I hope the school is going well for you and your family. I already can tell that I will enjoy this class. They are enthusiastic participators and willing and able to track with me and think about the issues before us.
As I told the students, before we move into the actual study of certain civilizations, I thought it appropriate to think of what we mean by the term ‘civilization,’ and what this might have to do with a Christian worldview. I gave the students an example of a desert island divided into two halves. Both halves have a government (a despotic king), religion (worship of a bloodthirsty god), laws and a way of life, (everyone pick up a stick and try and bash in the head of someone on the other side of the island). They have a large enough group of people and a defined location, if one happens to believe that these are important criteria.
We discussed whether or not this be could be termed ‘civilization.’ Even if it was a place where you would not want to live, was it ‘civilization?’ While I acknowledge that defining the concept is a bit slippery, in the end I think we can give a clear answer in the negative.
The definition I am using for civilization in this class is from historian Will Durant, who stated that civilization is, “Social order that promotes cultural creation.” Life on our hypothetical island could not allow for ‘cultural creation.’ No buildings could be built, no books written, not even advances in weaponry could be made if everyone’s daily life consisted entirely of sleeping, eating, and fighting.
I believe the definition we are using is a good one because human society should help us live out what it means to be made in God’s image. The first thing we see about God is that He creates. A society that did not allow for human creation would deny a fundamental tenet of what it means to be human. Being made in God’s image means many things, but surely it must include something of what J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ on our part. If we look back on the island example, is the life lived there really human life? Even beavers build dams, and otters make water slides for themselves. Living just to eat, sleep, and fight would put us below many animals.
This week we also looked at the basic elements of all civilizations. What purpose do civilizations serve, and how do they function? Ultimately, civilizations exist to provide a means of human interaction, a structure that allows us to live out God’s image and call on our lives. While none of the civilizations we will study will be ‘Christian’ civilizations (if such a thing is even possible), the closer one gets to this goal, the better off people are. While we may not need civilizations per se, we do need each other. God Himself is a kind of Community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and as we are created in His image, so too we need to live in community with one another to make us fully human.
We examined what I call the Five Elements of Civilization:
Suppose that you and your friends wish to do something together. You would need to agree on a location to meet. For there to be profitable human interaction, we need a defined physical space to do so. Obviously, the geography must provide a minimum of food, water, etc. for civilization to exist. But as we discussed, ideal geographies do not tend to foster civilizations. When things are too easy, we never need to learn, invent, or progress. Historically speaking, we need a challenge to thrive. Over the course of the year we will see the subtle influence of geography on the way people live.
No one can be completely self-sufficient. “No man is an island.” We neither know all or can do all things well. We need others to help us, but also need to have a means of exchanging goods and services fairly so these beneficial trades can take place.
A strict barter economy makes perfect sense. I have apples, you have wood. If we trade we both get something we easily know to have a direct value. With one I can build a house, with the other I can avoid hunger. Strict barter economies have the great advantage of simplicity, but the great burden of a complete lack of flexibility. Imagine doing your weekly shopping, having to load up the wagon with bushels of grain, a few pigs, etc. Then, you can only get what you need in return only if someone needs what you have.
A money economy helps solve some of these problems, and money began with precious metals. But who made the first exchange of a shiny metal for a bushel of wheat? You cannot eat, wear, or live in shiny metal. The same is true of paper money. In itself, it’s only a piece of paper. You could write on it, or perhaps burn it for a few seconds of heat. The money has value not for anything in itself, but because of our agreed upon belief about what it represents. Hence, the link between the health of our economy and the trust we place in our government and those around us.
A good economy will foster helpful and just exchanges of goods and services, which in turn fosters honoring social interaction.
Or — what I call the outward structure of civilization. We need an agreed upon way of making decisions, and we need to know what is expected of us. For example, we must decide if we are to drive on the right hand side or the left, or no one would drive at all. We must also have an agreed upon way of deciding what side of the road we drive on, or nothing can ever get accomplished.
Laws serve a good purpose if they help grow helpful interaction between people. They oppress if they stifle such social interaction.
Or – what I call the inward structure of civilization. Since no one can write a law code that covers every situation, if we are to interact with others successfully we need a strong set of unwritten rules that everyone follows. If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, we do not have the option of calling the police, for example. This unwritten code comes ultimately from our religious beliefs. We don’t cut in line in the final analysis because we believe in Justice.
I encouraged the class to think about religion more broadly than just what happens on ‘Sunday,’ in a given civilization. As Jesus said, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,’ or to put it another way, ‘You are what you worship.’
Religion is in a broad sense what we give ourselves to truly, not merely our lip service. A society might outwardly worship God, gods, or possibly even ideals and values like freedom, and so on. Everyone worships something, and we cannot help but be conformed to the object of our worship. This ultimate devotion becomes the main spring of our values.
In the narrow sense, culture is what we do with our free time. A person’s hobbies are often a better insight into who they are than their jobs. In a broader sense, culture is about how we interact with God’s creation, and how we outwardly express our inner values and strengths. Broadly then, culture speaks to our values, and a bit more narrowly, culture is that which makes life enjoyable (reading books, playing games, etc.), and sets us apart from the rest of creation.
Of course every culture can and should have room for purely “fun” activities, but ideally our recreation truly engages in “re-creation,” whereby we image the God who creates.
My goal through all this was to try and show how each element is not an island, but impacts other areas. These elements are interconnected and depend on one another. Scripture’s image of the Body of Christ fits very well for civilizations.
My subsequent emails will likely not be as information oriented, but these categories will inform the rest of our year together.
Next week we will begin looking at actual civilizations, and begin applying this theoretical interpretative model to reality. We will begin to look for the patterns and truths that history reveals to us. Below I include the famous set of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire. I do not necessarily agree with everything regarding Cole’s interpretation of history, but it is a wonderful visual image of a thought provoking theory, from a civilization’s beginning to its end. We’ll reference these images from time to time in class this year.
Thank you again for all your support.