Christianity began among the poor and dispossessed – farmers, fishermen, shepherds. These people lovingly cared for one another. There’s a great lure to that sort of simplicity, that rigor, that discipline – that call to love.– Camille Paglia
Having surveyed the current situation of Christianity and the related dynamics within Western culture, a question remains – so what? What would it matter if Christianity faded into history? Religious traditions come and go. Why the fuss or concern over Christianity? There are other religious traditions, new forms of spirituality emerging, and secularism isn’t that bad and has much less baggage.
While I’ve briefly touched on how I understand the value of Christianity in my previous essays, I have not offered a robust presentation of why I think Christianity is of value to the West and beyond. My argument for such focuses on interconnected and overlapping considerations of the unique, cultural value of the Christian tradition.
The Value of Religious Traditions
With the decline in religious institutions and religious affiliation, the phrase spiritual, but not religious, has grown in popularity and is employed by many Nones describing an aspect of their overall worldview.
Religion, in this sense, usually implies organized or institutional forms, complete with rules and dogmas, all of which are seen as problematic and limiting of individual freedom, spiritual exploration, and self expression. Religion is seen as being too rigid, too restrictive, and often outdated, why limit oneself? Further, many have been harmed, abused, and/or marginalized by churches and religious institutions and find their communities ageing, stale, and uninspiring.
Spiritual but not religious therefore has broad appeal for individuals in a secular culture who are searching for meaning, but desire to move beyond the perceived limitations of organized religion.
I’m all for freedom and individual exploration, yet there is something of a problem with the spiritual but not religious stance. It often involves an approach in which the individual shapes a do-it-yourself spirituality that reflects who and what that person already is, but does not challenge that person to become what he or she could become, but is not yet. Rejecting religious structures and time-tested traditions runs the risks of constructing. a congenial spirituality that may feel good and provides a level of comfort, but that lacks the capacity and depth to accomplish the kind of growth and transformation that religious traditions have the power to achieve. While not always, the usual result of spiritual, but not religious is an undemanding spiritual practice that doesn’t require self change, much discipline, or any form of surrender of ego.
Religion implies discipline, structure, and tradition, and is therefore more concrete and specific than the often vague notion of spirituality. Most religions make demands on the individual adherent, provides goals and standards, and motivates personal change. Established religions are replete with rich, coherent traditions that offer grounding, context, proven practices, and well trod paths.
Perhaps, we should ruminate on the phrase, maturely religious, or religious maturity instead. Such suggests an attitude of serious and rigorous engagement with a religious tradition, but also a spirit of psychological independence and maturity. It denotes a responsible and informed willingness to reasonably submit to a tradition’s symbols and teachings, of willingly entering into a tradition’s narrative, yet without yielding personal autonomy and self responsibility. By religious maturity I’m implying a healthy integration and subjectivization of already formed religious traditions.
The noted ethical philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the moral life, meaning the habits that a person must develop in order to judge and act most effectively in the pursuit of truly choice-worthy ends, is formed and takes place within traditions. The role of tradition in culture and morality often goes unnoticed, and many secular individuals believe themselves to be operating outside of a tradition in a formal sense.
Yet secularism in its many forms is part of a tradition, influenced by others, and comes complete with symbols, metaphors, methodologies, and even rituals. Secularism is a worldview, as are the major religious traditions. In fact, it can be loosely argued that secularism functions in a quasi-religious manner.
In this sense, MacIntyre asserts that morality and rationality, and therefore culture, are largely tradition-constituted. It is by belonging to a tradition, by participating in it, and being changed by it (as well perhaps changing it) that a person is morally and rationally formed. There is no other way, according to MacIntyre. It is an illusion to think one can be a pure individual or possess a traditionless, timeless moral reason.
While Christianity isn’t the only tradition capable of grounding, cultivating, and promoting kindness, love of neighbor, forgiveness, and care for the needy rooted in an anthropological vision of a free, rational, socially natured, dignified human person, it is in many ways the progenitor of those values and has demonstrated its ability, albeit imperfectly yet powerfully, to reinforce and maintain those virtues over time and in face of adversity.
As a tradition, forms of secular humanism operate from a moral vision – one that is largely influenced by Christianity, yet lacks a carefully explicated general narrative and philosophical anthropology to fully ground and justify such. Speaking broadly, secular humanism has notable difficulty answering meta-ethical questions such as why be kind, why be forgiving, or why be good? The tradition tends to fall back upon utilitarian defenses of moral goodness which lack narrative context, convincingness, and justifiability.
