Religious Foundations of Western Civilization: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Religious Foundations of Western Civilization: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

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World Religions

Religious Foundations of Western Civilization introduces students to the major Western world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—their beliefs, key concepts, history, as well as the fundamental role they have played, and continue to play, in Western culture.

Contributors include: Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, Bruce D. Chilton, Th. Emil Homerin, Jon D. Levenson, William Scott Green, Seymour Feldman, Elliot R. Wolfson, James A. Brundage, Olivia Remie Constable, and Amila Buturovic.

"This book provides a superb source of information for scientists and scholars from all disciplines who are trying to understand religion in the context of human cultural evolution."

David Sloan Wilson, Professor, Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York 


This is the right book at the right time. Globalization, religious revivalism, and international politics have made it more important than ever to appreciate the significant contributions of the Children of Abraham to the formation and development of Western civilization.

John L. Esposito, University Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Muslm-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.


Jacob Neusner is Research Professor of Religion and Theology, and Senior Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

General Interest/Other Religions/Comparative Religion

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426719417
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 08/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jacob Neusner is Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism; Senior Fellow, Institute of Advanced Theology, Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Bruce D. Chilton is the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion; Chaplain of the College; Executive Director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Religious Foundations of Western Civilization

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

By Jacob Neusner

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-1941-7


What do We Mean by "Religion" and "Western Civilization"?

William Scott Green

On September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four American airplanes and engaged in devastating terrorist attacks against basic governmental and commercial institutions and centers of the United States. The attacks resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and caused extensive damage to the Pentagon, the center of the American military. The fourth plane, which was forced down by American passengers, was believed to be destined for the White House. The attacks murdered more than three thousand people, from nearly all backgrounds and persuasions. All the evidence suggests that the people who sponsored and carried out the attacks did so because they deeply oppose what they see as the behavior and values of America and the West and that their opposition in significant ways was motivated by, and expressed in the religious language of, a particular strain of Islam. The events of September 11 made people in America and the West look at ourselves afresh. They show us how and why the questions in this book matter to our lives today.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the American author Robert Stone wrote in the New York Times: "We witnessed ... the violent assault of one narrative system upon another.... The power of narrative is shattering, overwhelming. We are the stories we believe; we are who we believe we are." Stone suggests that the events of September 11 are the result of divergent stories that recount and explain who America and the West and their enemies "are." That is, the events of September 11 are the result of conflicting narratives about our conceptions of ourselves and about the meaning of the way we conduct our lives. Stone's observations raise the key questions this book and this course intend to examine.

Because the "narrative" of the West is under assault, it is important to ask what is at stake in that narrative. What is Western civilization, and what is the story that it tells? Equally, since the assault on that civilization is in some basic sense religious, what is the place of religion in Western civilization? In what sense can we say religion grounds a Western worldview? Finally, since the assault on the Western narrative system was made in the name of Islam, how does Islam fit into the framework of Western civilization and Western religion?

Defining "Western Civilization"

To guide us in thinking about the meaning of Western civilization, we turn to Professor Samuel P. Huntington, whose book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, is among the most important meditations on the nature of today's global politics. Professor Huntington's basic theme is "that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post–Cold War world."

Huntington explains that we should think of civilization as an integrated "cultural entity." He writes, "Civilizations are the biggest 'we' within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from all the other 'thems' out there." A civilization, therefore, grounds peoples' sense of who they are and provides a framework that helps them distinguish themselves from others. In Stone's terms, we might think of a civilization as people's most comprehensive story, their "big picture," what Huntington calls their "broadest level of identification." Being part of a civilization, therefore, is fundamental to being human. Huntington notes that civilizations are adaptable and long-lasting, though they can disappear. He explains that "the crucial distinctions among human groups concern their values, beliefs, institutions, and social structures, not their physical size, head shapes, and skin colors." Therefore, civilizations transcend race, ethnicity, governments, and nations. He suggests that there are eight "major contemporary civilizations": Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin American, and African. Of special importance for this book. Huntington points out that "religion is a central defining characteristic of civilizations." In the pages to come, we will explore the meaning of this last generalization for the West.

What, precisely, is the meaning of "West" or "Western civilization"? Huntingon astutely observes that although "the West" sounds like a geographic location, it cannot be. Unlike "north" and "south," "east" and "west" have no fixed reference points. They are relative locations. Rather, "historically, Western civilization is European civilization," and "the West" refers to what was once called "Western Christendom." In modern times, "Western civilization is Euroamerican or north Atlantic civilization." This designation will serve as a useful guide for the rest of our study. A useful corollary to Huntington is supplied by an author whose work we will read in the next chapter. Professor Harold Berman, perhaps the leading scholar of the Western legal tradition, has views similar to those of Huntington, with some additions particularly useful for this project. Berman's succinct statement follows:

The West ... is not to be found by recourse to a compass.... The West is, rather, a cultural term, but with a very strong diachronic dimension. It is not, however, simply an idea; it is a community. It implies both a historical structure and a structured history. For many centuries it could be identified very simply as the people of Western Christendom. Indeed, from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries the community of those people was manifested in their common allegiance to a single spiritual authority, the Church of Rome.

