The Christian Revolution

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July 4, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Matt J. Rossano. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Christian Revolution

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Vandel.

"Stated in its most elementary and buoyantly positive form, my argument is ... that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western civilization ... only one -- the triumph of Christianity ... can be called ... a 'revolution': a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity's prevailing vision of reality..."

So states philosopher and Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in his book "Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies" (Yale University Press, 2009, p. xi). Hart is an unapologetic apologist. As he sees it, Western Civilization is numbly shedding its Christian heritage and someone ought to remind us of the baby that is being tossed out with the presumably now-useless bath water. That the messenger is not a dispassionate observer should not immediately or necessarily discredit the message. It was Christianity, he contends, that bequeathed to humanity an entirely new vision of the human person. That vision, he worries, lies prostrate upon modernity's chopping block in its haste to excise all things illiberal. So what was this new vision of humanity?

The ancient pagan world, Hart argues, had no conceptual tools for envisioning human worth apart from social station. As an illuminating example, consider the following from the Roman historian Tacitus ("Annals XIV," pp. 42-45). In AD 61, Pedanius Secundus was murdered by one of his slaves. This incident, Tacitus informs us, initiated the tradition of killing all household slaves when one of their number murders their owner. In the Secundus' case, this meant killing no less than four hundred innocent men, women and children. Later, public protests prompted the senate to reconsider the merits of such a gratuitously bloody tradition, concluding, in the end, that ancient customs must be honored, lest the empire risk social disorder. Tellingly, any notions of divine justice were utterly absent from the senate's deliberations. Pagan religion was simply irrelevant to the morality of killing innocent slaves.

The pagan world's routine brutality is astonishingly easy to document. The murderous spectacle of the gladiatorial games, the death by exposure of unwanted infants, the public execution of war captives and crucifixion of criminals, and the banal acceptance of wide-spread suffering from poverty, deprivation and disease were just a few of the innumerable sundry cruelties of ancient life. More depressing is how these cruelties were summarily shrugged off by the most sensitive, educated and thoughtful persons of the day -- the senatorial indifference in the Secundus case being an obvious example. But the senate's seemingly callous attitude was anything but exceptional. In his letter to emperor Trajan (Letters 10.96), Pliny the younger -- as humane a Roman aristocrat as one could find -- mentions in chillingly casual terms how even under (very likely lethal) torture certain female prisoners stubbornly refused to reveal anything incriminating about local Christian practices. Torture of non-Romans prisoners was, after all, ordinary procedure when authorities desired information.

The ease with which the ancient world accepted violence and suffering, Hart argues, was a natural outgrowth of the pagan understanding of the human person. Individual worth was entirely a function of social position. Conquered peoples had value only in so far as a Roman deemed it so. Slaves had value only to the extent their masters might grant it. The value of a wife or child was the sole prerogative of a husband or father. Even among Romans, human value was intimately tied to distinctions of class and birth. The idea that the social person was not necessarily the essence of the human person was so foreign as to be incoherent to the ancient mind. Even an intellect as powerful as Aristotle could argue quite cogently for the slave state being natural to some (Book VII of "Nicomachean Ethics").

Into this stilted milieu, Christianity pronounced a message as radical as it was attractive: That all humans were created in the image of the one God and therefore had intrinsic value undefiled by social circumstance. Furthermore, this one God was a God of infinite love who sacrificed his only son to provide salvation to all of unworthy humanity. Therefore, Christians were divinely mandated to extend charity and compassion to the weak and lowly. Compelled by their revolutionary reinvention of humanity, Christians enacted a positively scandalous set of ethical norms: slaves, women and the poor were as welcomed to the new religion as the privileged, and all were required to worship together as one community; infanticide and forced abortions were prohibited; communal charity to orphans and widows was required; finally, and most absurdly, husbands and wives were commanded to practice mutual fidelity.

Prominent pagans reacted with both derision and grudging admiration. Philosopher Celsus denounced the Christian movement as irrational and vulgar as evidenced by the disproportionate number of women in its ranks. Pagan Emperor Julian (the Apostate) bemoaned that Christianity's popularity spread primarily through its charitable works: "It is [the Christians'] philanthropy toward strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done [the] most to spread their atheism." (Epistle 22).

Over the centuries, Christians can certainly be accused of failing to live up to their principles. But the very accusation is revealing. Pagans could hardly be accused of failing to achieve standards they never recognized.

