I have always wondered what it means to be morally right or wrong. Naturally the values of right and wrong that I hold have themselves often been the product of Christian values. This is fairly typical throughout most of the West, and since the West conquered the world, these values spread, often times at the tip of the expeditionary bayonet. It is high time, in my opinion, that we step back and consider just how far Christianity has taken us in the West, what it has given us, and what the nature of it is today.
It could be said that we are living in an era where the ideals of Christianity have finally reached maturity, just as the name of Christianity has been thrown off and cast aside for being too backwards and reminiscent of a barbaric past. This paradox is remarkable, not only because of the extent to which the Christian vision has permeated the global order, but also because Christian values now seem to be considered conservative among most people in the West.
A Little History
Christianity is looked at as a bastion of conservative values now in the West, but this was never the case throughout its history, that is until very recently. Around the time of the enlightenment, many philosophers, scientists, and social theorists, many of whom were former priests, began to take the reins away from the Church in its relentless march of progress. They themselves began pushing for the values of Christianity harder, and more seriously than the Church was doing at the time.
Fundamentally, going back to the Reformation, Luther’s objection to the Catholic Church was founded on many grounds, but underpinning his major complaints was the belief that the Church was not Christian enough. He believed in serious reform within the Church prior to breaking away from Rome. Perhaps this had to do with the Catholic Church’s submission to the secular powers at the time, with the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy as a prime example of this. By the end of the “Religious Wars” secularity had pretty much achieved supremacy with the “Cuius Regio, Eius Religio” principle becoming enshrined in European international law.
Ever since the Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment, the narrative goes that science, reason and progress took hold of Europe and the backwards teachings of the Church were left behind for bold and brave new ideas. Things did change, true, but what template did these changes follow? Surprisingly, it was a very Christian template.
Perhaps it is best to look at the early teachings of the Church to see more clearly what this original template envisioned. We need not look any farther than Roman times to witness the transition that occurred in the values of the late Roman Empire with the coming of Christianity. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples was the very idea of humanity.
Before that, you had masters and slaves, soldiers and farmers, Romans and barbarians. Only a Roman citizen had a face in the eyes of the law, everyone else was not considered person in the way that we consider every human—regardless of rank, sex or color—a person. Almost all of us believe that there are certain inalienable human rights that people posses by simply being a person.
This however was a fundamentally revolutionary idea in Rome at the time. You had Christians jumping into gladiator pits to end the fights, starting mass peaceful demonstrations (much like today), and extending salvation to anybody that would convert, regardless of rank, sex or color. Underpinning this belief was the idea that we all could become sons and daughters of God, and that in the kingdom of heaven come, this belief would be realized.
Universal values—such as universality in worship—are fundamentally Christian values. Masters and slaves were made to worship together even though afterward they returned to their roles. But most importantly they worshiped the same god, a universal God, of whom the Christians preached we all could become sons and daughters.
Our very idea of religion is uniquely Christian, because of the way that we perceive it now. The word “religion” is derived from the Roman word “religio”, which most accurately translates to “duty.” A person’s religio corresponded to his station in life, and so it made sense that he would pray to gods most relevant to his daily life. A soldier would worship Mars, a woman trying to have a child might pray to Vesta, etc. These gods would extol different virtues and moral codes as well. To continue the example, a soldier was expected to abide by the code of a soldier, a citizen of Rome, and a family deity too perhaps. This would be different from what a female slave was expected to abide by. What Christianity preached however was adherence to one God regardless of the individual’s position, and by extension, to a god who was universally accessible with universal teachings for his faithful.
The Inexorability Of Christian Values
It was this idea of universality that began to take off in Rome and that really gained momentum during the Enlightenment. Europeans saw themselves for much of their post-Roman history as belonging to one realm, Christendom. If you were to ask lowly farmers what they were, they would tell you they were Christians, not Frenchmen or Prussians. That came later. But the idea that across much of a subcontinent there could be such a universality of self-identification tells you about how un-tribal Christianity’s teachings were. Ideas of tribal transcendenc, are firmly Christian and not Talmudic or pagan in origin. For example, the Hebrews’ religion was always one of a tribal god that only really cared about his “chosen people” and relegated the goyim to servitude or destruction. It lacked the mass appeal of Christianity’s open salvation aspect. In short, you were born into the Hebrew religion, whereas you chose Christianity.
This is important to understand when showing just how progressive Christianity was in its early stages. While Christianity preached universality in worship, it only took a few centuries before thinkers began arguing for universality in other values. Rank was gradually stripped in the wake of the democratic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Economic conditions began to change based on the idea of human rights, which, remember, were an extension of Christian values. Revolutionary as these values were, they continued to work in the European tribal psyche and began to extend to members outside the tribe, even outside the religion itself.
The Situation Today
But finally we arrive at the situation that we find ourselves in today in the West. We have lost our idea of tribal identity, because it has grown to encompass the idea of humanity. How many times have you heard of a “global village” or “global community”? It is all from the West extending to the rest. The rest of the world however has not caught up. And even within the West, when new groups are allowed in (read: third world immigrants), they tend to stick together and ghetto-ize. It is quite simply because their idea of humanity has not progressed as far as most Western communities have after millennia of Christian progress.
Here is the kicker: In a competition between tribal identity versus no tribal identity, the tribe will win every time. In fact, one can only wonder how dangerous this course of thinking is for the long term survival of the West. It seems that we have survived up to this point by resisting or just paying lip-service to many Christian teachings collectively as Western societies. But having inadvertently embraced the universality of Christianity’s teachings at the turn of the 21st century, I can only wonder if we are headed off the cliff, assured of our salvation.
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