For an extensively pictorial version of this same Western history, go to my website, spiritualpilgrim.net for the time period beginning in ancient times to the year 1900. For the events of Western history since 1900, go to spiritualpilgrim.net It was designed to be consulted in accompaniment with the reading of this historical series (this website ... and the actual published or text versions).
Introduction: The Dynamics
1. The Ancient Greek Legacy
2. Ancient Rome
3. The Ancient Jewish Legacy
4. The Formation of Christendom
5. Into the "Dark Ages"
6. Islam and the West During Those Dark Days
7. The High Middle Ages
8. The Renaissance and Reformation
9. The Development of the Dynastic State
10. Enlightenment ... and Revolution
11. The "Modernizing" of the West
The "self evident" order. Western culture is basically an optimistic culture. Things happen, things have the capacity to operate or perform, in a way that fits a particular and somewhat predictable pattern. This pattern can be studied and understood by the careful observer in such a way that events can not only be anticipated but even be directed or controlled by the educated individual (the philosopher or scientist). This cultural understanding or appreciation of "nature" seems totally self-evident to any Westerner.
But in fact it is not so self-evident to everyone. For instance, the basic orderliness of life is not so self-evident to many Hindus and Buddhists. For most Hindus, karma – not basic order – is at the heart of life. To the Hindu way of thinking, we do not inhabit a world which operates in an orderly fashion in accordance with some kind of benign transcendent will or all-encompassing set of natural laws. Rather, life is a complex array of individual lives that come together as a larger whole through the mysterious outworking of the consequences (karma) of personal deeds committed in our previous lifetimes. We all as individuals live out our separate but interconnected lives in order to atone for the deeds of earlier life times. Until karma is fully satisfied, we as individuals are destined to go on living, dying and being reborn in an endless cycle, with no hope of escaping the iron grip of karma. To a Hindu, this is the ultimate reality of life – a reality before which all other judgments about life must bow.
For Buddhists, whose faith grew up within this basic Hindu world view, life is itself merely an illusion. When we try to make it real and work for us, life only produces suffering – life time after life time. Wisdom demands that we find release (nirvana) from this endless cycle. This is achieved only by becoming aware of the illusory quality of life – and stilling our passions for the life of illusions. When we achieve such emotional detachment then we have broken the hold of suffering and the eternal sentence of rebirths. We have achieved nirvana.
So, indeed, the Western sense of the basic order to life is a very special cultural achievement. It comes naturally to us only because it is all pervasive within our culture. It inhabits our thoughts about all matters. It drives us to try to solve life's problems – to look for solutions to everything, rather than to throw up our hands in resignation. It has made us "progressive" and ever-reforming. It has made us devoted; it has made us scientific. It has made us "Western."
The two opposing viewpoints. However behind this widespread acknowledgment within Western culture as to the basic order underlying our universe there persists a long standing debate as to what the source of this orderliness might be. There are two distinct viewpoints as to the source of this orderliness – and thus two viewpoints on what our human response to this orderliness ought to be.
Mysticism. One viewpoint is that we live entirely under the rule of an all present, all powerful and all knowing Grand Consciousness, some kind of Eternal Force or Being, or just simply a "God" on whose plans and judgments all things on earth as well as in the heavens above depend for their orderly movement and ongoing existence. All life is thus seen as a vital flow of the power of God, a flow which holds all things together in a harmony of beauty and goodness. But most strangely, man is the only known creature in the program endowed with not only knowledge of this power but also a totally free will and thus the ability either to cooperate or not cooperate with this power.
The mystic tends to work from the understanding that man's natural or instinctive tendency however is to want to control rather than cooperate with the larger world. This creates huge problems for man. But under the guidance of society's elders, man has the ability to learn how to overcome this self-centered or sinful tendency and thus live to the larger good. But this requires the disciplining hand of an enlightened society guided by inspiring teachers, prophets or leaders who exemplify this life of harmony. In short, to the mystic the goal of life tends to be one in which a person seeks harmonization with life ... through the quest for full cooperation with God, with the physical world God has created and sustains ... and with fellow man.
Materialism. The other viewpoint looks in equally reverent awe at life as a perfect mechanical order of a universe of material things (including humans) functioning precisely according to natural design. Reality is simply the universe of "things" that our five human senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste) know through personal experience to truly exist. There is no other reality, especially a reality that exists nowhere in the physical world but merely in our imaginations, and in particular the imaginary world of God and God's heavenly kingdom. Physical reality and its truths can more than adequately be "proven" through mere observation and study. God cannot be proven in this manner. Indeed, the materialist is quite certain that God does not exist – except to weak minds that cling to the notion of God as some kind of false hope of escape from the hard realities of life.
