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‘If the foundations are destroyed …’ What we owe to the Christian faith

February 2011 | by Peter Barnes

Continued from ‘If the foundations are destroyed…’

There is undoubtedly a temptation to ignore or downplay the dark side of the role of professing Christians in the history of Western society. Yet it remains true that the Christian faith has been a purifying leaven in the Western lump.

Simone Weil’s view was that ‘the proper function of religion’ was to ‘suffuse with its light all secular life, public or private, without ever in any way dominating it’ (The need for roots; Routledge and Kegan Paul, p.114).

This is a difficult issue for a religion that professes the cross as well as the crown, and a kingdom which is not of this world. But down through the ages the light has shone in places both high and humble; God has never left himself without witnesses to his truth and grace.

The Roman Empire collapsed in the West, but the City of God remained, as Augustine predicted. About 1500 years before this, the psalmist David realised that all buildings require a foundation, and, in a similar way, all societies require a foundation. That is why he asked: ‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ (Psalm 11:3).

Still relevant

It is a question that is both ancient and modern. It occupied King David; it occupied Augustine; and it ought to be one that we think about today.

The early Christians emerged in a society that was proudly pluralistic and humanistic. It did not know the God who has given us life. Weak or deformed infants were killed at birth, often by being exposed to the elements or to wild animals. Abortion too was widespread.

Both Suetonius and Juvenal tell of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), who had an affair with his niece Julia and then ordered her pregnancy to be terminated. The abortion caused the death of the niece. Divorce became very common, as marriage came to be regarded as a loose and voluntary compact.

For amusement, the population would go to see gladiatorial contests where men fought beasts or each other. Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37), who reigned while Jesus went about this earth doing good, used to watch group sex for entertainment, and descended into brutality driven by paranoia.

Those without the restraining influence of the revelation of the true God can become brutalised indeed. The Aztecs practised human sacrifice – they would cut out the hearts of their still living victims. In India, widows were thrown on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and unwanted infants were thrown into the Ganges River.

In the Pacific Islands, for example on Aneityum in Vanuatu (formerly known as the New Hebrides), brides were given a cord to wear around their necks. Should they outlive their husbands, the cord would be tightened by family and friends, and the widow would be strangled.

Freedom

The greatest preacher in the early church, John Chrysostom, urged Christians to buy slaves in order to release them. By the Middle Ages, slavery had virtually died out in Europe, only to be revived with the discoveries of the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the English speaking world, matters moved towards a crisis especially in the 18th and, more particularly, the 19th century. William Wilberforce led a determined and drawn-out campaign against it, which was finally successful in 1807 when the slave trade was abolished in Britain and her dependencies. Then, in 1833, just days before Wilberforce died, the slaves themselves were declared free.

Kindness and compassion are Christian qualities, being derived from the character of God himself. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century established charitable institutions, hospitals and schools, and in 368 helped to organise famine relief.

According to Gregory Nazianzen, Basil imbibed this lifestyle from his family, whom he praised for ‘their care of the poor, their hospitality toward strangers, their purity of soul achieved through austerity, the dedication of a portion of their goods to God’ (Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea;University of California Press, p.4).

One of the two great commandments of the Christian faith concerns loving our neighbour as ourselves. Pagan hospitals tended to be military hospitals and pagan education tended to be confined to the philosophical schools.

Although he himself was illiterate, Emperor Charlemagne – crowned in AD 800 – ordered priests to set up schools. Alcuin drew up the seven liberal arts that dominated medieval education – the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, followed by the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. In 1158 the University of Bologna was founded, to be followed by the University of Paris in 1200.

Justice

The idea that justice should be impartial is a biblical one. God declared to Israel that no partiality was to be shown to a poor man in his lawsuit (Exodus 23:3,6) nor was a sojourner (stranger) to be oppressed (Exodus 23:9).

Furthermore, ‘You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:15). In summary, ‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow. And all the people shall say, “Amen”’ (Deuteronomy 27:19).

The New Testament repeats the command to show no partiality (James 2:9), for God himself shows no partiality (Acts 10:34; 1 Peter 1:17). Even the king was under the law, not over and above it. When Ahab had Naboth killed in order to seize his vineyard, God called him to account (1 Kings 21:1-3,17-19). It is, as Samuel Rutherford said, Lex Rex – ‘the law is king’; not as the Stuart kings said, ‘the king is law’.

Equally biblical is the notion that the labourer is worthy of his hire and needs to be treated with respect (Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Luke 10:7). In the biblical view, every area of life derives meaning from the fact that God shall judge all things. So, wrote George Herbert, ‘Who sweeps a room as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine’.

Because God judges all deeds, everything we do is eternally relevant. Justinian in the sixth century, Charlemagne in the ninth, and Alfred the Great, also in the ninth, sought to implement regimes characterised by justice, honesty and mutual care.

Christians have set up orphanages, perhaps the two most famous being the one at Halle in Germany set up by A. H. Francke in the 18th century, and the one set up in Bristol in England by George Müller in the 19th century. Lord Shaftesbury sought to improve working conditions for children in 19th century England.

Civilisation

Furthermore, because the world is not divine, scientific experimentation is possible. It was the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who argued that science needs to be tested via experiments before it is accepted. In the words of Robert Hooke, ‘science has to begin with the Hands and Eyes, to be continued by the Reason, and to come back to the Hands and Eyes again’ (cited in R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science; Eerdmans, p.46).

Music, art and literature developed under a general Christian influence. The world would be poorer without the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (who wrote St Matthew’s Passion) and George Friedrich Handel (who composed The Messiah).

John Bunyan wrote the novel, The Pilgrim’s progress, and John Milton wrote the epic poem, Paradiselost. The novels of Fedor Dostoevsky are saturated with gospel motifs.

Rodney Stark argues that the strength of Western civilisation over the centuries has owed much to the Christian faith, the use of reason and the concept of freedom (The Victory of Reason, Random House. However, Stark is less than convincing in his emphasis on human free will as ‘the fundamental principle of [Christians’] faith’ (p.26). He also tends to see the fall of the Roman Empire as the fall of the city of Rome, and as an event which did not lead to the Dark Ages). For all that, ‘Christianity created Western civilisation’ (p.233).

This may auger well for the future of Africa, Latin America and China, where the Christian faith is being embraced by millions, but not for the traditional centres of Christianity in the West, where the faith is being marginalised and derided.

Peter Barnes

To be continued