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March 6, 2018

On the semiotics of “Judeo-Christian” as a misdirection

Filed under: Jews,Judeo-Christian,world history — Razib Khan @ 11:21 pm

Recently on Twitter there emerged another flare-up of the debate as to whether the term “Judeo-Christian” was coherent, useful, and defensible. In general, I take a very skeptical view of the term, because I think it misleads the public as to the nature of some important facts and dynamics in the history of the West.

Perhaps intellectuals can agree amongst themselves that the term has utility for manipulating the masses, but oftentimes it seems even intellectuals don’t have enough of a grasp of religious history to understand why the usage is literally problematic (I’m not using problematic in a euphemistic catchall manner, I think it’s semantically confusing, not offensive).

First, traditionally Jews and Muslims have been much clearer in recognizing each other as non-idolatrous monotheists, as against Christians. The dominant non-Unitarian nature of Christianity, and the importance of divine representation in both medieval Eastern and Western traditions (with statuary in the latter1), were the key issues for Muslims and Jews. This point is not dispositive, but it’s not irrelevant.

In the Western context, it seems American Christians in particular are attached to the term Judeo-Christian. I believe this is the outcome of a specific American history, where different European immigration streams were forged into a common people in the 20th century, especially in the post-World War II era. The general model is the one outlined by Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the emergence of a white America united by shared values, with establishment mainline Protestantism at the center, and Roman Catholicism and Judaism as helpmates. Though the title of the book points to the real religious particularism still prevalent in that period, it was an early form of what Rod Dreher and his fellow travelers would term “morally therapeutic Deism.” The idea that it didn’t matter as to the details of the confession and practice of your faith, so long as you believed in God and were a good person.

Of course not all people who assert the utility of Judeo-Christian as a category are so religiously naive. But most Christians who adhere to the category seem to have a hard time not understanding Judaism as anything other an earlier form of their religion. In other words, Judaism as Christianity without the Christ.

I think this is very misleading. Rather, Judaism as it evolved after the rise of Christianity, and then Islam, was a distinct religion from the Judaism which Christians are familiar with from their Old Testament. Jewish religion in the first millennium A.D. became the religion of the Pharisees. That is, Talmudic Judaism, or Rabbinical Judaism. What we in the West often term Orthodox Judaism. Though there were schismatic sects, such as the Karaites, developments such as Hasidism, and isolated groups such as the Bene Israel of western India who seem to have practiced a more archaic form of the religion, over time Judaism qua Judaism became the religion which evolved out of the same milieu of Roman antiquity as Christianity. Though Christianity evolved out of the religion of the Hebrews, the Jews, the religion of the Jews evolved at the same time as well. It was not static, in chrysalis.

A whole Jewish Diaspora, what became the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim (and Yemenite Jews and other assorted groups), developed a parallel cultural world to that of Western and Eastern Christianity, as well Islam.* Though Jews interacted with gentiles in a professional capacity, whether as physicians, merchants, or money-lenders, the intellectual exchange was relatively limited (Al-Andalus being an exception).

This may surprise many people, because Jews are extremely prominent intellectually in the West today. But this is a feature of the last few centuries, as they became absorbed by Western culture during the Jewish Enlightenment. Even a Jew who predates this period and influenced the course of early modern Western philosophy, Baruch Spinoza, did so after being expelled from the Jewish community, and occupying a sort of gray land of Deism. Neither Christian nor Jew.

What this gets to is that even if Judeo-Christian has some abstract ideal reality, there was no Judeo-Christian civilization before large numbers of Jews abandoned the civilization of Judaism as it had developed organically over the centuries. The civilization only became labeled Judeo-Christian in rhetoric after most Western Jews had abandoned their customary and traditional religion, whether for a congregational faith more recognizable to Christians in the form of the Reform movement, out and out secularism, and in a large number of cases, conversion to Christianity (to name three individuals of Jewish familial origin who were raised Christian no matter their adult faith, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, and Karl Marx).

