Monday, 29 December 2014

Good Plumbing will not Save a Civilisation

MUCH IS MADE in the media today of the irrelevance of Christianity, as far as its contribution to modern society is concerned. True? Maybe…. if your priorities for civilised society are restricted to the necessity of good roads, adequate schools, reasonable petrol prices, banking and mortgage facilities, with satisfying leisure and sporting outlets. If that is all, then you don’t need any sense of a cultural legacy from the past to maintain a proper

Modern Chicago (Photo: Richard Bewes)

momentum. A well-thought out and developed world-view? A credible interpretation of the meaning of life? You can bin it all. But the fragile way of life you are experiencing will not survive. Take the ancient city of Pompeii, the remains of which you can visit today. It had most of the necessary infrastructure for any aspiring civilisation. Naturally it boasted no telephones or computers – and the invention of the internal combustion engine still lay nineteen centuries ahead. But Pompeii had streets with shops in them, banks and businesses, athletics and sports stadiums with tiered seating. There were theatres in Pompeii – complete with royal box enclosures for the notables.

They knew about sauna baths and central heating in Pompeii. On a visit, I recall examining one apartment that had en-suite facilities. One residence, entitled ‘The house of the tragic poet’ still reveals at its entrance a snarling

dog – with the inlaid caption, ‘Cave Canem’ ……‘Beware of the Dog.’ Was there too much wrong with this thriving urban conurbation? After all, children played and went to school, and people were immersed in their businesses.

The other side of it is that Pompeii was a city without any revelation of God – despite its many temples devoted to Venus, Apollo and Jupiter. Christianity was spreading fast, but it had not yet reached Pompeii. Pompeii died as a godless city on August 24th, 79 AD, as the nearby mountain Vesuvius blew its top off.

Would Pompeii have died anyway, as a civilised society? The answer lies in

the declining fortunes of the then greatest empire that the world had ever seen – Rome. Rome could not survive. Other civilisations, too, have flourished and then died. Whatever happened to Nineveh, to Troy, to Knossos? What is it that extinguishes an apparently once-thriving community and way of life?

Shakespeare gives us a clue, when he has Cassius declaring, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

Take Knossos, then – a highly-sophisticated Greek society of around 1,200 BC, antedating even the great poet Homer. It is one of the oldest known cities in the world. But it was only a name to us, until Sir Arthur Evans began his excavations there, at the start of the twentieth century. Then its amazing developments were revealed. Knossos boasted elaborate buildings, staircases, elegant fashion designs, even flush toilets. On a visit there, I could see for myself that its architects had designed an ingenious way of erecting pillars for the city’s buildings that were proof against earthquakes – a feature that plenty of modern cities have yet to establish. Some of the innovations of Knossos had to be re-invented centuries later.

Knossos represented an outstanding ‘civilisation’ that rose, flourished – and died, perhaps violently. As a Scotsman declared, at the end of his visit to the ruins, “Good plumbing will not save a civilisation.”

Cassius had it right. Civilisation fails from within. What gave Europe a cultural heritage that lasted for centuries – affecting art, education, business, politics and architecture – was its Christian thought. With the collapse of the

A great Roman aqueduct at Nimes, France, dating from BC (Photo: Liz Bewes)

Roman empire under an onslaught of determined Barbarian hordes in 410 AD, there rose a rejuvenated biblical faith, fostered by two men. One was Augustine of Hippo, with his massive work ‘The City of God’, in which he compared the decaying cities of this life with the eternal City that is above. The other individual was Augustine’s contemporary, the scholar Jerome, who translated the entire Scriptures into Latin, the common European language of the day. The impact of these two men lasted for a thousand years. There was plenty to disrupt the life of Europe; wars, coups and revolutions abounded. But the basic underlying culture held.

Today all that is being challenged. Europe’s ‘constitution’ fails even to mention its Christian heritage. Try buying a Bible in the religious section of the book department in London’s great store, Selfridges!

So watch this space.

And let us learn from another historian, Arthur Bryant:
Can all the King’s horses and all the King’s men put Humpty-Dumpty together again?It is anybody’s guess. But, short of a world-wide religious revival to evoke the selfless and co-operativequalities inherent in men, I can see no other way in which the disruptive and destructive forces threatening to tear modern materialistic society apart can be withstood (‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, Collins)
It is that very necessary revival that may yet rescue the West – even if it has

to come from Africa, Korea or China. Is it on the way? The indications are firm enough. It is already here – if at present only the size of a man’s hand.