As a historical culture, a civilization, the West is to be distinguished not only from the East but also from "pre-Western" cultures to which it "returned" in various periods of "renaissance." Such returns and revivals are characteristics of the West. They are not to be confused with the models on which they drew for inspiration. "Israel," "Greece," and "Rome" became spiritual ancestors of the West not primarily by a process of survival or succession but primarily by a process of adoption: the West adopted them as ancestors. Moreover, it adopted them selectively—different parts at different times. Cotton Mather was no Hebrew. Erasmus was no Greek. The Roman lawyers of the University of Bologna were no Romans.

Some Roman law, to be sure, survived in the Germanic folklaw and, more important, in the law of the church; some Greek philosophy also survived, also in the church; the Hebrew Bible, of course, survived as the Old Testament. But such survivals only account for a small part of their influence on Western law, Western philosophy, and Western theology. What accounted for the major part of their influence were the rediscoveries, reexaminations, and receptions of the ancient texts. Even to the extent that the ancient learning may be said to have survived without interruption, it was inevitably transformed....

The West, from this perspective, is not Greece and Rome and Israel but the peoples of Western Europe turning to the Greek and Roman and Hebrew texts for inspiration, and transforming those texts in ways that would have astonished their authors. Nor, of course, is Islam part of the West, although there were strong Arabic influences on Western philosophy and science—though not on Western legal institutions....

Indeed, each of the ancient ingredients of Western culture was transformed by being mixed with the others. The amazing thing is that such antagonistic elements could be brought together into a single world view. The Hebrew culture would not tolerate Greek philosophy or Roman law; the Greek culture would not tolerate Roman law or Hebrew theology; the Roman culture would not tolerate Hebrew theology, and it resisted large parts of Greek philosophy. Yet the West in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries combined all three, and thereby transformed each one.

Professor Huntington suggests that "religion is a central defining characteristic of civilizations." He also observes that the West produced no "major religion" and developed a distinctive political system in which national political interests outweigh religious ones. If both of these statements are accurate, how can religion be a foundation of Western civilization? To address this question, let us turn first to Professor Huntington's important observation about politics and religion in Western civilization. He explains:

The great political ideologies of the twentieth century include liberalism, socialism, anarchism, corporatism, Marxism, communism, social democracy, conservatism, nationalism, fascism, and Christian democracy. They all share one thing in common: they are the products of Western civilization. No other civilization has generated a significant political ideology. The West, however, has never generated a major religion. The great religions of the world are all products of non-Western civilizations and, in most cases, antedate Western civilization. As the world moves out of its Western phase, the ideologies which typified late Western civilization decline, and their place is taken by religions and other culturally based forms of identity and commitment. The Westphalian separation of religion and international politics, an idiosyncratic product of Western civilization is coming to an end, and religion, as Edward Mortimer suggests, is "increasingly likely to intrude into international affairs." The intracivilizational clash of political ideas spawned by the West is being supplanted by an international clash of culture and religion.

The Peace of Westphalia, 1648, ended the religious wars of Europe and led to the emergence of the network of nation-states that define the modern West. After Westphalia, Europeans fought one another over national rather than theological concerns, secular political issues rather than religious ones. That is why the West produced political ideologies rather than a "major religion." Professor Huntington calls this "separation of religion and international politics"—what we might call the distinction between the religious and the secular—"an idiosyncratic product of Western civilization." In other words, it is both distinctive and specific to the West.

If all this is so, then in what sense can we say that Western civilization has a religious foundation? If the dominant intellectual and cultural product of Western civilization are secular ideologies rather than religious ones, and if the political and social structures of the West transcend religious structures, what sense does it make to say that religion founds Western civilization at all? Is the distinction between religion and secularity—which is distinctive to the West—a product of religion? Let us turn to these specific issues.

Defining Religion

To begin to answer them, it is important to be clear about what we mean by "religion." This term is so fundamental to the way Americans imagine our lives, that achieving some clarity about it is essential if we are to achieve useful results in our study. For this project, we will use the definition of religion developed by the anthropologist Melford Spiro. He defines religion as "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings." Let us unpack this definition to see what is at stake in it.