One might accept Hart's analysis of the past, without necessarily seeing it as indicative of the future. Modern secularism may be accused of ungratefully dismissing its Christian legacy, but that does not mean it is doomed to regress to the worst of the pagan past. But even on this point, Hart is pessimistic. Without divine justification, upon what rational basis do we sustain a belief in individual human value? Surveying the bloody history of 20th century atrocities -- all far more secularly-inspired than religious -- Hart concludes that individual value has declined since the days of Christendom not increased. Furthermore, an alarming number of scientists, philosophers and ethicists are embracing a form of modern eugenics wherein "rationally dispensed" medical treatment, selective abortion, parental infanticide and genetic engineering are morally defended in order "improve" the human condition. The superficial garb may be modern, but the mentality has an ancient vintage.

We may have only a limited number of ways of envisioning human value. If not the Christian vision of inherent individual value based on Imago Dei, then what? Does modern secularism have the ethical tools or even the desire to ensure individual worth or is a return to a ruthless pagan practicality the only other option?


Matt J. Rossano is Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.


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Merv - #63104

July 4th 2011

This was a timely essay for me as I just finished reading Timothy Keller’s “Generous Justice” (2010)—a book I will now recommend to anyone who will listen.

Some things I learned that relate to what Mr. Rossano writes here:   He refers to writers like Michael Sandel who (even as a non-Christian) sees and explains the inability of the “secular square” to provide any grounding for human dignity or worth without smuggling such values in from religion.  But Keller goes on to point out that this is okay.  We should rejoice in good works being done—by whomever, because Christians should accept that there is a general revelation available to the hearts of all regardless of their creed or race (Romans 2:15).  We should rejoice to take up common cause with anyone who is inspired to work for good and not think any less of their work.

Mr. Keller also notes many other interesting things about ancient Hebrew culture such as how slaves were to be treated.  After hearing so many lambast the O.T. for its “endorsement of slavery” it blew me away to be pointed to verses in Deuteronomy (chapters 23 & 24)  that actually command that runaway slaves NOT be returned to their masters but instead be allowed to live where they want.  If that alone doesn’t blow a gaping hole in the notion that slavery in Israel (probably more like indentured servant work) was an entirely different animal than what has been done more recently then I don’t know what would.  Apparently “slaves” didn’t run away in droves as they tried to in the American south because of cruelty.  If a Hebrew slave was abused, the law commanded he or she be set free.  I guess it isn’t any surprise that American slave owners weren’t all that interested on reading further into their Bibles.

Thanks for your insights, Mr. Rossano.  Hope you don’t mind me tossing in some parallel thoughts from another author.

—Merv


Cal - #63105

July 4th 2011

I suppose one must be careful on differentiating defending Western civilization or defending The Church (capitals denoting the Spiritual body of the Kingdom of God, not any particular institution). The Christian world view soaked into Western culture but that in no way baptizes the different princes of Europe that would grow up into Empires. When we enter Constantinian state/culture appraisal, thinking it the Ekklesia, we will be sorely mistaken. When we attempt to turn the Gospel into Religion and the Kingdom of Heaven into a State, only disaster will occur.


liberale - #63106

July 5th 2011

We might ask one question further:

What within Christianity have revolutionized the status of human beings?

Lifting the status of humanity to “image of God” might have been the distant seed of Humanism—-the affirmation of the supreme status of humanity.

By staying together with the poor and the oppressed, Jesus further affirmed the utmost value of each human individual, regardless of his/her social status.  

Modern Humanism has peeled the superstitious outer skin of Christianity, putting aside all fairy-tale supernaturalism including the problematic (sometimes even blood-thristy) “God” of the Bible, and preserves the pearl inside—-value each human individual.

So we modern people shall cherish Humanism, the pearl of Christianity.

This non-theistic post-Christian age has not trashed Christianity, but is holding dear its pearl instead.

———————————————————————————————————-
abbr title=“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality. See also the Amsterdam Declaration.”>Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism
a href=“http://www.iheu.org/minimum_statement.html”>http://www.iheu.org/minimum_statement.htmlbr>

Roger A. Sawtelle - #63108

July 5th 2011

Liberale,

The problem with this is, when you kill off all the oysters to get the pearls, you end up with pearls that you can’t eat, no oysters that you can eat, and no source of new pearls.

We have just finished celebrating the Declaration of Independence, which centered around the words, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unaleinable rights, among these are being Life, Liberty. and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These words are in turn based on the fact that God created human beings, male and female, in God’s own image.

Take God out of that sentence and you have nothing.  Take Creation out of that sentence and you have nothing.  Take the fact that God cares equally for every human being and you have nothing.  

