One of the great thinkers of the 20th century was English mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead made a significant observation about how society debates ideas. Whitehead suggests we should not just debate the contentious ideas of any period of history but consider the underlying assumptions of the culture. Whitehead says, “Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.”
Most people just assume it has always been part of human nature and the fabric of society. But even the most cursory look at human history or even different countries around the world today will demonstrate that this is not the case.
That’s a very interesting idea! What Whitehead is helping people to grasp is that when our community debates ideas and values it does not carry out these debates in a vacuum. The debate occurs within agreed assumptions and those assumptions give our society its foundation.
Take the assumption that our society ought to care for those in need. If you were to conduct a survey across Australia or in any free Western democracy you would have the overwhelming majority of people believe this to be true. How our community should deliver that help and who should pay for it might create much discussion, but the foundational assumption that we should help others is rarely challenged.
The question is, where did this foundational assumption come from? Most people just assume it has always been part of human nature and the fabric of society. But even the most cursory look at human history or even different countries around the world today will demonstrate that this is not the case.
The unconscious assumption of Australian society is that we are all equal, we are “our brother’s keeper” and we ought to help those in most need. It is helpful to ask where that value came from.
Australian historian, E.A. Judge comments that classical philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions, defects of character to be avoided by rational men. The philosophers of the Greco-Roman era did not believe that society ought to care for those in need but rather it was an impulse to be curbed.
Even today, in countries that are dominated by the Hindu philosophical worldview, care for the needy actually runs in opposition to the prevailing religious dogma. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation – that your present life, whether one of wealth or poverty, is a direct result of how you lived in your past life. If you are in a position of privilege and part of the upper castes of the community, there is no need to feel apologetic or defensive about your wealth and ease as you have earned these benefits in a past life. If you are in poverty and distress this is also a direct result of your behaviour in a past life – you are now living out your karma. I am not saying that these societies are completely heartless and cruel but we need to understand that the majority do not feel any compulsion to help those in need because they would be “messing with people’s karma”. Instead they believe they just need to be patient and wait for a better life next time around.
If we look over the basic assumptions on which our society is built, many of these find their genesis in the life and teaching of Jesus.
The unconscious assumption of Australian society is that we are all equal, we are “our brother’s keeper” and we ought to help those in most need. It is helpful to ask where that value came from. It was not part of the Greco-Roman world, it did not come from the Greek philosophers of the period pre-Jesus and it is not part of many other nations today.
For our series, Jesus the Game Changer, we interviewed over 30 authors, researchers and Christian leaders from around the world. One of those was Rodney Stark, a sociologist from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Stark has written over 40 books, many focused on the growth and influence of the Christian church. In Stark’s mind there is no question of the origin of the foundations of Western democracies. When we spoke with Stark about Western values such as caring for those in need and the equality of all people, he made this clear assertion:
“Western civilisation would not exist, had not there been Jesus. I did a book called How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Rise of Modernity. Basically … it’s rooted in the church. It’s rooted in Christianity. It’s rooted in Jesus. These things didn’t happen in the rest of the world.”
If we look over the basic assumptions on which our society is built, many of these find their genesis in the life and teaching of Jesus. In a world that only honoured wealthy, privileged and educated men, Jesus gave all people worth and dignity. He taught that “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40). He gave value to women, elevated the position of children and gave the foundational teaching that created universal educational and healthcare for every level of our community.
At a time where the inclusion of Christian faith in the public square of contemporary society is being questioned, it is essential to recapture our history and to understand the origins of the foundational assumptions of our community. Jesus, St Paul, St Augustine and the Early Church gave Western democracy its foundational assumptions.
Karl Faase is the CEO Olive Tree Media and host of Jesus the Game Changer.More