Saturday, June 4, 2011

World History Instead of Western Civ?

Further to my last post, I note with sadness but not surprise that my former university, Crandall University in Moncton, NB, has replaced its first-year Western Civilization course with a World History course. Here are my musings on that event.

What is world history anyway? I teach a Christianity and Culture course in which I teach the rise and fall of Western civilization. It is a fourth year course that builds on our first-year Western civilization courses. Teaching Western civilization in a Christian liberal arts college is a natural thing to do because the West arose as a result of the powerful flowing together of Greek philosophy, Roman law and Biblical revelation. Because these currents allowed people to discover truth, modern science was made possible in this civilization (and nowhere else on earth). Many other great and glorious things were also inspired by Christendom: classical music, natural law, English parliamentary democracy, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, free enterprise, individual liberty and the list goes on.

Modernity is both an era and a project. Central to Modernity has been the failed Enlightenment Project in which a noble, but doomed, attempt was made to preserve both science and morality without revelation. The culture of death into which late modern, Western culture has fallen and the crisis of truth which characterizes the post-Enlightenment West is stark testimony to the fact that Christianity is the soul of the West and Western civilization minus Christianity is a declining and decaying civilization rather than a dynamic and growing one. Christianity is the central narrative that makes sense out of Western civilization.

But what narrative makes sense of world history? Augustine wrote a world history in City of God, but he fashioned most of it out of salvation history. If you reject salvation history - which goes without saying in the late modern West for getting rid of Western civilization courses is one of the final steps in turning your back on the Christian West - then how do you make sense of the history of the world?

It seems to me that there are two options: (1) the modern one and (2) the postmodern one.

The modern option is to pretend that the Enlightenment is not a failure and to use a "cave man to space man" narrative to show that progress occurs by the shuffling off of religion and superstition and the embrace of science. This approach would best be described as "Scientism" the belief that science explains all and is totally sufficient for the good human life. In this narrative Richard Dawkins stands at the summit and peak of all human evolution. (Shudder!)

The modern option, however, is less intellectually compelling with every passing year. The Enlightenment has failed and morality has been reduced to emotivism - as writers as varied as C. S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, David Bentley Hart, Benedict XVI, Christian Smith, Walker Percy and Aldous Huxley agree. Nietzsche has not been answered and his disciples dominate the humanities and social sciences in the late modern university. Relativism, existentialism and the will to power are now the prevailing winds. Hitler lost the war, but the philosophy that drove him survived and flourished. Eventually, it will likely triumph.

Late modern man has lost his confidence in philosophical realism and thinks that morality cannot be derived from reality itself. It is only a matter of time before a similar loss of faith in mathematics occurs. Already Aristotelian logic is out the door. In the social sciences the idea of mathematically describable laws of nature are in question. Can science itself survive much longer?

World history in the second, postmodern option is basically nothing more than, in the words widely attributed to Henry Ford just "one damn thing after another." That is, there is no meaningful narrative that connects the dots and gives meaning to the myriad of interesting but essentially unrelated details. Nominalism applied to history is not a pretty sight, as Richard Weaver shows in his classic: Ideas Have Consequences.

World history is not the study of one particular culture with all its strengths and shortcomings. It is the study of everything. And everything, strictly speaking, cannot be studied without reference to Biblical revelation. There is no way to give world history meaning without understanding it in an Augustinian manner as the history of God's fallen creation in the process of being redeemed.

But when a culture decides to abandon its own history the chances of it embracing Biblical revelation as the key to understanding world history are slim. An Augustinian course in World History would be welcome, but I'm not holding my breath.

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