In today’s irreligious and indeed antireligious climate the fashion is to dismiss Christianity as crude superstition, and to babble wisely about the separation of church and state. This is unfortunate, and stupid, since Christianity was the heart and soul of as yet the greatest civilization the world has seen. Those who know nothing of it cannot understand the last two thousand years and how our world came to be.
Renegade Jews founded Christianity (most Jews soon wished they had not), as a sort of heresy that got out of control, lost all resemblance to Judaism, and eventually stretched across Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, and the Byzantine Empire. In all of these it shaped the culture, art, philosophy, literature, the very framework of mind. Much of this was superb and remains unsurpassed.
And what a magnificent thing it was! The traveler of today may have seen the gorgeous churches of Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes, Norman churches in Sicily, and Notre Dame, Salisbury, the wonderful cathedral of Barcelona, the Hagia Sophia, the ceremony of the Russian Orthodox. The artistry, the engineering needed to build many of them in times without structural steel are astonishing. Today in Mexico, in town after town one finds the churches on the central plaza, all different, many splendid, places of quiet and meditation. In any of these them, before Protestantism cast its drab cloak of half of the faith, a traveler could enter and understand everything he saw.
Barcelona Cathedral, built mostly in 1300s. Things of this caliber are no longer built.
Architecture was just the first syllable of a long paragraph. From Christendom came classical music, much of it explicitly Christian: The Saint Matthew Passion, Handel’s Messiah, and the whole panoply of secular music in Christian forms. Jews came to the table late in recent centuries and for a while–it seems to be ending–were wildly disproportionate in their production in the arts and sciences but within the framework established by Christendom long before. Now the Koreans and Chinese begin to do the same. Muslims characteristically have done almost nothing.
The aesthetic element was pronounced, not just in music and architecture but in painting and literature and illuminated manuscripts, One may argue whether Defoe or Cervantes invented the novel, or France or America the airplane, but both came from Christendom. The genius of the faith appeared not only in sacred art but also in tolerance for, indeed encouragement of, works in other themes. For example, Cellini’s Perseus is hardly Christian but was greatly appreciated in the Italy of the 15oo’s. It would not have been in Damascus.
Perseus. If any other faith has produced the range and quality of Christendom’s art, I am unaware of it. The Italians no longer believed in the gods and myths of classical antiquity, but neither were they any longer threatened by them.
The list could go on for volumes. After the Greeks and the dry spell that was Rome, mathematics was a Christian enterprise as were physics, chemistry, pretty much everything. Others would work within these fields. They didn’t originate them.
The other major religion of the Mideast, Islam, appeared in the Seventh Century and conquered vast territories, but quickly fell into intellectual sloth and has since produced almost nothing other than splendid carpets and some lovely mosques. This darkness was not of genetic origin. Many of the peoples conquered by Islam were advanced and impressive, as for example the Persians. Rather it is resulted from a deliberate revulsion against thought and inquiry. (The Closing of the Moslem Mind is good on this.) The alleged centuries of convivencia of the three religions in Spain, koom bah yah, and scintillating Islamic intellect are largely academic agitprop. (The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise deals well with this.)
Catholicism in particular has combined spiritual concerns with a strong intellectual bent. The Christian interest in questions of origin and destiny and man’s purpose produced profound thought from the Church Fathers to C. S. Lewis. Today consideration of such matters as death and meaning are held to be in bad taste. Insensible of the wonder and strangeness of existence, we watch Seinfeld reruns and congratulate ourselves on not paying attention to that, you know, like, religious stuff. We live under a sort or Disneyland Marxism and descend ever deeper into complacent ignorance.
Russian Orthodoxy. Whatever else it is, drab it isn’t.
And so I see attempts to dismiss Christianity as a mere add-on or style having nothing to do with the achievements of Christendom. This is historical illiteracy. Read any of the thinkers and authors from late Roman times on until recently and you find that they took their faith seriously, that it created their mental worlds. Augustine, Newton, Samuel Johnson, Sydney Smith more recently, and in the United States the Puritans, Quakers, and so on. Many of these were men of high intellect. Their casual dismissal by professors of sociology is in the nature of monkeys throwing books from a window.
The Renaissance in its entirely was an expression of Christendom. Whether you are a Christian–I am not–isn’t the point. And no, Christians were no more moral than anyone else. Popes catted around like any man does who has the chance. Yet the civilization produced wonders.
The evidence is strong that Protestantism, far less ornate than Catholicism, led to capitalism, which led to the modern West (whatever one thinks of this). See, for example, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
In our material and not very thoughtful age the fashion is to point to the crimes committed by the church, to its venality, hypocrisy, and immorality. They existed. Christians behaved, and behave, as horribly as everybody else. But this is usual in human endeavor. As a moral preceptor Christianity was fraudulent. As a culture and civilization, it was of immense importance. One might note that the atheist dictators–Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot–hold the record for murderousness.
Then came in the Nineteenth Century the third great religion of Middle Eastern origin, or religion manque, Communism. Like Christianity directly, and Islam indirectly, it was a Jewish product. Never has so small a people had so great an influence on history.
Many wonder how a religion, Judaism, could bring about an avowedly atheist…what word do I want? Philosophy? The answer I think is that Judaism isn’t a religion but a matter of identity and ritual. At least, I don’t think I have ever met a Jew who believed in the six days of Genesis or that Lot’s wife became salt or that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and reappeared, undigested. Christians and Muslims actually believe things, though many of the former resort to mental athletics to reconcile faith and science.
Anyway, communism killed its tens of millions and died, leaving a foul stench and little else.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, by the Catalan Anatoni Gaukí, died 1926. Whether you regard it as lovely or merely eccentric, it is among the last architectural gasps of a once-flourishing faith.
The future? Christianity seems to be dying out. A resurgence is hard to imagine. It simply isn’t suited to the modern world. The Old Testament in particular is ugly and immoral and its magical events I suspect are too much for the modern mind.
Islam, being fanatical and primitive, will presumably survive for a while in its own lands. The mental night that is Islam can be seen in virtually everything, from schooling to commerce and is attributable to a religious hostility to modernity. From The Closing, mentioned above: “In comparison the number of patents registered in the twenty-year period from 1980 to 2000, the report shows Korea with 16328 and nine countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, with 370, with even many of these patents registered by foreigners.”
Judaism? Materialist in the philosophical sense and not requiring its adherents to believe things apparently impossible, it would seem better adapted to modernity. It imposes no restrictions on its adherents in science, culture, or commerce.
But Christendom was a hell of a show while it lasted.