Christianity’s 3 Indispensable Gifts to the Secular World

This is the text of the talk Dana Alford gave this morning.

Christianity’s 3 Indispensable Gifts to the Secular World

Dinesh D’Sousa is a 53 year old Indian born American citizen, author, film maker and former policy advisor to Ronald Reagan.  One of his books is called “What’s So Great About Christianity?”.  I’m stealing this talk from part of that book.  He speaks of Christianity’s 3 Indispensable Gifts to the Secular World which should be a source of true pride and gratitude for we Christians.

“Christianity – and nothing else – is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization.”

This is from Jurgen Habermas, an 85 year old German philosopher.

Western civilization was built by Christianity.  It was built on Christianity.  It was built for Christianity.

Most folks today don’t know that … or why … or how.  Then again most folks can’t name 5 of the Ten Commandments.  There’s even a lot of folks out there who think that Joan of Ark was Noah’s wife.

Christianity is the very root and foundation of Western civilization.  In fact Christianity is the source of most of today’s SECULAR values and institutions.  They are Christian gifts to the secular world.

Rome was overrun by the Huns, the Goths, the Visigoths and Vandals in the 400s AD.  Over time they were converted to Christianity and it civilized those rough tribes.  Slowly and surely, Christianity overtook that backward continent and gave it learning and order, stability and dignity.  Monasteries became the focal point of learning and productivity  across Europe.  There sprang up new ideals of civility and manners and romance that live in our society today.  If it had not been for Christianity we would still be living in the Dark Ages.

Christianity ordered the way we live today. Our laws, our economics, our politics, our arts, our calendar, our holidays and our moral and cultural priorities.   In fact none of us today could be what we are unless a handful of Jews two thousand years ago had not believed to the point of their own martyrdom that they had known Him and seen him crucified, dead and buried and then … had seen him risen again.

Even the term “secular” is an invention of Christianity.  A priest could either join a contemplative community, a “religious” order, and retreat from the world or he could live in a parish among ordinary people and be a “secular” priest.

Not only the term, but secular values are also an invention of Christianity.  And we’re going to go over three of them today that are so important to the secular world that our Western culture as we know it would literally disappear without them.  They are in fact indispensable gifts Christianity has given to the secular world.

The first is the Separation of Church and State.  The second is what I call Structures for Human Frailty.  And the third foundational secular value given by Christianity is Human Equality and Dignity.

The first;  the separation of the religious and the political.

Early on in classical Rome  Christianity was accused of being atheist.  For ancient Greeks and Romans the gods man should worship were the gods of the state.  It was a polytheistic age with gods for everything.  Eventually even the Caesars were deemed to be gods.

Christians however refused to worship those saying there was only one over-arching God and they put their allegiance in him above their allegiance to the State, which to the Romans was blasphemous, even treasonous

You see, religious identity in the ancient world was tribal.  Worship was completely tied up with your tribe and community.  In the Old Testament people worshiped the God or gods that their tribe worshipped.  The Jews wrestled between Yahweh and Baal, Moloch and the golden calf.  With Yahweh or without Him, they all worshipped as a group.

Christ made Jewish monotheism personal and universal.  Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”   He is asking each of us individually, personally … and He is asking everyone.  It is a universal question.

The God of the Old Testament was a tribal god in that he related only to his Chosen People as a group and mainly through His chosen representatives, Moses, Elijah, etc. whereas Christ asks you personally.  Judaism was a legal religion to the Romans because their God was their god.  Christianity was not legal because Christians claimed one God not only for themselves but for the whole world.

Classical Greek and Roman political and religious structures were completely intertwined.  So were those of the Old Testament.  Moses and Abraham and David were the political and military leaders as well as God’s chosen representatives.

Christ seems to be the first one to think of separating Church and State when he said Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.

Like Greece and Rome were, Islam is a theocracy where the Church and the State are one.  Mohammed was both prophet, high priest and Caesar.  He was the Supreme Leader as it is in North Korea and Iran today.

Not so in Christianity.  Father Augustine wrote that the Christian inhabits two realms:  the earthly city and the heavenly city.  The Christian citizen has different duties in both of these realms with his ultimate devotion to the heavenly city.

There are some remarkable conclusions which follow from this.  First, the earthly city need not concern itself with man’s final or ultimate destiny.  Also, the claims of the earthly city are limited, there is a sanctuary of conscience inside every person that is protected from political control.  Kings can not claim authority that is God’s.

Here is the embryo of limited government.  The ruler’s realm has a limit beyond which it must not and can not legitimately go.