The civilizational tension among Jews is evident today in the world’s only Jewish state, Israel. Many secular Jews are for all practical purposes members of Western civilization who happen to have a Jewish ethnic and nominal religious identity. In contrast, Haredi Jews are fully steeped in the mores and orientation of the classical Jewish civilization that matured in early modern Europe. The conflict between the Haredim and secular Jews is not just one of religious observance but of civilizational identity and affinity (with Masortim occupying the middle ground).

Western civilization as a project after Late Antiquity and before the modern period was never a partnership between the Jews and Western Christians. It was the project of Western Christian societies, which eventually fractured during the Reformation, and repaired themselves back into some sort of whole in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia. The transformations of the 18th century ushered in the revolutionary changes which allowed for Jews to become participants in Western civilization as something besides Christians.

In general, though I understand that for the public history is often a useful fiction, I prefer attempting to model the past with the greatest fidelity to the reality we can reconstruct among those with the will and ability to understand. The emergence of Western civilization as we understand it, post-Christian civilization, the nymph stage of the universal liberal democratic civilization which was to conquer the 21st century (but hasn’t, and may never!), is historically contingent on particular peoples, places, and cultural threads. Those threads properly constituted simply make the term Judeo-Christian seem peculiar and inappropriate. Therefore, amongst those who aim to know, the proper appellations must be applied so as to illuminate rather than obscure and obfuscate.**

* Some Jews also existed outside of the world of Christianity and Islam, such as the Cochin Jews of southern India, or the Jews of Kaifeng, who were probably originally an extension of Central Asian Jewry. These groups were part of the Diaspora intellectual and culturally, at least initially (the Jews of Kaifeng eventually lost their last rabbi, probably in the 19th century, and assimilated into the Han majority or converted to Islam).

** I have no written much about Islam in this post, but the term Judeo-Christian also misleads many people into thinking that traditional Christianity and traditional Judaism have more similarities of belief and practice than either do with Islam. In fact Islam and Judaism are arguably more similar than either is to Christianity due to the emphasis on prescribed ritual and law incumbent upon the laity guided by a non-priestly scholarly class, whether it be rabbis or the ulema.

November 28, 2010

Taking the end of the age seriously

I am about two-thirds of the way through Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and I have to agree with Tyler Cowen’s assessment so far. The author is an archaeologist, and though a little less shy in regards to general theory than most in his profession, he still seems to exhibit the tendency to focus on thick-detail without any elegant theoretical scaffolding. In some ways it is an inversion of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, which manifests an economist’s preference for stylized system-building at the expense of the messy residual. Why the West Rules has added almost no broad-brush theoretical returns beyond what you could find in Guns, Germs and Steel and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Though the author has a lot of scrupulously footnoted detail which probably makes Why the West Rules a worthy read.

But this post isn’t a review of Why the West Rules, rather, it’s a lament as to the total intellectual unpreparedness of the West’s intellectual class for the de facto end of the age of white supremacy,* the high tide of which is documented in the final chapters of this book (I skimmed them chapters ahead of time). The de jure end of the age of white supremacy probably spanned the victory of the allies during World War II down to desegregation in the United States in the 1960s. But despite the official end of the ideology of white racial superiority, the white-majority nations of the world were and are objectively superior in metrics such as Human Development Index. On a per capita basis they will remain so for a while longer:

And yet the trend lines are converging between East Asian and developed white Western nations. We are now moving beyond the time when we can talk about ‘the West vs. the Rest.’ There are ~1.3 billion Chinese in China itself, which is approximately the total number of people of white European descent in the world.** In much of Africa China is a rising economic and social presence. There are likely more expatriate Chinese in Africa than there are expatriate whites. Enter “China + any region of the world” into Google, and you’ll come back with plenty of interesting results.

But from what I can tell Westerners, of all colors, are totally intellectually unprepared for the radical shift in geopolitics which is occurring as we speak. Kvetching about China’s trade surplus does not intellectual preparedness make. Most white liberals have an anti-colonialist outlook, and favor the liberation of peoples of color in the face of white supremacy. But this normative framework only makes sense in light of a model whereby white domination and agency are the preeminent considerations in the lives of the people of color. In much of the world that is not necessarily the case anymore. In Australia you have an inversion of the old narrative, insofar as an commodity boom driven by Chinese demand has arguably kept that nation’s economy relatively buoyant!

