When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi said, “I think it would be a good idea.” Much of the world’s envy towards the West comes from the misdirection and fear projected from the West by its’ deeds. These deeds are influenced by a collection of shared human needs and values. Philippe Nemo, Professor of Philosophy and the History of Political Ideas at the European School of Management, in his penetrating book, What is the West
, questions “whether certain values in the West have achieved a universality that must be defended” from both external forces and from deterioration within . How á propos to explore this inquiry during this credit crisis; a time of much economic instability. And how much longer can we continue our self-imposed Ponzi scheme, of buying our own debt, before some foreseeable economic tragedy threatens the civilized nature of our existence? Such a tragedy seems impossible, but is it? And how are we left vulnerable?
In order to maintain our sovereignty from external and internal forces, we must clearly understand our motivations, to successfully navigate through these icebergs of uncertainty. I believe some of these motivations to be the same ones a society must have in order to be civilized. Specifically, the values our founding fathers proclaim as unalienable rights in the United States Declaration of Independence; “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These unalienable rights, together with Christian Eschatology and the moral teachings of the Beatitudes, are exactly what a society must value in order to be civilized, and more importantly, to continue existing as a sovereign and civilized society. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not focusing on the religion, but more on the teachings, as I’ll explain further on.
A society that fails to value life would preclude being civilized by default; however, valuing “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as unalienable rights, requires some explanation. Carol Hamilton, in “The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’” asserts that, "happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are ‘civic virtues,’ not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to ‘social happiness.’" To reiterate, Dr. Hamilton is saying the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is best achieved when citizens are content with each other, –being happy, healthy and prosperous– and their community is in harmony. Similarly we can surmise that our unalienable right to “liberty” comes from the Greek Miracle, where “as a free person, with full and certain knowledge of what is lawful and unlawful, the citizen assumes full responsibility for personal actions in society” . In other words, civilized citizens are responsible for their individual freedoms and equality under the law and do so cooperatively in the pursuit of harmony in the community.
To ethically inspire Dr. Hamilton’s “civic virtues,” on the road to being civilized, we need to look for universal entitlement to the rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and we can find this entitlement in our responsibility to each other, as stated in the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount makes the point stronger than anything before it –giving a universal entitlement to all– in that “each person accept full responsibility and assume all consequences for human suffering, even though that person is not the original cause” . This period is the beginning of our journey down the road to being civilized, because it breaks from self-centric, non-responsibility, and includes all people, regardless of stature in the community. We can now build upon this new motivation for progress in the name of righteousness, or even from a secular and ethical perspective. Either way, we need a form of universal justice to move forward, towards the goal of ending suffering with purpose and resolve.
Biblical ethics claims that compassion surpasses justice, and that unlike Christian love, justice fulfills its obligations according to a set of limitations. Beyond presenting Christ’s rhetorical proficiencies, the Beatitudes go on to announce promises of an infinite reward, and a new form of righteous justice called the “Kingdom of God.” Compassion, as in “blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” one of the eight Beatitudes in the New Testament (Matthew 5:3-10). It is this “infinity of love and the infinity of the Kingdom that escapes all human reckoning and control. As such, it breaks from the moral and legal traditions inherited from pagan antiquity” . Nemo’s point is that these infinite and righteous concepts bestow the moral duty of Christians and even non Christians, to break the laws of the establishment in the name of compassion and infinite love, in an effort to end human suffering. Break laws? Stay with me for clarification.
It took the coming of Christ to shake the foundations of society’s lawful systems, in such a way, as to even transform the concept of time as it had been viewed. Our modern-day, forward-moving concept of time as B.C or A.D, was founded when the “bible divorced itself from the serenity of pagan ethics, and severed all ties with cyclical time, and the notion of eternal return” . Nemo is asserting that it is Christianity that breaks from the “nothing under the sun is new” belief, envisioning a day of reckoning for the acts of all humans. It is this eschatology that is the driving force which ensures our civilized values
Where once we had the values of “an eye for an eye” restraining our vengeance, the Beatitudes now give us compassion, and a devotion to ending the suffering of mankind, through the teachings of the gospel. The greatest merit no longer went to those who resolved problems in the community, but those who created them
. That is a paradigm shift of great significance. “The good life, as conceived by Aristotle, no longer consisted of being an organic part of a just city. On the contrary, acceptance and support for the existing order of things was now the very essence of evil”
. Nemo is insisting the legal system of that time –the Roman Empire– was called out, and was no longer acceptable if people were suffering because of it. It was a Christian duty to expose these problems by example and dissent.
This legal dissension seems contradictory to the unalienable rights of social happiness and harmony espoused by our founding fathers, but the two opposing views work together with synergy and urgency, towards a boundless justice. Contemporaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi all participated directly in this principle, of not only finding injustice, but creating the problems that forced society to change. Nelson Mandela, a baptized Christian who led the movement against apartheid, once said; “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” This is a key distinction in the motivation for the infinite progress of mankind, as Nemo further articulates; “even when such created problems are resolved other individuals similarly possessed of infinite love and intolerant of human suffering, will create more problems and so on and so forth as long as suffering exists in this world” . Put yet another way, progress must involve Christian eschatology’s forward thinking value of linear time, with its promise of a future that “requires active charity in the real world to accomplish its purpose” . It is this urgent hunger for compassion and progress that insures the West’s superiority to competing nations, by constantly pressing forward with urgency. The urgency comes from the anxiety of knowing people are suffering, and we cannot just sit around and do nothing, and still call ourselves civilized, let alone, get to heaven. We must do something to change the system that causes the suffering while we are still alive to do it. “To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” .
