In preparing for the trip to Singapore, I read a recommended book on cross-cultural missions. Wisely, the author warned of many differences between cultures, often between the West (in writing to a North American audience) and the rest of the world. Among the differences, two stand out for discussion.
First, the West has a linear view of life more than the East. Interestingly, Charles Norris Cochrane, in his book Christianity and Classical Culture,points out that the West used to have a very cyclical view of history, viewed either as a pattern of repeated history or very literally as a repetition of events. Christianity, however, especially seen in Augustine’s City of God, despised this view and presented the biblical view of historical progression, based on prophetic Scripture. Even if this has now been twisted in the West into a cult of progression or a tyranny of efficiency, its roots are nonetheless Christian in nature. Therefore, a missionary should not be ashamed of teaching a linear view of history as if it were merely western—it is biblical.
Second, regarding the famous individualism of the West versus the collectivism of the East, certainly both sides could claim some aspect of biblical worldview. The church is a collective, but conversion is individualistic. As Luther quipped, just as a person must die alone, so each must have his own faith—and woe to the one who dies without faith! The New Covenant, as well, is very individualistic, in comparison to the tribal emphasis of the Old Covenant (Jeremiah 31:27-34), as delineated recently by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum in their large book, Kingdom through Covenant. And if Cochrane is correct, Christianity contributed much to the development of individual personality in the West, both through its emphasis on the persons of the Trinity and its debates over free will. The residue effects of this emphasis lingered through the Second World War, when a submarine came to the rescue of one “flyboy” downed at Chichi Jima, the future president of the United States, George H. W. Bush. As told by a Japanese eyewitness years later, Japan would have never sent a submarine after one pilot (see James Bradley, Flyboys).
Therefore, two tasks present themselves. First, I would like to know the relationship between Christianity and classical culture. In some sense, the relationship between Christianity and classical culture is the key to understanding the West, just as the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament is the key to understanding the Bible. Second, for my own sake—since I live in the West—and for the sake of missions, I would like to know what aspects of western culture are due to Christianity and then to discern how these aspects have been distorted and perverted in modern times due to secularism. Without this discernment, missions will be hampered by the bald objection, “You are imposing your western ways on the rest of the world.” Perhaps we are, but if I can say that these aspects are biblical and that’s why they are now also western, I will have my defense.
Note: In addition to linear history, free will, and personality, Christianity also brought to western culture an emphasis on compassion in contrast to Caesar’s clemency (see Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). If I remember correctly, this emphasis on mercy was one aspect of Christianity that Nietzsche hated in his desire to bring the West back to pagan strength. Herbert Schlossberg reports that both Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson regarded this western incorporation of paganism as a sign of cultural decay (Idols for Destruction, p. 269). Regarding free will, Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson asserted, “It remains a fact that Aristotle spoke neither of liberty nor of free will…Among Christians, on the contrary, and especially among the Latins, liberty at once comes to the forefront” (The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. A H. C. Downes [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936], 307). Gilson attributes the rise of debates over liberty of exercise to the “moral preoccupation” of Christians (ibid., 308).