The Other Clash of Civilisations

Lunatic forms of wahaabism have in recent years somewhat overshadowed the other clash of civilisations that is evident beneath the surface of the modern west. That is the clash between those whose cultural inheritance is broadly Calvinist, and those who derive any ethical sense or culture from Catholic forms.

Let me explain. Calvinism as such probably dates from the Synod of Dort, and has been deeply influential in large parts of the English speaking world, and especially in the USA. It holds, as I understand it, five principal ideas. One is that man is depraved and that only the inexplicable grace of god explains the world. Salvation is known only to god, but evil exists. Jesus didn't die for bad people, and there are only a few saved.

Even if one is not a Calvinist, some of the consequences of these ideas are clear. one is that the world is good or bad, and that the acts of the good must all be good. So the late American preachers Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell had to proclaim whether a given war was a 'good one' or not, for instance. It is also the case that the fierce list- and law-based faith of Calvinists translates itself into an adherence to values that are clear and that 'good people' share and bad people do not. Woodrow Wilson and the chaps at Harry's Place share that, as far as I can tell.

For Calvinists, God's grace is shining, but not explicable, and good works and sensual enjoyment of fellow human beings will not do much for anyone. Contemplating the cross is also nothing next to the perseverance of those who may be saints but who don't know it.

Catholicism, by contrast, was different. People were flawed, but capable of adhering to a standard greater than themselves. However, it was almost assured that they would fall from it, so mechanisms of redemption, forgiveness and confession had to be built in. Duty and family and community were as important as the individual conscience, and whilst awesome, God was not unknowable, it was just that those who made personal sacrifice and committed their lives and reason to God got to participate in an ongoing discussion of faith. The world was bad, but there were greater and lesser evils, and so long as there was basic agreement on law and authority a great deal of diversity and dissension could be tolerated, properly disguised. Life was also for living; and it was OK to pray to and admire women as different but special.

The consequences of that were a certain hypocrisy, occasional silliness, and conservatism, but it was by no means as destructive and silly as the worser consequences of Calvinism.

It is interesting how, for all their sophistication, westerners with any education at all still seem to correspond to those two basic types (even the secularists). Jews, of course, have a living and diverse faith which is distinct from these traditions but not necessarily by that much; there is a world of difference, for instance, between a Joe Lieberman, a London cabbie and a Chasidic person from Finchley, let alone your average Sharansky-lite in the holy land or New York.

When it comes to matters of war, the interpretation of the importance of outwardly democratic structures over local tradition and culture, and the response to various strands of Islamist threat, these differences matter.

The flak that has flown between the two camps over the past four hundred years is also important. Our fantasies of Armageddon, of clash or of what the authority we do not like is are defined in quasi-religious terms. The papacy, Vatican, holy see and curia are different things, for instance; adherence to the bible comes in many forms. In the case of the former, how many people celebrate their lack of adherence to personal tyranny, and in the latter to their sophistication in not being a bible-thumper though? How many of those actually understand they are using the other side's caricature?

The West has always fought with some in the realms of Islam, and today there are some very bad men who are seeking to revive that fight. A large number of them are associated with Al-Qaeda. But the clash within the west over the past four hundred or so years is important too. Is there for you a 'Satanic' form that is bad where you or the things you like are good? Or is bad just the absence of good, with degrees of it balanced against some presence of something worthwhile in the things you observe? Do you observe with a checklist in mind, or a glass of wine and an understanding of how diversely flawed we can all be, and how even the worst might sometime be found worthwhile?

This is all very indulgent on a day like this. The drums of war and threat are more than dimly starting to pound now, from the growing but still distant sound I identified a few months ago. As this year dies, it would do us all no harm to recognise the west's continuing scars from the Reformation. That event in retrospect drove the west out in a disastrous but maybe inevitable way for the rest of the world, many parts of which didn't deserve to continue anyway. But perhaps thinking about it a little more would make us more humble, more flexible, and more able to deal with the orthodox, the Muslims, and the rest.

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