Marxist-Leninism is humanist in that it embraces “humanist values”, but at least in practice it is not democratic.  Does this mean that it will be outlawed in your humanist society?  Why reject “supernatural views of reality” if they promote a humane society?  Is the real goal to promote a more humane society or an atheistic world view, which can be totalitarian?     


PNG - #63107

July 5th 2011

To be fair, we should remember that the idea of humans made in the image of God and its ethical and social implications originated with the Jews before Christ, and they made some headway in spreading these ideals before Jesus and Paul. This point was made nicely by Tom Cahill in The Gifts of the Jews. That is why it made my head spin when I read the physicist Steve Weinberg denying that religion had ever done anything good for humanity. The gift of the knowledge of the image of God came to the world through his own ancestors.


Olavi - #63109

July 5th 2011

...Hart concludes that individual value has declined since the days of Christendom not increased.

Has he ever asked a woman about this theory of his? Or a non-white person?

Judging from the pining for the “days of Christendom” and other cues, this essay appears to be dominionist in orientation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominionism


Roger A. Sawtelle - #63114

July 5th 2011

Olavi,

The reason he is wrong is that Christian ideas and values have been embedded in the Western world view.  When we take the Christian spiritual and intellectual foundation away from the West, we are left with Islam. 


Robert Byers - #63124

July 5th 2011

It really was the true faith or rather the accurate interpretation of scripture since the reformation that is the origin of the rise of the moral and intellectual standards of mankind.

This is why where evangelicals were in the greatest numbers relative to the pop there one had the greatest results of achievement  .
this was the Anglo-American civilization and the reason the world speaks English.
yes gOd blessed his own people and for his own designs. yet also its about motivation.
The Protestant reformation gave a profound new motivation to a minority of certain nations.
In fact the evangelical motivation is very apparent in America.
One can see it in music, books, politics, raising funds, and heaps of church activity. There is no comparison between use and the rest man for man.
Put this motivation upon a rural Roman Catholic Europe and one has the reason for the great change.
In fact just watch any new convert in a Evangelical church and within a few years they have risen above their former status in relationships, activism, school, work etc relative to where they came from.
The modern world truly is the result of evangelical Christianity’s influence on the Northwestern part of Europe. Especially the British world.
Likewise we are the great opposition to evolutionism and many errors in these subjects.
 

Cal - #63127

July 6th 2011

And here is the danger I speak of!

The Anglo-American empire like all other empires will pass away, they are drops in the bucket, but the Kingdom of God will remain.


beaglelady - #63139

July 6th 2011

Nothing like racism, is there?


Olavi - #63176

July 7th 2011

Is Robert’s comment a “Poe”?


beaglelady - #63179

July 7th 2011

Don’t think so, but who knows? He’s a regular troll over at the Panda’s Thumb.  I’m surprised the moderators let his racism slip through. It isn’t the first time, either.


Robert Byers - #63260

July 12th 2011

Why are you accusing me injustly???

What i said i believe with my heart, its true, and welcome.
If its true its not unjust.
Yes there are great results about identity.
If its not true then say so!
It is not based on race innately or really at all.
however it wouldn’t matter if it was.
It wouldn’t change the truth of it.
just cause you hate the results don’t hate the message or messenger.
Its unChristian.
If one makes serious accusations its up to the accuser to make their accusation with substance and not just saying it.
Remember Jesus was likewise falsely accused and spoken against.
I stand in good company.

Cal - #63270

July 12th 2011

Robert, your gospel is a gospel of western civilization, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is no gospel at all, but only bad news. You’re replacing the cross with a flag.


Papalinton - #63217

July 9th 2011

“Does modern secularism have the ethical tools or even the desire to ensure individual worth .....?”


Absolutely. secular humanism is the basis upon which all peoples on this planet are able to connect,  communicate and participate with each other for the betterment of humankind.  Secular humanism is the glue that binds all humans together in our common heritage and transcends all the geographical, regional and sectarian-bound religious hives we build for ourselves.  Secular humanism is the coming-out of man, the sole torch that shines through the maze of religious impediments constructed in theology.

Secular humanism is our only avenue for salvation and survival of the species and the world we inhabit.

Cal - #63219

July 9th 2011

With all the language of torch bearing and salvation, sounds almost..religious


Cal - #63220

July 9th 2011

You Christians worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Secular Humanists.


Papalinton - #63218

July 9th 2011

“In AD 61, Pedanius Secundus was murdered by one of his slaves. This incident, Tacitus informs us, initiated the tradition of killing all household slaves when one of their number murders their owner. In the Secundus’ case, this meant killing no less than four hundred innocent men, women and children.”


