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?