I am currently on a six week grand tour of Europe that I’ve dubbed the Holy Roman Empire Tour since the bulk of the trip is in former parts of that sprawling, complicated medieval federation of kingdoms. After only visiting the first ancient Greek settlement on Sicily, Naxos, as well as Rome and Florence, I find myself puzzling again over the contemporary attack on European (i.e. Western) culture. (I’ve found my personal favourite town, by the way, right next to Naxos. Its so great I’ve decided to keep it to myself, so I’m not telling you the name.)
The contemporary charges against Western culture are many and varied, but the one that is really puzzling me is that the West is insufficiently interested in diverse cultures and out to destroy them. The solution offered to this ill seems to be to de-emphasize or even abolish traditional Western learning (about Greece, Rome, Christianity etc.) and replace it with Womens Studies, studies of a very African Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, etc. The charge against the West, in a word, is that it is provincial, blinded to the rich cultural treasures all around by its patriarchalism, Christian monotheism and general Western arrogance.
What confuses me so much about this charge is that it doesn’t seem to be at all true.
The Vatican Museum in Rome, for example, must surely be one of the centers of patriarchal, Christian, Western evil. Yet what I found there didn’t quite fit the provincial stereotype. The persecutions of pagan Rome being fresh in the long memory of the Catholic church, you would think they would destroy any memory of this bitter enemy (as, say, ancient South American kingdoms were in the habit of doing.) Instead, huge halls of the Museum are filled with the best of Roman art and culture. Similarly with the Greeks and even the Egyptians, (including a spell from their Book of the Dead… A bit too broad-minded of the Vatican if you ask me.)
In all this, the Vatican shows itself to be culturally liberal in the old sense of the word. Someone who was liberal in this sense was judiciously open-minded to the best of other cultures and points of view, generously giving the benefit of the doubt to things at first strange and alarming. To be culturally liberal now seems to merely mean being undiscriminating, taking the twisted, evil & mediocre along with the good from whatever source. This changes the meaning of liberal from an attribute of cultivated wisdom to one of foolishness, an attitude on par with welcoming change without regard to what sort of change it is.
Personally I’m glad that the Christian West was judiciously open-minded towards these ancient cultures, preserving Homer & Cicero while not continuing to bury live servants with dead leaders like the Pharoahs or force slaves to fight to the death like the Romans.
In Florence, with all its great Renaissance figures, I was reminded of how the West does not just borrow from safely dead cultures. Navigation technology, many ancient Greek writings and much else had been preserved or discovered by the great Saracen Empire. First Mediterranean Europeans and then the rest of Europe were glad to adopt all this from their Muslim foes.
And this culturally liberal attitude continues to this day among Christians in the West. My family and church have long supported the mission organization New Tribes Mission. They specialize in learning the language of tribes that have no written language. They spend years, sometimes decades, learning the language from the tribe, giving the people an alphabet and then translating the Bible into the tribes language, (historically one of the surest ways to have a language preserved). Without their work, many tribal languages and cultures would be lost.
Reverend Edmund Opitz, a grand old man of the liberty movement, once sent me an article of his on the importance of the liberal (or libertarian) arts. Among other things, he argued that those with a firm and confident grounding in their own culture are the ones in the best position to truly appreciate and learn from other cultures. I have learned the truth of this in recent years in my close friendship with a man from the south of India. Working together shortly after he arrived in the U.S., he found our non-discriminatingly liberal co-workers confusing and could find little common ground with them as someone who took the morals, traditions and religion of his own ancient culture very seriously. He quickly latched on to me and, later, my parents as people who took life seriously. Despite my narrow, intolerant Christian attitude towards his Hinduism, we spend wonderful hours together educating each other about our respective cultures.
So if I am correct that the Christian West has long excelled at appreciating other cultures, what does this new multicultural movement bring to the table? As far as I can tell, only one really new thing: the desire to destroy a culture, namely the Western culture.
For myself, in part because I want to appreciate the best that the multitude of cultures has to offer, I will continue to deepen my knowledge of the patriarchal, Christian and not so provincial heritage of the West.
July 3, 2001