Granted, Christianity, like every other tradition, has its shortcoming and failures. Arguing the value of the Christian tradition is not to excuse or downplay the horrors committed by the church and those acting out of so-called Christian motives. Crusades, inquisitions, executing heretics, religious wars, and religious persecution are tragic realities of Christian history.
Yet the failure of humans to fully embrace a balanced practice of the Christian moral vision is not a fatal indictment against the tradition itself. Secular ideologies and regimes animated by versions of them are, afterall, responsible for the worst atrocities, genocides, world wars, and mass killings of the 20th Century. No tradition is perfect. Still, the centrality of human dignity, human rights, freedom, and mercy and love in Christianity, and it’s depth, richness, and diversity as a tradition has vital value for the Western culture it has so significantly shaped.
Why Did Christianity Succeed?
Many Christians mistakenly take the book of Acts and it’s mythopoetic accounts of the early church as a historical report. Doing so leads many to think that miracles and preaching the resurrection led to thousands of people falling under the influence of the Holy Spirit and being convicted and converted on a daily basis. While the meaning of resurrection is indeed profound, and preaching has its place, the truth of Christianity’s spread and success is much more practical and mundane. And the growth and spread of Christianity was much slower and more gradual than also typically thought. (See the work of Rodney Stark for a careful sociological analysis of the spread of early Christianity.)
Why was the Christian community something that people wanted to join? The answer is largely that the early Christians were intent on creating a new manner of community that was appealing to many.
An early and powerful “creed” of the Christian communities was Paul’s teaching that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. This phrase is representative of a sociological formula that defines a new way of being community.
The early Christian communities invited others to participate as equal members. For the marginalized, the poor, and even the small merchant and professional classes, such offered many benefits. Membership gave even the lowliest slave personal dignity and status. Moreover, the commandment of love is decisive. That is, the care for each other becomes a hallmark feature of these communities. People are taken out of isolation. If they are hungry, they know where to go. If they are sick, there are people who will care for them. Christian communities were not charismatic prayer circles marveling at the resurrection – they were living that resurrection reality by caring for one another, creating systems of mutual support, and doing so without regard to social, ethnic, political, or other status. as understood in the Imperial culture.
What also distinguished Christianity from most other religious options in the Mediterranean? It met at least once a week. It had very articulate ethical norms. It practiced an authentic and meaningful ethic of communal charity. No promiscuity. Stay faithful to your spouse. Don’t kill the kids. Don’t worship idols. Don’t go to the Temple whore houses. Forgive one another, love another, care for one another.
The Christian movement conveyed a sense of human worth in two ways. First, by retelling the teachings and examples of Jesus. Second, by living out that teaching in how they treated one another and provided for each others’ welfare. This was probably in the long run the most significant factor for the success of the Christian enterprise.
This serves as a lesson for today. If Christians could form meaningful, authentic communities of mutual support and acceptance, that witness might once again appeal to a culture where many individuals are isolated, struggling, and without support. This will require the transformation of many parishes and congregations into radical versions of their present selves and likely require that Christians be willing to extend community beyond the institutional boundaries and limits.
Christianity’s Cultural & Moral Genius
Christianity has been intricately intertwined with the history and formation of Western culture. The cultural influence of the church has been vast. Throughout its long history, the church has been a major source of social services such as food provision, education, and medical care, as well as an inspiration for art, culture and philosophy and human learning in general.
Emerging when the Roman Empire was at its peak, Christianity paradoxically both helped to subvert Roman hegemony and at the same time to preserve what was best in it.
Christianity has had tremendous influence on Western morality. The general anthropological views of humanism and personalism find their roots in the principles of universal human dignity, individual freedom, and the importance of human fulfillment – all essential components of the teachings of Jesus.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and parables such as The Good Samaritan, he called on followers to care for the poor and outcast and act without violence or prejudice. The development of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy radically changed the moral tenor of European society and beyond.
Church scholars preserved literacy in Western Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, the church rose to replace the Roman structures as the unifying, organizing force in Europe.
Christianity went a long way toward humanizing European culture. Christianity played a role in ending practices such as human sacrifice and infanticide. Christianity in general positively affected the status of women by condemning marital infidelity, divorce, incest, polygamy, birth control, infanticide (female infants were more likely to be killed), and abortion. While Christianity has a mixed history of allowing women into leadership roles, women have played prominent roles in Western history through and as part of the church, particularly in education and healthcare, but also as influential theologians and mystics.
Many of Europe’s universities were also founded by the church. Many historians note that universities and cathedral schools were a continuation of the interest in learning promoted by monasteries. The university is generally regarded as an institution that has its origin in the Medieval Christian setting, born from cathedral schools.
