The most important question of the coming year is not “who will be the next occupant of the White House?” The single most important matter before us all is a monumental question of value. It is a question that may be stated, “Will the Western world embrace the very thing that holds it together. Or will it continue the denial of the obvious and seal its inevitable decline?” Let me explain.
In historiography – the study of history – professional historians are often torn between what is called “lower history” and “higher history.” Higher history aims to chronicle the past through grand events such as “kings and queens” and wars and treaties. Lower history, however, traces the record of mankind through often unseen events, underlying popular philosophies and, often, obvious facts. Thinking about lower history, British historian, Dr. Niall Ferguson, has drawn our attention to a lower historical fact that, as he proposes in his latest and most exceptional (if not unsettling) work, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin Press, 2011).
Ignoring political-correctness in favor of the obvious, Ferguson appeals to his readers to see that the remarkable civilization called the West is just so because of what he refers to as “six killer apps” (using a computer metaphor). These apps are fundamental common commitments—a worldview, if you will—which has brought about the greatest advances in human history and the greatest opportunities for men to live free, happy lives. These “killer apps,” according to Niall Ferguson, are “competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic” (p. 13)– specifically, the Protestant work ethic that came as a result of this reformation in the 16th century. Ferguson describes this sixth application of Western civilization as “the glue of the dynamic” (p. 13) that allows the other features to work. Yet Ferguson also observes that, “the Protestant ethic of thrift that one seemed so central to the Western project has all but vanished.” (p. 17)
Where did that Protestant work ethic come from? Niall Ferguson admits that before the Protestant Reformation (and the counter-reformation that influenced the Roman Catholic Church), freedom and that which we call Western Civilization were hardly free and barely civilized. The Greco-Roman democratic systems the West inherited were not enough. It took a surge of biblical truths dispersed into every area of life. Those truths were precisely what Martin Luther recovered and what John Calvin taught. The Protestant work ethic came out of their teachings, based on the Scriptures, and were galvanized in the popular conscience of their time and afterwards gave rise to the other five “apps” that Ferguson cites, and, indeed, “activated” them. The “activation code” that unlocked Western Civilization was nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ applied from the Bible to every aspect of cultural life. In short, the gospel opened up a new world of opportunity for mankind. This was the “operating system,” according to Ferguson, that nations embraced and thereby became “Western civilization.”
The question is now, “will the Western world disavow the very worldview – the glue, the Protestant work ethic, the Reformation truth–that activated the ‘software’ that generated Western civilization, and that brought so much life, liberty, and happiness? Or will we foolishly ignore it in the name of a secular substitute that is powerless to re-boot the system?” No one will deny that (still using the computer metaphor) there is a giant “Error Message” on the screen of Western civilization. Something has malfunctioned and every other application is either no longer operational or running too sluggish to be productive.
Ferguson helps us to see what is going on is not the absence of a “higher historical” figure to fix us, but a “lower historical” faith to free us: the faith of the Bible and of the Redeemer it presents: Jesus Christ. Ferguson ends his excellent treatise by declaring, “today…the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity–and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”(p. 325)
To ignore that one “killer app” called the Reformation is to sink deeper into debt, fall farther into moral calamity, and witness our great institutions slide faster into the abyss of history.
The greatest challenge before us in 2012 is not merely to choose an individual in America who will become president and expose this ignorance and lead us back to the truth, but to recover what Churchill called for, “a large majority of mankind united together to defend” the truth that got us where we are today. We have every hope that since it has been done before, it can be done again. Let’s pray so. Our civilization depends upon it.