Several years ago, while teaching my systematics class, I explained a point of difference between the Eastern and Western churches. Something caused me to stop and ask, "You do know what I mean by Eastern?" A young man answered carefully: "You mean, like, South Carolina?" The boundary between East and West is a matter of perspective, it seems.
The ancient Greeks drew the boundary at the Bosporus. For them, the Trojan War was the first major conflict between East and West. The Greek historians portrayed Persia as an example of degenerate Oriental despotism. Humanist writers ever since have followed suit. Actually, the Medes and Persians were descended from Japheth, who inherited Western Europe, and the Bible shows its early kings and their treatment of subject nations in a remarkably good light.
The Myth and Image of "The West"
That the Greeks should think of themselves in terms of compass points is perhaps odd. But the West occupied a special place in Greek literature and religion. The Garden of the Hesperides and the Elysian Fields lay in the Far West. Plato set Atlantis there as well, and that may have done more to perpetuate that particular myth than all of Plato's actual description. One modern writer equates the Greek Underworld with the geographical West in an ingenious, if dubious, fashion: the curvature of the Earth actually places the West underneath the world the Greeks knew. In other words, the Greeks were in touch with mineral-rich America.
There is a more likely reason, however, that the Greeks were enchanted with the West and connected it with bliss. The original Paradise was in the West. At least one could only enter it by going west. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden through its one gate, they went east (Gen. 3:24). When Cain was banished from God's presence, he went still further into the East (Gen. 4:16).
This geography remains significant throughout the Old Testament. Worshippers entered the Tabernacle and Temple by going west through a single gate. That is, their approach to worship pictured man's return to Paradise. Of course, the Promised Land was utmost West since only the sea lay beyond it. The children of Israel entered Canaan by journeying westward across the Jordan River. The exiles returned from the East, and Ezekiel saw the glory of God enter the visionary temple by the East Gate (Ezk. 43:1-5). As late as the gospel of Matthew, the wise men come from the East. Matthew could have named their country of origin had he wished, but the Biblical themes of East and West carried more import.
The prophecies of Daniel forecast a westward movement of empire, as God would hand the care of His people from one kingdom to another (Dan. 2:7). Babylon gave way to Medo-Persia, a Japhetic people, whose conquests reached to the Aegean. Persia fell to the armies of Greece, which lay in Europe. The Greek states fell to Rome, which lay still farther west. If we callously ignore Byzantium and Russia, it is easy enough to chart a course of empire that continued westward into Medieval and modern times. Thus, Bishop Berekley wrote:
Westward the course of empire
takes its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama
with the day;
Time's noblest offspring is the last.
Here America takes the place of Messiah's kingdom as the end and glory of history. Much of the millennial thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries likewise looked westward. It is no accident, then, that Tolkien set his Atlantis, which was Númenor, and the Undying Lands in the Far West. He was responding to more than the political boundaries of his day or a sentimentality that had to connect Hobbits with England. As a classicist, he knew that the West meant nobility, freedom, and vitality. The East was slavery and darkness.
Drawing the Boundaries Again
The words West and East are heavy with connotation, then; definition is a bit more difficult. Defining words and drawing cultural boundaries is, after all, a religious enterprise.
Secularists, for instance, have begun their definition of the West with ancient Greece, seeing in it the birthplace of their own secular religion. But the philosophy of ancient Greece bears some striking resemblances to Hinduism, right down to the transmigration of souls advocated by Pythagoras. Moreover, Greek philosophy idolized the state, the polis, and made man's connection to the state the definition of his humanity: "Man is an animal who lives in a polis," Aristotle wrote. Alexander's attempt to build a cosmopolitan state (kosmos-embracing polis) should be an adequate testimony to the Greek fondness for statism. Athens' flirtation with an elitist and envy-bound democracy hardly counts as a vote for liberty.
We would do no better to begin with Rome or pre-Christian Britain. The truth is that ancient East and West were alike pagan, and that nobility, freedom, and vitality, when they blossomed in the ancient world at all, were generally historical "accidents"; that is, they were the fruits of common grace or a spill-over from God's blessings on Israel. It is Christianity that brought truth and life to the ancient world, and the best of what we call Western Civilization is the fruit of the gospel. Creedal, trinitarian Christianity reshaped Europe and planted there the seeds of political decentralization, personal liberty, technological development, and historical optimism. We should not hesitate to confess that the true West is, or was, Christendom. We will map out the boundaries between West and East, not with lines of longitude, but with questions about God.