It is from this milleue that arises the seedbeds of learning and inquiry that eventually yield various forms of humanism and personalism, the stirrings of science, the human rights and dignified self of liberalism, and even much of the impetus for secularism itself. Christianity is uniquely Western and the West is uniquely Christian, even if today only in subtle, yet still significant ways.
The Wisdom of Christianity
The wisdom of Christianity is found in its anthropological and moral vision. By wisdom, I mean core convictions and insights, not completely empirically derived, and capable of guiding meaningful human behavior on a practical level.
This wisdom has provided the West with a tripartite central vision of human life encapsulated in an anthropology (a philosophy of the person), an axiology (a philosophy of value), and a praxeology (a philosophy of human action.) Christian wisdom derives from Jesus and the gospels, interpreting the rest of scripture from the perspective of the gospels, and historical, collective experience of the church and its development of a philosophical theology.
The anthropology of Christianity is the unrepeatable, socially natured, rational, self governing, affective, dignified human person. This vision is a universal one, applying to all people, transcending tribe, race, allegiances, gender, or social status.
Within Christianity one finds early roots of humanism and personalism, hallmarks of it’s understanding of humanity. Emerging out of Judaism, Christianity accepts the same insight that the human person shares in the divine image and occupies a privileged niche in the world.
A person is someone rather than merely something, and this sets him or her apart from every other entity in the visible world, as a unique and unrepeatable subject, not an object. Christianity, like Judaism, understands the rich interior life of the person. In this sense, subjectivity becomes, a kind of synonym for the irreducible in the human being.
Dignity refers to the inherent value of the person, conferring an absoluteness not found in other beings. Christian thinkers reject the notion that dignity is conferred, granted, or merited, rather it is intrinsic to each human person.
The assertion of dignity rules out the moral possibility of treating persons in a commensurate manner, as if their worth were a function of their utility. Every person without exception is of inestimable worth, and no one is dispensable or interchangeable, in the fuller sense. The person can never be lost or assimilated fully into the collectivity, because his or her interrelatedness with other persons is defined by his possession of a unique, irreplaceable value.
Christianity’s affirmation of the dignity of the person, the quality which constitutes the unique ontological nature of person also gives rise to specific moral requirements and stances, insisting that persons not be treated as means to ends, but as ends themselves, and their dignity be affirmed in relations with others.
Therefore, the Christian anthropological vision naturally leads to the axiological wisdom of the centrality of love and truth and the subsequent recognition of the praxeological expression of such in mercy, justice, forgiveness, kindness, generosity of self, and help to the needy, as well as learning and inquiry. The Christian affirmation of the self-determining nature of the person also gives rise to careful considerations of moral and social obligations and responsibilities, which later yield the basis for human rights.
This tripartite wisdom was, in many, although not all, ways the inverse of Greco-Roman culture and the Imperium of Rome. And it was this wisdom that came to supplant the vision and values of Rome, creating a new, imperfect, but more humane culture.
Yes, other cultures and worldviews share some aspects of this same wisdom. Eastern culture values kindness and learning, democracy first emerges in pagan Greece, China established a refined civilization before Christianity ever existed. Much of secular humanism accepts the above understandings of the human person. Afterall, such insights can be gleaned without the assistance of religion. But no other culture, religion, or worldview is as robust and absolute about human dignity, human rights, the centrality of love, the benefits of mercy and forgiveness, and the recognition of the demands of generosity, charity, and mutual provision.
Christianity has also a unique wisdom difficult to find elsewhere – the wisdom of the cross. The symbolism and dynamics of the cross are at the heart of Christian spirituality, anthropology, and psychology. The cross is misunderstood, too often seen through the illogical cruelty of substitutionary atonement – Jesus hanging there, dying, because of your sin and mine. Afterall, to make things right, God has to kill somebody, we need blood and violence. The entire theology is flawed, repulsive, and absurd.
Yes, the cross is obviously a tool of execution and oppression. The gospels are indeed, dotted with the literary devices of Jesus’ self-predictions concerning his execution and even his resurrection. These are very likely and simply literary devices, not the actual words of Jesus. But Jesus was likely keenly aware of the risks he was taking in his public ministry and the subversive nature of his teaching and his actions. He knew he was pissing off the imperial and religious authorities of the region. Therefore, he knew the cross could be a possibility.
The cross, therefore, is certainly a symbol of sacrifice, the sacrifice of the integrity and love of Jesus having been willing to give his life for his convictions and friends.