The materialist believes that the realities of life are properly dealt with only by the careful study of the behavior of material things, the observance of their behavior until a natural pattern begins to reveal itself, and ultimately the drawing from such observations of certain conclusions as to the causes of their behavior, causes that can then be tested and verified experimentally. Employing such a mechanistic methodology, life and its causes can be brought step by step under the mastery of human knowledge or "science."
The materialist is well aware of the flaws surrounding human life but see this not as a problem inherent in human nature itself but in the structure of society, a flawed structure that has resulted from generations of unenlightened superstitions and inherited social bad habits. These flawed social influences can be reformed or cleansed from human life by enlightened social policy, policy conducted by social managers possessing the "scientific" knowledge of social dynamics. Thus life necessitates the scientific control and direction of society by such managers until society is fully reformed.
In short, to the materialist the goal of life tends to be one in which a person seeks dominance over life ... through the mechanical (scientific/legal) management or control of both man and his material environment.
The "Axial Age." This debate seems to have reached a point of clarity about 500 BC – some kind of key pivotal or "Axial Age" – on a number of fronts. Previous to that time, life was understood in polytheistic terms: life was primarily the result of a number of contending gods who laid claim to particular powers or particular areas of jurisdiction. These gods tended to be whimsical, violently passionate, and at times even lined up against each other in fierce competition. But life was also filled with heroes, men and women who faced the gods, faced overwhelming struggles – and yet survived, even rising victorious in the struggle. Life therefore was viewed as some kind of dynamic between the gods of heaven and the mortal heroes of the earth – a dynamic that ultimately did produce some kind of sense of order to life.
But it was at a strange point in history (500 BC) that a deep sense of a singularity about life and its driving force began to come into human understanding of our world and its ways. And it would most mysteriously impact not just one or two but instead many of the world's cultures in those days.
At about the same time (500 BC), a number of Greek philosophers were beginning to look past their own older vision of the universe – a world directed by gods and heroes – to consider a basic or "natural" order that seemed to underpin all things. As life settled down and prosperity increased, this natural "order" of things became more and more obvious – at least to some of the thinkers or "philosophers" of Greek Ionia. But as these philosophers contemplated this natural order, they arrived at two distinctly differing conclusions as to how this order worked. And this division of opinion on this matter helped produce in part the philosophical dualism that still exists within the West today.
One group – Thales, Anaxagoras and Democritus, and others – claimed that this order was inherent within all physical life itself. Creation was a complex system of various materials (such as earth, wind, fire and water) which interacted with each other in rather fixed ways to produce the world that we find around us. These "materialist-mechanists" were the ones who laid the foundations for the Secular viewpoint within Western civilization.
But another group – founded principally by Pythagoras (but promoted principally by Plato 150 years later) – asserted that the source of this order was to be found beyond the rather disorderly visible world itself: in some eternal, perfect, heavenly realm which inspires or directs the more unstable or imperfect visible world that we see around us. This higher world is the mainspring of the oneness, of the order, of all things.
Ultimately this kind of thinking helped pave the way for the spread of mystical theism (belief in a supreme deity or God) through Western civilization.
Perhaps these insights would have been lost in time ... except that a very young Greek-Macedonian, Alexander, managed to pull the foolishly divisive Greek city-states together for the task of finally ending the constant Persian threat coming from the East. In fact, Alexander took his Macedonian-Greek soldiers on a mission of conquest that reached Greek cultural power all the way into central Asia ... and left in the Eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt to Greece, by way of Mesopotamia, Syria and Asian Minor (modern Turkey) a Greek cultural dominance that would last for centuries. And this Greek legacy would certainly also impact deeply and permanently the world to the West in Central and Western Europe.
However, in another, less happy, way the Greeks, over time, also showed the way intellectually and temperamentally to a spiritual sickness which repeatedly afflicted Western societies (actually, which afflicts all societies at some point) jaded by too much wealth and power ... and too little moral restraint to use that wealth and power humanely. The Greeks in time too had a sense of failed righteousness – though they had no particular remedy to the situation ... except to become existentially cynical. At best this produced a movement called Stoicism – which belied Western optimism and took on qualities of Eastern quietism (such as Buddhism). But coupled with the Christianity which would come along later, this would hold Western culture together during some very long Dark Ages ahead of them.
