Thursday, 25 September 2008

Western Values (2)

Western values are based on Christian convictions, regardless whether God is worshipped in churches or not. As Jack Miles wrote in God: A Biography:

"Many in the West no longer believe in God, but lost belief, like a lost fortune, has effects that linger. A young man raised in wealth may, when he comes of age, give his fortune away and live in poverty. His character, however, will remain that of a man raised in wealth, for he cannot give his history away. In a similar way, centuries of rigorous, godly character-building have created an ideal of human character that stands fast even though, for many, its foundation has been removed. When Westerners encounter a culture with a different ideal, when we find ourselves saying, for example, “The Japanese are different,” we discover, indirectly, the strangeness and durability of our own ideal, our inherited sense of what a human being should be."

And strange, when looked at from a distance (or through the eyes of another culture), one’s own cultural heritage might indeed appear to be. Again Jack Miles, this time from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God:

"All mankind is forgiven, but the Lord must die. This is the revolutionary import of the epilogue that, two thousand years ago, a group of radical Jews appended to the sacred scripture of their religion. Because they did so, millions in the West today worship before the image of a deity executed as a criminal, and – no less important – other millions who never worship at all carry within their cultural DNA a religiously derived suspicion that somehow, someday, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20: 16).The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, perhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious icon, and of their further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: “If he was so good, why did he die like that?” In Japanese culture “good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying in such a hideous way – for us, he could only be a criminal.”

Needless to say, this is not how Westerners see it – if they see it at all. The message for them is that by losing everything (one’s life), one wins everything (a place in heaven). In other words, redemptive fulfilment lies at the core of popular Western belief (only the Christian faith recognises original sin and corresponding redemption). For a Chinese this seems hard to grasp, at least for Lin Yutang, who, in 1938, wrote in The Importance of Living:

"All in all, here is still a belief in total depravity, that enjoyment of this life is sin and wickedness, that to be uncomfortable is to be virtuous, and that on the whole man cannot save himself except by a greater power outside. The doctrine of sin is still the basic assumption of Christianity as generally practised today, and Christian missionaries trying to make converts start out by impressing upon the party to be converted a consciousness of sin and of wickedness of human nature (which is, of course, the sine qua non for the ready-made remedy which the missionary has up his sleeve). All in all, you can’t make a man a Christian unless you first make him believe he is a sinner."

It goes without saying that quite some Westerners find this also rather difficult to understand.

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