Western Civilization is Not Christian: A Foot in Both Worlds

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 1:39 AM

The Apostle John warned us the world would naturally hate us. It should then be no surprise that, as I have argued in my previous columns, the West’s way of looking at things might be less than ideal for understanding God and his will for us.

We should not say Semitic culture contains no flaws, only that it is radically different. While rooted in the field of Semitic culture, Christianity rises far above that ground. With the Jews themselves having left behind true Semitic culture, they were no longer in any position to bridge the gap until they had stripped away two or three centuries of Hellenism. Every other culture would be even more remote from the Truth. We who seek this deeper understanding of Christ are the ultimate aliens, yet the best friends the world has ever known. At times our love itself excites their hatred. Our goodness draws their judgment. We actively seek to confront all men with the Truth. We don't belong in this world, but we struggle to wrest it back from the Enemy.

The ways of the West have brought the greatest prosperity to the world, yet impoverished itself spiritually. Western ideals of democratic government remain eternally broken on the crags of fallen human nature. Individual freedom becomes license, and safety becomes oppression. The customs of human interaction become objectified and simplified, and the rules have driven out genuine love. Time is marked precisely and life seems shorter, even as medicine extends its years. All knowledge has been collected and cataloged, much new is added by the moment, yet Westerners are encouraged to specialize more narrowly so that nobody really knows much of anything. We measure and count everything, yet almost nothing we do with it counts.

In the midst of this madness, we are called to stop from time to time, and simply know the Lord. How many of us are able to naturally direct our minds in focused prayer for more than a few moments? We are conditioned to avoid intimacy, to avoid just being near someone in the silence of love. Does a minute without chatter among friends make us uncomfortable? Can we comprehend following a leader around, simply absorbing his ways without asking a bunch of questions? Can we sit and watch children struggle to get themselves ready to go somewhere without becoming impatient and helping them, denying them that moment of growth? Can we ever think of time without measuring it, placing a dollar value on it? Do we make room for honoring the faith of nobodies? Can we take up the office of leadership as a mandate to work harder than others, sacrifice more, and gain less praise?
The West is not a direct result of true Christian faith. To remain Western is to pull up short of the Kingdom. We have so very far to go.

Take a look at some examples of ancient Semitic thought. I am by no means an expert in cultural philosophy. This is nothing more than an overview of one historian who spent a lot of time looking at Semitic History. From behavior and writings we can deduce a bit about cultural substrata, and offer some discussion giving at least the flavor of the ancient Hebrew mind.

What we can discern might be narrowed down to one primary difference, as a starting place, with modern Western thought: The role of the subconscious. This shows up most visibly in learning style. It's common knowledge that Eastern thought is more deductive than inductive. Truth is revealed from above, not built up from below. One learns by absorbing revelation. Revelation is far more than propositional statements. It more often comes as an image within a context. Indeed, for the Hebrew mind, context is everything. Hebrew language is more a collection of symbols and images than a vehicle for passing information. It's a mistake to discount this as communication essentially by emotion. There is, indeed, a good bit of emotion, but it's more for the sake of drama than brutish gut reactions. The objective is to impart a message that requires one to sit down and ponder.

Such contemplation is the primary learning activity. There is a recognition that we cannot see well below the line of conscious mental activity. Even Western science recognizes the mind is not only mostly subconscious, but some of the best work is done below that line. The Hebrew language is primarily oral, and only secondarily written. Thus, we hear the spoken message today, and perhaps read it for reinforcement. Then we go about our normal business while letting that message echo in the mind, and gestate in the subconscious. When possible, we would simply sit and let the message replay in our minds repeatedly, perhaps associating it with other, similar messages. Even Westerners know that dreams often reveal to us the content of the subconscious. For a Semite, dreams are the place where God may light the fire of revelation from fuel previously delivered while awake. We would assume that at some point, we come to a working conclusion what changes are demanded of us. We would also assume other aspects of that message will eventually come forth into conscious thought. Only in our old age, after a lifetime of hearing and considering, could we claim to really understand much. Meanwhile, we would expect subtle mental associations and recognitions that are at first difficult to formulate. Rather, we perceive it in half-shadow. This is what many Westerners mistake for simple emotive response. The half-shadowy realizations are the way God works, whispering in our mind's ear subtle ideas.

To the Western mind, the Semitic God is somewhat capricious. For the Semite, it's a matter that God reserves all prerogatives. Accepting that we never really do come to the end of understanding leaves room for God to act in ways wholly unexpected and wholly incomprehensible. We may well be close confidants in the Court of Heaven, but a Lord would be silly to trust all His secrets to any one servant. Servants inevitably fail, and so there must be an alternate route to getting the business done. That Our Lord is unfailing in Himself would lead us to expect a business so complex and all encompassing, we are blessed just to have one little part in it. We are included by His grace, not by our virtue. Thus, knowing intimately the design and content of our hearts and minds, He wisely reveals what we need when the time is right. Time is not measured precisely, and events are not scheduled by the ticking of the clock. They are scheduled to follow preceding events, whenever that may be. If some trusted servant fails to respond and carry out his duty at the appropriate place in sequence, there must be a way to move ahead without his contribution. Naturally, that involves calling on some other servants without warning. That these servants may be wrapped up in other affairs is their own fault. Their number one priority is to serve the Master at His call, at His time. Convenience is solely His possession.

