The Role of Christianity in History
There are few subjects more controversial than the role Christianity has played in American culture and in the world. Catholics, who tend to value the stable institutions of their religion, and Protestants, who value the individual freedom that eventually and painfully resulted from their reforms, argue about subjects ranging from the alleged corruption of the Christian religion under the guidance of the Pope, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Puritan witch trials, to the influence of religion upon the United States’ founding.
Objectivists, or those who follow Ayn Rand, tend to cast an extremely critical eye on the role religion has played in human history. The ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages in Europe overshadow any relative enlightenment that Christian monastacism might have brought to barbaric peoples. The Crusades are looked upon as unnecessarily adventurous and bloody scourges, and the torture and execution of religious heretics is rightfully seen as morally reprehensible and cruel.
Moral relativists, who tend to view cultures with unrealistically detached equanimity, are also unable to appreciate the positive and negative influences of particular religions upon peoples. By superimposing their aloof and supposedly “progressive” standards backwards in history, they distort both the relative improvements and declines in the living standards of peoples and the moral influence of various beliefs upon that process.
We live in an age of moral and cultural relativism, and the uninformed and prejudiced eye of the typical modern reader tends to unflaggingly hold imperialism and colonialism in contempt, regardless of what improvements are brought to the conquered, along with the immoral subjugation. There is a nuanced simplicity to the minds of many scholars, which comes from unmitigated rationalization in the defense of unrealistic but exalted beliefs, such as in the intrinsic value of equality and diversity, along with an unapologetic reverence for the “vigorous” state.
There is an inherent narcissism in this common prejudice. It presumes to hold aloft the mind who subscribes to such relativistic views, as if all of humanity has been equally wrong since time began. Only those detached and socially inculcated progressive values, a reflection of the glorious imaginary future, could save humankind if they are cynically, or even bloodily forced upon the people, and if need be, reality itself. It is a comfortless and arrogant disposition that leads directly to mindless radicalism.
In juxtaposition to the vain scribblings of historical revisionists is the work of a writer whose explicit reasoning and judgment informs a sensible and useful reading of history, appropriately contextualizing peoples and events within the purview of their own day. It is Lord Macaulay’s A History of England; and what it may lack in the Byzantine rigors of modern history, as it has come to be defined, it makes up with in sensibility. It provides a potent elixir for the lack of judgment so sinuously interwoven in today’s histories.
An excerpt from Macaulay’s work will both show how Christianity has been unnecessarily slighted, and what reason proper employed looks like:
At length the darkness begins to break; and the country which had been lost to view as Britain reappears as England. The conversion of the Saxon colonists to Christianity was the first of a long series of salutary revolutions. It is true that the Church had been deeply corrupted both by that superstition and by that philosophy against which she had long contended, and over which she had at last triumphed. She had given a too easy admission to doctrines borrowed from the ancient schools, and to rites borrowed from the ancient temples. Roman policy and Gothic ignorance, Grecian ingenuity and Syrian asceticism, had contributed to deprave her. Yet she retained enough of the sublime theology and benevolent morality of her earlier days to elevate many intellects, and to purify many hearts. Some things also which at a later period were justly regarded as among her chief blemishes were, in the seventh century, and long afterwards, among her chief merits. That the sacerdotal order should encroach on the functions of the civil magistrate would, in our time, be a great evil. But that which in an age of good government is an evil may, in an ago of grossly bad government, be a blessing. It is better that mankind should be governed by wise laws well administered, and by an enlightened public opinion, than by priestcraft: but it is better that men should be governed by priestcraft than by brute violence, by such a prelate as Dunstan than by such a warrior as Penda. A society sunk in ignorance, and ruled by mere physical force, has great reason to rejoice when a class, of which the influence is intellectual and moral, rises to ascendancy. Such a class will doubtless abuse its power: but mental power, even when abused, is still a nobler and better power than that which consists merely in corporeal strength. We read in our Saxon chronicles of tyrants, who, when at the height of greatness, were smitten with remorse, who abhorred the pleasures and dignities which they had purchased by guilt, who abdicated their crowns, and who sought to atone for their offences by cruel penances and incessant prayers. These stories have drawn forth bitter expressions of contempt from some writers who, while they boasted of liberality, were in truth as narrow-minded as any monk of the dark ages, and whose habit was to apply to all events in the history of the world the standard received in the Parisian society of the eighteenth century. Yet surely a system which, however deformed by superstition, introduced strong moral restraints into communities previously governed only by vigour of muscle and by audacity of spirit, a system which taught the fiercest and mightiest ruler that he was, like his meanest bondman, a responsible being, might have seemed to deserve a more respectful mention from philosophers and philanthropists.
The same observations will apply to the contempt with which, in the last century, it was fashionable to speak of the pilgrimages, the sanctuaries, the crusades, and the monastic institutions of the middle ages. In times when men were scarcely ever induced to travel by liberal curiosity, or by the pursuit of gain, it was better that the rude inhabitant of the North should visit Italy and the East as a pilgrim, than that he should never see anything but those squalid cabins and uncleared woods amidst which he was born. In times when life and when female honour were exposed to daily risk from tyrants and marauders, it was better that the precinct of a shrine should be regarded with an irrational awe, than that there should be no refuge inaccessible to cruelty and licentiousness. In times when statesmen were incapable of forming extensive political combinations, it was better that the Christian nations should be roused and united for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre, than that they should, one by one, be overwhelmed by the Mahometan power. Whatever reproach may, at a later period, have been justly thrown on the indolence and luxury of religious orders, it was surely good that, in an age of ignorance and violence, there should be quiet cloisters and gardens, in which the arts of peace could be safely cultivated, in which gentle and contemplative natures could find an asylum, in which one brother could employ himself in transcribing the Æneid of Virgil, and another in meditating the Analytics of Aristotle, in which he who had a genius for art might illuminate a martyrology or carve a crucifix, and in which he who had a turn for natural philosophy might make experiments on the properties of plants and minerals. Had not such retreats been scattered here and there, among the huts of a miserable peasantry, and the castles of a ferocious aristocracy, European society would have consisted merely of beasts of burden and beasts of prey. The Church has many times been compared by divines to the ark of which we read in the Book of Genesis: but never was the resemblance more perfect than during that evil time when she alone rode, amidst darkness and tempest, on the deluge beneath which all the great works of ancient power and wisdom lay entombed, bearing within her that feeble germ from which a Second and more glorious civilisation was to spring.
Even the spiritual supremacy arrogated by the Pope was, in the dark ages, productive of far more good than evil. Its effect was to unite the nations of Western Europe in one great commonwealth. What the Olympian chariot course and the Pythian oracle were to all the Greek cities, from Trebizond to Marseilles, Rome and her Bishop were to all Christians of the Latin communion, from Calabria to the Hebrides. Thus grew up sentiments of enlarged benevolence. Races separated from each other by seas and mountains acknowledged a fraternal tie and a common code of public law. Even in war, the cruelty of the conqueror was not seldom mitigated by the recollection that he and his vanquished enemies were all members of one great federation.