Can We Have Christian Influence without Christianity?

Can We Have Christian Influence without Christianity? June 24, 2020

The secular British historian Tom Holland has published a new book entitled Dominion:  How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books).  Here is the summary from Amazon.com:

Crucifixion, the Romans believed, was the worst fate imaginable, a punishment reserved for slaves. How astonishing it was, then, that people should have come to believe that one particular victim of crucifixion-an obscure provincial by the name of Jesus-was to be worshipped as a god. Dominion explores the implications of this shocking conviction as they have reverberated throughout history. Today, the West remains utterly saturated by Christian assumptions. As Tom Holland demonstrates, our morals and ethics are not universal but are instead the fruits of a very distinctive civilization. Concepts such as secularism, liberalism, science, and homosexuality are deeply rooted in a Christian seedbed. From Babylon to the Beatles, Saint Michael to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the modern world.
His book shows just how different Christian values and ethics were from those of the Greeks and the Romans and how the Christian mindset has prevailed in Western Civilization even among his fellow secularists.  (Holland is an atheist.)  The Greeks, for example, considered compassion, for example to be a weakness, not one of the highest virtues as Christianity made it.  The principle from Christianity that all human beings have equal value was incomprehensible to the hierarchies of ancient Rome.  Today we assume that peace is better than war, a legacy of Christianity utterly foreign to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and European tribes.
Some of Holland’s conclusions might be more controversial, but he makes interesting arguments for them.  For example, the Christian sexual ethic, according to Holland, improved the status of women and brought love into marriage.  And though Christianity disapproved of homosexuality, he says, it laid the foundations for bringing love into same-sex relationships as well, as opposed to the usual brutality of the Greco-Roman practice.
Daniel Strand reviews the book at Providence in an essay entitled Are We All Christians Now?  He appreciates the book but also raises some criticisms.
The values that we all hold dear, Holland shows time and again, spring not from Greece or Rome, primarily, but are distinctly Christian in orientation and inspiration. Sure, Rome and Greece have left profound marks upon the Western mind, but not of the same order of magnitude as Christianity. Our sense of time, our division between religion and politics, our basic view of the human person, our devotion to compassion and mercy, our commitment to the moral equality of all persons, our deeply rooted conviction in the intrinsic worth of the human person, our sense of right and wrong, our belief in transcendent truth, our commitment to education and liberal arts, and so much else are the fruit bore from the roots of Christian faith.
Strand notes that Holland gives a realistic and balanced account, not a triumphalist view of Christianity. “Christianity laid the groundwork for some of the most humane and wonderful aspects of Western society,” Strand writes. “It also played a role in some of its darker moments.”  And yet, Christianity’s moral influence is seen even in its critics, who hold Christians to their own standards that they have not always lived up to.  “Even Christianity’s critics judge Christian failures by Christian assumptions, showing the extent to which Christianity has, in a sense, become inescapable.”
But Christianity, Strand points out, is not just about morality and values.  It is about salvation.  The morality and values are the fruits of the faith.  Holland appears to think that it’s possible to have the fruits without the faith, to have Christian influence without the Christianity.  Strand, however, disagrees:
Christian ethics cannot be about merely upholding and claiming certain values that flow from the Christian faith. That would be to mistake the fruit from the tree. The very center of the Christian life is not what the cross teaches us morally but what the cross did for us in atoning for our sins and bringing us from life to death in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The transformation of the person from death to life and the ultimate union with the Triune God in the City of God is the goal of all Christians. Their works of mercy and sacrifice for neighbor and their culture-building over millennia are a testament of this transforming power. We make a mistake if we think the fruit is the goal or that we can separate the fruit from the tree that produced it.

I would say that although principles such as love, equality, compassion and the like are still dominant, even among the secularists, they are starting to fade.  Certainly those who no longer believe in the key Christian teachings of atonement and redemption will have difficulty with the concept of forgiveness, and we are seeing that.  Secularists today say they believe in equality, but they are also demonizing and deriding the worth of those with whom they disagree.  And the strange embrace of abortion on the part of so many secularists, even liberals and progressives, undercuts their claim to be compassionate and supportive of the powerless.  It is, in fact, a reversion to the Greco-Roman practice of infanticide, with everything else that implied about the value of human life.

To be sure, Christianity as a religion is far more prevalent than many observers think it is.  But where Christianity fades away, becoming a historical memory rather than a living faith, we can expect a resurgence of pre-Christian hierarchies and cruelties.

 

 

Image by Couleur from Pixabay 

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