Having just finished reading another history of Christianity, I again find myself feeling disappointment and disillusionment. Why do I read such histories? Because I believe history is one of the most important disciplines to study for the context it gives, the grounding in reality of who we are as human beings, and with that the tempering of inflated ideas of ourselves. Young people today have little interest in history due, I believe, to the fact that with their keeping up with the constant and rapid developments in technology, history appears as if it has nothing worthwhile to offer them. This worries me for, as the saying goes, “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.”
Paul Johnson’s, ‘History of Christianity,’ certainly does not paint a rosy picture, yet comes to a very interesting conclusion and one that I believe is very important for us to consider, living in a world where, at least in the West, Christianity is in decline. His conclusion asks us to consider the alternative, a world without the influence of Christianity. Given the many concerns we have for the future of our planet both from the perspective of the environment and human rights, his message is an important awareness raiser of what we stand to lose when we so hastily judge Christianity as obsolete, or worse, as the cause of all humanity’s problems.
When considering the role that Christianity has had in the development of Western society, it becomes clear from a study of its early history that its relationship to that development was not just luck. Christianity appeared at a time when there was a wide and urgent, if unformulated, need for a monotheistic religion in the Graeco-Roman world. The old beliefs with their many gods no longer provided satisfactory explanations for the cosmopolitan society of the Mediterranean, with its rising living standards and its growing intellectual pretensions; and, being unable to explain, they could not provide comfort and protection from the terrors of life. Christianity offered not only an all-powerful God, but an absolute promise of a joy filled life to come after death, and a clear explanation of how this was to be secured. Furthermore, it was disembodied from its racial and geographical origins, and endowed by its founder with a variety of insights and guidelines calculated to evoke responses from all natures. It was, from the beginning, Universalist in its scope and aim. St. Paul, by giving it an internationalist thought-structure, made it a religion of all races. Origen expanded its metaphysics into a philosophy of life, which won the respect of the intellectuals while retaining the enthusiasm of the masses, and so made Christianity classless as well as ubiquitous.
Once Christianity became the national religion of the Roman empire, it inevitably replaced the state religion. But of course it was more than a state cult – it was an institution in itself, with its own structure and cycle of growth. In the West it drained the empire of talent and purpose, and substituted its own Augustinian vision of society, in which Christian ideas penetrated every aspect of life and every political and economic arrangement. Europe was a Christian creation not only in essence but in minute detail. And therein lay Europe’s unique strength, for Christianity proved a matchless combination of spirituality and dynamism. It offered answers to metaphysical questions, it provided opportunities and frames of reference for the contemplative, the mystic and the devout; but at the same time it was a relentless gospel of work and an appeal to achievement.
But most importantly, Christianity contained its own self-correcting mechanism. The insights provided by Christ’s teaching are capable of almost infinite elaborations and explorations. The Christian matrices form a code to be translated afresh in each new situation, so that Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth – a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased understanding. The nature of Christianity gave Europe a flexible framework of intellectual and moral concepts, and enabled it to accommodate itself to economic and technological change, and seize each new opportunity as it arose. So Europe expanded into western-dominated society of the twentieth century.
Paul Johnson’s account of Christianity is full of failures and shortcomings, and its institutional distortions, but he admits that this is so if measured by its own stupendous claims, and its own unprecedented idealism. As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations to educate, stimulate and inspire. Its strength lies in its just estimate of humanity as fallible with immortal longings. Its outstanding moral merit is to invest the individual with a conscience, and bid him follow it. This particular form of liberation is what St. Paul meant by the freedom men find in Christ. And, of course, it is the father of all other freedoms. Conscience, after all, is the enemy of tyranny and the compulsory society; and it is the Christian conscience which has destroyed the institutional tyrannies Christianity itself has created – the self-correcting mechanism at work. The notion of political and economic freedom both spring from the workings of the Christian conscience as a historical force; and it is thus no accident that all the implantations of freedom throughout the world have ultimately a Christian origin.
Of course human freedoms are imperfect and full of egocentric delussions. Here again, Christianity is an exercise in the impossible; but it is nevertheless valuable in stretching human potentialities. It lays down tremendous objectives but it insists that success is not the final measure of achievement. Indeed, the primary purpose of Christianity is not to create dynamic societies – though it has often done so – but to enable individuals to achieve liberation and maturity in a specific and moral sense. It does not accept conventional yardsticks and terrestrial judgments. As St. Paul says: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. God has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings to overthrow the existing order.” (1 Cor 1:25,27)
We must bear this in mind when we consider the future of Christianity, in the light of its past. During the past half-century there has been a rapid and uninterrupted secularization of the West, which has all but demolished the Augustinian idea of Christianity as a powerful, physical and institutional presence in the world. But of course Christianity does not depend on a single matrix: hence its durability. The Augustinian idea of public, all embracing Christianity, once so compelling, has served its purpose – perhaps, one day, to re-emerge in different forms. Instead, the temporal focus shifts to the Erasmian concept of the private Christian intelligence, and to the Pelagian stress on the power of the Christian individual to effect virtuous change. New societies are arising for Christianity to penetrate, and the decline of western predominance offers it an opportunity to escape from beneath its Europeanized shell and assume fresh identities.
Certainly, humankind without Christianity conjures up a dismal prospect. The record of humanity with Christianity is daunting enough, as history shows. The dynamism it has unleashed throughout its history has brought about massacre and torture, intolerance and destructive pride in the name of God on a huge scale. There is a cruel and pitiless nature within us which is sometimes impervious to Christian restraints and encouragements. But without these restraints, bereft of these encouragements, how much more horrific the history of these last 2,000 years would have been! Christianity has not made humanity secure or happy or even dignified. But it supplies a hope. It is a civilizing agent. It helps to cage the beast. It offers glimpses of real freedom, intimations of a calm and reasonable existence. Even as we see it, distorted by the ravages of humanity, it is not without beauty.
In the last generation, with public Christianity in headlong retreat, we have caught our fist glimpse of a de-Christianized world, and it is not encouraging. We know that Christian insistence on humanity’s potentiality for good is often disappointed; but we are also learning that our capacity for evil is almost limitless – is limited, indeed, only by our own expanding reach. The human person is imperfect with God. Without God, what are we? As Francis Bacon put it: “They that deny God destroy man’s nobility: for certainly man is a kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” We are less base and ignoble, in other words, by virtue of divine example and by the desire for the ideal that Christianity offers. In the dual personality of Christ we are offered a perfected image of ourselves, of what we could be. Christ is for us the eternal pace-setter for our striving. Christianity’s history over the last 2 thousand years has reflected humanity’s effort to rise above our frailties. To that extent, the chronicle of Christianity is an edifying one.