Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

East vs. West: two competing views of the world?

A new book by Anthony Pagden, a British historian, is entitled Worlds at War: The 2500-Year Struggle Between East and West (Random House). It has received middling reviews, but it certainly raises central questions.

I recently finished reading From the Holy Mountain, a mesmerizing account by the estimable William Dalrymple of his months-long trek in search of the ancient Christian communities of the ancient Near (Middle) East. The overwhelming effect of the book is that of sad irony: Christianity is disappearing from the lands of its birth.

Dalrymple’s book reminded me of the essentially “eastern” beginnings of the faith and its expansion and growth in the “west.” Which Christianity is more “authentic”? From my perspective as an unrepentant child of the Reformation, the West has been essentially defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition, whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church’s withdrawal from dynamic cultural engagement in the Levant caused its gradual demise in that area and contributed to stagnation or instability in political life in those countries. This is an oversimplification, to be sure--it is not entirely fair to the Eastern Church; and the defining of the West in this way is, as everyone knows, politically incorrect to the nth degree. The American and European churches should, however, resist cultural pressures to conform to the views that produced the refusal of the European Union to acknowledge the influence of Christianity in its constitution (the Pope protested mightily in a magisterial way that Protestants cannot match). We may and we must continue to argue that Western values arose out of the dynamic, formative interaction of Christianity chiefly with Hellenistic civilization, and then with the cultures that followed. The gospel is timeless in the sense that it is “once for all,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly announces; but the Judeo-Christian tradition is timely in a fashion unique in religion, because it is perpetually (semper reformanda) rethinking itself. In just this way, “once for all” is continually being rethought in a more, not less, generous direction.

This brings me back to Pagden’s Worlds at War. In a New York Times book review by William Grimes, we read of

“two competing views of the world, memorably expressed by Herodotus in his history of the struggles between the Greeks and the Persians, which pivoted not on politics but on ‘an understanding of what it was to be and to live like a human being.’ The Greeks subscribed, broadly, to ‘an individualistic view of humanity.’ The Persians displayed courage and ferocity on the battlefield but as a society, Mr. Pagden writes, they were ‘craven, slavish, reverential, and parochial, incapable of individual initiative, a horde rather than a people.’”

This won’t go down well in today’s environment, but it certainly suggests avenues of thought. Does not Christianity (in its truest form) uniquely combine two things: an unconditional commitment to the importance of every human individual, and the news of a new human community? Individualism taken to extremes produces a distorted—indeed, unrecognizable—picture of the relation of Christians to one another as the body of Christ, but, at the same time, “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:4) is so complete and comprehensive that it does indeed enable each individual to flourish in ways that are impossible in an unredeemed creation. This combination of opposite poles of emphasis is specifically Christian.

One more thing, having to do with the vexed matter of “free will.” In reading Mr. Grimes’ review of Worlds at War, I had an “aha” moment. I have spent most of my life explaining, via Augustine and Luther, that there is no such thing as “free will” independent of the will of God, and in almost (not quite!) every case have met with unyielding resistance to this central Christian idea. Pagden, in his book about East and West, sheds some light on this matter. He depicts our present situation as an unbridgeable chasm between the West and the Islamic Middle East, writing that “the society of Islam is ultimately based not upon human volition or upon contract but upon divine decree…In the societies of the West, by contrast, every aspect of life has been conceived as a question of human choice.”

In a remarkable way, this shows how the question of free will in the Christian world-view must be understood with subtlety or not understood at all. The contrast that Pagden draws in the quoted passage is quite accurate, up to a point. The Christian gospel does indeed free individuals from their bondage to the principalities and powers which dominate their lives and make free choices impossible. In this sense, Pagden’s description works. But in differentiating Western emphasis on “human volition” from Islamic conceptions of the “divine decree,” he fails, because it is a central paradox of Christian theology that it is precisely in the divine decree that the Christian finds his true freedom (“grant what you command, and [consequently] command what you will,” Augustine prayed).

These distinctions are not arcane. They lie at the heart of the gospel proclamation, and they constitute, now as in Augustine’s time, an enlightened foundation for a political understanding of civilization.