by ProfDave, ©2021

The Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, “The Birth of Adam,” (Wikimedia Commons,
Photo: Ank Kumar, Infosys Limited, CC BY-SA 4.0 International

(Jul. 8, 2021) — Split?

Worldview.  What do you see when you look at other people?  What are they?  The ordinary folks, the clerk, the celebrity, the derelict, the veiled woman, the children, the refugee, the stripper, the handicapped, the unborn, the elderly, the weird all have one thing in common.  The other and you, by objective science, have the same DNA.  The sexes are a little different, but races not at all.  The others – and you – are human.  What do you see?

What does it mean to be human?  A mere mortal?  A pulsing blob of protoplasm driven by instinct and biochemical processes, just like any other species of wildlife?  That is the “scientific” naturalist worldview.  Or something more?  An immortal person in the making, embodied in flesh but not just flesh.  A free moral agent, capable of God-like altruism and of demonic perversity.  Limited, but not determined, by nature.  Made in the image of God – the broken image of God.  This is the Christian worldview.  What do you see?

What do you see when you look at other people?   A mere mortal or something more?  An object or a person?  An evolving organism or an immortal companion of God in the making?  What does it mean to be human?  Are we creatures of God or of mindless biological forces?  Are we entirely determined by natural laws or are we free moral agents?  Wherein does our freedom lie?  Is freedom being able to satisfy our natural drives without restriction?  Or is freedom in being able to direct and transcend our natural selves for higher purposes – to really choose?  Whose creature are you?

What do you see when you look at other people?  A thing or the image of God?  But does anyone actually live up to their world-view?  I believe that each and every human being is a potential immortal companion of God.  But do I treat them that way?  I must confess that I have thought of people, real and imaginary, as furniture in my world, obstacles in my way, objects – even sex objects – to be used.  I struggle with consistency, don’t you?  The interesting thing is that I know I should not think that way even while I am doing it.  And you agree with me, even if you do not subscribe to my religion!  Is that an indication that, indeed, morality is hard-wired?  Or that you have been subtly influenced by a culture subjected to centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings?  Or both?

Conversely, I doubt that Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris or any other “new atheist,” lives consistently by his scientific naturalism, viewing and treating all the persons in his life as domestic animals, organized blobs of tissue.  And we think better of them for their inconsistency, while even they would think the worse of me for mine!  Hmmh.  What does that mean?

My buddy stopped by the other day and found my dining room table piled high with papers.  I told him I would take care of it when I got “around to it.”  He drew me a round tuit on a dinner napkin.  But it doesn’t work!  I put it on top of the pile of papers and they are still there!  Sigh.

But are we employing equally unreliable reasoning when we demand freedom, equality and human rights while at the same time denying that human beings are free, equal, or anything special at all?  In what sense is a man/woman free if his/her behavior is determined by chance and his/her biological processes?  And of what value is it to me to refrain from manipulating him/her to satisfy my biological need for dominance (or whatever)?  Why should I treat him/her as an equal when he/she isn’t?  When he/she comes in any way under my power?  And as the center of my universe (without a God, I am, you know), do I not have the right to be King?  Does anyone else have any rights at all?

Obviously this does not work out any better than my getting a round tuit.  Think about it.

What do you see when you look at other people?   It has to be admitted that so-called Christians believe better than they behave, while scientific naturalists behave better than they believe.  The one they call hypocrites, what do we call the other?  Hyper-crites?  Naah.  Both are just being real – if they admit it.

Homo sapiens is the only animal that knows what to do and doesn’t do it.  We cannot rely on our natural impulses because our nature is broken.  Apes and porpoises, dogs and cats behave rationally, functionally and ethically according to their nature.  We do not.  Someone has said, “we are the only animal that can blush – and needs to.”  Hmmh.  “Step I: we admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

What does it mean to be human?  Is a human an ongoing product of natural forces or a broken creature of God?  The Christian worldview conveys upon mankind an intrinsic sacredness and value, independent of race, wealth, health, or social standing.  This is in conflict with most worldviews, ancient and modern, as well as our natural inclination to be attracted to the attractive and successful and to affiliate with those like ourselves.  The rise of democracy, freedom, and equality in the West has been a history of this conflict.  It is no accident that democracy is a Western product.

Also note that human worth, in this system, derives from an eternal, transcendent God, not individual excellence (Greece), or social status (Rome), or caste/”color” (Hindu) or “the People” (revolutionary France), or the state (modernism), or self-assertion (post-modernism?).  No matter how folded, spindled, and mutilated you are, God made you, Jesus died for you, and you have an eternal value.  That’s why “inalienable rights” are inalienable.

