At Work & Theology 101

Christianity, the West, and the Rest

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History must repeat itself because we pay such little attention to it the first time.

– Blackie Sherrod in the Dallas Morning News

When the final history is written, what, if anything, will have killed Western civilization? The collapse of religion, perhaps? The infection of healthy capitalism with a terminal case of greed?

These are only some of the many questions raised in a book I read recently by the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson. Published in 2011, Civilization: The West and the Rest examines what Ferguson calls the most “interesting question” of our day:

Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?

He attributes the West’s dominance to its development of six “killer apps” he sees as missing largely from the rest of the world:

1) Competition:  Ferguson argues that Europe’s fragmented political structure led to competition and encouraged Europeans to seek opportunities in distant lands.

2) Science: The 16th and 17th centuries were the age of science, with an extraordinary number of breakthroughs occurring. This revolution was, Ferguson writes, “by any scientific measure, wholly European.” Advances in printing and weaponry also aided Europe’s growth.

3) Property Rights: Why did the empire established by the English in North America in the 17th century ultimately prove so successful? It was, Ferguson contends, because the English settlers brought with them a particular conception of widely distributed property rights and democracy, inherited from John Locke.

4) Modern Medicine: According to Ferguson, modern medicine was the west’s “most remarkable killer application”. Western medical advances in the 19th and 20th centuries increased life expectancies across the world.

5) Consumption (the market) The west’s dominance of the rest of the world was not only achieved by force; it was also, as Ferguson shows, achieved through the market. The industrial revolution in 18th and 19th century created a model for society that has proved irresistible.

6) Work Ethic: As Max Weber noted a century ago, Protestantism was a form of Christianity that encouraged hard work (and just as importantly, Ferguson adds, reading and saving). It isn’t a coincidence, Ferguson says, that the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the “idlers of the world.”

While we would not necessarily agree with Ferguson’s thesis, we do need to bring much more scrutiny to bear on the points he makes, especially if the fate of Western civilization is at stake.

Four of the apps relate directly to economics and the research we do here at IFWE:

  • Competition.
  • Property Rights.
  • Consumption, which I would re-label as “Markets” or “Market Economies.”
  • Work Ethic.

The other two apps, while not under IFWE’s research scope, are still very important. We need Christians gifted in the sciences to be discovering truths about God’s world.

Christians are called to contribute to the flourishing of their cultures.If these six “apps” are keys to growth, we need to understand each of them from a Biblical perspective.

We are concerned that the loss of religion is indeed contributing to the decline of the West.

We need Christians to be working in the realms of these six apps if we are to contribute positively to Western civilization and maintain it. Ferguson’s points give us substantial food for thought as we seek to promote human creativity, freedom, and flourishing.

What do you think? What other “apps” do Christians need to understand from a Biblical perspective? Leave your comments here.

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  • Kevin Balog

    Hugh, I like you highlighting these “apps”. You say that your organization focuses on work ethic. I would submit that work ethic though transcendent throughout all callings and vocations is the fuel that helps propel personal accomplishment. Allow me to suggest that many have never explored what his/her highest and greatest gifts are. Be it on the physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual plane. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, God has gifted His human creation of individuals. Each of us created uniquely. So my challenge is to seek and discover what one’s unique gifts are.

    Kevin

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