Christianity: The Good Stuff

Naturally, an atheist site like this SO often focuses on the bad stuff about Christianity. Digging up the dirt is easy since, after 2000 years of Christian history, there are tons and tons of it just lying around ready to be shoveled. It is important to remember, however, that for all the holy warriors, fanatics, hypocrites, obscurantists, and sanctimonious little busybodies, Christianity has appealed to some of the noblest spirits that have graced human history (e.g. Pascal, Erasmus, St. Francis). It has also inspired some of the greatest art, music, and literature (and I DO NOT mean the Chronicles of Narnia!). Listening to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner is close to a religious experience for me, and Bruckner’s inspiration was his simple and devout Catholic faith. If Christianity were as hollow, vicious, and corrupt as we critics sometimes depict it, it never would have touched so many and inspired so much. Let me add, on a personal note, that some of my oldest and best friends are not only Christians but ministers of the Gospel. I have the greatest respect for their intellectual and moral integrity.

A few months ago, I posted here on the “Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity.” Here, then, for the sake of fairness, I am going to list seven things that, in my view, Christianity has gotten right. These are salient themes of the Christian message, themes that persist through the ages and shine in the often dark and gritty reality that is the history of the Christian religion.

1) Everybody matters. As much as I admire Aristotle, you have to admit that he was a terrible elitist and that many people did not count very much for him. Women were defective men and “barbarians” (i.e. you and me) were fit to be slaves to Hellenes. Even the common people among the Greeks were disparaged as being addicted to pleasure and therefore as having a “slavish” disposition. In the ancient world in general, the attitude seemed to be that a few people mattered a lot and others were pretty much insignificant and disposable. Nietzsche, who hated Christianity and admired Achilles, had much the same attitude. Christianity, on the other hand, has always emphasized that everyone matters—a lot. All are children of God. Everyone has an immortal soul and an eternal destiny. In one of his sermons C.S. Lewis reminds his listeners that every person they meet is bound for glory or perdition and that this gives even the seemingly most negligible person a transcendent significance.

             You do not have to accept Christian claims about the afterlife to see that it was a great moral advance to say that everyone, even the humblest, is important and has a life that matters deeply. In fact, Jesus always sided with the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful, and the down-and-out against the up-and-in. Many of those who now most ostentatiously claim to follow Jesus do precisely the opposite, always promoting the interests and agendas of the wealthy while wiping their feet on the poor (Rick cough Perry cough). Jesus consistently emphasized that even “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45) are owed our compassion, and should be fed, clothed, and given shelter when they need it. In a society where CEOs make tens of millions a year, and the janitors who clean their offices struggle to get ten dollars an hour, it needs to be stated loud and clear that everyone counts, and not just the high rollers, the fat cats, and the big donors to your reelection campaign.

2. Nothing is worth the sacrifice of your personal integrity. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) Precisely. Power, status, wealth, fame, sex, and all worldly goods are worthless, indeed deleterious, if they require the sacrifice of your character. None of those goods count if you have made yourself reprehensible in the pursuit of them. Even intellectual brilliance does not redeem a lack of character. Having been hanging around universities for the better part of my life, I have known some people who were brilliant scholars and who made significant contributions to their fields. But they were total assholes. One treated all grad students with utter contempt, publicly abusing them in the most scurrilous terms. Another approved of a dissertation that was largely plagiarized submitted by a student with whom he was having an affair. Another (a devout Christian, BTW) blatantly hit on every female grad student in sight. Academic accomplishment does not make a scum bucket any less despicable.

3. Money madness is dangerous. “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 19:24) Everybody likes money and we all wish we had a lot more of it. I sure do. However, in today’s money-mad world, it is increasingly difficult to find institutions that hold any values higher than money. Medicine is all about money. Sports is all about money. The “justice” system is all about money. Universities are all about money. “Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery,” observes Thomas Friedman. Someone asked me about the purpose of the scaffolding around the Capitol Building. I replied that they were putting up corporate logos. They might as well; corporations already own it. The Supreme Court recognizes corporations as people and money as their form of free speech. Living in such a society, we very much need to hear the Christian message that the obsession with money is bad, that it diminishes life, warps character, and poisons our interactions with others. Obsession with money turns you into the sort of person that Oscar Wilde characterized as “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

