Polistra has been wandering around the Middle Ages lately, trying to pin down the time and place where Western Civilization took off. Where and how did the Jewish and Christian world start its long and impressive flight into art, music, science, commerce, and decency, while the Mohammedan world stayed on the primitive ground in all those areas? If there is a common factor, will it help in reforming or converting Mohammedans? Or if that's impossible, will it help in defining and reaching Victory?
We've already talked about the art and music
, and about the religious area,
but we haven't connected the two.
First, as a sort of disclaimer, let's factor out the constants. All major faiths include a cross-section of humanity, from good to evil, smart to dumb, rich to poor, pious to hypocritical. The good end of the human spectrum will do noble things in the name of religion, regardless of the religion's teaching or tenets, and the bad end of humanity will do evil things in the name of religion. All major faiths claim to follow their scripture, and all fail in various ways. All of them try to answer two big questions: How do we get to Heaven? How do we deal with the material world and the varied forms of humans?
Those are the constants. The variables are: How does each faith answer those questions, and does each particular answer lead to understanding, prosperity and morality, or to stagnation and savagery?
In the modern Western world we have four contenders for the future of civilization, which we can abbreviate as Rome, Mecca, Willowcreek, and San Francisco. Here in the Middle Ages we have only Rome and Mecca; the other two will join the battle later.
We'll focus on a major invention of the 1300's: double-entry bookkeeping. The basic idea of DEB is that you record every transaction on both sides of the book, distributing the money value of each transaction into proper categories. The left column is labeled Dr for debitur
meaning "it is owed". The right column is headed Cr for creditur
meaning "it is believed" or "it is expected". In the simplest sense, the Dr records what you pay, and the Cr records what you receive. [In reality it can get rather more complicated, but we'll stay basic here.]
For instance, you pay a contractor for labor and materials to build a desk. The amount of the check shows up in the Dr side, showing value paid out; the value of the labor and materials are placed into separate sections on the Cr side, indicating value of labor received and value of materials received.
When you sell the desk for more than you paid, the received check goes on the Cr side, the original labor and materials are 'taken out' on the Dr side, and a new entry appears on the Dr side, representing an abstract 'payment' to the account called Profit.
At intervals, let's say every week, you total up both sides. If the Dr total equals the Cr total, you know that you've entered things properly.
In the world of commerce, DEB made it possible for businesses to grow larger and to engage in more risky endeavors. By keeping a firm handle on the flow of values in both directions, DEB allowed owners to analyze the risks and benefits of a new venture. And new ventures, funded by a reliable system of banking and borrowing, are the source of expanding wealth.
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In the realm of religion we have a flow of values as well.
All Christians believe that the main or infinite exchange has already happened, when Christ was sacrificed on the cross, in exchange for the chance of eternal life for his followers.
Christians differ on how we partake in that original exchange, but all of them agree that it is infinitely sufficient and infinitely 'divisible'.
The Roman approach is distinctly DEB-ish, with its constant back-and-forth flow of sin and confession, penances and indulgences. A hundred Ave Marias in the debit column equals a credit of a year in purgatory. Every week you run the balance in the confessional box, and you know where you stand.
Luther objected to this religious bookkeeping, which had become a tool for plain old corruption in his time. He took a columnless approach, in which we pay exactly once for our share, with a single leap of faith, answered by God with an infinite reward. [Benedict refers to this as 'low-cost salvation'.]
Calvin raised Luther's proportion even higher: You may perform leaps of faith, but they don't matter. If God wanted you to have a portion of the original value, he's already put it in your hand. Your job is to polish it up and make it shine.
Now what about Mecca? The Mohammedan approach is entirely different. There is no original sacrifice, no infinite store of value to be distributed. You have to make your own sacrifice. You get to Heaven by performing Jihad, which means sacrificing yourself in a perfectly literal sense to expand the territory under Mecca's control. Territory and control are again perfectly literal: church and state are identical by definition. Your chances are even better if you sacrifice some infidels at the same time, thus decreasing the non-Mohammedan population. It's a zero-sum game with payment at the end. The entire burden is on you, with no indulgence or forgiveness.
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This primary difference translates to other parts of life.
Rome takes the position that material things are part of Creation, and has a long-standing habit of 'sacralizing' material things and human habits. You can be comforted by things, if you use them moderately and reverently. You are encouraged to create beautiful art and music, for the glory of God. Troublesome human habits can be turned into sacraments (i.e sex ==> marriage), and Rome takes advantage of special tendencies by creating religious orders. Every debit and credit in the human domain is thus placed where it can be used best, and each can be paid or received against your heavenly account. Logic and reason are also part of Creation, and expanding the realm of knowledge is thus a form of sacrament.
Mecca forbids the charging and receiving of interest, which means that creating new wealth is impossible. (Of course it still happens, but in an underground and corrupt way.) Mecca forbids most art and music. Because Allah is arbitrary and unreasonable by definition, expanding knowledge is pointless.
So it's really no mystery after all.
Rome has figured out how to use and balance the debits and credits of human behavior. Everything that advances civilization is considered as a debit to the glory of God, and God enters a credit on our heavenly account. Small failings can be forgiven by debiting a penance, which clears guilt and resentment from the earthly books.
Mecca simply forbids the most important activities of civilization, and requires unquestioning obedience to an unfathomable god. Guilt and resentment are explicitly cultivated as engines of Jihad.
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Note: I intended to add a Part II, comparing Mecca and Rome to the more modern faiths of Willowcreek (ie Prosperity-oriented protestants) and San Francisco (ie the strange Western merger of Lenin and Mussolini that is normally called "progressivism"). I got distracted by bad weather and other bad events, and lost the chain of thought. I did return to the point more recently, but without the inspiration that illuminates Cr/Dr. For instance, here.