characteristics.

Ryckmans argues that cultures are “indivisible” and that it is impossible to understand a foreign culture from a Western perspective “if you do not have a firm grasp of your own”. In relation to teaching about China, Ryckmans asks: “How can you explain the influence of Nietzsche upon Lu Xun to students who have never read ­Nietzsche?”

TS Eliot in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture also argues that while Western culture has drawn on a range of other influ­ences there are “common features” that identify the many nations that are heirs to the Western tradition, and central to Western culture is Christianity.

Eliot writes, “To our Christian heritage we owe many things beside religious faith. Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have our conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western world, through it we have our conceptions of private and public ­morality.”

While there is no doubt that philosophy, reason and the scientific method of testing truth claims traced to the Enlightenment and back further to ancient Greece have had a profound impact on Western culture it is equally true Judeo-Christianity has had a significant and enduring influence.

As argued by American academic Thomas E. Woods, “Western civilisation stands indebted to the church for the university system, charitable work, international law, the sciences, ­important legal principles and much else besides.”

The fact Western cultures still celebrate Christmas and Easter and aphorisms such as “turn the other cheek”, “let he among you without sin cast the first stone” and “render unto ­Caesar what is Caesar’s” are still in use illustrate the impact of Christianity.

Biblical commandments such as “Thou shalt not kill”, “Do not steal”, “Do not bear false witness” and “Do not commit adultery” underpin much of the Western legal system, as do concepts such as the sanctity of life and the ­importance of absolution and redemption. Murdoch University’s Augusto Zimmermann says: “The common law was heavily influenced by Christian philosophy. This philosophy argues that there is a divine reason for the existence of fun­damental laws, and that such laws are superior to human-made ­legislation.”

The evil nature of totalitarian regimes such as communism and fascism is that they are premised on the belief that man-made laws reign supreme, that power and violence instead of reason are the final arbiters and that utopia can be created on this earth.

While secular critics argue that faith and reason are antithetical to one another, it is also true Christian scholars and intellectuals have contributed in a significant way to Western culture’s intellectual heritage.

Central to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s concept of a university is the formation of a habit of mind that “lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom”. Although written more than 150 years ago, what Newman argues provides a healthy tonic to those who view education as simply about promoting productivity and economic competitiveness.

Christian philosophers such as St Thomas Aquinas, George Weigel argues in The Cube and the Cathedral, are central in providing “a bridge in European culture between the classical world and the medieval world (one that) yielded a rich, complex and deeply ­humanistic vision of the human person, human goods, human ­society and human destiny”. Central to Aquinas’s philosophy, Pope John Paul II stated in Fides et Ratio, is “the courage of the truth, a freedom of spirit in confronting new problems, the intellectual honesty of those who allow Christianity to be contaminated neither by secular philosophy nor by a prejudiced rejection of it”.

Somali-born Dutch-American activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who writes extensively on the dangers of fundamentalist forms of Islam, argued in an interview on the ABC earlier this year that to fight terrorism the West must “inculcate into the minds and hearts of young people an ideology or ideas of life, love, peace and tolerance”.

While a military response and anti-terrorism strategies are vital, equally as important is the need to defend the values Hirsi Ali refers to; values that are essential characteristics of Western, liberal ­democracies such as Australia.

Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and director of the Education Standards Institute.

Source: Christianity is central to Western values and culture | The Australian

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