The Romans, who took over the Western program from the Greeks about a century before Christ, were an odd combination of traditional polytheists and skilled materialists. Their minds did not fuss much with higher thought such as the Jews and Greeks engaged in. For the longest time the Romans were content to stay with the older gods and do their most inventive thinking in the material world around them. Here they proved themselves to be geniuses. They themselves produced a highly sophisticated secular social order: in their military, in their government, in their commerce, in their industry, in their public works. In short, the Romans themselves bore powerful witness to the materialist-mechanist or secularist point of view about life.
And they were lavish in the way they first employed that power, actually inviting peoples they had conquered to join them in their Roman expansion program ... offering even citizenship to such people – provided that they come under and defend Rome's carefully defined legal system that governed all Roman affairs.
But such success brought deep social changes in the economic structuring of Roman society ... so that some Romans grew increasingly wealthy – at a time that the population of the common working class expanded rapidly ... and became increasingly poor on a per capita basis. This invited efforts to "reform" Rome's fundamental constitution – the opening up of the constitution merely allowing the disputes among the contending social classes to deepen ... as each vied with the other to formulate the "correct" new social order. The situation got so bad that finally Roman generals (imperators) were called on to pacify a deeply divided Rome.
Tragically, from this point on, authoritarian military authority, not democratic citizen patriotism became the driving force holding Rome on course. Little by little Rome's "Republic," directed by its citizens, became Rome's "Empire," controlled by its dominating generals or imperators (from which "empire" derives its name) backed up by their loyal legions or troops. That worked fairly well for a while in bringing some degree of order to Roman life ... at least as long as these emperors were of strong personal character and morally self-disciplined.
Unfortunately, Rome would lose such disciplined leadership, as sleazier individuals were brought to power by their supporting military legions – or sometimes just by the assassination-prone Pretorian Guard (palace guard) that was supposed to be protecting these emperors. For Rome, by the 200s AD (after Christ) the turnover of emperors was horribly rapid (and disgusting to behold). Rome was in deep trouble.
One of those social groups, that of the ancient Jews – the last surviving tribe of the original twelve Hebrew tribes – was particularly impacted by this discovery ... and would come to form one of the key branches in the Western culture's family tree. Prior to the Axial Age, the Jews as Hebrews or Israelites had already long understood life in terms of personal and collective righteousness which their God YHWH ("Yahweh" or "Jehovah"?) demanded of the Hebrews. They had their earlier Israelite heroes (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, etc.) and the stories or epics surrounding them set before them as examples they should follow. And they also had their YHWH-given system (by way of the prophet Moses) of very precise social laws to discipline them. And together – God, heroes and the Mosaic law – these produced a strong sense of order in Jewish life.
However, when the Jews were led off to captivity in Babylon in the early 500s BC, they had a serious question facing them. Who or what had failed them? Had their tribal protector YHWH failed them in competition with the Babylonian god Marduk? Was Marduk greater than YHWH? Or had YHWH simply abandoned them because they had failed miserably in maintaining the standards of righteousness required of them by YHWH (it had also been centuries since they had produced any heroes of significant stature to lead them in the paths of righteousness; prophets had also warned them that their lack of righteousness was going to draw Yahweh's wrath)? Or was it that YHWH was the God of all nations, that even the Babylonians were part of his ruling hand – and that God had sent the Babylonians to discipline the Jewish remnant of God's own covenant people Israel … as Isaiah had previous stated and as Jeremiah reiterated – much to the discomfort of the Jews?
In the end the Jews came to see the situation posed in the last-mentioned terms: YHWH was the only God, the Creator of the universe, the Judge of all. There was no Marduk. But there was plenty of Divine judgment to be faced. YHWH had used the Babylonians to punish the Jews for their failure to maintain righteousness. And with that, the Jews turned urgently to studying and practicing God's laws revealed to their people through previous heroes and prophets (again, most importantly Moses).
But they also laid in waiting for a new hero, a divinely-anointed Messiah, to come to them, one who as the heroes of old (particularly David, who had lived centuries earlier, in and around the year 1000 BC) would lead them personally to a greatness under YHWH – a greatness that would bring the world to worship God at Zion (Jerusalem). They would then be reconstituted as an entirely priestly people, serving the world as God's holy priesthood.
