Author Rodney Stark boldly concludes his book, The Rise of Christianity, by asserting “…Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death.”1 (As in the “spectacle” of the gladiatorial games, the “sacrifice” of people and animals in the ring and elsewhere, the cavalier approach to the needs of the war-weary, poverty-stricken people throughout the Roman Empire who were sick, starving and often enslaved.
How did they accomplish that? Again, Mr. Stark emphatically summarizing his entire book in the statement, “…what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity.”2Doing so in large part by elevating the concept and practice of virtuous living.
What makes this observation particularly unusual is that social scientists, of which Mr. Stark is one,3 usually are more than ready to acknowledge the social factors that may shape some religious doctrine but are much less ready to acknowledge Christianity’s influence on “Western Thought” and democratic ideals.
And yet, an honest appraisal of the facts would cause most neutral observers to admit that some doctrine is immensely better than others. My personal assertion being that Christianity is superior in large part because its doctrine is based on the revelation of a loving and just God who desires a relationship with us – and through us with others. (Luke 19:10) Loving him being of foremost importance, only slightly lower in importance being our love of our fellowman. (Matthew 22:37-40 & Mark 12:30,31)
The virtue of love encompasses a determination to succeed, moderated by an ethic that precludes advantage-taking, which engenders excellence in conduct. A lifestyle not meant for “public consumption” and acclaim, but a life dedicated to God and his purposes. (See Matthew 5,6 & 7) Which none-the-less sets an example for the rest of the world to embrace or reject.
Doctrine is immensely important, driving some to kill in its defense and others to risk their lives in sharing it. Caring for the sick and dying, the rejection of abortion and infanticide, monogamous marriage – of one woman to one man – helps society achieve and maintain a higher standard of social order; all of which had their origins primarily in Christian character. The Greek word for character being rooted in the idea of making a mark – as with an engraving tool; denoting distinction and quality as to behavior – identifying an individual as morally strong and self-controlled. Paul describing those possessing such character as having, “…a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7
Of singular importance to Christianity’s rise in a pagan world, determined at times to destroy it, was the simple statement, “…God so loved the world,…” John 3:16 In contrast, classical philosophers often considered the expression of love – beyond one’s immediate family – and particularly mercy and pity as defects of character, arising from inferior emotions that weakened one’s resolve to succeed and as such were to be avoided by rational men. Unearned help or relief offended their sense of propriety and justice. (An attitude some conservatives need to beware of today.) Plato’s solution to the problem of beggars being to dump them across the borders of his ideal utopian state, making them someone else’s problem.
Such was the moral climate in which Christianity was born, introducing the ideal that mercy and grace were of primary importance – not an impediment to success; further insisting that a merciful God requires his followers to likewise be merciful (Luke 6:36); certainly of family and friends – which can be difficult enough – but this band of believers were compelled to be gracious and caring of strangers, aliens and enemies as well. (Luke 6:27-35)
Which was revolutionary stuff. It certainly got Christians noticed and fueled the exponential growth of the early church; establishing the basis for the cultural revitalization of Roman society while setting the stage for much of what followed throughout the “Western World.” (Inspiring appreciation and emulation from some and resentment and competition from others.)
Wayne Meeks reminds us in his book, The Origins of Christian Morality, that when we discuss “…morality or ethics we are talking about people.”4; not some ethereal ideal or political talking point. (As Indiana and Arizona’s Senators Joe Donnelly and John McCain – among others – have repeatedly said over the last several months concerning the debate over healthcare and to some extent tax reform.) Because it is only when Christian philosophy is practiced in daily life that the human condition can be transformed. Which speaks to personal integrity, often defined as doing what’s right simply because it’s the right thing to do; regardless of the response of others. Consistently being who we are when others are watching and when there isn’t a soul in sight. And yet, it’s not merely being sure of who we are but whose we are. Identifying so thoroughly with our Lord and Savior that we begin to respond as He would. (Philippians 2:1-8) Ronald Greer insisting that, “If you know who – and whose – you are, you will know what to do.”5 (A list of God’s core expectations of us being found in Matthew 25:31-45)
Paul, the great expositor of Christian theology, encourages us to, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 Which is, “…God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. So that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16,17
The point being, “…we are God’s fellow workers,…” 1 Corinthians 3:9 With a philosophy that demands not only a response to God’s offer of salvation, but promoting an ethic that responds to the needy around us as well. The Apostle of mercy and grace himself calling us to, “…the obedience that comes from faith.” Romans 1:5 For we are indeed “God’s workmanship”, saved by the gift of grace – not works, but called to purposeful faithfulness; which includes, “…do(ing) good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:8-10 Modeling for the world what it means to be truly human.
1Subtitled, How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western World in a few centuries, Harper One Publishing
3The author of multiple books, Mr. Stark was professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington before taking the post of Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor
4Published by Yale University
5 The quote above serving as Mr. Greer’s book title as well, Abingdon Press
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