Below is the original intent of this post, written weeks ago (18 Dec 2011) but left as a draft. After lots of thought, I have to abandon it for now because it’s simply too big a thought for me to commit to just one post. Instead, I’m going to just muse on what excellence is with the intention of re-visiting the original question at a later time.
Did Christianity inspire excellence?
This is a notion my Mom has brought up in the past. While she has some good points, I’m not one for spiritual reasoning. I’ve known too many people who’ve claimed something was God’s will in order to make their belief some kind of incontestable dictate. But if something is true then it can be proven and observed. Arcane and esoteric mysticism has no place here, because if we’re looking for root causes of what makes one nation or culture more productive or successful than another: a) we have to define what the measuring standards for success are, and b) they have to be fair, impartial, and mean something that can be agreed upon by reason.
My thinking says we can analyze whether or not Christianity has had an impact either positive or negative on a culture- but not if the absence of Christianity was beneficial or detrimental until and unless the former is established. We can’t confuse correlation for causation. I’m no scientist, just some guy wondering aloud and trying to think about this critically. So, boring set-up out of the way, let’s dive in!
At this point I was going to list off some old cliches and look at their roots. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”, for example. But for the post to really take shape, we have to first define what we mean by excellence. And that in itself is no small task.
Merriam-Webster defines excellence as the quality of being excellent, which is in turn is defined as “1 archaic : superior; 2 : very good of it’s kind : eminently good.” At the risk of aping Hank Reardon in Atlas Shrugged, now we have to define “good”. This one gets a little more… philosophical. Bear with me.
Good, adj. 1 a (1): of a favorable character or tendency; b (1) : suitable, fit; (4) : commercially sound; (5) that can be relied on; (6) profitable, advantageous; c (1) : agreeable, pleasant; e (1) : well-founded, cogent; 2 c : competent, skillful
These are just some of the definitions, and it very quickly becomes apparent that “good” can then be a subjective term dependent on society’s judgment. It can be a noun, adverb or adjective. It can be used as faint praise, calling something good but not excellent. It can be evidence, when one “has the goods” on somebody. And because the word is so malleable it made me realize something: a thing can be good in one time and place, but no good in another. The thing that is judged to be good or not is just as dependent on the surroundings and circumstance as the defining word is on the society casting judgment. So what is good, and therefore what is excellent, is a moral judgment.
I know, this is starting to get into crazy town relativistic talk, but sit tight because it’s not in my nature to let something be ambiguous after going to the trouble of defining it. Definition is, by nature, the antithesis of ambiguity. As I’m typing this paragraph it occurred to me that the scope of what I’m trying to analyze is still too big. Now I’m asking, “What is good?” But I think I’m focused on the wrong part of the question. Rather than try to nail down an absolute definition of “good” or “excellent”, let’s accept that those are terms used in context and instead focus on the “what” of the question. Or, in other words, is a thing good by virtue of it’s own qualities or by the work put into it by its creator?
I like this theory better, because it can be applied in so many ways. The watch on my wrist or the stitching in the leather seat of a Rolls-Royce are just elements that don’t achieve anything unless put into place by a craftsman. If I were given the same ingredients as a master chef, my soup would not be as excellent because it is dependent upon the creator’s knowledge and work. This also fits with my earlier thought that excellence is a moral judgment or virtue.
So, excellence is up to us as an individual, and is dependent upon context and surrounding. I may excel and be in the top 2% in one school, but moved to another school my exact same performance may become sub-standard. At this point I finally feel comfortable positing three things about excellence: people create excellence, it is judged or proven in an environment of testing or competition, and it is a virtue deriving from one’s desire to do their best.
