Whether we believe in God or not, we all value freedom, kindness, progress and equality. But far from being natural or inevitable, these values are the direct result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, says Glen Scrivener
When I lived in Australia, I never noticed how it smelt. The eucalyptus trees mentholate the atmosphere. It’s like a constant cold remedy – soothing vapours carried upon the breeze. When you’re born into it, it’s no big deal. Now though, when I fly back into Sydney, the first thing I notice is the warm, sweet air.
If you live in the West, Christianity is like this. It’s the air we breathe.
It infuses all our beliefs, our assumptions, our morals, our goals, our intuitions. Like air it is all around us, life-giving and, to most people, invisible. At this point, many people object, saying: “I’m not a believer.” But don’t be so sure. I’m fairly certain that the following values resonate with you:
• Equality: You believe in the equal moral status of every member of the human family.
• Compassion: You believe a society should be judged by the way it treats its weakest members.
• Consent: You believe that the powerful have no right to force themselves on others.
• Enlightenment: You believe in education for all and its power to transform a society by persuasion and argument rather than by force. • Science: You believe in the ability of science to help us understand the world and improve our lives.
• Science: You believe in our ability to do science and its ability to improve the world.
• Freedom: You believe that people are not property and that each of us should be in control of our own lives.
• Progress: You believe we should reform society of its former evils.
In response, some may say: “Sure, I prize those things. But they aren’t beliefs. Those are obvious, natural and universal values. Everyone holds to equality, compassion and the rest, right?” Wrong. These values are not at all common in pre- or non-Christian cultures. They have come to us specifically through the Jesus-revolution (in other words, Christianity). When we extract ourselves from Christian history (for instance, by studying the beliefs of the ancient Greeks or Romans), we discover a frighteningly alien world.
Plato and Aristotle, those fathers of Western philosophy, believed in inequality. They were convinced that some people were born to rule, and others were born to be ruled over (ie enslaved). They considered women, barbarians and slaves to be of inferior value to freeborn male citizens. Endorsing the practice of infanticide, Aristotle said: “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared.” In that society, justice did not mean liberation of the poor and the oppressed, or the equality of people, regardless of gender, race and class, but the very opposite. As Sir Larry Siedentop put it in his book Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western liberalism (Penguin): “At the core of ancient thinking [was] the assumption of natural inequality.” Justice meant enforcing inequality, and wisdom consisted in knowing your place in this steep hierarchy of being.
Many consider Christianity a spent force, yet they live within a moral universe that makes no sense without it
Into this world Christianity crash- landed like a meteor. Jesus Christ showed up “assuming the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7, HCSB) and died the slave’s death (as the Romans called crucifixion). He did so in order to plumb the depths of our pit and rise again to his palace. Now he invites the world into his royal family – a family in which none is lord except him, and all are brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50). This catalysed, in the words of historian Tom Holland, “the most disruptive, the most influential, and the most enduring revolution in history”.
Consider the transformation:
• Equality: Ancient rulers kept ‘the little people’ in check with threats of crucifixion. God descended to a cross and rose to invite the world into spiritual unity.
• Compassion: Ancient societies were based on dominance. God came as a foot-washing “servant of all” (Mark 9:35) and handed us the towel saying: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
• Consent: Ancient men felt they had the right to any body belonging to an ‘inferior’. Christ sides with the victim and gives incredible dignity to the weak and marginalised.
• Enlightenment: Ancient cultures would spread by force. Christ said: “put away your sword” (Matthew 26:52, NLT). Now we are to spread our influence by word, through gentle persuasion.
• Science: Ancient people thought their way towards knowledge of the natural world. God showed up in the world to found a movement that, in time, would itself invite the world to test things empirically.
• Freedom: Slavery existed in every ancient people group, yet the God of heaven came as “slave of all” (Mark 10:44) to bring us liberation.
• Progress: Ancient thinking considered history to descend from a great Golden Age in the past. Jesus rose from the dead to give enduring hope for a brighter tomorrow.
These seven values, then, are not natural developments for Homo sapiens to evolve into. There is nothing universal or inevitable about them. The rest of the animal kingdom does not sign up to this moral code. If we are just DNA replicators, as some believe, then the purpose of values such as compassion are not obvious – and certainly not the highest ideal in life. No, these values are not natural. They are super-natural; that is, they come from somewhere above the brutalities of the natural world.
People may not believe that he turned water into wine, but Christ performed an even greater miracle: he turned a God-forsaken execution into world domination
In my book, The Air We Breathe: How we all came to believe in freedom, kindness, progress and equality (The Good Book Company), I explore seven movements in the history of the world that gave rise to these seven values. As we move through the Old Testament, the New Testament, the early Church, the Middle Ages, the scientific revolution, the abolition of the slave trade and into the modern world, I show how the morals we take for granted are the morals of a story; a specifically biblical story that has shaped the world we inhabit and the convictions we hold.
This comes as news to many Westerners.
