Tag Archives: Ian Morris

Why the West Rules, and why love is more important

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.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
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.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
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!

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Why the West Rules—For Now

I am reading Ian Morris’s book, Why the West Rules—for Now.  It’s a fascinating look at the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  One reviewer called it, “The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.”

I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs and Steel which also looks at why the West has its nose in front or, as he puts it, why we have more “stuff”.  Morris runs through innumerable other such studies that fall very roughly into what he calls “long-term lock-in” or “short-term accident” theories, including the succinctly put summary of British poet and politician, Hilaire Belloc in 1898:

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Morris is an archaeologist and ancient historian (I presume the “ancient” part refers to his work rather than himself) and his broad sweep (he calls it “chainsaw art”) takes one on an archaeological, geographical, sociological and biological journey from 2.5 million years ago to 2010.  His ability to keep a vast range of material together and keep the reader interested is impressive as is his wide reading.  Morris writes (as one critic put it) “with wit and clarity that will delight the lay reader.” I agree.

His arguments, conclusions and theories do not concern us here.  I was simply challenged by his comments on Christianity.  If he is a man of faith, it doesn’t show; he writes impartially, but sympathetically, about all the major religions, from emperor worship to the “modern” great faiths.

I am also not particularly interested here in how accurate his understanding of the growth of Christianity may be, but in how others view Christians (and our squabbles) from the outside.  Let me quote a rather lengthy passage (slightly edited) from a section dealing with the dramatic growth of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East, each from a handful of followers to 100 million or so in about three or four centuries.

Jesus wrote no sacred texts, and as early as the 50s (AD) the apostle Paul was struggling to get Christians to agree on a few core points about what Christianity actually was.  Most followers accepted that they should be baptised, pray to God, renounce other gods, eat together on Sundays, and perform good works, but beyond these basic premises, almost anything was possible.  Some held that the God of the Hebrew Bible was merely the last (and lowest) in a series of prior gods.  Others thought the world was evil and so God the Creator must be wicked too.  Or maybe there were two gods, a malevolent Jewish one and Jesus’ wholly good (but unknowable) father.  Or two Jesuses, a spiritual one who escaped crucifixion and a bodily one who died on the cross.  Maybe Jesus was a woman, some suggested, and maybe women were equal to men.  Maybe new revelations could overrule the old ones.  Maybe Jesus’ Second Coming was imminent, in which case no Christian should have sex; maybe its imminence meant Christians should practice free love; or maybe only people who were martyred in horrible ways would go to heaven.

For Buddhists, multiple paths to nirvana were not a problem.  For Christians, however, getting into heaven depended on knowing who God and Jesus were and doing what they wanted, and so the chaos of interpretations forced believers into a frenzy of self-definition.  In the late second century most came to agree that there should be bishops who would be treated as descendants of the original apostles with the authority to judge what Jesus meant.  Preachers with wilder ideas were damned into oblivion, the New Testament crystalized, and the window on revelations closed.  No one could tinker with the Good Book and no one could hear from the Holy Spirit unless the bishops said so; and no one had to renounce marital sex or be martyred, unless they wanted to.

Morris is writing about Christianity’s first couple of centuries.  Once again, one can argue about the detail, but for “chainsaw art” he is not far off.  What about today?  What would an alien from outer space, or more to the point, what would someone outside of Christianity have to say about our internal squabbles, denominationalist standoffs, conservative-liberal warmongering, and a whole host of divisions fervently defended on all sides.

So much of our faith becomes a hearty defence, even open warfare, against what we do not and will not believe.  What we do believe, what we have to offer the world, is lost in the melee.  The great gift we have, what Jesus called his disciples to on the night before his crucifixion, was not just God’s love, mercy and healing, but God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Jesus didn’t simply talk about these things; he modelled them for his followers in his daily decisions and interactions.  He cared enough to stop and listen and touch; he depended on God enough to get up early and pray; he balanced his prayer and reflection with moving forward into new opportunities for ministry.  Ultimately he demonstrated that God’s love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.

You and I are not likely to reduce or even contain the bitter theological turf wars that deny our faith (although I should only speak for myself; you perhaps have more influence than I).  The real question for every Christian is whether we will allow ourselves to be conduits for peace or for war?  Am I willing to let go of my “turf”, turn from arguments and the building of theological and liturgical castles, and put the practicing of God’s love, mercy and healing first; building others up rather than putting them down? 

I am convinced that relationship is more important than rightness; intimacy more fruitful than rules.

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