The too-large question I’m trying to wrap my head around or answer now is: what drives or fosters a culture of excellence? Conversely, what allows a people to simply accept the shoddy state of things? Is it a culture as a whole, or do societies get moved by small amounts of motivated people, and certain countries have been blessed to have a few more of these than others? It’s easy for me to puzzle over the way they do business here, where stores sell cigarettes but no lighters, or blades but no razor in which to use them. It’s downright maddening to see such poor thinking! What business couldn’t see the simple additional source of revenue they’re missing out on? Is it stupidity (as I first accused them of), or is it just a complete lack of drive, ambition, and care? Clearly, it is not an excellent store because the employees don’t work at it to my satisfaction, neither as a customer or if I were their employer. But it is apparently acceptable (or good) here. Why does one culture develop the internet and usher in a completely new means of productivity and commerce while another fails to grasp basic hygiene, cleanliness, and application of resources?
I don’t think it’s out of line to mention at this point the potential for Capitalism vs. Socialism in societal development. The Seychelles are overwhelmingly socialist and the shacks they live in and poor state of their cars remind me of the dilapidation and poor build quality of vehicles in the USSR.
At this point it would be very easy to just begin ripping on the Seychelles, Africa, and any number of other unfair assumptions- but that’s not my purpose and getting distracted down that road is… A false argument, I guess. There are nincompoops in America that bolt cheap “wings” and loud exhausts onto a 1983 Toyota. Stupidity and shoddy workmanship are not anyone’s exclusive domain. But I do retain my belief that it is a question of culture. Maybe I should define that next, while I’m still thinking/typing as I go…
So now we’ve covered excellence, and even gone on to compare/contrast some examples of it. And while I’ve yet to see examples of excellence here in the Seychelles, the fact is there are also cultures of failure around the globe as well. From the “cool kids” in an American high school that pick on the kids with good grades, to the Occupy knuckleheads that would rather strip somebody else of wealth rather than earn their own. Cultures of failure are all too easy to find examples of. But if we accept all these premises as true, can we go back to the original question and say Christianity has some bearing on personal drive, work ethic, and the pursuit of excellence?
My belief is that we can observe some correlation between Christianity and excellence, but we cannot claim causation. As a matter of fact, if we introduce religion into the discussion it just becomes too passionate, large, and unwieldy an issue to discuss in anything less than a book format. There are just too many factors to cover, and miles of groundwork to lay as a foundation for any arguments or findings. But here are my bullet points for why I believe what I do.
- Germany, England, Italy, France, and United States all have had either deep religious roots related to Christianity, or well documented periods of great “revival”. Coincidentally, they are mostly productive nations with easily discoverable examples of excellence to be found.
- Islam has provided no benefit whatsoever to the world at large in almost 800 years, and it has been argued the Islamic Golden Age was chiefly one of transmission of ideas and knowledge from the Greeks before them. It has been a violent, aggressive culture to those outside its ranks- oppressing women and discouraging education. The famed Palm Jumereirah, World islands, and Burj al Arab hotel were all engineered by non-Muslim Europeans.
- Judaism in the last century has arguably been the corollary of more excellence than either Christianity or Islam combined.
- Japan. Mostly Buddhist or Shinto, with a 2005 report stating 70% are atheist. Less than one percent of Japan’s population is Christian. And yet there may be no other culture as noted for it’s drive to excellence. From the pursuit of honor publicized in tales of the samurai, to their current world-leading positions in youth education, science and technology development, the great care and precision in their art… That tiny island is the world’s 3rd largest economy and they have a functional space exploration program. With a culture like “The Toyota Way“, the Japanese exude excellence and demolish the notion that excellence originates in Christianity.
Even with all that said, it’s impossible for me to discount America’s rich history of inventors and innovators. Ben Franklin, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in more modern day examples. But is history indicative of our performance as a nation today? Is innovation a cousin of excellence? The correlation of religion and excellence still intrigues me, as well as my question that remains unanswered: what is it that creates a culture of excellence? It’s a bigger question than I realized, and unlikely that there will be one answer to ring out as the most correct. But it’s still worth thinking about.
Now, a far easier question to end with. If you, dear reader, are honest with yourself: do you pursue excellence?