Is the West history?

September 5, 2011

After booking a flight to New Zealand for probably my last visit with my ailing father, I ordered a BBC dvd series from the website of a secular Dutch newspaper to watch on my long journey. ‘Civilization’ by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, which also appeared in book form earlier this year, is a sweeping, popular analysis of the factors that led to the global dominance of Western civilization.
Such dominance however is fragile and threatened, says Ferguson. The question he poses throughout is, will the West follow the fate of earlier failed civilizations? or is there a way out of the mounting crises?
Adopting the lingo of his targeted audience of 17-year-old schoolchildren, Ferguson calls these factors ‘killer apps’, identifying them as competition, science, property, modern medicine, consumption and the work ethic.
Reviewers love or hate Ferguson’s arguments, some accusing him of cultural arrogance, oversimplification and right-wing neo-liberalism. But even his critics admit the book is “well written, with something quotable on nearly every page, and some terrific ideas”.
Ferguson’s name came up among the emails I caught up with on my flight via Hong Kong. Someone sent a link to a Wall Street Journal article by Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi.
Abandonment
Sacks was suggesting that London’s recent riots were the price of what happened half a century ago in one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West. In the 1960’s, there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint.
Britain’s loss of moral capital was directly linked to her loss of the Judeo-Christian heritage, argued the rabbi. He then referred to a ‘fascinating passage’ in Ferguson’s recent book ‘Civilization’, quoting a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who investigated the source of the West’s dominance: At first we thought it was your guns. Then we thought it was your political system, democracy. Then we said it was your economic system, capitalism. But for the last 20 years, we have known it was your religion.
A second email linked me with yet another Sacks article quoting Ferguson on China’s new interest in Christianity.   “As a non-Christian,” wrote the rabbi, “I find this fascinating. Europe is losing the very thing that once made it great, while China, the world's fastest-growing economy, is discovering it.”
Ferguson devotes the whole of his last ‘killer app’ section on the BBC series to the role of Protestantism and its accompanying work ethic, which he claims was critical to the success of Western civilization. While Edward Gibbon saw Christianity as the ‘fatal solvent of the first version of Western civilization’ (Rome), Ferguson points out the ‘rich irony that a variant of Christianity provided a ‘killer app” for Western civilization, mark II’.
Mysteries
One of the great mysteries of Western civilization was why, if you were a wealthy industrialist of the 19th century, you would most likely also be a Protestant. It was Max Weber who first saw the link between this brand of Christianity and the rise of capitalism, after a trip through the United States over a century ago.
Protestantism meant hardworking holiness, out of a godly calling. Protestants worked, accumulated capital and deferred consumption to prove their own godliness. Contrast that with the dampening influence on the economy of Confucianism in China, Islam in the Middle East, and Catholicism in South America, and you understand why the (mainly Protestant) West led the way, achieving the most rapid economic growth in history.
Yet today that has changed dramatically, explains Ferguson. To Weber, the probability of the Protestantisation of China, and therefore of its industrialisation and modernisation, seemed negligibly low, as low in fact as the probability of the dechristianisation of Europe. And yet that is precisely what we’re witnessing in our time, a development with profound implications all over the world.
For today the Protestant work ethic has come to China, where the seeds that Protestant missionaries planted 150 years ago have grown in the most extraordinary fashion. There are probably more practising Christians in China today than in all of Europe, suggests Ferguson.
Is the West headed for calamity? he asks. How are we to contend with today’s threats if we can’t even believe in ourselves, let alone God?
Our biggest threat is not from outside, concludes Ferguson. It is our loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors, and gave to the rest of the world.
Till next week,
 Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


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