How then do these values for a civilized society apply to a secular and diverse religious culture? Universally people have a need to improve on the quality of life for themselves, if not all humanity, and constantly struggle in pursuit of this simple progress of necessity. In fact, according to Maslow’s Theory on The Hierarchy of Needs, deprivation of the need for “self-actualization as well as physiological needs, can cause neurosis and maladjustment. The satisfaction of those needs is the only treatment" . These psychological and self-actualizing needs are influenced by the foundational and moral teachings of religions for relief from our inherent narcissism, which is more pervasive at the lower levels of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy. Simplistically stated, we are hard wired to move beyond the basic necessities of life, to become enlightened loving beings.
Ronald Inglehart, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, and Director of the World Values Survey, is at the forefront of studying society values and their changing impact.
The demand for religion should be far stronger among low-income nations than among rich ones; and among the less secure strata of society than among the affluent. We hypothesized that as a society moves past the early stages of industrialization, and life becomes less nasty, less brutish and longer, people tend to become more secular in their orientations. Analysis of data from societies around the world revealed that the extent to which people emphasize religion and engage in religious behavior could, indeed, be predicted with considerable accuracy from a society’s level of economic development and other indicators of human development" .
Inglehart has found that people in more developed societies do not need to value traditional Christian religion to maintain a civilized social happiness. Inglehart’s findings support Maslow’s hierarchy by showing that the lower level needs such as the need for belonging –which religion and community fulfill– is emphasized more, and correlates directly to ones level of prosperity, and other indicators of human development, like education and reason. It implies that higher level needs are met with higher levels of prosperity and human development, thereby deemphasizing traditional religion. Proving this further Inglehart finds that even “though established religious organizations have declined in most advanced industrial societies, we are not witnessing a decline in spiritual concerns, but rather a redirection of them” . This also confirms Maslow’s Theory that the need for religious belonging is inherent, and its spirituality continues or still exists during self-actualization. We see this in a culture’s transformation to a sort of local utopianism, in that a large part of society –especially the educated– believes in the principle lessons of a religion, and having a moral compass, but doesn’t necessarily believe in the traditions, and some to the extent of even minimizing, or ruling out a supreme deity or Kingdom of God.
It is the internalization of these Christian or other religion’s morals that make the secular society civilized. “The most persuasive evidence about secularization in educated rich nations concerns values and behavior” . The predominant religious and cultural traditions in any society are expected to leave a distinct imprint upon the contemporary moral beliefs and social attitudes that are widespread among the public. “If secularization has occurred in post-industrial nations, then the influence of religious traditions can be expected to have faded” . Societies have learned the principles of these traditions and are applying them with less participation in organized denominational religion. In connecting the dots, it makes sense that the forward-thinking religious principles which pull us out of Maslow’s lower level needs, lead to a self-actualizing life of significance that is not focused on religious traditions but rather on their concepts. “I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away. The average man is a full human being with dampened and inhibited powers and capacities” . People become more civilized when self-actualized and free from the lower instincts of survival. They are better able to act independently on their responsibility to others.
Some people say the Kingdom of God is a sort of circular fallacy but that is missing the point completely. “The old saying that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ reflects the fact that physical danger leads to a need for belief in a higher power” . Inglehart’s evidence clearly shows how the lower level primal needs of religion are affected by external influences. The concept of Christ’s teaching in the Beatitudes has brought people to live in the higher forward-thinking levels of needs through their prosperity and education. It is not the concept of Christ’s divinity that is in question, as much as understanding the message. Whether one believes it is of divine origin or profound wisdom is not the point. The moral teachings are self-evident and the secularization of the message gives a whole new meaning to the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger,” and I suspect it partly responsible for the messengers crucifixion, whether he was of divine origin or not.
Although valuing unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with the eschatological Christian moral teachings of the Beatitudes may seem of concern to only a devout group of citizens, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about the continued sovereignty of our nation. It is the forward-thinking infinite progress of mankind that we are protecting, because it is what motivates us to civility. It is Christian eschatology that motivates our urgent progress and ensures this civilized sovereignty. It is the unalienable rights that unify individual and social happiness allowing society and its dynamically changing definition of religion to coexist in harmony. It is the universal Christian right to infinite love and compassionate responsibility for each other that tells us to protect each other from the forces that conspire to diminish these values. To stand against a system that causes suffering. So I ask, what is the West and should we defend it as is or elevate our social consciousness and become the problem that forces change? When Gandhi said "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind” he was agreeing with Christian eschatology’s forward-thinking righteousness and saying that Western civilization “would be a good idea” probably meant that he believed we are guided in the right direction but not there yet. One day, if we continue to play our cards right, history may show that he was right.
 Nemo, Philippe. What is the West? Publisher: Duquesne University Press (December 15, 2005)
 Hamilton, Carol V. “The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’”
History News Network 28 Jan. 2007. .
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Applied Ethics http://www.scu.edu/ethics/architects-of-peace/Mandela/essay.html
 Maslow, Abraham. “Transpersonal Pioneers: Abraham Maslow”, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. http://www.itp.edu/about/abraham_maslow.php
 Inglehart, Ronald, and Norris Pippa. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics
Worldwide Cambridge University Press; illustrated edition Sept. 27, 2004.
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H. Maslow (The A. H. Maslow series) Brooks/Cole Pub. Co (1973).
Maslow, Abraham. “A Theory of Human Motivation” appeared in Psychological Review
St. Matthew, The Holy Bible New Testament Gospel of St. Matthew 5:3-10
About the author: Ice Goldberg is the Political Contributing Editor at The Activist Motivator social network