05 February 2010

On the inherent superiority of Western culture

Cultural chauvinism is alive and well, it seems. Hat-tip to The Western Confucian: The West Is the Best, But Don't Dismiss the Rest for this:

On the inherent superiority of Western culture: Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity:
Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion. If there were any way to get around that, I would have found it by now. But the fact that the Gospel was written in Greek using concepts such as “logos” that had been in formation in the Greek mind for centuries is no mere accident of history. God could have been incarnated in the context of another culture, just as He “could have” been incarnated in a pearl or an ass. But He did not do that; He came into this world at a very specific time and a very specific place, as did His Body, the Church. Even the Fathers of the Church saw this, and there will always be a superiority of the Greek and Latin tongues to all others, just as the Muslims consider Koranic Arabic sacred, or the Jews Hebrew.

Reading that kind of thing makes me despair.

Assuming that the paragraph I quoted is the premiss, and the heading is the conclusion, I wonder what went wrong. I suppose I should feel relief that this kind of cultural chauvinism isn't confined to Orthodoxy. It's a universal sin.

I've been asked to write an article on the Orthodox diaspora, and so various incidents come to mind.

One, from about 7-8 years ago, was when I went with a rather mixed group of people to be interviewed on the Greek community radio station. One of those being interviewed with us was Johannes Rakumako, a Tswana-speaking South African who was a first-year student at the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi. He had returned home briefly for his father's funeral, and he started to say something about life in the seminary when the presenter interrupted him and asked him what had made him interested in "our Greek culture".

He was gobsmacked, and didn't know what to say. I doubt that he had given Greek culture much thought at all. He was being asked a question from a totally alien mindset.

A second incident from the diaspora that comes to mind is from the film My big fat Greek wedding. We bought a copy of it to show African catechumens from the townships so that they can learn something about Greek culture and Greek cultural chauvinsim. If they become Orthodox, then they are bound to meet Greeks sometime, since most of the Orthodox in South Africa have a Greek cultural background. The film was made in the USA, but in spite of that it fits South African Greek diaspora culture right down to the hairstyles, and the only difference is the accents. The film depicts the "our Greek culture" that the radio presenter was talking about, and so it is a good and good-natured humourous introduction, and in many places it pokes gentle fun at some of the foibles of Greek diaspora culture (which differs markedly from Greek culture in Greece).

But there is one part that was not intended to be humorous or ironic, and that is where the Anglo husband-to-be is baptised in the Orthodox Church, and after he is baptised he says "I'm Greek now".

And that is tragic, and leads to the third incident: when we were in a church hall, having tea after the Divine Liturgy, and a woman announced, loudly for all to hear, "The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture."

So it's interesting, and perhaps a little consoling, to see that some Western Christians are under a a similar misapprehension. Though that too goes back a long way -- when Saints Cyril and Methodius evangelised the Slavs, they translated the liturgical texts and the scriptures into Slavonic, and were criticised by Rome for doing so, because of Rome's belief that only Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the languages that Pilate used for the inscription on the cross of Christ, could be used in church.

And so I return to the the bit that I quoted at the beginning. To paraphrase another writer, there is to much magnificent truth mixed up with these appalling falsehoods that it smacks of perversity even to attack its perverseness.

Yes, Christianity is a historical religion. Yes, God chose to become incarnate in history in a particular time and place. But he chose to become incarnate in the multicultural Roman empire of a Jewish mother who probably spoke Aramaic rather than Latin or Greek.

But the title of the post says it all: Western culture is "inherently" superior. In other words, God chose to become incarnate in Western culture (actually he didn't, but that is what the author of the post apparently believes) because it was superior to other cultures.

I'm reminded of George Orwell's book Animal farm where the animals on a farm rebel against their human masters, and set up an ideal farm in which all animals are equal. Equality is the watchword and slogan of the revolution, but as time passes one group of animals, the pigs, claim extra privileges for themselves, and begin to lord it over the other animals as the men had done, and when the other animals question this, the pigs say, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." And so here we have the Western pigs claiming to be inherently superior. They were chosen by God for special privileges because they were better than anyone else.

Samuel Huntington, in his book The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order writes of this Western superiority

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.