Jesus of Nazareth - The Christ. As the Romans headed deeper into the age of Empire, taking on an increasingly Secularist or non-theistic, even amoral view of life in general, a rapidly growing group of "Christians" – as inheritors of the Jewish vision of life – headed off strongly in the theistic or mystical direction. Their view was that their leader or "savior," Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed the long awaited Jewish "Messiah" (Hebrew) or "Christ" (Greek) – though more along the lines of a prophet like Moses than of a soldier like David.
In his own life and death, Jesus opened the way to a life of glory for those who chose to go that way ... through a deep faith in the personal guidance and nurture of the one-and-only God, whom Jesus termed as Abba (Father) … as opposed to relying on their own human reason and in the workings of a materialist-mechanist or secular social system that human reason always seeks to build.
This put the early Christians at distinct odds with everything that the Roman Empire had come to stand for, especially at odds with the notion that the Empire – and its semi-divine emperors at its head – ought to be the object of veneration of every member of the Empire. Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the emperors, claiming that such a privilege belonged to God alone – and suffered harsh persecution for their stand.
This also put them at odds with their own Jewish community, not merely because Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that most of the Jews had been led to expect, but because Jesus taught a Godly righteousness drawn not from the faithful observance of the Jewish law but instead a righteousness drawn from the heart, from personal compassion towards others, and from a total devotion to God as Abba (a term of great blasphemy to "proper" Jews … because it was actually a term of familiarity more on the order of "Daddy"!)
The synthesis: Imperial Christianity or "Christendom." During almost three centuries of persecuted existence, Christian "martyrs" (or "witnesses") revealed themselves to fellow Romans as possessors of an amazingly high moral character and personal bravery – long missing in Roman life. So impressive was their Christian faith that eventually (early 300s AD) this very Christian faith was taken up personally by the Roman rulers themselves. Within a few generations (certainly by the end of the 300s AD) it even became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
However, both the faith and the Empire were significantly changed in the process of Christianity becoming thus officially "Romanized." Christianity joined Roman law to become the moral-ethical underpinning of the Empire. Jesus Christ was moved up alongside the emperors in status … to become Christus Rex (Christ the King), friend and supporter of the emperors – and at this point a lofty figure quite removed from the common Christian. The latter now looked to the Virgin Mary and the saints for more intimate or personal spiritual support.
In turn, the Empire saw itself as defender of the Christian faith through a variety of formal offices – including the military. Out of this new amalgam arose the firmly-established Roman Catholic Church in the western half of the empire and the equally firmly-established Byzantine Orthodox Church in the eastern half of the empire.
In short, while the Roman Empire took on certain theistic dimensions, the Christian faith gave up some of its pure theism in favor of a stronger political and even somewhat Secular religious position.*
[*Footnote: "Secular religious position" may sound like a contradiction in terms, because in today's America, Secularism is treated as simply "scientific fact" ... meaning, built on "hard reality" - and not on mere "superstition" (as Secularists typically see those who look to an unseen God to direct life). Actually Secularism is no less a religion than any other "worldview" or system of social and personal belief that instructs people about the basics of life, about the forces that stand behind the very good – and the very bad – in life ... and thus about what the people must do to make their world a positive place for themselves. That's what all religions do, whether of the theistic (God-believing) or Secular (not-God-believing or atheistic) variety. Indeed, the origin of the word "religion" comes from the Latin "religio" which originally referred to the various moral responsibilities (including proper respect to or worship of the gods) which people had to take on in facing the many challenges and demands of life.
Unfortunately, America's Federal Courts have blinded themselves to this fact ... in order to promote atheistic Secularism as America's fundamental worldview or religion - in opposition to America's traditional reliance on Christianity as its fundamental worldview. This is a very critical social-cultural matter which, by the very clear directive of the Constitution's First Amendment, was supposed to have been left exclusively to the American people themselves to decide ... not one to be imposed on American society by a mere handful of Secular-minded – and thus supposedly more socially-scientifically "enlightened" – lawyers in black robes.]
But the synthesis of Roman Empire and Christian faith did not shore up the sagging Roman system, which finally crumbled – at least in the West – under the pressure of Germanic tribes who were pressing for resettlement within the Roman lands. Though the tribesmen only wanted to possess the Roman order, not destroy it, their tribal touch only collapsed what little was left of the old imperial system.
However, two developments within Christianity helped keep the Christian faith intact in the West, even as the Empire collapsed there. One of these was the belated conversion of the Irish to Christianity, complements of the British missionary Patrick (mid-400s). These Irish converts in turn infused the faith with new vigor and sent missionaries (500s and 600s) from the outer island of Ireland into the midst of the Germanic settlements, both in England and on the Western European continent. Their brand of faith was of the very theistic variety: personal and Christ-centered.
