On the Question of Christianity as a Pillar of Western Civilization

This a piece I wrote for Eidos at the request of John Mark Reynolds rebutting the often heard claim that the West grew from the two pillars of Athens and Jerusalem. I contend that Christianity was a foreign graft onto the healthy body of Greek Civilization, and went through stages of malignancy and rejection.

I reject the claim that the west was founded on the two pillars of Greece and Jerusalem, but rather stems directly from the single source beginning with Thales of Miletus around 500 BC and developed for the next 700 years through classical Greece and Rome, at which time a strange Asian religion was grafted onto it. When I ask Christians what of value in our beliefs today would we not have developed on the basis of our Greek heritage alone, they usually offer up dignity of the individual or democracy, or other concepts that clearly either date back to Ancient Greece or Enlightenment rationalism. When they switch to the more tenable province of the arts, I have to admit an influence. But through the arts we can also see how this graft clung firmly for centuries and appropriated all forms of art to its own purpose, the process of rejection taking place up through the enlightenment when the graft finally failed, and Nietzsche’s announcement some decades later that God had been killed by those rationalists.

I can appreciate La Cathedrale de Chartres, Bach and other authentic works of the Christian era because they presence a holiness in Being that always transcends the local religion. I can say the same for great Islamic works, such as authentic carpets and mosques. They all point to Being, but in the local dialect. Christianity’s influence on Western art began in the early Middle Ages, started to wane with Renaissance Humanism, and moved to the fringes with the Enlightenment –  a long process of rejection. The late Middle Ages, dominated by the Church, showed their greatest poets in feverish nightmares of Hell and its various tortures; but with the Renaissance the vision turns to the universe and man’s place within. With Shakespeare, of whom it is often said he was certainly a catholic… or a pagan or an atheist, attention no longer centers on God, but rather on this nature of man and his measure of the world. Music clung to its religious tradition a bit longer, and we see Bach in the 17th century creating music for the glory of god through the Lutheran prism. His music is both profound and limited; within tight bounds there is an authentic passion, but also an imposed fussiness – the well-tempered constraint of dogma. Contrast that to Beethoven, whose former teacher, Haydn, attested to his atheism, while others described him as at most Deist or a Spinozan pantheist.

Beethoven’s work combines the great power of clashing galaxies, the lightness of the stars, and slow and uniquely profound passages with slightly discordant and disturbing bass lines that give hint of the chaos on which our brave foundation rests. His work is the most profound and fully cosmic experience of Being yet produced and signals the final emancipation of art from the strictures of religion. It’s direct experience of the scope, depth, and mystery of Being contains more authentic wisdom than Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity – something no earlier work of art saddled with religious dogma ever achieved.

Epilogue

But the world has since turned desolate, you might add. True enough. In section 125 of the Gay Science Nietzsche, through The Madman, announces the murder of God and the ensuing vertigo that yet today afflicts us:

“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren’t we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren’t we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it become colder? Isn’t more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s putrefaction? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives — who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games will we need to invent? Isn’t the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?”

We have yet to reorient ourselves and find a truer path to the grounding of Being. As Heidegger described our desolate time:

The twilight of the gods is past, and in this dark midnight we search for the poem of Being. As for me? I’m chilling and laughing at the edge of the universe, where space and time escaped through the vanishing point; laughing and dancing with those crazy quarks and bosons. You never know what they’ll do next! And while you’re here, look over the edge! Don’t be afraid – I promise you’ll laugh too. There is no hell full of tortured souls down there after all.

Wir kommen für die Götter zu spät und zu früh für das Sein, dessen angefangenes Gedicht ist der Mensch.

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