Today, many feel that Christianity is unequal, cruel, coercive, ignorant, anti-science, restrictive and backwards. That is, in fact, a pretty common list of objections to the Christian faith and, at points, the shoe fits. But I didn’t pick those seven objections at random. I simply reversed the seven core values listed above. The reason why those seven accusations bite is because, deep down, we believe in the seven values. Our problems with Christianity (and we all have problems with it, especially Christians!) turn out to be Christian problems. Allow me to explain.
Here is a list of some of the widespread criticisms of the Church. Let me put each of them in the first person, because Christians wrestle with these issues too. Here’s the point, though: we wrestle with them for Christian reasons:
• If I don’t like the violence of Old Testament wars, or of Church history in the last 2,000 years, it’s probably because I’ve absorbed the teachings of one who said: “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39).
• If I recoil at Israel’s ancient practice of slavery, it’s almost certainly because I’ve inherited biblical notions of redemption, freedom and equality.
• If I am devastated by church abuse scandals, I am standing with Christ and against the misuse of sex and power endemic to human cultures.
• If I abhor instances of the Church mistreating minorities, I’m assigning a sacred (and distinctly Christian) value to the weak, the poor and the oppressed.
• If I consider the Church to be on the wrong side of history, I’m considering history and progress in thoroughly biblical ways.
• If I hate the bullish colonialism that has at times accompanied the growth of the Church, I’m agreeing with profoundly Christian ideals – that rulers should serve, not dominate, and that differences should be valued, not dissolved.
I could go on. Criticisms of the Church abound, and many of them are entirely valid. They are often aimed at us with a zeal that is best described as…religious. But that is the point. They are. These critiques are blasts from a world that has borrowed our foundations and even our ammunition for their attacks. Since this is the case, we need to reframe the ‘clashes’ we witness in the world between the ‘secularist’ and the ‘believer’.
THE CLASH WITHIN
The deepest clash between ‘belief’ and a purely secular worldview does not occur between Christians and non-Christians. It occurs within the Western secularist, because the secularist is a believer too. They navigate their lives by roughly the same stars that we do – equality, compassion, consent and so on. On a daily basis, they walk according to these convictions, and yet even as they look up to such supernatural values, they insist that they are standing on purely natural ground. They claim to have a (practically) atheist account of the world, even as they live by (basically) Christian assumptions. Consider the clash:
• We are clever chimps but possess inviolable human rights.
• We are biological survival machines but have a duty to care for the weak.
• We are nothing but mammals but we must honour each other’s sexual boundaries.
• We are the heirs of a brutal evolutionary history but we should spread our influence by persuasion and never by force.
• Our brains evolved merely for the purpose of survival but we can trust them to fathom the scientific mysteries of the cosmos.
• Survival of the fittest is the deepest explanation for human life but pursuing the idea of a ‘master race’ is an unconscionable evil.
• We are clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe towards eternal extinction but the arc of human history bends towards justice.
We all tend to believe the latter part of these statements. In fact, whatever your average Westerner says regarding their religious views, we all share a remarkable consensus on those beliefs. And such beliefs actually shape us day by day. Whatever our convictions about the existence of
God, the afterlife, angels or souls, we venture out into the world and stake our lives on freedom, kindness and human value. The deepest clash between ‘belief’ and ‘secularism’ is not a clash between churchgoers and non-churchgoers. The ultimate clash is inside the non-Christian. Because none of our lives draws its meaning and sustenance from secular sources. Whether we know it or not, we all depend on Jesus.
There is nothing natural about the values we live by. Biologists will tell us that life is propelled forward by the survival of the fittest (and therefore the sacrifice of the weakest) yet, into this world has come the most unlikely movement – one founded on Christ, the fittest, who was sacrificed for us, the weakest. He has upended all our assumptions and built the moral universe we inhabit. We are all, now, children of his revolution.
Jesus upended all our assumptions and built the moral universe we inhabit. We are children of his revolution
Many of my friends do not consider themselves to be believers, yet they live by unprovable convictions every day. They dislike the idea of the supernatural, yet they consistently reject the way of nature, “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson so brutally put it. They consider Christianity a spent force, yet they live within a moral universe that makes no sense without it. They consider themselves post-Christian yet all their objections to Christianity turn out to be Christian(ish) objections. They have given up on belief in miracles and yet they live within one: the miracle of the Jesus-revolution. People may not believe that he turned water into wine, but Christ has most certainly performed an even greater miracle: he has turned a God-forsaken execution into world domination. Christianity should have been dead and buried that first Easter but, somehow, it rose to take over the world. Christians have an explanation for this. They say Christianity rose because Christ rose. And we are now living in the world that he made.
Jesus made our world because he is our maker, and to embrace this is to embrace him. It is not to add to the list of improbable beliefs we hold, it is to explain beliefs that would otherwise be inexplicable. To come home to Jesus is to finally and truly appreciate the air we breathe.