Church and Crown wrestled back and forth for centuries as to where the line of authority was between them, but they always knew there was a line there somewhere.  The King, the government, has some limits, some where.  It makes common … natural … sense that even a government with 99% of the popular support does not have the right to tell the other 1% of the people that they must be Republicans or vegetarians or even Christians.  If it does it has become tyrannical and the people have a natural right to oppose and replace it.  Jefferson saw this as the cause for the Declaration.

If government is limited, so is the heavenly city.  Christ said it like this:  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  God rules the universe and he allows men free will and their own governments.

So separation of church and state began with Christianity.  Even when Rome became Christian and even during the Spanish Inquisition the Church administered sacraments and church law and the State enforced its laws.

But expansionist Christian rulers up to the 17th Century … with the support of churches … used their powers to enforce their own religious orthodoxy.  The Puritans fled Europe  –  not from Catholics  –  but  from Anglican persecution … and not for the cause of absolute religious freedom … but to establish a society dominated by their own brand of orthodoxy.  They believed they were in possession of the sole truth.

But this was a confusion as they were trying to establish a heavenly city here on earth, just what Augustine and Christ had warned against.  They were even violating the principle God set down in the Garden of Eden  –  of non-coerced free will.  He could’ve easily compelled Adam and Even to conform and he didn’t.  He respected their freedom enough to allow them to mess up.  The freedom to do good requires the freedom to reject the good.

For this Christian problem  –  internal division and conflict over orthodoxy  –  they developed a Christian solution:  religious freedom.  First there was tolerance, to put up with the other orthodoxy.  The American founders extended this tolerance to a bold new idea:  freedom of personal conscience.  Ultimately this genius expanded to leave government out of religion entirely.  They were to follow Christ’s rule to keep the domains of Caesar and God separate.

Jefferson said that religious faith was the very foundation for liberty itself:  “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we remove from the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?  That they are to be violated but with His wrath?”

To the founders morality was indispensable for their new form of government.  John Adams put it “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate for any other.”

Today courts have wrongly interpreted separation of church and state to mean that religion should not be permitted to shape our laws or even be seen in the public square.  The secularists  –  who are really practicing their own religion   –  want a monopolize the shared space of society with their own orthodoxy, their own views.

The separation of the political and religious realms is a gift supplied by Christianity to promote social peace, religious freedom and a moral community.  Christians can take pride in this and should not shrink from the public square despite the secularist’s claims that we should.

****

Now we’ll look at the Second Indispensable Christian Gift to the Secular World:  Structures for Human Frailty.

“For the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.”   Of course, that’s from Paul in Romans 7.

The second secular Western value created by Christianity is what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “affirmation of ordinary life”.  It is the idea that all people are fallible … and yet that these fallible people matter.  The nuclear family, the idea of limited government, the Western concept of the rule of law, and our calling to relieve the suffering of others all come from this basic Christian understanding … the dignity of obviously fallible humans.  We are all made in the image of God.

That single phrase of Paul’s repudiates the entire classical philosophy of Plato which was that people do wrong because they do not know what is right.  If they had known what is right they would’ve done it.  Paul’s claim is that even though he knows something is wrong he still does it.  Why?

Because human nature … or will … is corrupt.  It is not a problem of knowledge, it is a problem of will.

Involved in this is also the Christian exaltation of the low man, the common man, the underdog.  In Greece and Rome commoners were completely worthless, expendable and ignored.   There were great men and the gods they should emulate to become great.  The ordinary and powerless were of no value at all.

But Jesus was just such a man.  He was of the lowest social and economic station.  He kept company with the least in society:  tax collectors, sinners and women.  And yet everything he did … and said had the deepest dignity … and highest authority.  The last became first and the first last.  Christ upended and completely reversed the social values.  For the first time people began to look at society – not from the perspective of the rich and powerful – but from that of the ordinary man.   In other words, how can the common man to have a rich and meaningful life?  And how can we do that when man is basically sinful and weak?

One massive change was in the social importance of the family.  In classical times there was none.  In Greece and Rome the family was completely unimportant and many thought child rearing duties should be turned over to the State.  There was no romantic love in ancient times, just Eros which was mainly homosexual.  And pederasty which was preferred to homosexuality.  The man-boy relationship was the preferred common contract:  sex for teaching and mentoring.

Christians considered all of that sinful and they exalted heterosexual monogamous love.  For the first time the family was viewed as the vehicle of life’s main fulfillment.  While the Catholics revered the celibate priest, as Christ had been, Martin Luther disagreed saying that to take a wife and have and raise children by her was a noble “calling” from God.

