Western culture in 250 pages?

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May 24, 2015 by AK

This is too simplistic (and confusing) even for a newspaper: as a book review, I suspect it’s a case of multiple simplification (and distortion). The scope of Christian views of human wretchedness is wider than the author suggests. Thomas Aquinas does not get a mention, nor does Erasmus, to say nothing of the theologians who discussed human nature in much detail in the so-called Christological debates of the 5th and 7th centuries. The extremely pessimistic anthropology of Augustine and Calvin has never been the single default position of the Roman Catholic Church, much less its Eastern Orthodox cousins, who believe the Fall marred man’s original wholeness and, like a hereditary disease, made Adam’s progeny prone to sin, rather than repugnant to God outright. But that’s just beginning to scratch the surface.

Since we’re talking theology, sort of, I don’t know why no one ever discusses the striking paradox of Calvinism (or its Reader’s Digest version) in the popular press. On the one hand, a select few are chosen for salvation and no human effort can change that. God reveals his chosen in this world in an Old Testament fashion, by granting them offspring and riches. Now, here’s the other hand: if you work hard and save rather than consume, you may be able to get rich and provide for a great many children, and end up looking like one of the saved. This make-believe is supposed to be driving force behind Western capitalism.

Russian Old Believers have a very different theology but they were almost as important to Russia’s capitalism as low-church Protestants were to Britain’s and America’s. What’s in common between the two groups is something else, not the religious doctrine: suspicion of government authority, a sense of collective purpose, appreciation of thrift, honesty, and book learning (narrowly understood, as opposed to full-scale education). I’m not even talking of Jewish communities and their contribution to capitalism on the Continent.


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