Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Christianity and Individualism Part 2: A Look at Arab-Christians in Israel and the Copts in Egypt.

Some notable Arab Christians in Israel examples of individualism

This is a follow up on my previous post about the role of Christianity in the promotion of individualism. I was thinking that if Christianity really is a vehicle for individualism, then this would be manifest in the value that Christians everywhere put on the development of the individual, which would then be expressed in terms of investment in education. I also thought that such an effect would be seen most clearly among Christians living in collective societies, in other words among those people who straddle both cultures. In this post I'll examine two such cases of Christians living in or adjacent to Muslim collective societies: Israel and Egypt.

My thoughts on this subject started years ago, when I used to live in the Galilee, next to a large Arab village populated by Christian Arabs, Druze, and Muslims. All three groups lived, of course, in the exact same material conditions, yet the differences between them were, to me, quite striking. The Arab-Christians that I encountered always seemed more light-hearted, more themselves, and less pre-occupied with the surrounding society. The uniqueness of Christian-Arab society is evident throughout the entire country as well. 

In a recent article, Hanna David[1] reports that Arab-Christians in Israel have better and higher levels of education than any other group in the country, including Jews. For instance, in the year 2011, 56% of Arab-Christians that graduated from high school met higher education entrance requirements, compared to 50% among Jews, and only 34% of Muslims. Arab-Christians schools are considered the best Arab schools in the country, and actually set nation-wide records for highest percentage of students matriculating successfully, with the highest grades in the country. Christian schools also have an inordinate number of students that are considered excellent. These achievements are shared equally by Christian women. The Arab-Christian educational advantage also manifests itself in the workplace where Arab-Christians are disproportionately represented in science and white-collar professions. Clearly, Christian-Arabs in Israel are over-achievers, but are they unique in this respect? Do other Christian populations invest more than their Muslim counterparts in the development of an autonomous individual - as measured by education?

An examination of the Copts in Egypt, shows mixed results. According to Saleh[2], non-Muslims in Egypt had better educational systems and better educational outcomes as well as disproportionate representation in white collar occupations throughout the medieval ages and the 19th century. For instance, in 1848, school enrollment among male children 5-14 years of age in Cairo was 34% for Muslims, 51% for Christians, and 80% for Jews. He also notes that Muslims schools did not teach practical subjects, only religious matters. Saleh attributes these differences to the Muslim conquest and the subsequent levying of the jizya tax on non-Muslims, which caused the poorer Copts to convert, creating a small but well-educated minority, whose advantage was preserved due to traditional occupational structure and policies. It is unclear, though, by what power the dhimmi population forced Muslims to teach only religious subjects in their schools. 
Pennington marks the rise of modernity in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a period of prosperity and progress for the Copt community in Egypt. At this time many barriers were removed from their participation in public life and liberal ideas took hold, for a short while, in Egyptian society. According to Pennington, by the end of the 19th century Copts made up 45% of the civil service, mostly due to their attention to quality education.[3] In fact, the decline in the civil and economic fortunes of Egypt can be traced, among other factors, to the dispossession and exclusion of the Copts through Nasser's socialist-economic and political reforms, which began a wave of Copt immigration that continues to this day.[4],[5]

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Role of Christianity in the Promotion of Individualism

collage: Four fathers of individualism: Jesus, John Calvin, St. Augustine & David Hume
This post is part of my ongoing effort to understand the origins of Western society and its fundamental tenets. I have already discussed the contributions of Judaism (See The Gifts of the Jews: Why Jews Are Loathed or Loved and The Meaning, Origins, and Evolution of the Jewish Concept of Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World), and now I am wondering about the contributions of Christianity. For now, I have come up with what seem to me three major contributions: individualism, love, and the equality of all men. This post will discuss the first item. This post is also part of the book I am writing about How to Repair the World. For previous chapters browse this label: World Repair - The Book.
Although it is true that the Old Testament introduced individuals to the stage of history, a subject I discussed previously (see  The Gifts of the Jews: Why Jews Are Loathed or Loved ),  the individualism that we encounter in the Bible is a very far cry from what we consider individualism today, and it seems to me that the process of transformation from the initial understanding of this concept to our current one, is an important legacy of Christianity, perhaps even its most important one. This certainly is the stance taken by Jung in his discussion of the psychological role of Jesus.[1] 
In this view, Jesus is both a symbol and a model of the ultimate individual, the human being that has become all a human being can be – one with the Divinity. In other words, a human being that has integrated the contents of the unconscious and is now identified with the Self, which is God, which is Jesus. Needless to say, the fact that the psychological meaning of the appearance of the man-god Jesus was not articulated in such terms is of no consequence. What is and remains important is that Jesus was seen as a role model, as someone that every Christian should imitate. Indeed Jesus himself articulates this idea numerous times as did Paul, St. Augustine, and others throughout the entire history of the Church.[2] In fact, the very existence of St Augustine's confession is seen as a new stage in the development of the individual, since it establishes the individual as an author in general and as "the author of his life in particular.[3] In any case, the question in Christianity was never "should Jesus be imitated and followed?", but rather how exactly this should be carried out.
In short, a good Christian desires to become an individual like Jesus, a person that has a direct and personal relationship with God/Jesus and is thus answerable first and foremost to God/Jesus and not to man or the laws of man. This idea of the autonomous individual, one who is capable of making moral decisions for himself and by himself and is responsible for the results of his actions is the seed that eventually formed the basis for Western individualistic society.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Neat Book Review #19 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone girl book cover
Plot summary
Gone Girl  is the story of two married writers, Nick and Amy, who got fired and moved from New York City to the sticks in Missouri. Amy is not happy with the curve ball that life has thrown her and neither is Nick, but nobody could have imagined that things were bad enough to lead to murder - until Amy disappears. Turning quickly from sympathetic husband to murder suspect, the besieged Nick tries to find a way out of a murder charge because, as he insists, he is completely innocent. Meanwhile, Amy's diary tells a completely different story, the story of an abused and frightened woman. The question that the reader is faced with is this: Who is lying here? The husband, the wife, or someone else? The answer to that question is the key to this murder mystery and it is quite a surprise.

My opinion:
Gone Girl is first of all a psychological thriller/murder mystery and a very good and satisfying one too. However, it is much more than that. It is a contemporary story that deals in an insightful way with a very old theme: the possibility of man and woman living with each other. Flynn's commentary about life after postmodernism in America, expressed in subtle manner both in the plot and the words of the characters themselves was, in my mind, no less thought-provoking and satisfying than the story itself.