The white supremacy model (WSM) isn’t only found among white people. It’s very dominant among colored people who reflect on these issues. Indians are haunted by British colonialism. Latin Americans by Yankee imperialism. Middle Eastern Muslims by the Jewish-Western condominium. The Chinese still remember the de facto colonialism which their nation was subjected to after the Opium Wars.

In graphic terms what you have as a model is like so:

europerest

In the late 19th century the whole world became Greater Europe’s playground. Non-European thinkers had to respond to the European challenge. There was no other game in town. To some extent that response continued and elaborated after the collapse of European political hegemony in the 1950s and 1960s; ergo, postcolonialism.

This is probably more accurate today than the old model, and will certainly be more accurate within the next generation:

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800px-World_literacy_map_UNHD_2007_2008
Because of its population and economic dynamism China will naturally come to rival Greater Europe in its influence and impact on the rest of the world. No other nations besides East Asian ones have shown an ability to match Greater Europe in HDI. The map to the left of literacy rates is I believe a good predictor of potential median HDI and per capita economic productivity ceilings for the next generation or two. South Asia is the world leader in absolute concentrated human misery, both in illiteracy and malnutrition. I think India will be influential and powerful because of raw numbers, but there is no worry that it will be a per capita power. Africa is prospering thanks to the Chinese fueled commodity boom, but it too is low on the human and institutional capital totem pole to leverage its demographic dynamism. Australia is too small in population to be influential. If the trends in its economy remain, that it becomes in large part a commodity source for China, then I think it will be prey to being muscled by the East Asian superpower just as Latin American nations traditionally were by the United States, even without military intervention, because of the asymmetry in economic dependency. Latin American nations like Brazil are populous and on the ‘ascension graph’, but they have problems with wide variance in human capital, just like India.

In civilizational terms we are not going from a unipolar world to a multipolar world. We’re going from a unipolar world to a bipolar world. This means that there must be a revision to our intellectual toolkit. Critics of the West, whether they’re white or colored, still have a superficial understanding of the Dead White Men and their history. Islamic revisionists who make a case for the centrality and superiority of their tradition do so with the West as an explicit or implicit counterpoint. The indigenous traditions of India, Africa, or China, were not relevant to these arguments. Europe was the sun, around with other civilizational planets circled.

Not so any longer. Consider these headlines: China workers killed in Pakistan and Algeria: Xenophobia against Chinese on the rise in Africa. Or Brazil’s huge new port highlights China’s drive into South America. China eyes rail link to Chittagong. A pushcart war in the streets of Milan’s Chinatown. ‘Too Asian’? – Worries that efforts in the U.S. to limit enrollment of Asian students in top universities may migrate to Canada.

This is a different dynamic than the rise of the one-dimensional Arab and Soviet petro-states of the 1970s in a qualitative sense. China and its Diaspora are a full-throated economic counterweight to the two century international geopolitical and cultural dominance of Greater Europe. It is also a different dynamic than the migration of various colored peoples into Western nations after World War II, where these groups are slotted into the lower social and economic rungs, and draw hostility and contempt from some whites and patronizing sympathy and self-interested bureaucratic-managerial concern from others. Japan and the “Asian Tigers” were limited by their demographic modesty when set next to Greater European nations like the United States.

How should people readjust to this world? Obviously following economic statistics and political events are essential to recalibrating with judicious perspective and caution. The world’s intellectual classes, Western and non-Western, have been conditioned to white supremacy for so long that no one remembers a time when it was any different.*** One of the ironies of WSM is that non-whites rarely know the history or culture of other non-whites to the same extent that they know that of whites. In other words, South Asians know their history and that of whites, Africans know their history and that of whites, East Asians know their history and that of whites, etc. (the main exception may be Korea, which was colonized by the Japanese). It’s ironic because the implicit inference of WSM is that non-whites have common interests against the white master race. Though this is admittedly rational because the concerns, values, and motivations of the masters are more relevant than those of other helots. The term ‘master race’ has positive connotations while a ‘the cancer of human history’ has negative ones, but no matter, both indicate that the object of concern is worthy and of note. But the blind-spot in this mode of thinking is that colored people who supposedly have solidarity are totally ignorant of each other’s respective substance.