Secondly, Christendom also came up with a brand new idea of romantic love, one of the most powerful forces in our world today.  It emerged in the Middle Ages.  Previously “falling in love” was seen as a form of insanity … not a basis of an enduring relationship.

Romantic love as it emerged meant much more than it does today.  It was the culmination of a quest, to seek the high ideals of personal sacrifice and service to another.  It came up first in the aristocracy but soon spread to the rest of society.  The first hint of this was in the courtly love poems that fused erotic and spiritual love and focused it on a beautiful woman … usually unavailable.  The dream of romance caught on quickly and was firmly planted in the mind of the West.

Third, Christianity introduced consent by both the man and the woman as a prerequisite for marriage.  This is still not the case in the non-Christian world:  Asia, Africa or the Middle East.  Forced marriages are arranged.  However, in the West since the early days of Christianity marriage is by choice and mutual agreement.  The idea is that God has made a partner just for us.  At the same time this should be a binding decision.  We consent without coercion, so we should live up to our vows and preserve marriage as a lifelong commitment.

Christian respect for ordinary persons while still taking into account human frailties gave birth to new institutions and structures to allow for those weaknesses.  And so emerged the concept of the rule of law.

Plato and the classics thought that the highest form of law is aristocratic discretion.  In other words, wise men would dispense justice for each individual case.  But we today, knowing all people have weaknesses, don’t trust the policeman to determine whether we were driving safely or not so we install one rule for everyone and in that case it’s called speed limits.  We all want to live under a uniform law that applies to everyone because we don’t trust those who judge us to be fair all the time.

So the American founders blessed us with “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” as internal mechanisms to keep the government … the fallible people who govern … honest and accountable.  They devised a structure that deliberately fostered economic and political rivalries in order to prevent unhealthy concentrations of power.  In Federalist 51 Publius describes this as “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”  Here in the West we insist that the people who make the laws be subject to them … at least that’s the idea.

Christianity also enhanced political and social accountability by providing another brand new model:  that of servant leadership.  In ancient Greece and Rome no one would have dreamed of political leaders as anyone’s servants.  Caesar’s job was to lead.  But Christ said and showed that the way to lead is by serving the needs of others, especially the most needy.  Over time people once known as “followers” or “subjects” became “customers” and “constituents”.  The job of the political leader, the merchant and the priest becomes serving the people by attending to their political, material and spiritual needs.

Capitalism arose in the West because it met the Christian need for an institution to channel selfish human greed to society’s benefit.  Some say capitalism is selfish, but selfishness is not in capitalism … it is in human nature.  Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations that the desire to better ourselves “comes with us from the womb and never leaves us till we go to the grave”.  Greed, like lust, is part of the human condition.

The effect of capitalism is to steer human selfishness by the invisible hand of competition to create the abundance which society enjoys.  It causes us to act in the interest of others … even if we are ultimately motivated to benefit ourselves.

In that sense capitalism civilizes greed in the same way marriage civilizes lust.  It domesticates selfish human impulses in socially beneficial ways … and these are completely Christian inventions!

Christian civilization created the basic modern economic rules.  Before  the Middle Ages prices were set by King or custom.  Then as the friars’ monasteries created surpluses that could be sold at market, the mechanism of supply and demand sprang up.  Those monastic communities demonstrated a strong work ethic, practiced specialization and division of labor.  They borrowed and lent money and had long-distance trade in lots of different commodities.  As surpluses grew so did the markets, craftsmen and cities around them.  From the 12th century on the essential elements of capitalism were found in the city states of Europe.

Capitalism grew in stages, each influenced by a different aspect of Christianity.  Bacon and Descartes called for man to be a master and possessor of nature, essentially recovering the Garden of Eden.  Locke defended property rights and saw man imitating the creativity of God by acting in “His image”.  Even today we think of a “calling” or “vocation” as using our God given talents to help others, and so, ourselves and our families.

With capitalism came another new Christian offshoot:  Progress, the idea that things are getting better.  This is not how the Greeks and Romans saw it  –  nor how the Chinese and the Indians see it today.  Most cultures believe history moves in cycles, going up and down.  The ideas of “development” and “progress” are the secular version of the Christian idea of Providence for which the founders were so grateful.  The Christian narrative of history guided by God from beginning to end – a story of creation, incarnation and last judgement – is converted into the secular story of advancement through human effort and the spiritual mandate to continually improve, to make things better.

