China on the Heart of the West

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Why did the West succeed?

Dr David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, recounts this story in his book Jesus in Beijing:

The eighteen American tourists visiting China weren’t expecting much from the evening’s scheduled lecture. They were already exhausted from a day of touring in Beijing. But what the speaker had to say astonished them.

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” he said. “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.

At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.

Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.

Next, we focused on your economic system. 

But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.

That is why the West has been so powerful.

The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.

We don’t have any doubt about this.”

This was not coming from some ultra-conservative at a think tank…This was a scholar from China’s premier academic research institute, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, in 2002.

There are some ironies here.

First, that others see the heart of our culture clearly, while we are blind to it.

Second, with all the stories of Chinese theft of intellectual property, aren’t they stealing the wrong thing? If they want power, it’s our God they should be taking. It’s like one of those comic heist movies where you watch them cleverly bypassing lasers, death traps and cameras yet breaking into the completely wrong vault.

Third, that as the West came to global pre-eminence, it simultaneously lost confidence in the religion that led it to such heights. They didn’t have to take the source of our power from us, we’ve given it up ourselves.

Fourth, despite Dr. Wu’s praise, the Chinese haven’t asked the next and deeper question. If all this flowering and pre-eminence came from Christianity, well, it’s in the name: could it be because Jesus is who He says He is?

That’s the real source of our flourishing. But it involves acknowledging the King whom God has sent, and obeying His rule and kingly power. Here’s Peter J. Leithart in First Things magazine:

In the final analysis, “human affairs” and “things divine” won’t stay put in their neutral corners. This is why I prefer Stanley Hauerwas’s straightforward confession: “I often enjoy making liberal friends, particularly American liberal friends, nervous by acknowledging that I am of course a theocrat.”

That “of course” is the kicker. For Hauerwas, it’s obvious that a Christian must be a theocrat. He’s right. “Theocracy” means “rule of God,” and the Christian gospel is, in a literal sense, a theocratic message: Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God. Against the Roman conviction that “Caesar is lord,” Christians proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” 

One of the most-cited psalms in the New Testament is Psalm 2, which announces that the Lord has established his Son as king, ruler, and heir to the nations. Another recurring text is Psalm 110, where David says “my Lord” is seated at the right hand of God, ruling until his enemies become his footstool. The theocratic import of the gospel wasn’t lost on the Church’s enemies. At Thessalonica, Paul’s Jewish opponents dragged Christians before the city leaders on the charge that they turned the world upside down by saying that “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17).

Christians sometimes flinch from the political import of these claims. We nervously spiritualize, we frantically privatize. “Jesus is Lord” is translated into “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior”—somewhat, as Ken Myers likes to put it, like a “personal trainer.” Jesus’s kingdom is said to be a “spiritual kingdom” that leaves Caesar’s realm pretty much intact.

That’s a dangerous misreading of the gospel. As Hauerwas says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ is not my personal opinion” but “a determinative political claim.” …

This is frightening, and it’s supposed to be. Psalm 2 exhorts rulers and judges to “take warning, worship with reverence, and rejoice with trembling.” Jesus is gentle, but he’s not someone you trifle with”

If it was Christ’s power that watered the garden of the West, will things go as well for us without Him?

As Moses said

Is it thus you repay the Lord,

O senseless and foolish people?

Is he not your father who created you,

he who made you, on whom you depend?