This was all of purely academic interest until the resurgence of East Asia, and China in particular. It is for example well known that Chinese have a strong racial consciousness. During the Maoist period this was dampened by ideology. China’s objective lack of development for most of the 20th century almost certainly suppressed some of the racial disdain which is an element of Han chauvinism. But the Chinese, like East Asians in general, have a degree of race consciousness which expresses on the surface to an extent that would be surprising and alarming to most whites, excepting perhaps Afrikaners, some white American Southerners, and partisans of nationalist parties in Europe. This predates the modern era insofar as the Chinese have a long history of dehumanizing ‘barbarians’ and looking down on dark-skinned peoples (e.g., see the reports of the legation sent to the Khmer kingdom of Funan, which lingered upon their nakedness and darkness of complexion). But the real genesis of contemporary attitudes may be rooted in the synthesis of Chinese folk attitudes and early 20th century racial anthropology, already evident in the writings of principals in the May Fourth Movement.

Contrary to the Chung Kuo science fiction future history I have no expectation that Han racism will lead to a genocidal war of extermination against the black and brown peoples of the world. Rather, the attitudes in common circulation in China and other East Asian nations must be understood by any politician, diplomat or businessman, who wants to operate in that region. Any dark-skinned South Asian who expects “Asian” fellow-feeling in China may be in for a surprise. Chinese opinions of people of African descent are even more checkered. During the days of Japan Inc. cultural fluency was already seen to be critical, but because China is one order of magnitude more populous than Japan in 30-40 years it will be much more of an international social and economic presence. Interestingly 20% of individuals on the internet are already Chinese nationals, vs. 5% of Japanese (though the difference in penetration rates is 30% vs. 80%).

Where does this leave us? By the end of our lives those of us in early adulthood will live in a bipolar world. China and the West will together be drivers of consumption. When it comes to development aid or investment in poorer nations the West will have a substantive rival. These two will hold up the sky together. With this will come more prominence of Chinese culture, and a necessity for an understanding of that civilization’s history, its values. Though I’m making a pragmatic and utilitarian case for understanding and knowledge here, I do want to enter into the record than an appreciation of the history of the Chinese is an understanding of the history of a substantial proportion of humanity. It is part of our common history, just as Greece and Rome are.

With that, at the end of this post are a list of books which I’ve found useful, and obviously memorable, in trying to understand the shape of the Chinese past, and how the present came to be. Personal preference and bias is obviously operative. The fact that a standalone work on Xun Zi is listed below, and Mencius is not, says a lot about my personal evaluation of the two in relation to each other.

* I use “white” as a compound of both genetic and cultural qualities. So, Turks are not classified as white in this sense, while Ashkenazi Jews are, even though both groups are equivalently white when compared to “reference” populations which no one would deny are white, such as the English, in a genetic sense. So a person of Turkish ethnic origin who converts to Christianity, such as Boris Johnson’s ancestor (originally Bey), can generally be accepted as white because of their appearance. In contrast, someone who has noticeable non-white appearance, a South Asian for example, remains non-white despite their Christianity.

** You can do the back-of-the-envelope pretty easily. Europe, + 0.70 X USA + Canada + Australia + New Zealand + 1/3 Latin America is a good approximation. Of course a substantial proportion of the other 2/3 of Latin Americans have some white European ancestry, but whiteness a privilege which generally comes only through purity of blood, so they can be ignored.

*** I would peg the closing of the previous multipolar world to the second half of the 18th century, though the fact of European dominance did not ripen until the Opium Wars, which illustrated that even the greatest of non-Euroepan powers was ineffectual against European military mobilization.

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