4. “Good” people are often the most odious. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer. Therefore, ye shall receive the greater damnation.” (Matthew, 23:14)The scribes and the Pharisees were the “good” people of Jesus’ day. They were the most honored and respected as the ones who kept the law most punctiliously, priding themselves on their observance of every detail. They excelled at what David Hume called the “monkish virtues,” that is, they strictly adhered to doctrine, prayed loud and long, and condemned every departure from prescribed religious practice and discipline. Yet, as Jesus observed, their piety did not inhibit them from evicting the widow from her home and making a profit on her misery. Jesus’ depiction of self-righteous hypocrites is dead on and we are surrounded with instances in our own day. I know I have already picked on Rick Perry, but he is such a fat target, I can’t resist: In 2011, when he was running for president the first time, he kicked off his campaign here in Houston with a fundamentalist shindig at Reliant Stadium. This was in the hottest August in history, but the attendees were cooled by the 12,000 tons of air conditioning at Reliant. Just down the street, though, as tens of thousands of “good Christians” relaxed in alpine comfort at Reliant, impoverished elderly people were baking in houses with no AC. Jesus would have had more than a few words about those “good Christians.”

5. There are higher obligations than human law. Civil disobedience has Christian roots. While Christian teachers have always urged a respect for the law and the civil authorities, there has all along been a tradition of refusal to recognize the authority of human law when it was thought to be in opposition to God’s law. Early Christians refused to participate in the ritual of sacrifice to the emperor, and this seemed like rank disloyalty to the Roman authorities. In American history, the tradition of Christian civil disobedience was most notably present in the civil rights movement. In the famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” M.L. King, Jr. recognized that a fundamentally unjust law is without moral authority, and should be defied.

6. Retribution is an essential aspect of justice. The doctrine of an eternal punitive hell is the vilest, sickest, most misshapen offspring of the human imagination. It gets one thing right, however: Truly rotten people deserve punishment, even if that punishment does not improve them or serve any further good such as deterrence. For such persons, the punishment is good per se. C.S. Lewis in his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain asks us to imagine a man who has grown powerful and rich by living a life of deceit, treachery, and cruelty. He dies fat, sassy, and unrepentant, laughing at his victims and gloating over their suffering. Can we be satisfied if that is the end of the story? Would we not, if we could, inflict some sort of comeuppance on the old bastard, something that would at least keep him from having the last laugh?

Lewis has a point. Speaking personally, no, I cannot be happy when the most despicable miscreants—Dick Cheney, say—never have to pay for their outrages. The deeper point is that the principle that people should get what they deserve is a fundamental and essential element of ethics. We simply cannot have a viable morality without that principle. By kindergarten age we already have an elemental concept of fairness, and that concept is violated when the good suffer and the bad go unpunished. Note that retribution is not vindictiveness or the lex talionis. We should not go back to breaking criminals on the wheel (not even Dick Cheney). Retribution must be carefully proportioned to the crime, where the proportionality is determined by neutral and impartial judges guided by a sense of fairness and with a disposition towards mercy.

7. Redemption is possible. True, some people are rotten to the core and irredeemable. Others, though, even hard cases that look hopeless, can be reached. Everyone loves stories of redemption. Two of the iconic figures we hear about every Christmas, Scrooge and the Grinch, won their iconic status by being redeemed. Consider Scrooge, a miserable wretch of a miser devoid of compassion and so bitter that he dismissed the joy of others as humbug. Yet Dickens, in his genius, allows us to see the causes of Scrooge’s misery and the means of a cure. Scrooge is cured by being forced to confront his past, present, and future and to see himself through the eyes of others and to see the real consequences of his actions. Of course, A Christmas Carol is fiction, but redemption occurs in real life as well. Late in life, when he was in constant pain and confined to a wheelchair, former Alabama governor George C. Wallace renounced his earlier racism and asked for forgiveness from African Americans. Too bad the realization could not have come fifty years earlier, but it was still a great thing.

Christianity demands that we take seriously the proposition that ALL have sinned, that we confront our own faults, and not take refuge in cheap, flimsy, self-justifying excuses. This, of course, is hard to do, especially for those in positions of power. When a politician is caught doing something wrong he or she generally gives a politician’s “apology.” This consists of a tiny amount of contrition, vast quantities of self-pity and self-justification, and, not uncommonly, an attempt to shift the blame onto those harmed by the actions (“I’m sorry that you were offended by what I said.”) In other words, the politico is terribly, terribly sorry…to have gotten caught. But those who do really do take seriously the bad stuff they have done—maybe by having their noses rubbed in it—can be changed and made into better, even different persons. Perhaps in this sense, a kind of salvation is possible.