This seems unremarkably similar to the catholic Albigensian affair, doesn’t it, historians?

Papalinton - #63221

July 9th 2011

“Surveying the bloody history of 20th century atrocities—all far more secularly-inspired than religious—Hart concludes that individual value has declined since the days of Christendom not increased.”


Of Course, what else would Hart have said?  
I would add two points:

1.  If jesus the christ was the real and true manifestation of the christian god, how does Hart account for the revolutionary rise of Islam, the self-declaring one true faith without the jesus character?  If christianity is [by Hart’s reckoning] the obvious self-evident catharsis that revolutionized human relations since pagan times, then how is it that christianity has such a sworn and dangerous enemy praying to the purported same Abrahamic god?

2.  If christianity was the self-evident and only true and universal religion, how is it that the 20th century atrocities occurred on its watch?  After 2,000 years any sane person would think that would have been sufficient time for these truths to flower and open up, due to their self-acclaimed self-evident reasoning.  But what do we have?  We have Hart whingeing that it was secularism that caused all these wars.

Hart ever so conveniently forgets, perhaps it is the apologetical mind-set, that:

  “The overwhelming majority of Germans remained baptized, tax-paying
members of the official Christian Churches throughout the 12 years of nazi rule. In hindsight, it may seem impossible to reconcile the vicious hatreds of nazism with Christianity’s injunction to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to square the circle of nazi antisemitism with Christianity’s obvious origins in Judaism. But
the vast majority of Germans — over 95 per cent by the last count in 1939 —
evidently had no problem doing so.”
Indeed, the Nazis could never have overrun Germany except by appealing to interests, beliefs, hopes and fears of Germans who viewed themselves as good Christians. The Nazis did not come to power thanks to some imagined ideological void following the acceptance of “God is dead”. They came to power on the shoulders of German Christianity.”
 

Cal - #63235

July 10th 2011

Your problem is you’re looking for a rationalization for Christ and He will refuse to give one. See, you assume a universal and true “religion” will also be self-evident. It will always remain foolishness to the Greeks.


beaglelady - #63222

July 10th 2011

 If jesus the christ was the real and true manifestation of the
christian god, how does Hart account for the revolutionary rise of
Islam, the self-declaring one true faith without the jesus character?


Are you kidding? In Islam Jesus is one of the most important prophets, and is honored as the son of a virgin.  The difference is that in Islam he is not at all divine.


Papalinton - #63230

July 10th 2011

“Are you kidding? In Islam Jesus is one of the most important prophets, and is honored as the son of a virgin.  The difference is that in Islam he is not at all divine.”


And that makes it OK?
Can christianity live without a divine, god-head jesus;  or put another way, an ‘ordinary jesus’?  Sort of defeats the whole triune jesus concept, doesn’t it?  The very basis of christianity thrown out.
So beaglelady, which is the one and only correct and true interpretation?  Islam’s Allah and a non-divine jesus?  or the christian’s 3-in-1 god/jesus/ghost triune?

If I was to punt, given that Islam arrived on the scene fully 600 years later than christianity, people in the region had those 600 years to really think about the christian mythos, realized it was malarkey about the 3-in-1 arrangement, saw that it was indefensible, retraced their steps back to the original pentateuch, and started afresh, with a new, true, real and proper version of the teachings of Allah/Yahweh.

End of story, really.
The societal process for creating, establishing  and perpetuating a religion along with its retinue of otherworldly figures, is the real winner here. It demonstrates the ever-so naturally-grounded foundations of religions as no more than a culturally constructed artifice.   The plethora of religions, each one almost in a perfect one-in-one alignment with its host culture, is a certain sign of the earth-bound nature of belief.
God does not live or move outside of one’s head; just like Superman.

Cal - #63232

July 10th 2011

I’m not sure whether to take the story you presented as tongue in cheek or if you’re actually serious in your prognostication.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #63293

July 13th 2011

Papalinton,

Do you really think that the Muhammad and the Arabs were smarter than Augustine, Aquinas, Newton, et al?

Do you agree with the Muslim critique of the Jewish faith?o:p>


beaglelady - #63240

July 11th 2011

If I was to punt, given that Islam arrived on the scene fully 600 years
later than christianity, people in the region had those 600 years to
really think about the christian mythos, realized it was malarkey about
the 3-in-1 arrangement, saw that it was indefensible, retraced their
steps back to the original pentateuch, and started afresh, with a new,
true, real and proper version of the teachings of Allah/Yahweh.


It didn’t take 600 years for such heresies to arise.  Look at arianism.


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