Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Reason.
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Western civilisation has been built on logic, reason and rationality. We no longer live hand-to-mouth in an agrarian society. Now we inhabit a world of possibility where the only limit is our imagination.
The path that brought us here is a fascinating one.
Six hundred years before Christ, the Greeks had developed a rich tradition of logic. Soon though, it was no longer used to seek truth. Instead it became a tool of political manipulation, where identical logic was used to advance contradictory ideas. Sound familiar?
“The Greeks had lost a bigger picture that gave unity to their worldview.”
Greek civilisation began to crumble. As faith in logic collapsed, the twin beasts of skepticism and mysticism reared their ugly heads, plunging Greece back into pagan superstitions. They’d lost a bigger picture that gave unity to their worldview.
Centuries later, dusting cobwebs off Greek classics, Augustine was so impressed with logic that he was convinced it was no mere human construct. He believed that the Creator must have inscribed it permanently in the fabric of the universe.
“In the beginning was the Word [logos]. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.”—John 1:1-2
Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, and those who wished to escape the world’s corruption and lead a life of prayer sought solace in a monastery, and became monks.
Monks were known for their love of study. Pouring over the Greeks and Augustine, a new type of monk was to emerge, called the scholastic. Scholastics used logic to study God, laying the intellectual foundations for a new, modern world.
And then in 1517, history was altered forever. Reading his Bible, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther saw that the popes, unquestioned for a thousand years, had sold Europe a lie. Instead of preaching God’s free grace, the Church had been collecting the wealth of Europe’s peasants in exchange for the promise of heaven.
“The Reformers proposed to translate the Bible into the dialects of the people, and make Europe literate.”
Luther was outraged. Nailing his 95 complaints, or theses, to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, he unknowingly launched the Reformation, a movement that was to transform Europe, and help usher in the modern world.
Church services had been conducted in Latin, a language the people didn’t understand. Luther and other Reformers like Wycliffe, Tyndale and Calvin proposed to translate the Bible into the dialects of the people, and make Europe literate. Then the masses could read God’s thoughts for themselves.
“The Middle Ages had come to an end, and a new day was dawning in Europe.”
Meanwhile Johannes Gutenberg, a Christian inventor eager to produce Bibles en masse, had created what is now considered to be the most important invention of the second millennium: the printing press. Yes, it was invented to print Bibles.
And from those humble beginnings, the Bible has gone on to become the bestselling book of all time. Most bestseller lists on the internet won’t include the Bible. But why would you? It only outstrips other publications by about 4.5 billion copies.
“The most important invention of the second millennium, the printing press, was invented to print Bibles.”
The Middle Ages had come to an end, and a new day was dawning in Europe. Now everyday people could call popes and kings into question, because for the first time they had the Word of God, the highest authority of all, in their laps and in their hearts.
The ripple effect was immense. Christians began to cultivate the life of the mind as they studied the Bible and other great works of literature. An intellectual awakening spread unstoppably in all directions.
“Luther had unknowingly launched the Reformation, a movement that was to transform Europe, and help usher in the modern world.”
Lest we take this for granted, consider the East. Hindu sages at this time saw Brahman, a silent impersonal energy, as the ultimate reality. For them therefore, time was best spent in silence.
And in China, a printing press had also been invented. In fact, so many books were printed by the Chinese that they ingeniously designed rotating bookshelves. But China didn’t experience cultural renewal. Why?
The Buddha had taught his followers to transcend thinking. So meditating on the sound of the rotating bookcases became more important to Buddhist monks than studying what the books said.
“The Bible has gone on to become the bestselling book of all time.”
On the other hand, the Christians of Europe were discovering in their Bibles passages like John 1:1-3. “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him.”
Behind the universe they saw a rational mind: God. This God had made humans and the human mind in his image, and had shared his thoughts with them in a book. So developing the intellect, they reasoned, must be a good and God-like thing to do.
“Now we inhabit a world of possibility where the only limit is our imagination.”
The West was on its way to becoming a rational, thinking civilisation.
Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Technology.
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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY
In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.