The other development as Rome was collapsing was the influx into the ranks of the church of good Roman patrician blood, which gave the Catholic church sufficient political expertise to thus be able to stave off the Roman collapse, at least with respect to the Roman church itself. Notable were the Roman popes Leo (mid-400s) and Gregory (late 500s) – who rebuilt the powers of the religious hierarchy centered on Rome. From Rome then went forth Catholic missionaries, drawing the Germanic tribes into the last standing institution of the old Roman imperium: the Roman Catholic Church. The Franks (France), under Clovis (late 400s), adapted in whole the Roman version of the faith. Saxon England, facing two versions of Christianity, finally (mid-600s) decided to follow the Roman rather than the Irish variety. Thus a tendency of Christianity toward political or secular order rather than a personally theistic spirit won out in the end. But even then it was a feeble version – invested with huge doses of pagan superstition and subject to the political whims of the Germanic rulers.
In its weakened political condition Western Europe in the 700s found itself vulnerable to new intruders: the Muslims who had also just overrun most of the Roman Empire in the East (although in a way the Muslims revitalized – even as they transformed – the Eastern Empire into a quite prosperous Muslim order, rather than collapse those lands into poverty as the Germans had done in the West).
But very significantly, the Franks under Charles Martel not only turned back this Muslim tide when it tried to enter deeply into Western Christian territory, but his grandson, Charlemagne, even began the consolidation of Christian Western Europe under his personal rule through what is today France, Germany and Italy (Spain, however, was lost to Muslim domination for centuries).
Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome in 800, and one might have believed that somehow the ancient Roman Christian Empire had come back to life in the West. But it was Germanic and not Roman ways that directed Charlemagne's Empire – and in accordance with Germanic custom, Charlemagne's lands were divided equally among his grandsons – and the impetus toward reorganization was lost.
Soon the Vikings or "Northmen" were taking up from the Germans in assaulting Western and Northern Europe – except that their hand was even more violent. This spun these regions of Europe back into two more centuries of "Dark Ages." But here and there, these Northmen (or Normans) settled into conquered Europe and were eventually drawn into the Christian order – giving it new blood, of the military variety. By 1100 their military talents were being put to use in a counter assault against Islam, carrying Christian "crusaders" all the way to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. This marks the beginning of the period of revival of Western culture, one which has continued down to the present day.
Growing East West contacts. Though in the end the crusades proved to be a military failure (the Muslims pushed the Crusaders back out of the East during the 1200s), the Muslims indicated a willingness to replace Western efforts at conquest of the Muslim East with Western efforts at trade instead – and pilgrimage – as long as the Western Christians were willing to behave themselves! So a new relationship was established between the Christian West and the Muslim East, one which proved to be a major benefit to the West.
The Muslim East had carefully preserved the ancient writings of the Greeks that the Western Christians had previously destroyed because they were pre Christian and thus "pagan." Aristotle and Plato had been known to the West; but now also other ancient Greek philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists came to light – as well as the Muslims' own contribution to learning (such as their Arabic numerals and their advanced methods of mathematical calculation known as al-jabr or algebra.)
A period of peace began to settle in within the West itself during this time – which allowed the West to come into its own revival in Christian learning. Actually, this had begun even as early as the late 1000s but reached a highly sophisticated level of during the 1200s. This new learning produced on the one hand a rich spirituality or "Mysticism" (led in part by the Franciscans) and on the other hand a deep revival of intellectual order known as "Scholasticism" (led in part by the Dominicans). The first of these emphasized a deep personal relationship with a loving God (theism) and the other tended to emphasize the benefits of a close examination of God's created order (the secularist instinct). The old dualism thus showed its on-going hold on the Western mind even after centuries of dormancy.
By the 1300s this stirring intellectual curiosity had begun to shift its total focus away from God and was casting it more and more on human life – even just ordinary human life. So also was a deepening interest in the cultural offerings of the pre-Christian pagan Roman past. Things Roman (and not just Roman Christian) and Greek were beginning to fascinate the West – particularly the Roman and Greek achievements in art, architecture and literature (both poetry and prose). Secular humanism was stirring.
The Renaissance. In the West, attitudes of the Christian church toward these new secularist developments were actually favorable, with the church even being a major patron of this revived spirit of secular humanism (even elements of paganism).