Most world religions expect us to “do the right thing,” and even our “scientific” materialists place mankind at the apex of evolution, but Christianity is uniquely realistic.  We see human nature as broken.  “What comes natural” is not right for mankind.  Unlike other animals, we are fallen.  We alone are given the almost impossible challenge to control, restrain, and redirect our drives and compulsions voluntarily in order to “do the right thing.” 

Christians are offered Jesus, the Way [through to God], the Truth [about our situation], and the Life [the power given to change us].  We are realistic, but hopeful.  Mankind is sacred.  Mankind is broken.  Mankind is redeemable.

What do you see when you look at other people?  You may have noticed that I am making two claims for the Christian world-view.  First, that it is historically a contributing source of democracy in the West.  Second, that it supports the highest level of human dignity.  You thought democracy came from Greece?  Well, yes, the word came from the demes or clans represented by lot in the Athenian legislature. 

But neither Athens nor Rome was a democratic society.  They were hierarchical.  Some were a lot more equal than others.  There were degrees of arête (excellence, quality, orders of being), from the gods to the demigods and heroes, to royalty and patricians, to citizens (a small proportion of the population), to ordinary men, to women and children, to slaves.  Non-citizens were non-human, women were chattel, children disposable, and slaves even lower – more than a third of the population.  Christians, by contrast, were all citizens of the Kingdom of God who counted slaves as brothers and rescued babies from the ash heap.

What do you see when you look at other people? The default setting of our (broken) nature, it seems, is to measure human worth by utility and affinity.  In almost every culture we use and abuse strangers so long as we can get away with it. 

Early Christians were counter-cultural in an hierarchical society.  They recognized outward differences in rank, role, and station in life, to be sure, but held all mankind to be intrinsically equal before God – even as Christian ideals were diluted by power after Constantine. 

Medieval Christendom remained more corporate than hierarchical, linked together by mutual personal obligations.  The common humanity of peasant and King were assumed – though they struggled with aliens and infidels. 

Early modern democratic revolutions, while setting aside ecclesiastical control – and sometimes orthodox belief – referred their claims to rights to “their Creator.” Modern racism and sexual exploitation betray Christian values.

Second, a Christian worldview supports the highest level of human dignity.  

Please note that I have not suggested that Christians necessarily are more democratic in their dealings or treat their neighbors with more dignity and respect than materialists.  The West is also the source of atheism, scientific naturalism, fascism, and communism.   It is only asserted here that when a Christian honors his own humanity and that of others, he is supported by his world-view and when he treats himself or another as a thing or an animal he sins against his world-view.  Whereas, when a materialist treats himself and his neighbor as sacred, he does so in spite of his theory – possibly under consideration of the decent opinion of his Christian neighbors or the influence of a Christian milieu.  At the same time his theories provide convenient rationalizations for what we all consider shoddy behavior.  Hmmh.  Why is this?  Does it matter?

What does it mean to be human?  Both Christianity and Judaism share a creation story in which mankind is made in “the image of God, male and female.”  Christians go on to add the redemption story – the crucifixion of God to reconcile erring mankind back to himself so that they (those who choose to accept) might have eternal life.  What does “the image of God” and the redemption story mean to a society?  Is it the activity of God in spiritual human beings?

What does “the image of God” and the redemption story mean to a society?  Suppose you have within that society a sprinkling of individuals (Jesus-followers) who sincerely believe Christian teachings.  Believing that they and every other human being are of eternal worth and destiny, they will attempt, with more or less success, to live accordingly.  They will gain in dignity and respect for others.  This will be most noticed when they respect those society is inclined to push aside: the unwanted, the powerless, the unattractive, the handicapped, the alien, women, children, elderly, sick of mind or body, homeless, even criminal. 

Believing that their God desires the redemption of all mankind, they will be reluctant to dispose of or give up on anyone.  This minority will think each life must be protected, each person’s will un-coerced, their bodies and their property un-violated, so much as possible.  And they may actually behave that way.  What is this going to do to the society around them?  It is a matter of history. 

