1 September 2002
The Gift of Medieval Christendom to the World
The West is very remarkable and unique in the world. The West has relieved human suffering to a unprecedented degree; the West has developed freedom to a unparalleled level, both in freedom of coercion by other men and in freedom of opportunity to rise above one's original station in life. This is demonstrated by an incredible standard of living where even its "poor" are rich by global standards. It is also seen in the full political rights of all and the accepted idea of equality of all-including women and minorities. It is most obviously seen in the elimination of slavery-that universal plague of mankind that still persists in the world today. Can anyone dispute the fact that untold millions who could, would cherish the opportunity to move here; while those who live here and have the freedom to leave, stay here?
The key question is "Why?" What is it about the development of the West that made it so remarkable and unique? Why in the West are all people important? What is the ultimate source of these ideals of freedom, equality and limited government? What was the defining ideological force that uniquely shaped the West's political development, especially in its formative medieval period?
I believe the best and really only answer to all the above questions is the gradual assimilation of Judeo-Christianity in the West. By arguing that humankind is "made in the image of God", medieval thinkers developed the idea of the dignity of the individual, not something arbitrary-man-given, but a reality, inherent in every person-God-given. This gradual assimilation of this ideal, for example, gave rise to the Cortes' in Spain, the Reichstag in Germany, the Estates-General in France and the Parliament in England. It gave rise to bills of rights, to limits over the powers of kings (i.e. weak governments), to property rights, to taxation by consent, to the development of common law and to that great document of freedom, the Magna Carta. No man, including the king, was better than all others.
How can we know if this is true? We must look at the indisputable historical facts without the fear of being labeled ethnocentric. Where in the modern world do we find freedom? Freedom, as we know it, can be found in Europe-before and after the totalitarians, in England, Canada, the United States, parts of Latin America, and parts of the Pacific Rim. It is never found in the ancient world, though Athens and the Roman Republic came closest. It is never found in the rest of the modern world. Freedom is unique to the areas of the world that have been touched by Christianity.
I argue that the development of medieval political structures with their limiting of the power of the governments and the resulting freedom for commerce, and the freeing or releasing of human energy coincides with the assimilation of the ideas of the dignity of the human being-"created in the image of God". This was a gift of the spread of Christianity in Europe, or as many call it "Christendom".
Most world history books identify all the characteristics used in my argument but, in my opinion, fail to give them the significance they deserve. These books do not really give an explanation of the coincidence of Christianity and the freedom that follows it around.
(I know the Enlightenment gets all the credit for what I have said about freedom. But, where on the globe did the Enlightenment arise? In a vacuum or in Christendom? And again, the key question is "Why? Why did the Enlightenment spring up in Christendom?")