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.

Macaulay’s A History of England looks to be an outstanding read spanning five volumes. It is available online or as a Kindle file.

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9 thoughts on “The Role of Christianity in History

  1. A valid comparison of a religions influence upon world affairs is the cultural accomplishments of those societies under a particular religion. Forgetting Christianity for the moment, look at Buddhism in Japan. One could incorrectly conclude that the only contribution ancient Japan bought us was the bloody shogunate wars and its bloody system of Bushido. Of particular note is the war between the powerful Tairia and Minamoto warrior clans in 1180. Following the Minamoto victory, a capital was established in the city of Kamakura with the seat of power transferred from the nobility to the warrior class. One of the changes bought about by the new Minamoto rulers was an edict requiring the Buddhist priest to teach Buddhism to the peasants and other illiterate classes. The resulting mass literacy resulted in rapid leap forward in the arts and sciences the nation has seldom seen since. If one were a simpleton who views the world in the proverbial claptrap of political correctness, they would only see the Minamoto period as a bloody period of wars and preparations of war and not the advances in the art and sciences which culminated as the result of the victors of those wars. Just my two cents worth in the shadow of the Big Brain ™.

  2. 1. as if all of humanity has been equally wrong since time began.
    2. mindless radicalism.

    Great points.

    The past is not only a storehouse of error but is irrelevant. Forget the Church in the Middle Ages. Progressives refuse even to examine the 20th c. for useful lessons. “Compared to . . .?” is a question that never occurs to them unless it’s a question of comparing the “capitalist,” homophobic, repressive, retrograde present with an ideal future. That way the present always comes off looking bad. Teaching aid no. 1 for stoking the fires of resentment.

    I enjoyed visiting the ruins of Tintern Abbey. The architecture and craftsmanship were magnificent. Whatever can be said about the land in which it was constructed, there was evidence of excellence, will, and purpose and, as we know, it was a haven for the minds Macaulay describes, as well as for travelers and even the poor. Pretty darn amazing. And, compared to its not being there at all, one wonderful addition.

  3. Never mind that Jesus was not in any sense a Christian, nor did he found the power and control seeking religion , or more correctly ideology, about him namely Christian-iSM.

    Jesus certainly could not have created any of the “death-and-resurrection” nonsense that became the center-pole of the Christian belief system.Corpses or dead human beings are incapable of creating religions.

    Rotting corpses are inherently creating anything – havent you noticed!

    Jesus was an outsider, a radical Spiritual Teacher who appeared and taught on the margins of the tradition of Judaism as it existed in his time and place. If anything he was a Jewish Rabbi, albeit a radical iconoclast.

    While he was alive Jesus taught and demonstrated a radical, universal, non-Christian, non-sectarian Spirit-Breathing Spiritual Way of Life that has been the basis of all authentic Spiritual religions throughout human history, and now in 2011 too.

    The only reason that Christian-ISM became a world dominant power-and-control-seeking “religion” is because it was co-opted by the Imperial Roman State, and thus became a key integral player in the Western project to gain complete power and control over everyone and everything.

    Thus the entire world inevitably suffered the applied bloody politics of the aegis and imperative of Constantine’s famous Sword

  4. So THAT’s why Christianism is so popular in China! Roman legions!

    China is a ripe plum, just ready to fall into our grasp. World domination is finally within the Pope’s grasp.

    Soon EVERYone will celebrate Christmas.

    And like it!

  5. If you will allow it, I will advocate the Objectivist position. I take issue with Christianity only in its fundamental philosophical concepts according to its doctrine — metaphysics: supernatural, epistemology: faith, and ethics: altruism — and the application of those concepts in reality. I, therefore, take issue with any philosophical system that accepts/practices any variation of these same concepts to any degree — not just Christianity. Neither faith nor altruism is practiced consistently by Christians or anyone else I know, nor can it be practiced consistently — it’s metaphysically impossible.

    Since Christians make an error metaphysically (essentially the rejection of the law of identity to some extent) they accept the epistemological and ethical consequences of that error; they guiltily practice those consequences (partially); and they have no means and no justification to resist when others assert the same consequence of that same error — they risk highlighting a contradiction and being called hypocrites. So long as Christians are hypocritical and suppress the idea of the supernatural in favor of the natural; the idea of the unobserved in favor of the observed (directly or indirectly); and the idea of self-sacrifice in favor of self-interest they reject the philosophical system Christianity and I take no issue with them. To the extent that they suppress Christianity’s philosophical system they are Christians in name only and not in substance as far as I can tell.

    More importantly, in terms of its influence on a mass scale, neither faith nor altruism will ever support a system of political freedom (for long) — only reason and individualism can accomplish such an achievement. This affects me, which is why I’m against “…any philosophical system that accepts/practices any variation of these same concepts to any degree. “

    The reason why mysticism does not lead to political freedom, argues Ayn Rand, is…

    “…contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are impossible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which mysticism reduces mankind — a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.”

    For a more thorough case against altruism, which is required for understanding, take a look here: http://freedomkeys.com/faithandforce.htm. It’s a speech given by Ayn Rand titled, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World.”

    1. That Ayn Rand was a smart lady. I wasn’t advocating Christianity as a consistent philosophical system, only pointing out the institutional benefits Christianity brought to barbaric peoples precisely because they were barbaric. I agree with the Objectivist argument as an ideal-type, however.

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