I have now finished reading Ian Morris’ book, Why the West Rules — For Now. At 645 pages it’s a big book, and in more than just length. I touched on his gloss on Christianity in an earlier post.
Overall his idea is that nothing really makes much difference to the fairly inexorable strides of history. Morris declares that biology tells us why humans push social development upward; sociology tells us how they do this (or fail to). In Morris’s view however it is geography that tells us why one region will come out “on top” of another at a particular time. Therefore (one of his catchphrases) “maps, not chaps,” make all the difference. One’s physical environment (geography) shapes how social development changes in a given region. On the other hand, changes in social development will also shape what the physical environment means at any one point. Morris gives an example: “Living on top of a coalfield meant very little two thousand years ago, but two hundred years ago it began meaning a lot.”
Because it is “maps not chaps”, Morris is convinced that “great men/women and bungling idiots have never played as big a part in shaping history as they have believed they did. Rather than changing the course of history…the most chaps could do was to speed up or slow down the deeper process driven by maps.”
I am impressed by the breadth of his scholarship and his invitation to others to use his ideas as a starting point for discussion; although, if the timelines suggested at the end of his book are anything to go by, there isn’t much time for discussion.
What I particularly appreciated about the book was the great overview of history that it gives of both East and West. I enjoy history, but my reading is limited and fairly focused. Morris expands one’s view and presents an interesting link among the pieces.
I am not in a position to debate Morris’s theories or his methods but once again it is my faith that is challenged. It appears that in Morris’s world God is either the invention of human beings, largely for political reasons, or God is indeed the detached clockmaker that seventeenth-century thinkers imagined him to be, “switching on the interlocking gears that made nature run and then stepping back.”
I don’t have the theory to counter such arguments. What I do have is faith; an experience of God that may defy logic sometimes, and even history; an experience of a God who does indeed interfere in creation and human history. God’s interventions are not often on the macro scale that would change the nature or overall course of his design. But God creates, connects and invites. God loves, covenants and sacrifices. While the Church may have been (and in many ways may still be) a political institution, it has survived and grows today, not because of politics (or geography) but because of God’s intervention in the lives of individuals and communities. I can’t prove that on the scale of a Morris, but I have experienced it to be true, and countless others have discovered its truth for themselves as well.
In the end I’m not sure that the debate would be all that important. If God were to intervene at a macro level and point history (and geography) in completely different and unpredictable directions, our calling would remain unchanged. We are called to live out our faith in the world as we experience it. For some, like Luther, and Wesley and Desmond Tutu, that means living large, and challenging the status quo, but for all of us it means God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world. Whether God raises nations out of obscurity to overwhelm the status quo at various times or the changes occur simply as a result of how he made the world in the beginning, makes little or no difference to that calling. Ultimately God demonstrated in Jesus that his love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself. If that is true then God’s love for us and our love for others are certainly more important than the political, sociological or geographical changes our world endures from time to time.
Our bible reading this morning was Psalm 8, and perhaps there lies the truth for us to ponder:
1 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
5 You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
- Why the West Rules – For Now (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)