For the Far East, God is the universe; that is, there is no personal God. All is one. This is pantheism or philosophical monism. Having no personal God, the Far East has no revelation from God. The universe is silent. Because all is one, material diversity is an illusion; history is cyclical; truth is irrational. Love and cruelty are equally valid. Man's inclination to make rational and moral distinctions rises from his failure to understand the nature of reality properly. The fruit of such monism is cultural stagnation and political totalitarianism.
The Near East is religiously and politically unitarian: the goal of all culture and social order is submission to the will of Allah (Islam). Islam suffers from all the philosophical and practical limitations of unitarianism. Rushdoony noted:
Since plurality has no ultimate reality in Mohammedan thought, the freedom of the many is an academic question; the one will of Allah governs all reality. The tendency of Mohammedan thought, when not arrested by statist action, to run into mysticism is an obvious and natural one.…Since the one alone has ultimacy, the one alone has freedom.
The Muslim emphasis on submission is useful in driving armies and erecting dictatorships; it is less useful in generating personal initiative, creativity, and responsibility. When Islam is not busy devouring the fruits of other cultures by military conquest, it tends to be culturally barren and stagnant.
There is another East. It began in Byzantium and flourished for a thousand years; it blossomed again in imperial Russia, and is still a potent force in what was once the Soviet Union. We must be careful and charitable here. This East lies well within the borders of Christendom. For the Eastern church is trinitarian, and it confesses the Christ of Scripture. Its departures from Biblical Christianity are numerous, however, and one of these constitutes a clear boundary between Eastern and Western Christendom and points West. In fact, the Eastern and Western churches originally split over this issue.
The West confesses a double procession of the Holy Spirit, a procession from the Father "and the Son" (filioque in Latin). The East sees the procession of the Spirit as the act of the Father alone. This seems a minor and obscure point in theology, but over a thousand years, its effects have been profound. For the West, the Father and Son breathe the Holy Spirit to each other, and the love and will of each coincide in the activity of the Spirit. Western theology leads easily to true communion, coordinate authority, and a harmony of doctrine and life, and of word and Spirit. But for the East, the Father begets the Son and unilaterally breathes forth the Spirit. The Son and Spirit have no immediate relationship to each other, and the Son does not return the Father's love. Eastern theology presents an authoritarian image of communion; it leads to a dichotomy between Spirit and doctrine; and it makes room for a Word-less mysticism. It is, moreover, easily amenable to a top-down system of order and government.
Writing in 1984, correspondent George Bailey traced the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States to the ancient conflict between Byzantium and Rome. He specifically mentioned the Filioque dispute. He saw clearly the contrast between the withdrawn spirituality of Russian Orthodoxy and "the dynamic involvement in worldly affairs characteristic of Catholicism and, to an even greater extent, of Protestantism…." The Latin church was active in secular affairs; the Eastern church was withdrawn. However, "The Orthodox church brought with it also the dream of empire, of world domination." Mysticism in the church and imperialism in the state: this is an accurate picture of Russia before and after Lenin. Bailey may have exaggerated the cause and effect, but we may not safely ignore his observations. In defining and rebuilding the West, we must be certain that our trinitarianism is Biblical.
The East stresses the unity of God. But monism and unitarian theology lead to mysticism, imperialism, and cultural stagnation. The One swallows up the Many. Given enough time, Eastern Orthodoxy's defective understanding of the Trinity bears similar fruit. If we do not maintain the full equality of the Father and the Son, we fall back towards unitarianism and all that that involves.
Western civilization is the product of Western Christianity, of a thoroughly trinitarian faith. Individual freedom, personal responsibility and initiative, and a commitment to earthly dominion rest upon true diversity in the one true God. As the West departs from its trinitarian moorings, it will cease to be the West. For the West is not a geographical designation. Nazi Germany was farther East than, say, the Byzantine Empire. And Berkeley in the 60s was probably much farther East than South Korea is today. In truth, the line between East and West runs through every human heart. The issues are religious and creedal, and any attempts to shore up or rebuild the West had better reckon with these boundaries.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.