Historical Confluence in Western Civilization

    A few hundred yards from my home in Minnesota flows the Mississippi River.  It is said to be 2300 miles from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. If we were to measure it not from Itasca but from the Montana headwaters of the river’s largest tributary, the Missouri, the length is 3700 miles.
    Why, we may wonder, do we say the Mississippi begins in Minnesota rather than Montana?  The identification of a river’s beginning point is arbitrary, depending mostly on when the various branches were discovered by the early European explorers.
    The Mississippi River which creates the large delta at New Orleans is really a combination of the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Crow Wing, the Rum, the Minnesota, the Saint Croix, and countless other rivers and streams.
    Just so, the cultural stream we call Western Civilization is the result of confluence after confluence.  Since the Enlightenment some two or three centuries ago we have tended to say that our cultural headwaters lie in ancient Greece.
    “We are all Greeks,” said the poet Shelley in 1821.  Much more recently, Purdue professor John Kirby asserted that “for all who grow up in our culture — no matter what their ethnic or racial background — the heritage that predicates our mythic and symbolic values is that of the Greeks and Romans.”
    My own public school education in a small town in northern California certainly emphasized that we in the West are the heirs of ancient Greece.  I don’t recall ever having been taught that our culture is the blending of a great many tributaries, of which Greece is only one.  Even my university studies gave little hint of the broader reality.
    Today, having seen the Enlightenment era to its end and finding ourselves in an uncertain time of transition to an unknown future, we need to hear again that our cultural stream, however rough may be the troubled rapids of our own time, is a river of many strong tributaries.  While Greece crumbled very quickly after the climax of its Golden Age in the late fifth century before Christ, we have a resilience built into us by the multiple streams which flow through our ideas, attitudes, and values.
    Recovering from the amazing narrowness of Shelley’s view will help us regain perspective and reorient ourselves as the current carries us into the future.
    At the very least we must recognize that Western civilization is a confluence of both Greek and Hebrew roots.  The contemporary trend toward denigrating “religion” and people of biblical faith is a form of self-destruction.  We are all Greeks and Hebrews.  Failing to remember either half is a cultural amnesia which robs us of our sense of identity.


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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