Today many see Christianity as a detrimental social force that is opposed to progress, at least as defined by issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Others point to the historical sins of the church – the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials are favorite examples – to paint Christianity as a regressive, intolerant, and dangerous religion from which little good has come. In response, many Christian (and non-Christian) observers rightly note how the worst atrocities of the last century were committed not by religious forces but in the name of ideologies that explicitly rejected the Christian notion of God: Think Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot. Then if we look at at history more fairly, we see that hospitals and universities were developed by the church (universities came about in the Middle Ages; they weren’t as dark as they’re made out to be!), we see Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians at the forefront of efforts to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself, as well as leading the American Civil Rights movement. And around the world today, we see some of the most effective, and riskiest, work helping the poor and the sick being done by Christians (many of them evangelical, as Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote about recently).
Beyond these examples, however, we find more evidence of Christianity as a truly morally progressive religion in Francis Fukyama’s (of End of History fame) highly readable and ambitious The Origins of Political Order (FSG, 2011):
“If one wanted an example of a religion that, a la Marx, justified the dominance of a single, small elite over the rest of society, one would choose not Christianity or Islam, with their underlying messages of universal equality, but rather the Brahmanic religion that appeared in India in the last two millennia B.C.” (163)
“As Friedrich Nietzsche was to later observe, the introduction of Christianity was to have profound implications for morality after it was introduced among the Germanic tribes. Christian heroes were peaceful saints and martyrs, not warriors or vengeful conquerors, and the religion preached a doctrine of universal equality that ran counter to the hierarchy of an honor-based tribal society. Not only did new Christian rules on marriage and inheritance disrupt tribal solidarity, they also created the notion of universal community based on common faith rather than kin loyalties.” (255-256)
The above should not surprise those who know the Bible, because in it we find an equality that was radical for those of Jesus’s day. As the apostle Paul wrote,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
I’ve just started Handbook of Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 1994), the classic work by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, two professors of philosophy at Boston College. Already it’s an engaging and highly stimulating read, with gems like this: “All the arguments in this book, and in all the books on apologetics (the defense of a religious system through the use of reasoned arguments) ever written, are worth less in the eyes of God than a single act of love to him or to your neighbor,” and “Apologetics gets at the heart through the head. The head is important precisely because it is a gate to the heart. We can love only what we know.”
In it they provide the following neat analogy to explain the difference between the intellect and the will and how they interact with each other as one reasons and comes to believe in something:
“The intellect is the soul’s navigator, but the will is its captain. The intellect is its Mr. Spock, the will is its Captain Kirk, and the feelings are its Dr. McCoy. The soul is an ‘Enterprise,’ a real starship. The will can command the intellect to think, but the intellect cannot command the will to will, only inform it, as a navigator informs the captain. Yet the will cannot simply make you believe. It can’t force the intellect to believe what appears to it to be false, or to disbelieve what seems to it to be true. Belief is what happens when you decide to be honest and put your mind in the service of truth.” (31)
The hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.
(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)
“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?
“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.
“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)
In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne offers the following excellent, basic distillation of the principle of religious freedom as it ought to be applied in the United States. This distinction is too often blurred, or simply omitted, by those who would remove all reference to religion from the public square in the name of the legitimate principle of separation of church and state, which addresses institutions. As Benne notes in the last sentence, thoughtful Christians will inevitably, and legitimately, engage their faith in the world of politics and policy:
“The state should not confuse separation of church and state, which deals with institutional relationships, with the separation of religion and politics, which deals with the interaction of religious values and perspectives and the political process. The latter is protected by the First Amendment, whose first freedom enables religious persons and institutions to bring their religious values to bear in the political process. Further, such interaction is inevitable when Christians take seriously the comprehensive scope of God’s sovereignty and their duty to that sovereign God” (55-56).