Why Western Studies?
Evidence of Western decline
Cultural critics are rightly concerned that we are declining as a civilization in the West. Once Western civilization imagined and created universities, hospitals, cathedrals, great art and music, all through the thoughtful combination of Greek and Christian thought that formed the basis for Western Reason (exemplified in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas). Today, while we may sustain the outward appearance of these institutions, our culture has lost the general Christian convictions it once held, and the result is that these institutions are becoming hollowed-out and confused. Universities teach there is not truth, hospitals practice abortion, great cathedrals house more tourists than worshippers, fine art has gone from public significance to private museums, and we no longer believe there is a connection between faith and reason. We are living on borrowed capital from that earlier age of faith, and many historians and cultural critics are predicting that the West as a civilization is lost. While none would want to go back to a world of plagues, feudal warfare and bad plumbing (which is still the way of life in many other parts of the world), we would like to regain and retain anything that past generations have accomplished that could be called truly timeless, and we want to find ways to apply those ideas to human life in our own day.
There is also a mounting concern to solve the problems our culture faces. Compassionate citizens desire to see something done for those in need. Some would offer money, vocational education, or training in literacy. Some would work toward ideological freedom from oppression of various sorts: sexual, familial, racial, economic, and political. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to teach the next generations to grow in their knowledge and application of the accumulated wisdom of our culture? Thinking our forefathers’ ideas after them is not the domain of the rich or privileged any longer. Wisdom is available to all who avail themselves of it. But what is this accumulated wisdom? It seems our universities disagree about it. Is it a catalogue of answers to all possible questions? Or the gnostic knowledge of the few handed to the privileged? Is it Rationalism? Scientism? Communism? Feminism? Is it Irrationalism? Taoism? Confucianism? Islam? Is it a combination of all of these? Some sort of Universalism? Jungian archetypes found in the echoes of all “isms”? Or rather could wisdom be the view of the world as put forth in the Bible, that there is an eternal God who made things by speaking His designs into existence; Who created man and woman in His image for good work, gave them both written and general revelation, and a mind to bring the pieces of this revelation together in cohesion; who loved His created people so much that He offered Himself in their place when they rebelled against Him, who has designed a way for us (through the death of our selfish selves) to live in unity and peace with Him forever, and who thinks enough of both His design of us and the design of creation itself to build a new heaven and earth for our reborn selves to live in?
Some would question giving special privilege to Western culture. Shouldn’t Christians be giving equal attention to human cultures throughout the world? We argue that the very existence of the study of non-Western cultures is the result of Western scholarship. It has not been the rich and varied Indian, Chinese, and African cultures that have inquired about all cultures, rather it is the studied and trained eyes and minds of the West that have made it possible to know and love what is great about other cultures.
But what about multi-culturalism? Aren’t we being a bit sheltered by only considering the West? It turns out that Western civilization is a combination of many different cultures. Western civilization includes influences from the Middle East and North Africa as well as Greek, Roman, Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Scandinavian, Gallic, and Slavic influences (to name only a few). It is nowhere near as monolithic as some would have us think. The West itself is a varied mosaic based on a set of basic ideas about God, man, and cosmos that when applied give birth to cultures as diverse as Scot and Slav, American Hillbilly and Coptic Egyptian – the result of many different peoples embracing the truth of the Christian gospel (even if in the last 200 years that gospel has been increasingly dismissed). This thinking has spread everywhere the West has sent missionaries, so that Western thinking has taken root in South America as well as South Korea, and born delightful varieties of art, music, cooking, architecture, and literature.
The basis of knowledge is faith
If this is correct, then to ignore this foundational Christian view of the world will make it impossible to make any sense of the life we’ve been given, or see the good to be found in either Western culture OR any other culture. Many questions have haunted mankind in every generation: where did we come from? What is this life for? What is love, what is death? How do we explain our experiences of joy and despair, or of the haunting notion that this world is not all there is? Unless we take into account the plans of God we can study whatever we choose wherever we like but it seems to ultimately lead only to nonsense and madness. Further, without God’s revealing that our minds are reliable, reason itself becomes untrustworthy, and therefore absurd. So the basis of any real knowledge must be faith, and as Christians, that faith is quite specific. This is the foundation we offer at the Center for Western Studies, and on that foundation we study the great books, art, music, and history of our own Western ancestors.
Victor Davis Hanson wrote a compelling short defense of the Western Humanities here.