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The Impulse Of Power: Formative Ideals Of Western Civilization

by Michael W. Kelley

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A fierce dispute has arisen between the older traditionalists who believe in the goodness of Western culture and the newer multiculturalists who revile it as evil and oppressive. While the former seek to rejuvenate its core beliefs, the latter wish only to destroy it. Should they be heeded who suggest that the ideals of classical man need to be recovered in order to revive the lost vision of culture that made the West what it is in the first place? Should we accept the argument of those who wish to restore the displaced ideals represented by the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Humanism? Can such salvage operations succeed? Is it possible to remake Western civilization on the same basis from which it first sprang up? If so, why should one accept that it will turn out better the second time?

From a Christian perspective, each and every cultural endeavor of man, Western man included, must be subjected to a careful scrutiny based upon what does not derive from culture itself, indeed, does not derive from man in any sense. That is, the Christian perspective on all human life and endeavor must ultimately rest upon what can only be described as the Divine point of view, in other words, on revelation!

About the Author
Michael W. Kelley is a graduate of Biola University, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Villanova University. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Duquesne University. He is the author of The Burden of God: Studies in Wisdom and Civilization from the Book of Ecclesiastes and On Stone or Sand, the Ethics of Christianity, Capitalism & Socialism.

Excerpted from The Impulse of Power: Formative Ideals of Western Civilization by Michael W. Kelley. Copyright © 1999. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved
Preface In his thought-provoking book, Christ the Meaning of His- tory, Hendrikus Berkhof remarked: "History is the study of man's actions and decisions. It is the terrain on which man's cul- tural mission is realized; along with this it is also the terrain of his self-realization." (p. 17)

As the title indicates, Berkhof thinks it necessary to evalu- ate the "terrain of man's cultural mission" in terms of Christ. Is this conceivable? What can Christ possibly have to do with man's "cultural mission?" In our modern, secular age this scarcely seems plausible. For some time now mankind has been busy fashioning culture without the least reference to Christ. We could even say that, at the present, mankind shows a decided aversion to Christ, and not least in his cultural efforts. For most people, Christ means religion, and they dismiss religion as irrele- vant to man's life, his culture especially. Perhaps, we should qual- ify this. Most people object to any religion that presents the demands of Christ, but not to a religion where their own inter- ests receive top priority. Thus, in claiming that religion is irrele- vant for culture, they do not mean all religion, only the Christian religion.

Berkhof's assertion that Christ is the meaning of history might not make much of an impact on the thinking of the secu- lar men of today - the elites who control the agenda of the insti- tutions in which culture is discussed and fostered most especially - but what effect does this thought have on those who call them- selves Christians? Do Christians even imagine that there is any connection between Christ and history? Mind, we are not asking what role Christ played in history, as if our concern were merely with the person of Jesus and his effect on the people of his day two thousand years ago. Nor are we asking what impact the Christian religion has made on human history in the two thou- sand years of its existence, although this is not irrelevant. That Jesus had a following in history, that he engaged the devotion and beliefs of many throughout these two millennia is not in question. Rather, what we are asking, as does Berkhof, is what is the meaning of Christ for history - history being the terrain of man's "cultural mission?" Does Christ have any meaning for the unfolding of man's cultural mission? If so, do we have an obliga- tion to evaluate man's cultural mission in terms of Christ who is its meaning? Most especially, how do we understand Western culture in the light of Christ, since Western culture is hardly thinkable without considering that Christianity was essential to its formation and development?

Many, if not most, Christians do not even consider that man has been given a cultural mission. Or if, perhaps, man does have such a task to perform, they can scarcely imagine that God had anything to do with it. For most Christians there is little, if any, connection between what they profess to believe and the need to work out their faith in cultural form. In one sense this is understandable, since central to the Christian religion, as Scrip- ture indicates, is its concern for the redemption of man from sin. The chief intent of God's revelation in Christ would seem to have no other interest, so far as man is concerned, than this. But is this true? Does the sin of man have no impact on culture? And is the redemption of man from sin not intended to have an impact on his culture as well? Can we assume that man's cultural labors are neutral so far as sin and righteousness are concerned? If not, then what bearing does Christ have on man's cultural mission? Does not redemption in Christ also possess a relevance for the cultural labors of man?

