What is Christianity’s unique contribution to history? Jesus took the Jewish doctrine of the imago Dei and the Jewish ethic of love, and He intensified and universalized them both.
If all human beings bear the image of God—as a child bears the image and love of a parent—then every man, woman, and child is equally and inestimably precious, regardless of talents or usefulness. All Jews believed this, as they do today. But Jesus sent His students out into the world to preach this even among the Gentiles. Jesus also took the command “love thy neighbour” and insisted it also meant “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.” And the idea was given special force in His death, which was interpreted from the beginning as a death for sinners. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way,” wrote the apostle John; “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9–11). This is what I called the central moral logic of Christianity: God’s love for us must animate our love for all.
I hardly need to repeat that Christians have not followed this moral logic with anything like the consistency we might have hoped for. Nor have they been as quick to acknowledge the “log” in their eyeas their Master demanded. Yet, despite everything, the original moral logic of Christianity did make its presence felt in every century on record. Even when the church was at its most cruel, reformers popped up and called everyone to account. They pointed people back to the way of Christ. Enough ordinary believers heeded that call to redouble the Christian effort to preach in new lands, establish charities, build hospitals, and educate the masses. Our world has been demonstrably transformed by it.
Jesus Christ wrote a beautiful composition. Christians have not performed it consistently well. Sometimes they were badly out of tune. But the problem with a hateful Christian is not their Christianity but their departure from it. Albert Einstein put this well when he was asked in 1915 for his opinion of the Great War. He wrote three pages of subtle critique of nationalism, and then ended with the words: “Yet, why so many words, when I can say it all in a single sentence, and indeed in a sentence that is most apt for me as a Jew: Honour your master, Jesus Christ, not only with words and songs but, rather, foremost through your deeds.” The antidote to hateful, nationalistic, violent Christianity, Einstein proposed, is Christianity in practice. His rationale is the rationale at the heart of this book. Christ’s melody remains beautiful—dare I say unique. And when Christians perform it, they leave an indelible mark on the world.
Not for a moment would I suggest that someone needs to believe in Christ in order to pursue the ethics of Christ. I’ve previously discussed the work of Andrew Leigh. He is open about his atheism and equally happy to acknowledge that ethically he is Christian. “I was married in a church, but am now an atheist,” he says. “Yet while I do not believe in God, my values are deeply rooted in the Christian traditions. I find it difficult to think of altruism without reflecting on the Good Samaritan, or reciprocity without the motto ‘Do unto others.’” Naturally, I think the Good Samaritan and “Do unto others” make more sense if you believe that the Creator Himself is like that. But I can see why an atheist might reject the God part and still find the ethics beautiful.
This seems to be a happy trend among the best secular intellectuals. They have moved past the zero-sum game, the need to deny any good in Christianity. One very recent example—perhaps one still in process—is the well-known British historian, Tom Holland. He is the author of numerous bestselling books on Rome, Persia, and the rise of Islam. It dawned on him a few years ago that the humanitarian ethic he has embraced for most of his adult life cannot have come from Greece or Rome and was certainly present in western culture centuries before the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. The ideas of love and equality for all, he came to believe, can only have come from “Jerusalem”—that is, from the Jewish-Christian culture that burst westward after Jesus Christ. Holland gave full voice to this discovery in his 2019 book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It is, in fact, a far more flattering history of Christianity than the one I have offered. Holland has not had a “Damascus Road” experience. He is not a believing Christian. He has just come to realise that he—like many atheist and agnostic westerners—is ethically Christian. In a controversial article announcing his shift in thinking, he explained:
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
Holland is by no means the only “unbeliever” who credits Christianity with the west’s notion of intrinsic human value; Raimond Gaita and Samuel Moyn are two others mentioned earlier in the book. Idare say that outside the narrow circles of evangelistic atheism it is commonplace to acknowledge this point.
In A Brief History of Thought, the atheist professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and former French Minister for Education, Luc Ferry, laments that when he went to university in France in the 1960s, “it waspossible to pass our exams and even become a philosophy professor by knowing next to nothing about Judaism, Islam or Christianity.” That now strikes him as “absurd,” he says. Ferry is adamant that “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity—an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.” Perhaps most surprisingly, given he is a proud Frenchman, Ferry believes that “the French Revolution—and to some extent, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man—[but not the Terror] owes to Christianity an essential part of its egalitarian message.” I blush. But as history, it seems right.
Violence has been a universal part of the human story. The demand to love one’s enemies has not. Division has been a norm. Inherent human dignity has not. Armies, greed, and the politics of power have been constants in history. Hospitals, schools, and charity for all have not. Bullies are common. Saints are not.
Published December 11, 2023