Hard-core Jesus-followers have never been in the majority, but through their influence Christianity became the dominant religion, conscience and world-view of the West.  Killing human beings for entertainment went out of fashion (except on-screen).  Disposing of infants by abortion and infanticide virtually disappeared (until recently).  Women and slaves were acknowledged to be human and the standard of acceptable treatment improved.  Slavery and prostitution faded to insignificance – though never completely disappeared (they’re back!).  Even the most murderous tyrants had to listen to sermons condemning violence and oppression.  Look at the picture of the Emperor Theodosius on his knees doing penance before Bishop Ambrose for a massacre of rebels on the other side of the Empire!  Jesus has never yet been Lord over all Christendom, but His long term influence for human rights has been dramatic.

Holding human beings as sacred calls me to respect your freedom as well as your life.  The image of God is at least the capacity for God-consciousness.  Christians believe that being with God is what it means to be a human being.  I must grant you the right to exercise that capacity.  To connect with your Maker – which we assume to be the purpose of that consciousness – requires moral freedom. 

Christian worship cannot be coerced.  We in the West have learned that the hard way.  Christian martyrs sealed the truth of their faith by their blood from the first, but it took Christian authorities longer to learn that to be secure in their own freedom, freedom had to be extended to others.  Freedom of conscience is the first freedom.  To deny freedom of conscience is to deny all freedom.  But to grant freedom of conscience is to yield freedom of worship, of thought, of speech, of all the rest.

For a few pages, I have been arguing that the Christian belief in “the image of God” in mankind and in the redemption of the cross is the foundation of democracy in the West.  But aren’t I being revisionist?  Everybody thinks democracy came from the Greeks.  The word itself is derived from the demes – municipal districts – of Athens, isn’t it?  And didn’t they invent humanism?  Western civilization is a combination of Athens and Jerusalem.  But there was – is – a difference.

Christian humanism – human worth, equality and rights – is intrinsic.  It is derived from God, “their Creator” as the Declaration of Independence puts it.  Greek or secular humanism – human worth, equality and rights – is extrinsic.  It was derived from elite citizenship: parentage.  It assumed excellence of breeding, physique, mind and achievement.  In Greece and Rome, your father checked you out at birth to see if you were human, satisfactory – if not, you went out with the trash. Democracy was originally practiced only among males of a certain class. 

Athens competed with Jerusalem.  The Magna Carta only applied to noblemen, but by the 18th century the Rights of Englishmen were applied to all.  America made it explicit – and in doing so, Christian instead of secular.  Still the Constitution and the courts did not give human rights to blacks or to women – God did.  We fought a Civil War and still struggle today with whether humanity is court-given or God-given.  Rights that are given by the state can be taken away by the state.  Only rights given by God are inalienable.

What difference does reverence for humanity make in a society?  We are living in such a society, sprinkled with Jesus-followers who hold human life and dignity sacred, steeped in a tradition of Christian teaching of a Creator and Redeemer.  Until recently, our civilization was unambiguously Christian.

But the alternative has always been there.  The humanity of the Greeks rested on human excellence and membership in a favored class, the elite.  It was a prize proudly seized.  The humanity of the Christian rested on divine gift and spread over all, the good, the bad and the ugly.  It was a grant of grace received at conception.  Is humanity a secular elite or a sacred universal?  How are civil rights to be advanced?  Malcolm X or Martin Luther King?  Nominal adherence to Christian faith, with its belief in the God-given dignity and worth of every human being, has not produced a society of perfect freedom and justice for all.  Will a secular society in which that belief is rejected produce greater liberty and justice for all – or for just a few?  Or perhaps we need more than nominal adherence to our ideals?

A recent Break Point commentary by John Stonestreet (http://www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/24570) addresses just the point I have been trying to make.  What it means to be human – “who we are” – is the keystone to our worldview, Christian or secular, and the kind of society we will become in the 21st century.

Yet it is asserted that religion in general and Christianity in particular have been the source of most of the war and injustice in history.  Three points: 1. History does not support any such generalizations, 2. We should judge a worldview by its essence, not its abuse, and 3. Christianity is the light by which we see the abuses of Christianity.

First, what history are they reading?  Anything more than a cursory look at even the “wars of religion” reveals that they were about a lot more than religion.  Religion, as often as not, was an excuse, a propaganda flag of convenience, a shorthand way of distinguishing foes who clashed for a lot more mundane reasons.  Hatred and violence appears among Christians in spite of Jesus, not because of him.  Note: Christianity was spread by martyrs who willingly died for their faith, not killed for it.  Roman Catholics please help me, but I know of very few warrior saints.  Not so, other world-views!