History, indeed, is the terrain of man's cultural mission. If Christ is the meaning of history, then he is the key to the evalua- tion of man's cultural mission. As Christians, therefore, we are compelled to scrutinize the cultural labors of man from the standpoint of Christ who must have the central significance in all the work that man does under the sun. Our concern in what fol- lows is to offer an evaluation of Western culture, for, as we men- tioned, that is the cultural context in which Christianity has had the greatest impact. Has the Christianity embodied in that cul- ture upheld the claims of Christ as it should have, or have other motives been at work, motives which have sought to drive Christ from the lordship of man's cultural mission? Have Christians been faithful in struggling on Christ's behalf against the intru- sion of those other influences? If those other, non-Christian, ideals have gained ascendancy, what has been their effect on Western culture? We cannot answer these questions unless we examine the legacy of Western cultural ideals in detail. Only then will it be possible to see if Christ has truly been at the center of that civilization.

For many Christians these questions and concerns will likely seem irrelevant. With the arrival of the year 2000, there is perhaps little interest in looking into the past. Rather, all eyes are turned upon the immediate future when many Christians fer- vently expect Christ will come and finally set up his promised millennial kingdom. History, the past, the record of man's cul- tural mission, are of little concern. At the very least, their per- spective on Christianity is one that is shaped by a need to save souls and a go-to-heaven theology. Nothing else, they suppose, really matters. Thus, when it comes to man's cultural mission, most do not see the church's missionary task to have any bearing upon it.

Everything depends, however, on what we understand by the word Christ. Is it merely a name, or is it a title? If it is the lat- ter, what does it say about him who is the bearer of it? The Christian faith is Christian, after all, because it derives from Christ, not just Jesus. Consequently, all that pertains to the Christian faith has Christ, and all that that title means, at its cen- ter. We as Christians ought not simply to confess Jesus Christ, but that Jesus is the Christ, the one anointed to be the heir of all creation. Christ bespeaks not simply the person of Jesus, but his kingdom and lordship of the whole earth as well. It is the term that designates his replacement of Adam as the head of the human race. All that God determined for mankind at creation now has its redemptive ground and purpose in him. Nothing summarizes better the meaning of the word Christ than these words of the apostle Paul to the Colossian Christians: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visi- ble and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authori- ties; all things were created by him and for him. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the first- born from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." (1:15-18) Not only is Christ the meaning of history, but nothing and no one else possibly can be. And if of history, then he is the meaning of man's cultural mission as well.

Paul's words strongly suggest that Christ is now as he describes and will not merely become so in the future. After all, he wrote these words nearly two millennia ago. If they were true then, they have remained true, and continue to be true today. Since Christ is at the same time the "firstborn over all creation," and the "firstborn from among the dead," then all that pertains to creation, man's cultural mission included, must have both its foundation and redemption in him. Consequently, as Christians, we must evaluate the work of man in the light of Christ who now has the supremacy over all things. Nothing that is part of man's life in this world is outside of Christ. But we shall return to this thought in the conclusion.

The end of the second millennium is a good time to look back on our cultural heritage and take stock. What value has Christ had within that culture? How do we assess man's activity in terms of Christ as the Lord of history, the Lord of man's cul- tural mission? This is what we propose to do in the following pages. We will not cover everything. We shall merely highlight those areas of Western culture which have stood out prominently in the ideals of the makers and producers of that culture. That is, we shall but touch upon those various domains which have received such great emphasis in the studies done on Western man. Some may find this not to be worthwhile or, at the least, tedious and not immediately practical. But, apart from the intrin- sic need to appraise all that men do in terms of Christ who will one day bring all the works of man into judgment, so long as his- tory continues, we, as Christians especially, must seek to under- stand what is involved in the phrase, Christ the meaning of history.



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