Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hasn’t the overall influence of Christianity been negative?

A balanced response to this old question has been given by Kenneth Scott Latourette, Sterling Professor, Yale University:

Christianity has been the means of reducing more languages to writing than have all other factors combined. It has created more schools, more theories of education, and more systems than has any other one force. More than any other power in history it has impelled men to fight suffering, whether that suffering has come from disease, war or natural disasters. It has built thousands of hospitals, inspired the emergence of the nursing and medical professions, and furthered movement for public health and the relief and prevention of famine. Although explorations and conquests which were in part its outgrowth led to the enslavement of Africans for the plantations of the Americas, men and women whose consciences were awakened by Christianity and whose wills it nerved brought about the abolition of slavery (in England and America). Men and women similarly moved and sustained wrote into the laws of Spain and Portugal provisions to alleviate the ruthless exploitation of the Indians of the New World.

Wars have often been waged in the name of Christianity. They have attained their most colossal dimensions through weapons and large–scale organization initiated in (nominal) Christendom. Yet from no other source have there come as many and as strong movements to eliminate or regulate war and to ease the suffering brought by war. From its first centuries, the Christian faith has caused many of its adherents to be uneasy about war. It has led minorities to refuse to have any part in it. It has impelled others to seek to limit war by defining what, in their judgment, from the Christian standpoint is a "just war." In the turbulent Middle Ages of Europe it gave rise to the Truce of God and the Peace of God. In a later era it was the main impulse in the formulation of international law. But for it, the League of Nations and the United Nations would not have been. By its name and symbol, the most extensive organization ever created for the relief of the suffering caused by war, the Red Cross, bears witness to its Christian origin. The list might go on indefinitely. It includes many another humanitarian projects and movements, ideals in government, the reform of prisons and the emergence of criminology, great art and architecture, and outstanding literature.



Jeff said...

Interesting article.

To provide an alternate answer to your question: Christianity itself cannot be blamed for the evils that have been perpetrated in its name, just as Islam cannot be blamed for fanatical terrorism. I say this as a member of a people who have been a favorite punching-bag for Christians for some 2000 years now.

Now there are those who do blame Christian theology for anti-Semitism (Catholic novelist/historian James Carroll is probably the most prominent non-Jew of the bunch). The doctrine of supersessionism is most often implicated here. (Supersessionism = the view that God's covenant with Christians replaces that made with the Jews.) However, I don't see a supersessionist view of the world as necessarily a gateway to evil. It is not difficult for a believer in Christ to still have compassion for those who reject Christian beliefs. I've seen it done.

An alternate thought (two Jews, three opinions...):

Religion has been the driving force for both the greatest good in the world and the greatest evil, often at the same time. The massacres of Jews during the Black Death (which rivaled those of the Holocaust) were accompanied by the heroic actions of many bishops, the Pope, and the Strasbourg town council who went out of their way and, in the case of the latter, gave their lives for Jews. Both saw justification for their actions in Christianity.

Who is to say that Christianity is all good when it can be used to perpetrate horrifying evil? And who can say that it is all bad when it can be used to bring about transcendent good? It must therefore be neither, and the believers take the responsibility to use it for good on themselves.

A professor of mine used to say that "technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral." So it is, I suppose, with religion.

(An aside to the whole thing: of course, now we're into the old argument of who defines good and evil. I'll leave them at their most basic, universal definitions here - killing people, destroying cultures, invading, raping, pillaging, and general ill-temperedness = bad. Saving a life, helping someone out when they need it, being nice to people = good. But ultimately most religious people get their ideas of good and bad from religion, making the argument of whether religion is good or bad somewhat recursive.)

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

No, the overall influence of Christianity hasn't been negative, but it's close. The institutional church may have lost more souls than it saved, and that goes even for the present time. I think that where Christianity has had the most positive impact on history and society is rooted precisely in those elements which it took over from Judaism. In those regions of Christendom where the God of Israel is acknowledged as Christianity's God, for example, among the Greek Orthodox, there is a little less negative impact, but only because freedom (Israel's gift to humankind) is more in evidence there. I would now like to go so far as asking, hasn't the overall influence of Judaism been positive?

Kenny said...

Is it a meaningful and acceptable to distinguish between "true religion" and "false relgion"?

It's easy for me, as an insider to the Church, to say 'well, the actions of people who justify slavery, genocide, sexism, etc are not the actions of true Christians.' But perhaps to an outsider that's a spurious and convenient distinction.

Of course, there's another level, which is that there are plenty of 'true Christians' who do bad things. To use an example that is presumably both Jew and Christian friendly, we all know about the incident of King David and Bathsheba. And no one's saying he wasn't a true Jew.

But I guess you can make the distinction between actions that are 'of God,' and those that are 'not of God.'

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

Rather than trying to distinguish between 'true religion' and 'false religion', I would prefer to distinguish between Christianity (in this discussion) as organized into various power structures (churches, empires, etc.) versus Christianity as espoused and practiced by the disenfranchised and voluntarily 'poor.'

In that case, I think you would find that Christianity as an earthly system has done much to ravage the earth and destroy souls, whereas Christianity as a spiritual discipline and lifestyle has done much to improve the human condition in every way.

Again, however, I have to emphasize that it is the second type of Christianity that partakes of and represents more authentically the Judaic heritage. I am a Greek speaking, but one who appreciates the complementary nature of the two great ancient heritages, Hellenism and Judaism, which in fact resulted in Orthodox Christianity.