Getting Western Civilization Right

In Christianity Today (CT) magazine’s “Editor’s Bookshelf,” (August 2003 issue) David Neff has reviewed Rodney Stark’s book, explaining that Christian theology is the catalyst, not the brake, for progress in Western history. He also conducts a brief interview with Dr. Stark exploring “Progress in Theology.”

The 2003 article at CT online, first summarizes the main arguments of the book, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, (Princeton University Press, pub. 2003). Some exerpts:

“God has gone missing. Over the past couple of decades, critics and parents have decried the way that school textbooks have been purged of references to the role of religious belief in the shaping of America’s major social movements, from William Bradford’s “errand in the wilderness” to Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott—all in the name of “neutrality” toward religion.

“And in newsrooms, reporters regularly ignore the religious commitments and understandings that explain why people take risks and make sacrifices for the causes they believe in.

“God is also missing in certain sectors of academe. And in For the Glory of God, University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark offers a corrective to the work of sociologists and historians who downplay, despise, or dispute the role that belief in God has played in shaping history.

“At the hinge-points of history, people take risks or invest their energies in ways that cannot be explained simply in terms of self-interest. Not that certain historians and social scientists don’t try—trying to reduce, for example, our understanding of the War Between the States as a form of economic conflict between an agricultural South and an industrial North.

“But Stark has lost patience with these scholars, and in this latest book, he takes four major chapters from our cultural history and shows that a belief in God—nay, a belief in the God of Christian theology—was a necessary condition for these developments. “Moral fervor,” Stark writes, “is the fundamental topic of this entire book: the potent capacity of monotheism, and especially Christianity, to activate extraordinary episodes of faith that have shaped Western civilization.”

In the interview "Progress Through Theology," Rodney Stark answers many questions such as:   “You seem to say that only a God who cares about human society and who rewards and punishes in the afterlife can inspire passionate social movements. But isn’t Christian ethics so much more than this?….”   Dr. Stark responds: “Right now I’m studying the biblical work on moral equality as precursor to the early democratic regimes in the Italian city-states. Before God, everybody was equal. Before God, there weren’t slaves and masters, and so forth. And this starts in the New Testament with Jesus hanging out with disreputable people. He violated boundary lines again and again with Samarians and fallen women.

“In the long run, the notion that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness comes forth, but it starts in the New Testament.

“Really, only Christianity ever had theology. There’s some theology in Islam and Judaism, but it’s more the study of law. Judaism and Islam are more interested in asking, What did God say? But Christian theologians have been more apt to ask, What did God mean? And that’s a big difference.

“The notion that we can progressively understand God better starts with Paul. Augustine goes wild on it, saying there are things that we don’t understand but one day we shall. All the way through our history is a belief in progress that’s really quite astounding.”

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