Also … the Western church had never been averse to holding political power – and soon it began to demonstrate that it was not averse to holding big portions of economic power or wealth either. By the 1400s popes and bishops vied with newly rising industrialists, merchants, bankers – plus a new breed of national princes and kings – in gathering up the fruits of a fast unfolding secular order of power, wealth, art – and moral abandon.
The Protestant Reformation. But the awakening spirit of the Renaissance also stirred the hearts of some serious Christian reformers who realized how far the Christian community had wandered from the original Christian foundations laid out by Christ and the early Church 1500 years earlier … and protested loudly (thus "Protestants") in their demand for deep religious – and consequently political – reform (thus a true "Reformation") to take place within the Christian community.
An early leader in the Protestant Reformation was the German monk Luther … who was able to escape the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church and its powerful Spanish protector, Charles Habsburg … because Luther gained the protection of some German feudal lords who had their own political motives in supporting Luther. Thus Luther would go no further than theological reform in his protest … standing with these rulers in opposing any political reforms which might have undercut the feudal system protecting Luther.
Another theistic social group, which followed the lead of the Swiss reformer, John Calvin (mid-1500s), found its political-social roots in Northern Europe's fast rising urban society (urban Italy stayed strongly within the traditional Catholic political camp). These Calvinist reformers had no interest in supporting the old rural feudal order, instead seeing themselves as better able than the rural feudal order to realize the ideal community life of early Christianity. These Calvinists, though mystically pious in their theistic affections for God, happened also to command considerable intellectual and material or secular resources, resources which allowed them to fend off the efforts of the feudal Catholic Church to bring them back under the Roman order – as the Roman Church looked to the fast rising princes of Spain, France, England, etc., to defend its political-social position in the heart of European culture.
But those rising monarchs, for political reasons of their own, would soon choose sides in this new political-religious battle ... some supporting the Catholic Church, some supporting the Protestant Reform effort. The situation soon turned very ugly. By the early 1600s, continental Europe found itself completely absorbed in an ongoing and very bitter "religious" war on a number of fronts – as all of these old and new forces vied for mastery of the European culture and soul.
The discovery of the enormous wealth that could be acquired simply through trade with the outlying world was a big part of the dynamic producing the European Renaissance. Thus there was a huge scramble of the various European powers to acquire that wealth.
From their position on the Atlantic coastline, the Portuguese had step by step discovered by the end of the 1400s a direct route South around Africa to the wealth of the East – all the way to India. Not to be outdone by their Portuguese neighbors, the Spanish monarchs sought that same wealth at the same time by instead heading West across the Atlantic … under the assumption that this would also bring them to the wealth of the East. But instead the Spanish discovered a huge continent lying in the way, one full of "Indian"* gold – which the Spanish greedily plundered, destroying American-Indian civilization … and making the Spanish very rich and politically powerful in the process.
[*Footnote: The inhabitants of this land would be termed "Indians" because the inhabitants of this new land were darker skinned, the way Indians were reputed to be, confirming in the mind of Spain's explorer Columbus that he had reached India. The name would stick even though it was soon discovered that this was not India but instead a new continent.]
Indeed, during the 1500s, Spain pretty much dominated European affairs.
At the same time, Portugal and Spain – soon joined by the French, English and Dutch – took an interest in actually developing trading communities, even colonies in the larger world that had just come under discovery. For Spain and Portugal, their role in the New World would remain largely administrative, placing over the conquered Indian population Spanish political, social, cultural and religious rule … with only a minimum amount of racial intermix (most Portuguese and Spanish lords chose to enjoy their wealth back at home in Europe).
Thus with the increasing importance of the religious wars shaking Europe during the 1600s, religious ambitions accompanied Europe's continuing quest for commercial wealth … in the way the later entrants into the exploration game – the French, English and Dutch – went at their global expansion.
For the French, the planting of their French language and Catholic culture became key objectives in their exploration of the New World (principally Canada and the Mississippi River Basin).
For the Dutch, commercial interests in the New World (the Middle States of the North American Atlantic coastline) were actually accompanied by a wide religious tolerance, as the Dutch tried to keep the bitter religious contention out of their American "New Netherland" settlement.
For the English, their first venture in "Virginia" (1607) was entirely commercial … as England itself was trying to stay entirely out of the religious wars shaking the European continent. But Protestant religious refugees from an increasingly religiously-stressed England would soon (1620s and 1630s) join England's settlement efforts in the New World … when a large group of English Protestants, termed "Puritans," planted a deeply Calvinist-inspired Christian Reform community in "New England," just north of the Dutch settlement.
