March 05, 2009

The narrowness of Judeo Christian civilisation

I am always intrigued when people speculate about the differences between world civilisation. The right in the United States have been over fond for a couple of years of the description of the West as Judeo-Christian- I will not debate that description here, save to note that there is no particular reason I can see beyond the exigencies of the current political moment not to include Islam in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic umbrella. But the biggest problem with the term and with much political and historical analysis coming out of the right at the moment is that it misunderstands the place of religion within the history of the West and the place of other factors- factors that the West shares with much of the Islamic world and other parts of the world as well- the influence of empire and of law.

Walter Ullman, the great Proffessor of Medieval History at Oxford, wrote an important study of the place of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval history in the 1970s. What Ullmann argued has a direct relevance to how we think about our civilisation. He suggested that the medieval world was characterised by a descending theory of political obligation: power descended from God to the ecclesiastical authorities and from them to the political authorities. The Pope, one of the two great powers of the Christian world, stood at the apex of a theocratic structure where the only legal claims were those substantiated in canon law and supported by biblical exegesis. As the 12th and 13th Centuries opened, we have the creation of another kind of law- to support the other great power of the Medieval world- the Emperor- Roman law. Roman law, as used by the jurists at Universities at Bologna, Paris and Oxford, supported the monarch in his pretensions to universal authority- the King was imperator in regno suo (emperor in his own kingdom) and the argument was made that power now descended naturally from the sovereign down to the magistrate. Theocracy was swept away by bureacracy.

That had important consequences for the history of Europe- but it is not the historical consequences to which I want to turn today- but the consequences in terms of our identity. Christianity played a large part in the history of Europe and North America- but Ullmann's argument and others too suggest that it did not play a sole role. You cannot describe what we now have in the West as a Christian civilisation- nor as a Judeo-Christian civilisation- our civilisation owes debts to Rome, to Greece and to older civilisations too- not to mention to the areas it colonised in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The example of the importance of Roman law to the Renaissance merely establishes what I think is a general principle, what we have is the creation of a wide constellation of circumstances which coming together at particular points formed a story- a story that is contingent upon that entire constellation coming together in precisely that way. We share lots of that history with other parts of the world- it was in modern Turkey that Justinian's lawyers wrote the Digest, in modern Turkey that Herodotus wrote his history, in India that mathematics was invented, in China that gunpowder was found.

To describe our civilisation as Judeo-Christian misses a lot about it- it makes the story of what came before us so much more narrow and fools us into identifying what we have merely with a religious tradition. As Ullmann pointed out in the case of Roman law, the formation of our institutions has a long and complicated intellectual history- stretching right back into antiquity and an important pedigree. When thinking about them, we should not be hamstrung by any narrow theological interpretation- though we should not ignore theology- but should realise that they were products of contingency, craft and complexity.


Crushed said...

It also ignores the fact that much Catholic theology was in fact a synthesis between Plato and the Septuagint in terms of thinking, rather than simply a descendant of Judaism. Indeed, that was partly what Luther objected to.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/7/2009, at The Unreligious Right

edmund said...

To be honest I’m not sure how convincing a post this is at least insofar as it's arguing with other people (as opposed to what it says about Professor Ullman's work).

a) On Judeo-Christian-Islamic point this is potentially fair but there has been a strong senses (particular over the last two hundred years) where Islam has been a separate discrete civilisation (under the very limited degree civilisation's can be discrete) while Jews have been an "other" within the civilisation. Even more to the point Judeo-Christian suggests (rightly) that Christianity evolved out of Judaism while it's not so clear Islam did out of Christianity-and the opposite is obviously not the case. In other words in the very limited sense civilisation has a continuous history-this is clearer though by the very nature of a civilisation unclear

b) Ullman's work seems to me an excellent example of how the term has utility. This is all a debate within the Christian world- Muslims had somewhat similar debates but it was not the same debate .

c) Indeed it strikes me the real problem with the concept is not it's narrowness but its breadth. In particular from a historical point of view there's a very strong argument orthodox "civilisation" was very separate no Reformation, Renaissance etc. Here Professor Ullman's work might be used in evidence-e this doesn’t seem to have been a debate the Orthodox were part of from what you say? Historically I think Latin Christendom is often a more useful label.

