The Christian West: A Superior Culture
The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization
By Vishal Mangalwadi
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 403 pages
Review Author: Terry Scambray
Vishal Mangalwadi sees America and the Christian West (what’s left of it), for what they really are: the greatest places in the world to live.
One day, as Mangalwadi and his wife, Ruth, were driving through Minneapolis on the interstate, they heard sirens behind them. Traffic screeched to a halt as drivers pulled over to let an ambulance and police cars speed by. Ruth’s eyes welled up with tears. “How much they care for their people,” she said. She thinks the same thing when she sees traffic stopping for a child to get off a school bus. In India, where the Mangalwadis were born and raised, children need an adult to protect them when boarding or exiting a school bus so as to prevent them from being run over by the bus or by an erratic, speeding driver. Between personal observations like these in The Book that Made Your World, Mangalwadi, an Indian social reformer and author of eighteen books, provides an absorbing and thorough argument for Western civilization and what sets it apart from other cultures.
Consider these points: The Arabs, with their streamlined “Arabic numbers,” copied from India, failed to develop double-entry bookkeeping, a credit and debit system “vital not just for entrepreneurs, but crucial for the wealth of a nation.” So too the Greeks had the world’s first democracy, and the Romans had a gilded republic, yet neither survived for long. China had gunpowder and more and better ships earlier than the Europeans. Amazingly, China also had a printing press hundreds of years before the West, and “by A.D. 972 had printed 130,000 pages of the sacred Buddhist writings, the Tripitaka.” For that matter, “Korean printers invented moveable metal fonts at least two centuries before Gutenberg invented them in 1450.” Why, then, didn’t printing have the momentous effect in China or Korea that it had in the West? Mangalwadi writes, “Printing and books did not reform my continent because our religious philosophies undermined reason.” As other historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have noted, none of these cultures had a god like the God of the Bible, who is interested in human destiny. By contrast, the Greek and Roman gods were frivolous and capricious, and Buddhism offers awe and silence in the face of the unknowable. Neither picture of the cosmos affirms that men have inherent value. Christianity certifies this with the doctrine of the Incarnation, in which God’s Son deigned to become a man for the salvation of mankind.
The Judeo-Christian God is also a creator, a maker. This gave license for Western man, in imitation of his God, to make things. Mangalwadi quotes medieval historian Ernst Benz to the effect that “Christian beliefs provided the rationale, and faith the motive energy for Western technology.” Thus, it is not an accident that medieval monasteries developed plows capable of deeply churning the soil, so necessary for drainage and productive agriculture. And though the water wheel was invented earlier, medieval monks made it efficient with the invention of the crank, “the most important invention after the wheel.” The flywheel was invented by Theophilus, a German monk who was also a skilled metallurgist, general craftsman, stylish writer, Bible scholar, and theologian. Mangalwadi writes that Theophilus’s seclusion made him more biblical and less influenced by the common disdain for physical labor and snobbery toward technology that was inherited from Greece and Rome. Against this background, Mangalwadi argues that the Renaissance’s re-assertion of classicism delayed the development of Western technology.
Science flourished in the fertile ground of Christendom because Christians saw that their rational God had made a universe of uniform laws on which men with their own rational minds — again in imitation of the mind of the super-intending God — could rely. Mangalwadi quotes Augustine, who wrote that we could not understand and believe in Christianity “unless we possessed rational souls.” Logic and reason are thought to be a contribution of the Greeks, but Mangalwadi argues that they forfeited that contribution because logic and reason in classical Greece descended into sophistry and from there into cynicism about its capacity to discover the truth. Thus, a proliferation of cults and mysticism followed the decline of Greece and continued into the rise of Rome. Mangalwadi compares this decline to the West’s current descent into postmodern solipsism and new-age occultism.
It took Christianity to retrieve logos, the Greek word for “reason” or “animating principle,” when the evangelist John opened his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” With this, John characterized Jesus as the animating principle of the universe and the source of reason as expressed in a most fundamental trait of mankind: language.
For all the revealing history in The Book that Made Your World, language is its real subject. Mangalwadi’s view is that God spoke to mankind in the Bible, though the Bible’s impact was limited at first because it was written in Latin. Later, Bibles were translated into the vernacular. Leaders like King Henry VIII thought that “reading the Bible would make Englishmen docile and obedient.” It did the opposite. People began insisting that the Word of God was a higher authority than the Church or the crown. This change had an explosive effect in the West, leading to the development of constitutional republics modeled on the distribution of power in the Old Testament, when Moses ruled with the guidance of the elders who themselves were bound by the Ten Commandments.
Mangalwadi relies on respected science historian Edward Grant to support his contention that European medieval society, with its moorings in the Bible, was unique in its creation of a particular religious person, “the medieval schoolman,” who used logic as a primary tool to study divinity. No earlier culture had created such a rational person with the intellectual “capacity for establishing the foundations of the nation-state, parliaments, democracy, commerce, banking and higher education and various literary forms, such as novels and history.”
Mangalwadi critiques postmodernist “versions” of history, expressed by influential thinkers like British armchair anthropologist James Fraser, author of The Golden Bough, and his acolyte Joseph Campbell, both of whom claim that Christianity is one among many myths, manifestations of human wishes for significance in a meaningless cosmos. Dan Brown’s widely popular DaVinci Code relies on both perennial disaffection with Christianity and faddish relativism to spin his sinister fantasy of a misogynistic and corrupt Church. Christianity, however, as the most enduring and influential institution in history, could never have been built and sustained on the quicksand of relativism and corruption — it would have buried itself long ago.
That Christianity is synonymous with Western civilization and its distinctive attributes like science and technology should not be a surprise. Unfortunately, it is to most people. Even when eminent British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead told a Harvard audience in 1925 that modern science was a product of Christianity, his remarks were greeted with surprise. Likewise, Mangalwadi’s rich and illuminating presentation of the impact of Christianity will enlighten many people.
Those in the great community of the educated-but-misinformed, including those in the academy and editorial offices, will see Mangalwadi as “triumphalist,” “Eurocentric,” or whatever is the current knee-jerk taunt. Regardless, he is operating in the tradition of historians like Christopher Dawson, James Hitchcock, and Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, as well as those currently writing on the topic, like Rodney Stark, Alvin Schmidt, and Thomas Woods. These men work to undo the damage done by the false narrative that plagues the West, aptly described by Orwell: “For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on.” Mangalwadi is doing his part to mend our precarious perch.
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