The definition speaks of "superhuman beings." A superhuman being is a being more powerful than humans but not necessarily qualitatively different from them. Superhuman is not the same as supernatural. A superhuman being can do things for, and to, humans.

Next, the definition speaks not of random superhuman beings, but of beings that are "culturally postulated." That is a concise academic way of saying that different cultures, or different civilizations, envision different kinds of superhuman beings. For instance, some cultures envision multiple superhuman beings; others envision only one. In some cultures, people worship deceased ancestors; in others, it would make no sense to do so. "Culturally postulated" is a way of saying that people cannot worship a being that everyone in the world they inhabit says is nonsensical. The superhuman beings that people worship must fit within and reflect the values of the culture.

According to the definition, religion entails a "culturally patterned" interaction with the superhuman beings. This means that just as the superhuman beings are conditioned by the cultures from which they spring or in which people live, so too the ways of interacting with those superhuman beings are conditioned by those cultures. Interaction can mean a range of things. Interaction can be speech or ethical action. It can be prayer or obedience. It can be anguish or contemplation. The gods are known through such interaction. When Spiro's definition says "culturally patterned interaction," it means a kind of interaction that people find plausible and sensible. For example, in Western civilization, it does not make sense to imagine people having sexual relations with God. But in ancient Greece, the gods were believed to assume earthly forms, impregnate humans, and produce people who are half god and half human. Having sex with a god is a perfectly legitimate kind of interaction, but it is culturally patterned for ancient Greece, not for Western civilization. How people imagine their gods will interact with them, and what their gods can expect from them, has much to do with how a religion can shape a civilization.

For our purposes, Spiro's definition is important for two reasons. First, it acknowledges that religions must fit and reflect the cultures in which they exist. It does not suppose that religion looks the same everywhere, any more than civilizations are the same everywhere. Second, it uses the concept of "superhuman being" as the variable that distinguishes religion from not-religion, from politics or philosophy, for instance. In this definition, religion is not the same as the approach to life one values most highly. If people structure their lives around ideas or philosophies that do not involve superhuman beings, they are living secular, not religious, lives. So when we ask about the religious foundations of Western civilization, we are asking how the interactions between people and their deities shaped the values and institutions of the culture.

The Biblical Foundations of Religion in the West

Following on Spiro's definition, we can refine our inquiry to ask, "How do Western ideas of, and human interactions with, God shape the Western idea of the distinction between religion and state?"

To begin to answer that question, we must acknowledge that in Western civilization, religion is fundamentally and resolutely biblical. The foundation of religion in the West is the Hebrew Bible, known in Judaism as Tanakh, in Christianity as the Old Testament, and in Islam as Tawrat. The Hebrew Bible depicts God's relationship to the People of Israel and Israel's interactions with God. It contains various kinds of writing. The Torah (the Pentateuch, which includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) recounts Israel's early history and contains the core of Jewish religious practice. Historical books describe Israel's life in its land and the behavior of its kings. The works of the prophets contain sayings and visions attributed to Israel's inspired preachers. Other books contain wisdom sayings, stories of the Jews in exile, and the account of their return to the land of Israel. As a whole, the books of the Hebrew Bible tell the story of God's creation of the cosmos, selection of Israel, redemption of Israel from Egypt, revelation of commandments in the desert, the conquest of the land of Israel, formation of a unified monarchy under King David, a civil war in Israel, the destruction of part of Israel by Assyria, the destruction of the Temple (the center of Israel's worship) in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, the return of the Jews in the Persian period to the Land of Israel to rebuild the destroyed temple (538–515 B.C.E.).


Excerpted from Religious Foundations of Western Civilization by Jacob Neusner. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents


Preface Jacob Neusner,
1. What Do We Mean by "Religion" and "Western Civilization"? William Scott Green,
2. Judaism Jacob Neusner,
3. Christianity: What It Is and How It Defines Western Civilization Bruce Chilton,
4. Islam: What It Is and How It Has Interacted with Western Civilization Th. Emil Homerin,
5. Religion, Politics, Culture, Law, and Society,
6. Philosophy: Averroes, Maimonides, and Aquinas Seymour Feldman,
7. Mysticism as a Meeting Ground: Seeing the Unseen Elliot R. Wolfson,
8. Latin Christianity, the Crusades, and the Islamic Response James A. Brundage,
9. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Spain from the Eighth to the Fifteenth Centuries Olivia Remie Constable,
10. Christianity and Islam in the Balkans from the Fifteenth to the Twentieth Centuries Amila Buturovic,
11. Zionism, Imperialism, and Nationalism,
12. The Modernization of Christianity Bruce Chilton,
13. The Modernization of Judaism Jacob Neusner,
14. The Modernization of Islam Th. Emil Homerin,
15. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Their Contemporary Encounters,

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