d) I literally cannot think of anyone who’s suggested that the term Judao-Christian suggests other civilisation or non religious influences have had no impact on the history of a civilisation or culture? Who suggested this-they're clearly not very common!

e) I think people often fail to appreciate how American the term Of major Western countries America is about the one which has least sense of a common culture for fairly obvious historic reasons (I saw a survey where only Switzerland scored lower out of 12 or so countries) Thus Judaeo-Christian is used as a very vague term for this common heritage. For example Unitarians at least relatively recent ones are very dubiously Christian-but they are definitely "Judaeo-Christian" and so President Taft for example is not excluded. This also of course reflects America’s strong philo-semticism / anti/ anti-Semiticism and relatively intact Jewish population. This compares say with the degree to which say Greek National identity is based on specific Greek Orthodoxy etc

f) I think if used such umbrella terms should be used sparingly and carefully many a large term like Judao-Christian Hellenistic. Latin Christian Abrhamic etc has some utility but only some. To prove it is not all explanatory does not mean it measures nothing.

edmund said...

To give an example of how much tis is about the American theological and cultural see this refrerence here"Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion with Jewish-Christian roots. It has no creed."

Though no doubt there are rightwing unitarians the church establissment (ie the people who wrote the website) is very very leftwing see this

I'd add it also shows how narrow any american taboo on atheism is - Unitariansi is very resptectable and it's difficult to see what in this site Richard Dawkins would disagre with (it's too leftwing in places?).

Gracchi said...

Basically I am pretty convinced that actually the term misleads about what the civilisation that we live in contains. I agree with you that the term Latin Christendom would be more useful- but actually in my view that misses too much too- the tendency of the West to debate is Hellenistic rather than Palestinian or Roman even. Your use of Orthodox is interesting: because of course a major part of our world was created by the orthodox- whether the Orthodox scholars of Constantinople who bequeathed our Plato to the Renaissance or the Orthodox civilisation of Russia.

The Latin West is probably the best way of describing the sub division of th world that we live in- in that what it has in common is a history of falling out of the Roman Empire and the essnetial problem of the West has been that unlike China and the Eastern Meditereanean here the ancient world collapsed completely and was never reborn.

edmund said...

as i said these terms can overlap the hellinsitc inheritence-including debate is equally a part of Islmaic civiilisaton-arguablly more so.

Very dubous about that interpretation of the west think it's less usefull than latin christendom, does that make North AFrica part of the same civilisation as the US-but not Poland?. Also I don't think the problem is quite correct "collapsed completely" is an exaggeration. And for China waht about the Mongols-not convinvced the were that much less of a traumatic shock- or indeed the communists.

Gracchi said...

Ok- I think your point raises two issues here:

i. The Roman inheritance. I think the main issue in Western politics is the transition from Empire to Barbarism to Papacy to State system and to modernity. What is different from China is not the scale of the catastrophe but hte fact that in Europe the Roman Empire never reformed.

ii Poland is interesting- even your Latin Christendom might introduce an anomaly there in the sense that Poles and Russians speak a very similar language, have related histories (related religious histories too). Poland almost proves how silly this whole exercise is- because civilisations cannot be defined and given boundaries in the way that Samuel Huntingdon would like.

iii I suppose that's a separate point and one I would like to think more about: but there is a sense in which civilisations involve different global solutions to problems- eg. The european imperial papal balance in the 14th Century- and perhaps it is different state systems and their histories that we need to understand rather than different civilisations.

iv. Yes I think lastly it makes much more sense to think of Islam, Christianity, Judaism as a civilisation discussing things amongst itself. Having said that the key thing there is the communication between that ediface and others: afterall one of the biggest acheivements in European history (the creation of physics and mathematics) depends on an invention from India.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you can fairly say that mathematics was invented in India. Pretty much every civilization invented some minimal form of math. It was the Greeks who took it to a whole 'nother level. Indians and Arabs made contributions as well.