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Saturday, 13 July 2019

Christianity And The Modern West

by Peter Goodchild



Christianity does not just provide an object of worship; it also provides a cosmology (a design of time and space), a moral code (including fundamental reasons or motives for human behavior), and — closely related to the moral code — an eschatological design, a picture of where humans are going, both as individuals and as a species. Christian doctrine, in fact, claims to have all the answers to all the big questions, while modern science can offer only tentative answers to some relatively small questions. It is the immense scope of Christian thought that is critical. Christian doctrine was solidified many centuries ago, and the various waves of reform and “heresy” have never really displaced the set of beliefs established by about the fifth century. Nevertheless, what is not often realized is that even if they are fence-straddlers or non-Christians, most Westerners are born into the Christian worldview to the same extent that a fish is born in water.

The Christian set of beliefs is about two thousand years old, but any attempt to delineate those beliefs is complicated by the problem that Christianity, over the centuries, has broken up into so many separate churches. There are significant differences between Roman Catholicism and some of the more extreme Protestant groups. What, if anything, is the core of Christian belief?

To answer that question, one might examine the Bible. But the Bible as a dogma presents difficulties. Much of it is more akin to folktale and myth than to philosophy or any other consciously intellectual pursuit. It is a dream world, and it is irrational in the manner of dreams. The Bible begins with the utterly dreamlike book of Genesis: dreams consist largely of visual images, and that is what one finds in the first book of the Bible. The intellectual content, on the other hand, is slight: the occasional dialogue is confined to the primitive questions of marriage, inheritance, and territoriality, and the greatest blessing is for God to say, “. . . I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven . . . and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (22.17). Genesis can almost be considered a set of nesting dreams, because the book itself is filled with references to sleep and dreams: Eve is created from a rib taken from Adam’s side as he sleeps (2.21-23), God appears to Isaac in the night (26.24), Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven (28.12), and the book ends with the many dreams of Joseph and the Egyptians. In the comical manner with which dreams transform social relationships, angels drop in (so to speak) to deliver useful messages, and God appears as a sort of domineering grandfather, always threatening to rewrite his will.

However, it is curious that a great deal of present-day Christian doctrine, formally and informally, was solidified so long ago. Augustine’s City of God was finished in the year 426, and even in that work one can find so much that remains as universal Christian doctrine today. Most importantly, for Augustine as for the modern Christian, God is no longer Yahweh, a minor Semitic spirit of the desert and the mountaintops; he is now regarded as omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.

The fundamentals of Christian theology have changed very little since Augustine’s day. There are many other items in present-day Christianity, or at least in Roman Catholicism, that resemble the forms they had well over a thousand years ago. One example is the wording of the Mass, although it is no longer always in Latin. Another is the physical design of the church building, although that design has been disappearing over the last few decades.

The doctrines expressed by Augustine can be traced back even further than the fifth century: there is a great deal in Augustine that can also be found in the writings of Paul, his predecessor. But Paul’s writings are not set out in a very orderly philosophical framework; there is a system to Paul’s thinking, but it becomes far more apparent when one reads Augustine and then goes back to Paul. Paul, in turn, can be seen as one part of that great bubbling and boiling of Platonic and Neoplatonic thinking that was going on in late Roman times, mixed with far less abstract Jewish doctrine.

But it would be a mistake to casually ignore this corpus of belief, because the roots of Christian thinking go down miles into the human psyche. A westerner — Christian or otherwise — cannot spend a single day without performing actions, and making decisions, that take their particular directions from a consciously or unconsciously Christian way of thinking or mode of perception. Christianity is not just in Western architecture or its calendar or its music: it is in the language and the social structures and above all in what might be called moral decisions. Partly because of my Christian heritage, I am unlikely to murder my family or neighbors, yet I might be willing to put on a uniform, carry a rifle, and shoot an enemy soldier in time of war; the quandaries of “Thou shalt not kill” are immensely complicated, but most people spend their lives blissfully unaware of these complexities.

Christianity incorporates mystical experience, which is universal to human culture and not solely the property of that religion. There is in all of us a kind of infinite longing. But life, unfortunately, is not always kind. When we are children, we expect that we shall always live a wingèd life, a life akin to that of angels, but by the time we have become adults we begin to suspect that we have been born into slavery. When our lives are too busy, too crammed with detail, we forget that childhood longing for the infinite, but there will always be moments when we are more receptive, when we remember “something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,” as Wordsworth says in Tintern Abbey.

That “something” has a different locus for each person. It may, for example, be found in great music, such as that of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Vivaldi, in such poetry as that of Wordsworth and the early Yeats, and perhaps above all in the natural world (as was true for Wordsworth himself) -- on a mountain top, by the side of the ocean, or in a golden meadow. This great longing is not entirely Christian, of course, or even entirely religious. Although one can be inspired by Mozart’s Requiem (which almost convinces me that the world will end on a trumpet note), Rodrigo’s lush and sensual Concierto de Aranjuez is equally transporting.


To a large extent, the core of Christianity is the belief in the “beyond,” some sort of world other than that of the senses. The “beyond” provides a setting for what is sometimes called “the problem of meaning,” the search for reasons. Why is there so much corruption and brutality? Why do some people have everything, while others have nothing? Why is life so full of uncertainty? Why are pain and death so prevalent? Religion answers those questions by setting the material world in a supernatural matrix that is more organized and more hopeful, and in that sense religion is akin to philosophy.

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