We are frequently reminded that ours is a post-Christian era. There is some basis for this — but only in the depopulating West. In China, India and Africa, Christianity is on the rise.
But what about those places where it isn’t? Is it irrelevant? Hardly. People who criticise Christianity don’t complain because Christians are attacking them with car bombs. They should remember that the core principles of Western society are Christian.
Take marriage, for instance. Before the advent of Christianity, polygamy was common, especially among elites. Men readily divorced women, though women found it more difficult to divorce men. There was a plethora of sexual behaviours which made living in the bigger cities of the Roman Empire risky to one’s health, one’s security or one’s sanity.
Then there was the attitude to human life. Roman law protected “the other” to some degree if he or she were a Roman citizen. But slaves were not protected by any legal structure and were at the mercy of their masters. Those foreigners who did not obey the Roman Emperor in matters of religion were punished with torture and death.
The sick could only be cared for by their own families and resources – if they had any. The poor were only able to survive by begging. Infants were routinely exposed to the elements on birth to see if by surviving they merited to live. And abortion was common. A variety of contraceptive methods were known or presumed to work, including the use of certain herbs. Life was cheap.
Superstition made people fearful of innumerable objects, natural phenomena, persons, and innocuous events. Even persons of high stature paid at least lip service to mythical gods like Jupiter, Venus and Mars. Stories about them illustrated not virtue but murderous vice. There was no historical or philosophical evidence to substantiate their existence, nor any reason why one should honour them or learn from them.
Christianity, a world view with roots in the small nation of the Jews, began to win converts with striking rapidity. It proposed a whole new perspective founded on the crucifixion and resurrection of the Nazarene Jesus. It was a risk to one’s safety and prosperity to be known as a Christian. Nevertheless, within three centuries some 10 percent of the Empire was Christian and soon thereafter the Church represented the dominant religion. At the end of the 4th century emperor Theodosius actually acquiesced to a judgment by the Christian bishop Ambrose of Milan. A Christian, he submitted to public penance for overstepping the mark in quashing a public riot.
During the 4th century the Christian Church introduced practices which made a profound impression on the culture. Its way of treating the poor, the sick, children and even its persecutors greatly extended the notions of magnanimity, duty of care, forgiveness and patience.
The end of the gladiatorial games is usually credited to the heroic intervention of the monk Telemachus, who himself was put to death in a stadium on protesting against the spectacle. (Here’s how Ronald Reagan tells the story.) Sometime afterwards the emperor Honorius banned the games.
During this period numerous outstanding bishops and converts promoted beneficial social institutions, such as hospitals and asylums. Churches, besides being places of worship, developed traditions of sacred music, architecture and art, and at times served as places of refuge not only for Christians but for others as well. One could argue that much of our contemporary Western music still owes something to the development that ensued from early – so-called Gregorian – chant.
Intellectually, Basil, Augustine, Jerome, Boethius, and Pope Gregory the Great made crucial contributions to Western values and institutions. Augustine revolutionized the notion of time, produced an insightful philosophy of history, and clarified how evil can exist in a world created by a good and loving God. Boethius honed the idea of personhood and therefore the intrinsic worth of every human life. Gregory has been called the great visionary of the modern educational system for his writings and contribution to the school system of education that would overtake apprenticeships based learning.
Who can deny ethical developments which built on Greek and Roman wisdom but made a much broader and deeper commitment to human solidarity, personal decency and graciousness? Of fundamental importance was the understanding of the dignity of all men and women as created in the image and likeness of God and called to commune with God in this life and even more so in the next.
Vengeance, unrestrained violence even in war, abortion and infanticide, and exploitation of the poor were all condemned in the Christian morality. So also was infidelity in marriage, not only of women but also of men, as well as the latter’s easy resort to divorce.
Many in the modern era have claimed that the Christian faith is incompatible with reason and science. But they are ignoring early Christian writers who viewed the best philosophical reasoning of their times as a vehicle for justifying doctrines such as life after death, the unicity and creative causality of God, and even, in some measure, for expressing the mystery of the divine Trinity.
What is more, there is a growing consensus that the prolific development of modern science in a European context is explained by the Judeao-Christian conviction of a human right to act as a steward over creation, a right founded in Genesis’ description of the creation of man and woman.
Apart from the debilitating assessments of ancient myths and superstitions, much classical thinking espoused a cyclic vision of history, where any real progress was impossible. Christianity holds to an unfolding of events is a linear direction towards a final consummation of the present order followed by a new, fulfilled creation. Christianity is a religion of hope and of personal responsibility, of a quest for betterment, and of intervention to lessen evils not only of a moral kind but even physical ones.
Through the centuries Christians have made important breakthroughs in each of the core sciences: astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and biology. Pioneers that have been Christians of some denomination or at least theists include – to mention but a few – Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Leibnitz, Mendel, Pasteur, Volta, Faraday, Planck, Born, Lemaitre and in very recent times Lejeune and Collins.
Even Galileo, whose unfortunate clash with Pope Urban VIII has become paradigm case of opposition between science and the Church, remained a practicing Catholic throughout his life, and financially supported the convent where his daughter lived as a nun until her death in 1634.
Even in the Renaissance, a counter-Christian intellectual movement existed. Works like Macchiavelli’s The Prince or Hobbes’s Leviathan led the march towards a secular society in which moral principles remain obscure.
Now, in the 20th Century, a nihilistic counter-culture is assuming dominance. Its characteristics are individualism to the extreme where any mention of the common good is resented; denial of absolutes and transcendent realities. Individualism has replaced personhood, so there is no longer a notion of human life as being somehow special, much less sacred. Individuals are the sum of their wants, which must be matched with rights but less so with responsibilities. Sexuality is then reduced to sensuality, and turned into an object of play or solely emotional needs. The ultimate expression of this seems to be so-called gender fluidity, and increasing social confusion and instability.
It could be said that the “death of God” as a mindset is leading to the death of man — the end to any coherent way for people to understand their humanity and to develop it to their own long term advantage and that of others. During the 20th Century human tragedies reached unprecedented dimensions. A secularised Western world is largely responsible for giving rise to these disasters.
The warnings of great Christian leaders – Pius XI in the 1930s, Martin Luther King Jr, John Paul II and Mother Teresa in recent times– have been quickly forgotten. Instead politicians, often themselves bereft of intelligently developed personal convictions, exploit the ignorance of the public.
At the same time, Christian belief has not been disproven or superseded. Modern physics, for instance, makes belief in such things as human freedom and creation “ex nihilo” more plausible than earlier scientific theories. Genetics vindicates the view that human life begins at conception. The Vatican’s warnings on the unethical character of experimenting with human embryos have been shown to be right by the paucity of useful results from the human embryonic stem cell research. By ignoring these admonitions, all that has been achieved is a cheapening of the regard for human life.
We can ask ourselves where are we really heading as we become increasingly absorbed by the unsmart use of smart phones, a dependency on drugs for happiness, and an inability to remember anything that happened more than five minutes ago. Even if life was less comfortable and more subject to hunger and illness in the Christian culture of the past, it fewer people were depressed. And even if science enables us to live longer, how many really want to in a world that is gradually destroying social cohesion and familial love?
It is not too late to re-consider the credibility and worth of Christianity.
Fr Max Polak works in Sydney.