Thursday, March 22, 2012

The folly of appraising Christianity.

We can't even know if egg on pizza is a good thing.

Although I thought I was being very clear in my last post (and the first of a series) “Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot?” It seems I wasn’t clear enough. Or perhaps there is just no walking through a food fight and keeping my shirt clean. So in response to a few conversations I’ve had since the last post I thought I’d write this quick note.

To be absolutely clear I think appraising Christianity as overall “good” or “bad” is stupid. I think when people say we need to be grateful for Christianity as a historical benefactor they are being stupid. I think when people say that Christianity has made the world a terrible place they are being stupid. There are several reasons why.

Firstly it’s like asking whether writing is good or bad. Yet I am in the middle of writing a series of posts. Although they haven’t been written yet, this series relies on all writing before it to get written so it is part of the current potential of writing. As does the poem you could knock out this evening. Who can say now if that will be a good or bad thing? Similarly Christianity is a living thing. You can attempt to put it in the scales and weigh it but you’ll be missing the new growth of the emerging churches and neo-calvinism for a start. We are humans and our history doesn’t fit in a Petri dish. The Petri dish fits in our history.

If you don’t care for that objection because you like, and think history is, looking at “things” (gunpowder, homosexuality, cheesemaking, ghoststories, Christianity) pinned to a board then I have others.

Christianity in the third century exploded in outrage against what had preceded it, including the persecution of Christians. In particular when Christianity destroyed the library of Alexandria it was largely an illiterate slave movement whose leaders had only just shoved the pagans out of government. For all the sorrow about what Christianity cost us in that act have we forgotten that there was little “us” between the master and the slave? I’m both a lover of knowledge and a big ass lefty. The lover of knowledge mourns the ending of Egyptian religion in the Christian era and the severing of that link to the past. The big ass lefty asks whether anyone waiting to be sacrificed to the crocodile god should have been expected to give a shit.

The big ass lefty in me asserts that it is important to look at history from the perspective of choices made by people in recognition of their equal worth. Too often we expect the same classes of society (the poor, women etc) to bear the costs of the greater good. Maybe societies’ overall stability is threatened by women wanting to explore their leadership potential. If so, tough. Calling it good or bad as if it is ever reasonable to ask women to shut up for society’s overall benefit is not something I’m prepared to do. Similarly we have to ask ourselves whether Christianity wasn’t forced to have a violent birth or none at all by the Roman Empires own abandonment of its’ pluralism (persecuting Christians and Jews from 64AD to the roughly 300AD with equal periods of tolerance). In such a situation when the oppressed of that society choose what’s advantageous for them I am reluctant to judge them for its broader cost.

That said mobs do terrible things and from mid 300AD Christianity began what can only be called a reign of terror that would have seemed without end to those who endured it. What began as a movement for the oppressed became their cruelest master. To me, even as a non-Christian the brutality of the crusades or the macabre works of the Spanish Inquisition are deeply inconsistent with the Gospel narratives. That they were able to be based on those narratives is a conundrum worth answering. We should be very interested in not repeating those theological conclusions.

Furthermore Christianity once in power proceeded to burn all its local competitors. In a matter of centuries it became punishable by death across the Holy Roman Empire to profess a belief other than orthodox Christianity. Knowledge that wasn’t Christian was largely destroyed even if it wasn’t about theology. Then slowly, painfully, in fits and starts (ask Galileo), that knowledge is either rediscovered or it reenters pockets of relative free society (like Renaissance Venice) from outside Christendom.

Christianity does end up delivering us all sorts of amazing benefits. But would the pagan world have taken so long to abolish slavery, allow women to inherit, universalize education or produce the rights of the refugee (and then ignore them)? Or would we be there and more? Or would we never get there? We can’t say.

It’s like if IBM got rid of Apple Macintosh (and Amiga and Commodore 64) in the early eighties. Then it crushed Microsoft and Sony before they got off the ground. If IBM then delivers Wifi in 2090 should we be grateful? Should we consider IBM our great benefactor? Or could we reasonably wonder if we might have got there earlier without them? Fact is we’d never know.

Sure we can play the parlour game of “what if” regarding Christianity or for that matter any other historical event. What if Paul the Apostles boat sank? What if Constantine had never converted? We can certainly look at China where Christianity was quiet for so long or India or Australia to speculate on worlds without Christianity or a different one. However let’s be honest that we are just having a lark speculating wildly. There are too many variables to make this anything like proper scholarship.

Anyone who tries to tell you they have a definitive picture of how the Western world would look without Christianity is either a liar or an idiot. It’s the question of whether assassinating Adolf Hitlers grandfather as a kid would have averted World War two, in a different form. Maybe paganism would have had its own Spanish Inquisition. Maybe a world without Christianity would still have slaves or would be colonizing the stars by now. We can’t know. Whether Christianity has been overall “good” or “bad” is therefore impossibly difficult to say.

Writing, as the example given at the start of this piece, is an apt one. Christianity is actually well understood as a language. There are concepts it says well and others it struggles to express. There are ways it inclines debates and types of answers it predisposes us to. There is also a lot of freedom within it. At its core Christianity says we have all been created by one God and belong to that God. We have earned Gods punishment by sin (maybe Adam and Eves, maybe our own). Jesus as the foretold messiah of the Jewish faith (and maybe God or God/man) somehow redeems us and calls us to live in fellowship with each other (maybe just the other redeemed or maybe all the created).

I think on this level alone it is somewhat meaningful to discuss Christianity’s “goodness” and “badness”. We can cry out in frustration that this language misses or is clumsy with meanings we cherish. Or we can thrill that it captures what matters to us neatly or give us tools of expression we need. But let’s be honest as well. Let’s try not to confuse our own lack of imagination with the actual limits of the language.

With the language of Christianity I can write anti-child labour laws. I can also write that the smell of burning witch flesh is like an incence offering to God. I can write grafitti to bring down an Empire. I can write a soppy Christianized birthday card. I can write Highway to Heaven and Touched By An Angel. I can write Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations. I can write something different next….

…or you might. That’s history too.

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