There is final effect of the Christian legacy of human fallibility and ordinary satisfaction:  our culture’s emphasis on compassion.  This is a Christian idea.  To non-Christian cultures far off calamities are meaningless.  The Chinese proverb says the “tears of strangers are only water”.  But in the West we rush to help.  We operate under the Christian assumption that those people are human like us and their suffering matters and deserves relief.  The ancient Greeks and Romans could not have cared less about others’ misfortunes.  They built grand public works for the masses only to enlarge their own prestige and power.  There was no compassion for the other man.  Paradoxically it was the people who believed most strongly in the next world who have done the most to help those living in this one.

***

Now the third Indispensable Christian Gift to the Secular World:

Human Equality and Dignity

The secular world loves the Christian legacy of human equality.  It was the force behind self-government and abolition.  Christianity and human equality are so interlinked that if one goes … the other does too.

When Jefferson said “all men are created equal” he meant a moral equality, an equality of moral worth.  The preciousness and equal worth of every human life is a Christian idea.  We believe in the infinite and equal value of each life and of God’s equal love and divine path for us all.  Not only will we be judged as individuals at the end of our lives, but throughout our lives we can also relate God as individuals because of Christ.  Even religious truth is not simply handed down to us but is worked out through individual study and prayer.

In Greece and Rome human life had little value.  Weak children, particularly daughters, were left to die on the hillside.  Punishment was grizzly and slow.  Classical thinkers thought nothing of these practices.  Christianity banned them.  Women had a low status in the ancient world but Jesus broke taboos and scandalously had even lowly women as friends and confidants.  Christianity forbid adultery, making it an equal sin for men and women.  It made rules on divorce identical for both men and women, as opposed to Judaism and Islam.  Women were so dignified in the early church that they played major roles.

We mentioned the development in the Middle Ages of courtly love.  The woman was the knight’s object of love raised to a high status, in fact even higher than the man pursuing her.  Courtesy, the habit of treating women with deference, was invented by Christianity and family life with the central role of the mother became the focus of human happiness.

From the beginning Christianity discouraged the enslavement of fellow Christians and encouraged slave owners to treat the slave as a brother in Christ.  Slavery, the economic foundation of Greece and Rome, withered throughout medieval Christendom and was replaced by serfdom, which was not the same thing.  Serfs were human beings with rights of marriage, contract and property ownership, all legally enforceable.

Christians were the first group to start anti-slavery movements.  In England, William Wilberforce spearheaded a campaign driven entirely by his Christian convictions and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in Britain.

The Quakers were first in America to oppose slavery on principle and evangelical Christians soon followed.  They gave political meaning to the biblical idea that all are equal in the eyes of God.  So, because human beings are equal in God’s sight, no man has the right to rule another without his consent.  This doctrine is the moral root of both self-government and abolition.

Christian revivals preceded America’s great political events.  The First Great Awakening in the mid-18th century said folks should not only know about Christ but develop a personal relationship with him.  It was from this revival that Americans knew instantly what Jefferson meant by human equality being “self evident”.  It was a gift from God.

The Second Great Awakening started in the early 19th century and spawned movements for temperance, women’s suffrage and abolition.

In the 20th century Martin Luther King demanded that America’s promissory note of human equality in the Declaration be cashed.  He called for personal judgement to be based on the content of character as an ethical right or achievement.  This is totally Christian in origin and in fact.

This Christian human equality lead to moral doctrines such as a “just war”, which calls for not deliberately killing civilians and waging war defensively, not attacking first.  Also retaliation should be proportionate, not killing many times your losses.  Such a “just war” is a Christian invention.

Legal doctrines also come from Christianity, like the U.N.’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, asserts rights to all people:  freedom of conscience, the will of the people be the basis of authority of government, the right to free consent to marry a person of the opposite sex, equality before the law, the right to life, liberty and property.  Its all based on the Christian premise of all human life having equal worth.  As Paul wrote,  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Here Christian individualism is combined with Christian universalism.

Christianity is where we get our modern concept of freedom.  It is simply that we are our own moral agents, God has created us in his own image and we are the architects of our lives as long as we extend the same rights to others.  The Enlightenment understanding of human freedom and equality is a direct product of Christianity.

***

I end this with a warning first issued by Nietzsche.  The life of the West is based on Christianity, Nietzsche said.  It is the basis of their values.  Some of these values may seem to taken on a life of their own … making us think the values are a thing unto themselves … giving us the illusion we can get rid of Christianity and keep those values. Nietzsche called our Western values “shadows of gods”.  Remove the Christian foundation and those values will soon disappear too.  If and wherever Christianity is gone … sooner or later … so is Separation of Church and State, human equality and dignity, and any concern for the common man. These all sprang from Christianity … and still require Christianity … as their source and only real foundation.  We as Christians can take great pride in what Christ has done for us and our fellow man.

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