But these two differing English motivations would present some serious social-moral problems for England's New World colonies – urban (and rather "democratic") religious purists to the North … and transplanted feudal aristocrats (and their vast fields worked by an equally vast number of dependent, even enslaved, workers) to the South. This cultural-moral distinction would eventually (the mid-1800s) bring this transplanted English-speaking community to a brutal Civil War.
Meanwhile, by the late-1700s, England, now termed "Britain", was seemingly outdistancing its European commercial rivals in the way it was putting itself in domination of the political-social structure of the vast subcontinent of India … an operation conducted by its commercial agent, the British East India Company, which entered into a vast number of commercial treaties with the local princes or rajas supposedly governing India – also offering British "protection" of those rajas in the process. At the same time, the Company worked hard to keep its French and Dutch rivals out of what it increasingly saw as its own Indian domain. Thus the roots of the soon-great British Empire were being laid out.
The path to the European Enlightenment. Meanwhile, back in Europe itself, by the late 1600s two things were happening which would shift European culture strongly away from the religious agenda of the Reformation: the first was the sheer exhaustion of Westerners from all the warring over the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants – over the issue of which religious group held the Truth. The feeling began to grow up among Westerners that the Truth would never be found through such bloodshed. Toleration of differing religious opinions seemed to be more high-minded than all this sectarian squabbling.
The second thing was the rapid expansion of science (termed at the time "natural philosophy") and its seeming ability to explain all manner of natural events, whether in physics, chemistry or human anatomy.
Science had already in the 1500s started to challenge traditional theism in the West over the issue of whether the earth was or was not the center of the universe. All theological tradition said that it had to be – for Scripture clearly places the earth as the center point of God's creation. But astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler offered powerful mathematic theories that undermined the church's traditional position.
As the 1600s progressed, natural philosophers such as Descartes, Newton and Locke began to speculate and design theories about a physical reality which seemed to function quite apart from the issue of God. This new science began to put the pieces together of a great mathematical puzzle which needed no particular involvement of God to make it all work. At best God could be congratulated for having set the whole mechanism in motion – long, long ago. But now that it was up and running, it no longer gave evidence of further involvement of God in the process. The universe seemed to run simply under its own fixed or eternal physical or "natural" laws.
By the early 1700s, secularism seemed to be elbowing theism aside in the West. Those who continued to hold theistic views of the universe were looked upon by the newly "enlightened" thinkers of the day as being either deeply self-deluded or just simple minded. Universities once given to preparing ministers for their pastoral calls were now shifting the focus of their studies to the exploration of the secular world and the truths of "natural philosophy" (modern science) which undergirded a growing sense of a natural or secular order standing behind everything.
At the same time, the ultimate victory for secularism over theism began to register itself in terms of a shift in the sense of the nature and purpose of Western societies and governments. Whereas the old Catholic feudal order and the newer Protestant commonwealths had justified their existence in terms of God's own will and pleasure, by the late 1700s political communities were being refashioned around purely secular principles in which man – not God – was the justifier of the enterprise. Communities were being actively rebuilt or founded according to "rational" principles of governance – principles designed to enhance human stature, not the stature of God (notice that the American Constitution, written in 1787, does not contain a single reference to God in any manner whatsoever).
The Protestant "Great Awakening." But theism was by no means dead. Protestant pietism on the European continent and a spirit of Protestant revivalism in England and America (known in America as the "Great Awakening") stirred the theistic passions of many Westerners just prior to the mid-1700s. Though within a generation this passion had once again subsided, it left in its wake nonetheless a strengthened church and a resolve among Christians not to let the fires of their faith flicker out.
Unitarianism/Deism. Not all Protestant Christians had approved of these emotional outpourings – especially those of a more "reasoned" Christian faith. Unitarianism and Deism stood halfway between pure secularism and theism – acknowledging God as the source of the blessings of creation and Jesus as the master moral teacher of mankind. But this viewpoint also tended to see Christianity as a moral responsibility rather than as a personal spiritual passion. It dismissed much of the fervency of those swept up by revivalism and looked with disbelief and disdain on all the tales of miraculous events as key to the faith – either at that particular time or even previously, in Biblical times. Unitarianism and Deism ultimately believed in a practical reality facing the Christian which was best approached through reason and science. It was well on its way toward secularism.