And when God became incarnate, the Romans were in Judaea because of their superiority in applying organized violence.

But this perversion is nothing new.

The history of the Church goes back to Abraham, to whom God said:

and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:2-3).

seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:18)

Abraham and his progeny were chosen in order that they might be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. They were not chosen because they were "inherently superior", but rather because they were inferior, a small and weak people, of no account among the great powers of the world.

But the church of the Old Testament, the people of Israel, were often seduced by the notion that God had chosen them for a special blessing because they were inherently superior, and forgot he had chosen them in order to be a blessing to others. And when that happened, sooner or later, and with more or less pain, they learned that it was not so and were brought back to the true path.

Let us not be seduced into the same error. Belief in the "inherent superiority" of our own culture is one of the most impenetrable insulations against the Holy Spirit that exists in the world.


The young fogey said...

...some of the foibles of Greek diaspora culture (which differs markedly from Greek culture in Greece).

What are some of the differences?

Reminds me of the difference I've heard of between 'Guido' culture in the US (violent) and men in Italy (not violent).

Aquila ka Hecate said...

Belief in the "inherent superiority" of our own culture is one of the most impenetrable insulations against the Holy Spirit that exists in the world.

Yes. It's also responsible for the destruction of so many landbases and sustainable ways of life.

But maybe we're saying the same thing.

Terri in Joburg

Sally said...

well said Steve- inherent superiority is its own blindfold and hence its own curse....

Ploni Almoni said...

We Jews do consider Hebrew sacred, but also there's a Midrash that the Torah was translated by Moses in 70 languages. Hebrew was both the language of Rabbinic writings (though sometimes Aramaic, and even in the Middle Ages in Muslim lands, Arabic) and the language of prayer and the Bible, but this is because Judaism *is* a historical religion and a culture in a way that Christianity is not, and Hebrew is a language that carries meanings very different from English (though in some ways similar to Greek, which the sages of the Talmud said was the best language for translating scripture, despite their disdain for the Septuagint, due to the verse "Japeth (identified with Greece) will sit in the tents of Shem".)

Judaism also "doesn't seek to have missionaries", though not for chauvinistic reasons, but rather because we don't believe that it is necessary for someone to be a Jew to be beloved by G-d, or that it would be desirable for everyone to be a Jew, any more than it would be desirable for everyone to be an American, but it seems rather odd for a branch of Christianity to say that! We don't do that, as Steve points out, out of a sense of superiority though, but out of a sense of needing to preserve our way of life as a separate priesthood-nation.

Rambam (Maimonidies) saw the role of Christianity and Islam to spread ideas about monotheism to everyone as being a part of the divine plan. I tend to think that everything has a proper place in the world, and it's inappropriate for one group, amongst all of the religions that seek tolerance, to say "everyone should be like us, and everyone else should be extinct". That seems to me, to be the worst form of chauvinism.

Steve Hayes said...


Differences are too numerous to enumerate. One is that in diaspora churches tend to be run like secular businesses, by businessmen.


Yes, though was it is is one thing, what it is resonsible for anaother, or rather a lot of other things, not all of them bad, though even the good ones would be better without the superior attitude.


There are many similarities and many differences, often not all of them where we expect them to be, again, too numerous to enumerate here.

Ploni Almoni said...

Some of them are where you'd expect them to be though, Greek is a much more philosophical language, though Rabbinic Hebrew picked up Greek philosophical terms by way of Medieval Arabic. (And other Greek words by way of Palestinian Aramaic.)

Ploni Almoni said...

Also, it's not just language, the Talmud poses philosophical issues, when it does so, in very prosaic and concrete terms. A very different cultural context than Greek discourse, though the logic of the Talmud is as difficult as anything you'd find in Greek philosophy. It wasn't until Medieval Sephardic Jewery began Jewish philosophy that ideas such as you'd find in Greek discourse entered the Jewish mainstream, though interestingly the Western Church was much influenced by this philosophy, especially Aquinas who owed a lot to Maimonidies, so there was some cross-fertilization going on even in the West in the Middle Ages. Of course, if one counts Jewish mysticism as philosophy, ideas like "logos" have a much older provence in Judaism, though of course in a very different context, going back to Mishlei (Proverbs) of Solomon.


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