The well-known movie The Life of Brian features the revolutionary played by John Cleese asking the question ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ The answer from his band of rebels includes such offerings as ‘they have provided us with peace, education, clean water, roads, buildings, good government …’ The leader waves all this away as inconsequential.
At Easter time, it is appropriate and reasonable to ask the question ‘what has Christianity done for us?’ The common answer is ‘nothing good’. This is a case, increasingly in our society, of historical amnesia, as, like the John Cleese character above, people wave away any positive influence of Christianity. To a historian, or at least to this one, Jesus is the dominant and transformative figure of history, most especially in the Western world. The fundamental answer to the question in human terms is that Jesus, and the religion that bears his name, have provided us with the ethic of love. Unlike Brian, an ordinary man with the misfortune of being in the wrong place, Jesus was and is a self-consciously transformative figure.
The Roman world which Jesus entered and, indeed, the ancient world at large, despite its sophistication on many levels, was characterised by a brutality and barbarity which is hard to comprehend these days amongst civilised people. The notion that one would care about other people, particularly the down-trodden, would have been regarded as not only bizarre but an expression of weakness. Even the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had described two kinds of farm machinery, one of which moved of its own accord. These farm machines were people! (slaves in fact). Jesus spoke a shaping message into this context, which was radical and transformative:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit ….. Blessed are the meek ….. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … Blessed are the merciful … Blessed are the pure in heart …. Blessed are the peacemakers”. (Matthew 5:3-9)
Despite common claims today, Christianity is the basis of the human rights we so cherish as part of Western civilisation. Christianity, because of Jesus’ teaching, gave previously unimagined status to women, children and slaves. It is the origin of its secular offshoot, humanism, and indeed of modern concepts of human dignity and the value of human life. It is therefore the glue of Western civilisation. These views have been forcibly put in the academic world by, amongst others, three professors, respectively American, Canadian and English, in landmark publications. Rodney Stark, who is not a Christian but is a sociologist of religion, argues the seminal importance of Christianity in The Rise of Christianity, as does Charles Taylor in his monumental tome A Secular Age and Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual. Unfortunately, the crucible which Christian faith has been to modern development, including in our own country, is increasingly air-brushed from history, partly due to political correctness, in case it offends someone. In Australia, it remains the (largely unacknowledged) case that most social welfare in society is actually provided by churches and Christian organisations.
Some will retort that churches and individual Christians through the ages have done awful things. This is undeniable. It is also probably true that many of them were charlatans masquerading as Christians, while for others the problem was not that they were Christian, but that they were not Christian enough. It is also worth noting, in passing, that specifically atheistic regimes such as Stalinist Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia have indicated that eliminating faith from the equation does not lead to Nirvana!
Of course it is true that churches and institutional Christianity have let Jesus down, partly because they are full of humans, with all their frailties. Of course, churches and individual Christians have also done many wonderful things.
While one is constantly hearing complaints about churches and individual Christians, it is almost unheard of to hear a complaint about Jesus. Perhaps, therefore, at Easter time it is worth giving him some thought. On Jesus’ own terms, it is not possible to accept the ethic without the message. Jesus is indivisible. Take all, or have nothing.
In the ancient world, the idea of a crucified Saviour who had risen from the dead was scandalous to the Jews, as the notion of a crucified God did not align with their expectations. To the Greek world, that is, the dominant Greek culture which the Romans had imbibed, it was sheer foolishness. It seems that for people today. The Christian message seems to lack sophistication. People are unsure from what, if anything, they need to be saved. There is a reflexive view that the principles of science make nonsense of a resurrection (even though international surveys indicate that the proportion of scientists who are Christians is slightly above those who are Christian amongst the general population). This view might represent a confusion between mechanism and agency.
What if the central claims of Christianity are true, despite the frailties, frequent fanaticisms and follies of the church? This question has radical implications, particularly if the assertion of the Apostle Paul is correct: “for in him (Jesus), all things were created … all things have been created through him and for him.”
Easter? Eggs? Eternity?
Dr John Collier
Head of School