Over the last several posts we have reviewed William J. Bernstein’s four factors that led to prosperity in the modern world.
- Property Rights
- Scientific Rationalism
- Capital Markets
- Technology and Infrastructure
Various cultures have seen the emergence of one or more of these for a period of time. The ancient Greeks had a form of property rights for few centuries in the first millennium BCE. The Muslims had some success with science and technology. But it is only in the West where we have seen these four factors emerge as an organic whole. All four factors are essential. Any three without the fourth will not lead to sustained prosperity.
Why did this happen only in the West? Did the West win the equivalent of some cosmic jackpot where all the pieces just came together? Or was there something unique to Western Civilization that gave rise to these engines of prosperity? I believe that far from being happenstance, the rise in prosperity is inextricably connected with the Christian ethos. Christianity brought three things to the Western way of “being” that have not existed elsewhere in human history: Individuals as the image of God, linear time and progress, and vision driven discernment.
Humans in the Image of God
I began this series writing about the concept of eikons and showed how the biblical narrative consistently puts forward a vision of an earth filled with images of God. Ancient Near East kings would erect totems or images (eikons) throughout their territory to symbolize their authority throughout the region. No doubt the first chapters of Genesis were calling this idea to mind when the first humans were called “images of God” and told to fill the earth. They would be God’s junior partners showing forth God’s authority throughout the world. Unlike wooden or stone eikons, these animated eikons would share the faculties of reason and creativity. As God’s eikons, each individual human being has intrinsic value. This perspective is novel to the Judeo-Christian heritage.
We see the impact of this thinking on property rights. The Old Testament code lifted up the private ownership of property not as a tool that serves the best interests of the state but as the rightly ordered state of affairs established by God. God calls us individually and corporately to be stewards of the created world. Property is to be held and used in trust for God not the state. Therefore, while ownership is not absolute, neither is it to be arbitrarily violated by the state or other powerful forces. Property ownership is intrinsic to the mission of being an eikon of God in the world.
Also, extending from this “image of God” idea is the notion of human rights. While we often have a hard time defining precisely what we mean by human rights, we do have the belief that people should not be deprived of freedom or killed arbitrarily. The Declaration of Independence eloquently says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We have a sense of responsibility to those who, for whatever reason, are in need of basic necessities. People have great intrinsic value and should be treated as such. In an era of hyper-individualism, it is hard to appreciate just how profoundly exceptional this valuing of individuals is in human history. Property rights and human rights as we know them could not have emerged as we know them without the idea of humanity being in the image of God.
Linear Time and Progress
Human religions throughout history have had a cyclical view of time. Religious ritual was an exercise in honoring and appeasing the cycles of nature established the gods. Life is an endless progression of cycles.
One of the most striking features of the Jewish tradition is the notion of linear time. There was a beginning. Time is moving on a course from that beginning toward some destination. For the Israelites, the end of the story was when a messiah would bring shalom to the nation of Israel and lift the nation up to its place as God’s exalted people. From the human perspective, life was about remaining faithful to a covenant laid out by God. Jews looked backward toward a promise and a code as they processed through time in anticipation of future world.
Christ took this linear view of time and utterly transformed it. Jesus gave a vision of the future and called on his followers to orient their lives based on this future reality. They were to give evidence of the future reality in the present and transform the world by doing so. Rather than looking to the past and processing through time, Christians are called to progress through time in active anticipation of a future reality.
The idea of progress is so ubiquitous in our day that it is hard to imagine how astonishingly novel this is in human history. Without the idea of progress there would be little of the drive that has been behind so much scientific research and technological development. Capital markets and the long term orientation required to make them work, would not have emerged without people who were disciplined to think in terms of realizing a different future.
Vision Driven Discernment
I wrote above that apart from the Judeo-Christian heritage that religion has largely been about bringing life into conformity with the cycles of nature. Ordering of lives is achieved through adherence to a set of stories and rituals. The cycles and the codes give order to existence. We “look back” to see patterns in the cycles or we “look back” to the codes written long ago to determine appropriate action today. Even the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam have had this as a central element.
Jesus was completely disorienting. He reoriented our vision from compliance with the past to compliance with the future. Jesus gave a vision of the future (i.e, the consummated Kingdom of God or the New Jerusalem) and called his followers to live according that vision. Yes, he gave some prescriptive guidance but the organizing principle is a vision and the story that leads to that vision.
Jesus did not right anything down. As Rodney Stark observes:
Things might have been different had Jesus left a written scripture. But unlike Muhammad and Moses, whose texts were accepted as divine transmissions and therefore have encouraged literalism, Jesus wrote nothing down, and from the very start the church fathers were forced to reason as to the implications of a collection of his remembered sayings – the New Testament is not a unified scripture but an anthology. Consequently, the precedent for a theology of deduction and inference and for the idea of theological progress began with Paul “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesy is imperfect.” Contrast this with the second verse of the Qur’an which proclaims itself to be “the Scripture whereof there is not doubt.” (1)
Not only did Jesus through scripture orient us toward the future, but by the very means through which he passed down his vision he ensured that we would have to be active participants in the creation and realization of the vision. Despite the endless attempts by some fundamentalist influences in Christianity to use scripture as a codified instruction manual for human behavior, the scripture resiliently resists being boxed in this package. It is an unfolding story with a beginning and end. Documentary evidence is given by the author of history about what is happening in the story. It is an invitation for humanity to enter the story and participate in its completion. One must interact with the story and understand each element in scripture in terms of its own context and the context of the larger story contained within scripture. It requires wrestling with a general but nonspecific ordering of the world in a future age. One has to deduce and infer appropriate action. In other words, instead of executing directives we must actively reason our way to good decisions, based on a story revealed by a reasonable God.
The necessity of reason in discerning God’s will has had ramifications beyond theology. The discipline of reason eventually turned to the investigation of the material world. If God is a reasonable God, then the world he created must be organized according to orderly principles. Therefore, we can systematically study and test ideas against reality until we determine the actual order of things. In other words, science. Without the discipline of reasoning our way to God’s vision, one has to question whether scientific rationality would ever have emerged.
Bernstein, as well as other economic historians, have done great work in identifying the factors that have led to our age of growing prosperity. What is rarely acknowledged (or only begrudgingly so) is that the factors that created the prosperity grew out of the ground of the Christian ethos and are inextricably rooted in it. Max Weber wrote his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism a hundred years ago claiming that free market capitalism grew out of the Protestant Reformation (It is still used as a textbook in seminaries today.) On the contrary, what economic historians and scholars like Rodney Stark have demonstrated is that the rise of free market capitalism predates the Reformation by centuries. In fact, one can see a slow and steady emergence from the fall of Rome to the present. The expansive growth in prosperity is directly rooted in the Christian ethos.
(1) Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, New York: Random House, 2005. 9.