The French Revolution. In Catholic France – and then elsewhere on the European Continent – the French Revolution which broke out in the late-1700s took a more militant attitude toward theistic Christianity, blaming such "superstition" for having undergirded centuries of political tyranny in Europe. French militants spread the accusation that Christian piety had dulled the spirits of the people in the face of feudal tyranny, by keeping them willingly submitted before traditional political authority because of the belief that this Old Regime had been ordained by God. Christianity was also accused of weakening the people's resolve to improve their lot in this life through political revolution and the rule of human reason by deflecting their hope instead toward a heavenly afterlife – something Enlightenment philosophers viewed as dangerously superstitious escapism.
Reaction. Ultimately such French secularism destroyed its own moral credentials through the blood bath produced by the Paris guillotine – as French intellectuals, after having slaughtered the former ruling class, turned on each other (the early 1790s) in their quest to "rebuild" France around amore "rational" order ... an order they seemed to be unable to agree on. Indeed, their use of "reason" merely deepened their mutual opposition. Soon they actually took to slaughtering each other (the mid-1790s). This was a very ugly display of intellectual arrogance … and social blindness.
Then, the cultural imperialism undertaken in the early 1800s by France's new dictator, Napoleon – undertaken in order to refocus French militancy away from France itself and outward, toward France's neighbors – ultimately stirred up anti French nationalism around Europe. Indeed, the French dynamic was helping the common people of Europe discover the vital importance of their own linguistic or national heritage … the Germans, the Italians, the Poles – indeed, virtually every distinct linguistic community. Nationalism was quickly replacing the idea of a "catholic" or universal order underpinning Europe.
This reaction to French intellectual or secular-rational haughtiness in fact also induced many Europeans to cling even more closely to their traditional Christian faith (though not necessarily its traditional Christian political order). Thus, after the defeat of the French in 1815, Europe returned to the emotional security offered by the older theistic views on life. This coincided in America with wave after wave of yet another round of religious revivals (including the birthing of Mormonism) that swept across the country in the early 1800s. And the Rome-based Catholic Church would attempt to discipline itself according to stricter moral-theological standards.
The industrial revolution. But "rational" Secularism was soon rescued by the ongoing industrial revolution – a revolution which, in its rapid development during the course of the 1800s, produced unprecedented wealth, not just for its industrial owners, but even eventually for the humbler classes. And it did so without the apparent aid of God. Human reason and human effort again seemed to be the necessary force behind this wondrous material development in the West.
But unlike the French Revolution, it generally (Marxism excepted) found no cause against Christianity. The newly emerging industrial culture paid lip service to theistic Christianity – while in fact putting its greatest energies behind secular development.
Darwinism and Marxism. Such "progress" could at times appear to be quite brutal … as a Darwinist spirit gave moral justification for the way the industrial revolution seemed to play only to the material and social benefit of the rising industrial-financial class … at a deep financial and emotional cost to the newly expanding industrial working class. But according to such Darwinist logic, it was through just such empowering of the strong and dismissing of the weak that progress was ever achieved. And it all seemed morally justified in the way Darwin himself "demonstrated" through his own research how life on this planet evolved from the simplest of forms to the intricate complexities of today highly developed world, through an amoral process of "survival of the fittest" (actually, Spencer's, not Darwin's, words).
But Marx himself would turn this Darwinist dynamic into a countering philosophy, in which industrial progress would itself inevitably lead historically to full control by the now-exploited industrial working class – or the "proletariat" as Marx liked to term this group. It would do so by the sheer mechanics of competitive industrial "capitalists" (as Marx also termed the industrial leaders) competing against each other Darwinist-style for industrial dominance, driving each other out of business in order to establish their own monopoly over this or that industrial operation … until the actual number of members the capitalist class would come to be so low that the expanding proletarian class would simply outweigh and consequently find themselves naturally able to throw off capitalist dominance. Thus by a Darwinian historical process, a "workers' democracy" would quite naturally come into being … as the last stage of human history.
And God would play no role in the process, for either the Darwinists or the Marxists. True human progress would happen naturally, according to the "scientific" principles discovered by both philosophers.
In fact, Marx could be very dismissive of traditional Christian theism, calling such theism and its belief in a heavenly afterlife, one awaiting the weak and downtrodden, as the "opium of the masses" … religious garbage dished out to the impoverished masses to keep them dumbed down and submissive. True progressivism must eliminate totally such dangerous theism.