The heart of the dynamics of the cross is kenosis – a Greek term for self-giving or self-emptying. At the core of Christian wisdom is the value of kenotic love and it’s insights into human nature. Human’s become what they give themselves too and tend to find more profound aspects of meaning in life through self-giving rather than self aggrandizement. Thus, the cross is the actual and symbolic representation of Jesus’ radical, paradoxical convictions about dying to self and a generous, even total donation of self, as the way to meaning, wholeness, and fuller life. In this sense, resurrection, however understood, is the logical result of dying to self and kenotic love.
The Christian wisdom of kenosis runs counter to most secular understandings of fulfillment. The secular culture is is deeply affected by narratives that promise happiness through consumption, status, personal pleasure, and accumulation. And such things certainly have their place, are morally fine, and a part of a healthy, balanced life. But they can’t provide the happiness and fulfillment they are promised to by secular wisdom.
Much of the narrative of secular modernity teaches that freedom means a lack of constraint, and that happiness is best found when restraints are limited or gone. Pursue your passion, be yourself, do what you want – these are among the core messages of the popular, secular culture of the West. And they have merit, and their place, and value. But they need to be tempered by other messages of giving, discipline, self denial, and accepting limitations, messages that are lacking or are incomplete in a culture influenced by materialism, individualism, and consumerism.
Freedom understood as a lack of constraint and exercised purely for self serving reasons tends to lead to enslavement to the passions. Christianity, primarily through the logic of the cross and it’s ramifications for the forms of love demanded by it, has sufficient content to proclaim an alternative or tempering message that the promise of certain forms of freedom are limited, or even counterfeit.
Christianity also tempers other narratives – those of material progress and salvation through science and technology. In secular culture, science tends to assume a role it is not qualified to play, as a source of judgment of the whole, not just of its relevant areas of inquiry. The contributions of science are enormous and profound and science is a vital mode of human thought; it is also just part of it. History, aesthetics, prudence, morals, virtues: these it cannot fully understand; and when it tries to explain them, it is not wrong, so to speak. It’s just incomplete or even irrelevant.
Kenotic love greatly influences how we understand interpersonal relationships, sexual intimacy, marriage, and family life. Christian wisdom in these matters is often poorly explained and presented, and even misunderstood by Christians themselves, leading to attitudes and perceptions of sex negativity, prudishness, puritanism, and obsessive restrictiveness. Granted, secular culture often veers in the opposite, also extreme, direction.
Christianity, as most religious traditions, has a holistic stance, approaching human experience and culture from the perspective of symbolic interactionism, focusing on the meaning-giving function of symbols, myths and rites, in terms of which individuals in society derive their core, existential truth.
In this sense, Christianity may expand its ethical and anthropological vision to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. The same normative standards may also be applied to aesthetic and psychological features of social and cultural life. And this normative application is reinforced through a web or interconnected narrative, symbols, metaphors, and rituals.
The holism of Christianity therefore allows it to be primarily concerned with thought, attitude, emotion, values and patterns of life and meaning at both the personal and abstract level. It is a vital source of cultural generation, renewal, and criticism.
For such a formative tradition of wisdom to vanish, it would impoverish the culture and people it helped shape. For it to once again play a constructive, meaningful, positive role, it must update it’s theological foundations, explaining its claims in language and terms the secular culture can comprehend, and which adhere to the demonstrated rules of human rationality.
Liberalism in its classical forms rendered the nation states of the West into secular, pluralist, constitutional democracies. This, in my thinking is an excellent outcome, removing temporal power from religious institutions and authorities and allowing them instead to be cultural and personal leven without the abusive and corrupting temptations of political power.
Christianity, while it plays a special and formative role in having cultivated liberalism, is, properly, only one religious tradition within the broader culture. I am not arguing for or advocating Christian privilege or any forms of integralism. Christianity, if it wishes to be influential, must be a coherent and appealing voice within the broader marketplace of ideas, symbols, and narratives.
Christian insights and influence must therefore be offered, never imposed, as one source of wisdom, and that wisdom prudentially applied to cultural, economic, and political circumstances. I strongly align with the religious-social-cultural vision of John Courtney Murray, Catholic Social Thought, and John Paul II. (In these matters, Anglicanism tends to follow the Catholic lead, while also offering its own insights.)
Before the value and benefits of Christianity can be more fully applied, it needs to be revisioned through the lens of evidential theology so as to render it intelligible to those aligned with the secular culture. Christianity has shaped the West in the past. It can do so again in the postsecular future we’re now creating.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)