How Jesus Shaped the West: Technology

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 Technology.

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The watermill, the crank, and the flywheel are quaint symbols of a bygone era. They’re also the very foundations of modern technology.

And along with the wheelbarrow and the windmill (revolutionary in their day) they were invented by—you never would have guessed it—monks.

See the monks of the Middle Ages had entered monasteries to pray, but most of their time was being taken up with necessities like grinding grain to make bread. These new inventions saved them hours of degrading, monotonous toil.

“If God created human beings in his own image, this means when we choose to be creative, we join God in his creativity.”

It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. But if that were true, wouldn’t have these inventions surfaced earlier—and universally? What set Europe apart?

Many cultures see what is as fate or karma, with little chance for escape. The idea that I can imagine an alternate future, and change nature to become like my imagination, is one we take for granted. But it’s found in high concentration in the West.

Inventing new technologies, upturning culture, changing the course of history. All of these are spinoffs of a single thought: I am made in the image of a creative God.

If “God created human beings in his own image,” this means we too are creative, and when we choose to be creative, we join God in his creativity.

“Many cultures see what is as fate or karma, with little chance for escape.”

Not long after the birth of Islam, Muslim armies swept through North Africa, entering Spain in the East. In the West they’d captured Constantinople, and it seemed like only a matter of time before European cities like Vienna and Rome would fall too.

But Europeans had discovered crop rotation and the heavy plow. For the first time in history, farmers in Europe had replaced oxen with horses because they’d invented the horseshoe, the horse collar, and the tandem harness. These lead to a phenomenal increase in horsepower—and therefore, productivity.

Famine could have spelt the end of the continent as Muslim armies invaded. But with these inventions, the food scarcity was overcome, and Europe’s restored economy could now keep Islam at bay.

Reading glasses were invented in Italy in the 1200s. The main customers were monks, who needed them to study the Bible and other great books. This crucial invention almost doubled the productive life of Western scholars, who could now spend their best years improving the civilisation’s texts and technologies.

“All of these are spinoffs of a single thought: I am made in the image of a creative God.”

The mechanical clock was invented in both Europe and China. But only in Europe did it become an industry and develop into other forms of technology. Why?

In the East, time was considered part of samsara, the endless wheel that people were trying to escape. In the West however, time was seen as part of physical reality, a good part of God’s creation. So Europeans wanted to know the time and organise their lives according to it.

Creativity is ubiquitous, on display in every culture. But Europe pushed inventions and technologies much further than anything seen in the East or the ancient world. It transformed their civilisation, and eventually, the world. Still the question lingers: why?

Peel back the layers. If “God created human beings in his own image,” this means something else too—it means that every one of us are of infinite worth.

Cultures won’t spend themselves in labour-saving technologies unless they place immeasurable value on human dignity. Other civilisations of history, and many today exploit women, children or slaves to get work done. Hinduism convinced a whole caste that it was their duty.

“Only the Christian West developed technology to empower the weak and liberate humanity.”

But these early Europeans reasoned that if humans are of infinite worth like the Bible says, why make them do what machines, nature or animals could do? Why not use technology as a force to liberate and empower humanity for more dignified work?

Cultures need more than technology. They need a philosophy that sees people as priceless. This is what Jesus gave Europe.

Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi has said, “The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building, for the first time in history, of a complex civilisation which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves… but primarily on nonhuman power.”

“Cultures need more than technology. They need a philosophy that sees people as priceless.”

It’s true that many in the West have used technology to exploit the environment and other cultures, and cause huge amounts of damage to the planet. The blame for some of this lies at the feet of Christians, who should have read Genesis more carefully and been better caretakers of God’s creation.

But while in most cultures the ruling elite used creative technology for war, pleasure, monuments to themselves, and the oppression of their people, only the Christian West developed it to empower the weak, and liberate humanity.

Who would have thought? In more ways than one, this Nazarene carpenter truly shaped technology.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Languages.

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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.

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