Tuesday 20 August 2019

Even if you believe Christ was just a man, you have to admit human rights began with his humble birth

Christianity is built first and foremost on the belief that we ought to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, to strive to be like him (Stock image)
Christianity is built first and foremost on the belief that we ought to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, to strive to be like him (Stock image)

David Quinn

Even if you view Jesus Christ simply as a human being, not the Word Incarnate, on Christmas Day we still celebrate one of the most epochal events in world history; his birth. However you look it at, the birth of this man was the start of an immense, culture-changing series of events that have resonated through history, and in almost all parts of the world down to the present day.

That it should have been the birth of a man in very humble circumstances, to a humble family in an obscure part of the Roman Empire that started this sequence of events only makes it more remarkable.

It is more remarkable still when we consider that he was executed by the Romans. Even if you take the Dan Brown view that Jesus disappeared off to the South of France with Mary Magdalene where he died a natural death in old age, it is still remarkable this his life led to the founding of such a world-shaping religion.

Indeed, if he did not die and rise again, the fact that his disciples, at huge risk to their own lives, nonetheless took it upon themselves to spread his message, takes on yet more improbable dimensions.

Christianity is built first and foremost on the belief that we ought to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, to strive to be like him. The Church is the community of those who share this goal. This is at the heart of Christianity.

But Christianity was also the first universal creed. The Christian message was not simply for a particular family, or clan or tribe or people, but for all peoples everywhere and at all times. Liberal internationalism, which is also universal in aspiration, is a direct descendant of Christian universalism. Before Christianity, in the West at any rate, it didn't occur to anyone that a given set of religious beliefs were for everyone.

There, of course, lies one of the sources of criticism of Christianity, that it wants to bring everyone into its house and it has sometimes done terrible things to this end. The same criticism applies to liberal internationalism.

Although Christ is first and foremost at the heart of Christianity, so is something else, an immense and far-reaching moral doctrine, and this is the belief that we are all created morally equal.

If you have the slightest interest in intellectual history, then can I suggest you read 'Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism' by Larry Siedentop, a former Fellow of Keble College, Oxford? Mr Siedentop is secular and liberal but recognises the enormous debt Western civilisation owes to Christianity and how modern liberalism has grown out of Christianity.

He shows that prior to Christianity the belief that we are all created morally equal did not exist. Instead the widespread belief was that your moral status and your social status were inextricably linked.

Christianity, on the other hand, introduced the belief that no matter how low or how high your social station, morally we are all absolutely equal in the sight of God, so that the peasant at his plough is the moral equal of the Emperor in Rome, or the Pope in Rome for that matter.

Commenting a few months ago on the finding of a survey that fewer than half of Britons now consider themselves to be Christian, the 'Guardian' leader writer worried that if Christianity was ever to fade from view completely, so would one of the foundation stones of human rights, namely this belief that we are all created morally equal.

The leader writer wrote: "The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn't derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics."

The 'Guardian' is a frequent critic of Christianity. Its outlook is left-wing and secular, but it could still print an editorial like this.

The leader writer was under no illusions about the fact that the Church itself has often been the enemy of its own belief that we are all morally equal. Why was this? The reason is that it often formed alliances with the 'principalities and powers' of the day and therefore often ended up doing their bidding instead of following the Gospel. This is why the Enlightenment, whose own legacy is ambiguous, was necessary.

But the 'Guardian's' leader writer is realistic enough to see that the belief that we are all bearers of rights, irrespective of merit, simply because we are human, "arose out of Christianity".

That is to say, it is a Christian doctrine just as the belief that Jesus rose from the dead is a Christian doctrine.

Christianity teaches we are morally equal because we all are made in the image and likeness of God. If we are instead the accidental by-products of blind evolution, why should we be morally equal? The universe itself confers no worth whatever on us, any more than it confers worth on a stone.

So, it is undeniable that the birth of Christ was epoch-making. It was more epoch-making than many people today realise. Many of the beliefs we take for granted, including our belief in human rights, owe more to Christianity than most of us today suspect.

And this, of course, is without considering the vastly bigger claim; that Jesus was indeed God made Man. If that is true, then his birth could not possibly have been more epochal.

Irish Independent

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