Second, judge a worldview by its essence, not its abuse.  There is a difference between Jesus-followers, Christianity as an organized (or disorganized?) religion (doctrines, rites, institutions and personalities), and Christian civilization (a society indirectly influenced by the presence of Jesus-followers, Christian religion and Christian cultural “wallpaper”).  Every church member, every American, everyone in the “Christian” West, is not following Jesus with whole heart, soul and mind, and the best of us are fallible.  Have you noticed?

The “seven deadly sins” were named by the church, not invented by it.  Prejudice, lust, greed, and hatred are human, not Christian.  When so-called Christians – even Popes – act contrary to the character of Jesus they blaspheme the Name.  That’s not Christianity.  It’s human depravity in action.  It’s what Jesus died for.  What are you doing about it?

And finally, Christianity is the light by which we see its abuses.  Who says war and injustice, inequality and racism, religious intolerance, slavery or the abuse and repression of women, or the sexual abuse of children by the church or anyone else are wrong?  Would we know these things unless Christianity had told us they were wrong?  Will we still know them when Christianity itself is repressed?

Hold it!  Christian morality, after all, came from Judaism and right and wrong – although without evolutionary justification – seems to be written into our DNA.  You don’t have to fear God in order to behave yourself.  But a quick look around the world and down (or is it up?) the centuries to pre-Christian societies reveals obvious differences.  Right and wrong treatment of whom? 

Everyone knows they should treat with respect those who are worthy or worth something to us.  Only Christianity tells us that the unworthy are made in the image of God.  That’s where the distinctive values of the West come from– equality, racial and religious tolerance, personal freedom, the human dignity of women and children (even unborn).  The state can decree worthiness for this group and that group, but someone is always left out.  Only God gives it to all.

My humanity was never expressed in athleticism.  I was not fit to survive on the basketball court.  Darwinism may support meritocracy, but it does not support equality.  Yes, that again.  For pages of rambling I have been arguing that the Christian worldview, not scientific materialism, is the ground of Western democracy.  Equal human dignity for all is a religious, not a political gift.  As society is sanitized of Christian symbols, Christian social teachings are marginalized, and Jesus-followers silenced in the public square, things have begun to unravel.  Is this a good thing?

Is liberty, equality and justice safer now that we are a secular, not a Christian, nation?  Let’s say you own no letter of “WASP” and never “in God we trust”-ed. Are you better off now that “Church and State” have been properly separated by barbed wire and mine fields?  Now that you never have to hear the name of Jesus, see a cross or a Bible, or hear the voice of a believer?  Not to mention that 35-85% of the population have lost their rights to be in public what they are in their heart of hearts.

Human rights, as we know them in the West are anchored in the Judeo-Christian God.  Human rights are not secure when they are dependent on political power and court action rather than on a fundamental (religious) commitment to human dignity.  Political correctness does not protect women from being treated as sex objects in pornography, trafficking, entertainment, schools, and domestic relationships.  Secular human rights do not protect children from the consequences of their parents’ sexual behavior and irresponsibility, sexualization, poverty, abandonment, and termination (abortion and now euthanasia).  Abuse may be still illegal (a Christian residue) but it is proliferating as the weak become objects, not persons.

What is it that makes Nativity scenes right and poison gas wrong?  Or is it the other way around?  What are the alternatives?  In one worldview, human rights, as all values, come from above, are universal, eternal.  In the other they come from below, continually evolving upwards from the ooze towards freedom.  Well maybe.  Is human worth determined by public opinion or political correctness or the courts?  Does it change with the popularity of this or that?  Is your value determined by what other people think of you – or what God thinks?

The problem with human rights given from below is that they are dependent on power – they are political.  And what the state gives it can take away.  Such rights also seem to be a zero-sum game: rights gained by one group infringe the rights of another.  So-called reproductive rights come at the expense of reproduction – of future generations.  So-called Gay rights come at the expense of families.  Both come at the expense of conscience rights.

The problem with human rights from above is that they are dependent on right and wrong.   There is no right to do what is wrong.  The right to do right is usually good for everybody.  That’s one way to tell that it is right.  It contributes to your dignity as a human being without diminishing mine.  The right to do wrong allows you to harm yourself and trample others. 

We are a society marching to the beat of two different drummers – above and below.  The Suffrage and Civil Rights movements – equal dignity of male and female, black and white– joined Christian principle and the secular will to power.  The weaker power won because it was not just well organized, but because Christian consciences recognized it as right.  But now we have a clash of gods – Jesus and Eros – over sexual freedom threatening to tear our society apart.  Children are the primary victims, but conscience is right behind.

Which is the way of freedom?


David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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