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Department: Featured Blip

Your Operating System

Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home by Glenn S. Sunshine

reviewed by Terrell Clemmons

“What Is a Worldview and Why Should I Care?" asks Glenn S. Sunshine, history professor at Central Connecticut State University. "A worldview is the framework you use to interpret the world and your place in it," he answers in the opening chapter. "It is your gut-level, instinctive response to the basic philosophical questions, such as 'What is real?' (metaphysics), 'What can I know and how can I know it?' (epistemology), and 'Are there such things as right and wrong, and if so, how do I know what they are?' (ethics)." One's worldview often operates "below the radar," but it nonetheless guides our thoughts, words, and actions.

Cultures also have a worldview, a core set of values upon which the populace shares general agreement. What people believe to be true and real, for example, determines what the next generation is taught. Ethics and morals shape laws and customs. Without some broad agreement on these philosophical foundations, a society will disintegrate.

And when a society's worldview changes, tectonic cultural shifts inevitably follow. In Why You Think the Way You Do, Dr. Sunshine takes a panoramic look at more than two millennia of Western civilization and shows how evolving worldviews directed Western culture.

Take human rights, for example. Before Christianity touched Rome, human life was exploited and expendable. The economy was driven by slave labor, revolts were brutally crushed, and gladiatorial death matches made for public entertainment. Abortion and infanticide were widely practiced; in fact, Roman law mandated death for children born physically deformed or handicapped. Into this milieu Christians brought the creation account of Genesis, which declared in simple but unequivocal terms that mankind had been created in the image of God. Gradually, over centuries, this awareness of the inherent dignity and worth of individuals, because they bear the image of God, bore fruit, and changes in society's laws and practices followed.

Sunshine dispels the myth that the medieval period, also called the "Dark Ages," was a stagnant era of repression due to a controlling Church. On the contrary, "The Middle Ages were an incredibly dynamic period, and much of the dynamism was driven by the Church," he writes. Most of the foundations of modern society were laid in the Middle Ages: principles of science, technology, education, economics, human rights, and representative government.

"In many ways, the history of Western worldviews is the history of the rise of Christianity," Dr. Sunshine sums up his thesis. But if this is true, and Sunshine presents compelling evidence that it is, the implications for the future of the West, where Christianity is increasingly marginalized and its influence waning, are unsettling. After noting striking similarities between contemporary Western and ancient Roman inclinations—hyper-sexualization, pagan spirituality, situational ethics, a disregard for human life, and the elevation of tolerance as the sole absolute virtue—Dr. Sunshine brings the subject uncomfortably home: We are acting more and more like the Romans.

Coupled with low birthrates and rampant, uncontrolled immigration (also true of Rome before its fall), these parallels portend an imminent transformation in Europe and America. Although there are differences between ancient Rome and the modern West, Sunshine maintains that all the greatest achievements of Western civilization grew out of biblical roots. The more we undermine the Judeo-Christian foundation of human dignity, the more we can expect to see human rights and Western advancements erode. 

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