That's not to say a major undertaking is pursued without planning. If we know from experience it takes three days to walk from this place to that, we prepare accordingly. If there's not enough road-ready food on hand, we prepare to do without. The Lord may well have prepared for that on our behalf, but if not, we assume He has strengthened us to bear the discomfort. He knows our pleasure, of course, but will have very good reasons for denying us our pleasure. We should hardly dare to ask what those reasons are, but just take the pain as part of our due service. Westerners call this “fatalism,” with the implication it's not a reasonable way to operate. This is a mis-characterization. A Semite will war against apparent fate if he is certain fighting is the will of God, but seldom for the sake of his own comfort. Comfort is a gift of grace, not our just deserts, and certainly not a right. One's place in the world may be subject to improvement by persistent effort, but only if God grants it. The effort must be incident with duties.

Laws were expressed in terms of the ruler's character. It was assumed the laws were in the people's best interests. The broad generalities were fairly static, not subject to review. Some examples of the law's application always came with the publication of them. Every lord issuing laws knew to prepare for court hearings in cases with no obvious application, or when provisions seemed to conflict. Rulings were recorded, not to provide a static precedent, but to offer evidence of the lawgiver's character. Similar cases might be ruled differently because of nuances in context, which certainly included the individuals involved. Wisdom was insight into the lord's character, as expressed in the ability to rule on some cases as the lawgiver would rule. A judge was promoted on how few rulings were overturned on appeal to a higher court, especially in cases reviewed by the Lawgiver. This was associated with the wisdom of grasping human motives, less from their words and more from their actions. To accurately predict what individuals and groups would do under varying circumstances was regarded as wisdom. Obviously this requires minimizing wishful thinking. Wisdom also assumes you see things through the revealed moral implications, not mere pragmatism. Naturally, such prescience would put you at an advantage in dealing with your fellow humans. Whatever circumstances arose, you would be ready to act appropriately, or wisely. A servant who wisely anticipated his master's requirements was beloved, highly valued. It should be obvious this was as much the result of willingness as wisdom. A demonstrated desire to obey and please was the foundation of such wisdom.

Everyone served someone. Only God has no superior. The concept of the loner was that of an outlaw, a sinner rejected and barely allowed to live. While there was a place for the individual hero who saved the day, it was assumed he would arise from his own people at God's behest. There was no glory for the individual virtuoso apart from community. Heroes and experts were gifts of God to the community. Virtuoso talent existed only as a gift of God to guide others. There was an assumption of balance between the individual and community. The only good loner was the prophet who stood for God against the sinning masses. Even then, he was inevitably called to serve God by serving the community. It was assumed others would aspire to his high calling and join him. While great works were ascribed to great men in the community, it was quite rare for great men to do the work themselves. Almost no one went about their calling individually, but would have at least one servant or apprentice at his side. The warrior had his young shield-bearer, the prophet had his servant, as did every nobleman. Thus, any number of people might represent a great man, and would be treated as the man himself in many ways. It was said such a representative was going in his master's name. Delegation was a basic assumption of life. One gained glory most from sharing in that of another.

We conclude, then, with a contrast between the two cultures on two fundamental concepts, love and belief. In Western lore, romantic love is completely irrational and cannot be tamed. It follows its own whims and is proper justification for all manner of devotional behavior. On the other hand, belief is chosen, but may also be irrational. True convictions are viewed as intransigence in resisting reason. To the Hebrew mind, things are just the opposite. Love is a conscious choice, and romantic attachment is the natural result of marrying appropriately. Yet religious conviction is ordained by God. It is based on revelation coming down from God, established long before the believer was born. In covenant with God, revelation is brought to life in the believer's heart, and grips the soul eternally. The content of conviction may expand, but is not subject to change from human forces. It is ruled by God; it is intransigence to resist commitment to Him.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.

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Re: Western Civilization is Not Christian: A Foot in Both Worlds

Very good article…. (all 3!)

Do you have any articles that refer to:

bring them Jesus, not your culture……

specifically with reference to missionaries going around the world and making tribal people look like westerners….

thank you and GOD bless!

Posted by Laura ALLAIS-MARE - Sep 03, 2010 | 9:44 AM

Re: Western Civilization is Not Christian: A Foot in Both Worlds

Laura, I came to these convictions only within the past decade. I find myself so much a missionary in my own land, I haven't had much time to seek out non-Western Christian mission organizations. I am aware they exist, but don't know enough to write about them.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Sep 05, 2010 | 8:22 PM

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