A good question: Has Christianity made the world better?
One question, four answers
When the early Christians found that Christ was not to return in their lifetimes, it began to be asked what difference he had made, for the wicked world did not seem to have changed very much. The New Testament letters speak of a ‘mystery’, of a divine plan to be revealed in God’s good time. Augustine of Hippo, completing The City of God in the early fifth century, was confident that divine providence would make all things right in the end. By the 12th century, faced with the failure of the Second Crusade, Bernard of Clairvaux was arguing that that reversal had been caused by the unworthiness of the Christians who made up the unsuccessful armies. Better Christians would have won.
By then ‘Christianity’ was a movement already profoundly divided. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Churches which found themselves unable to accept its Christology formed what are now known as the ‘Oriental Orthodox’. The schism of 1054 parted the Orthodox from the Roman Churches so decisively that the division has still not been mended. The dividing has continued down the centuries, through the Reformation and beyond, with Protestantism still subdividing into innumerable further branches. The United Reformed Church has restored a partial unity but the ecumenical efforts which followed the Second Vatican Council during the last decades of the 20th century have had limited wider success…
Gillian R Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge
The question of whether Christianity has made the world better depends on which Christianity we are speaking about. I am writing this piece in light of the recent death of James H Cone, the founder of black liberation theology. James Cone’s immense genius was his unflinching critique of white Euro-American Christianity, denouncing it as an aberrant form of faith that owed more to the antichrist and manifest evil than the effusive, living, giving force of the Jesus of the Gospels who sided with the downtrodden and the marginalised. In books like Black Theology and Black Power, A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed, Cone argued that the white Christianity that endorsed slavery and the vicious oppression of black bodies, alongside the colonisation of other peoples’ lands and the brutal suppression of indigenous cultures, was not any kind of authentic Christian faith.
Like James Cone, I am a firm believer that white mission Christianity has made the world immeasurably worse and certainly not better. James Perkinson, in his provocative book Shamanism, Racism and Hip Hop Culture: Essays on white supremacy and black subversion, argues that white mission Christianity was effectively a form of witchcraft in its relationship to white and black people, empowering and justifying the empires of the former and the suppression and marginalisation of the latter.
As a black theologian, I would juxtapose these comments with the resistance and challenge to empire that has emerged from the forms of Christianity coming from the margins of the global world order …
Anthony G Reddie is Extraordinary Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of South Africa
We cannot rerun history like an experiment in the lab and find out whether, if it weren’t for the invention of Christianity, the world would have been a better place. I think the probable answer is that it would have been better in some ways, worse in others, but mostly not that different.
This is certainly the case in relation to morality. It is a lesson of anthropology that, at a global level, human morality doesn’t vary much. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Oxford published their analysis of 60 societies from across the world with different cultures and worldviews. They found that seven moral rules were always present: love your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to authority, be fair and respect others’ property. This is just as you would expect if morality were indeed – as humanists believe – a result of our biology as social animals and the prudential experience of living in communities and much less culturally contingent than many may think.
To the extent that there are values specific to Christianity, it would be hard to rigorously determine their net beneficial or detrimental effect with some calculation: inquisitions versus charitable hospitals, crusades versus alms houses, the (morally horrendous) concept of original sin versus an endorsement of theoretical human equality, all totted up to give a final answer…
Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK
As a Jewish scholar of Judaism and Christianity, if I could use a time machine to go back to the time Christianity appeared and prevent it from forming, would I do that? A few Jewish scholars from the middle ages to modern times have thought Christianity made the world better. For them, Christianity made the God of the Bible known, replacing polytheism with monotheism, something they thought was a good thing. Their opponents argued that Christianity is not monotheism – Jews were never convinced by the weird math of ‘three equals one’ – but a polytheism in which one of the gods is a human, something particularly disturbing. Others said that Christianity’s monotheism was a foundation for a more just society when compared to paganism. I was never convinced by either claim.
From a narrower Jewish perspective, asking if Christianity has been ‘good for the Jews’, the issue is not less complicated. It would be extremely easy to bring countless examples of Jews being humiliated, persecuted and killed, in the name of Christianity. For those Jews, and those who knew them, Christianity was definitely not good. Anti-Judaism and antisemitism are unquestionably linked to Christianity, even though some forms existed before Christianity appeared, and exist today also among non-Christian populations. But Christianity also had other impacts on Judaism. Without it, Judaism might have been a marginal sect, with a peculiar collection of scriptures. We cannot know if it would have survived at all, or disappeared like many ancient religions. No religion has ever promoted the holy texts of Jews like Christianity did. No one made a Jewish dude as important as Christianity did. It even celebrates his birthday with songs!..
Evyatar Marienberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
These are extracts from an article that was published in the September 2018 edition of Reform