My post from last weekend discussed the origins of modern secular morality, and its relation to European Christian civilization. A reader named North Bridge tried to comment on that thread, but was unsuccessful, due to technical difficulties. He emailed me his post, and since I welcome alternative viewpoints, I am happy to present it here.
I don’t entirely agree with North Bridge’s restatement of my position, but I’ll let it stand for the sake of argument. Experts in Christian and secular moral philosophy should examine his points closely, and are invited to add their own opinions (civilly, mind you) in the comments.
I lack the expertise in ecclesiastical history to be able to engage his arguments and refute them — if indeed they can be refuted. And at my advanced age I’m unlikely to acquire the necessary knowledge, so I’ll defer to those who are more qualified and who may wish to discuss what North Bridge has to say:
If I can go back to the starting point of this debate, Baron made the point that our modern moral sensibilities (for lack of a better term) are shaped by Christianity. I believe his intent was to argue that even anti-Christians carry an imprint of Christianity insofar as they share in this modern sensibility, and that they should acknowledge this contribution. In simple terms, the argument seems to be: Even if you reject Christianity you should acknowledge that you are indebted to it in crucial ways.
The comments have been somewhat scattershot. Baron’s argument is a far cry from claiming that you are either a Christian or an advocate of human sacrifice. It seems to be more of an argument for understanding and acknowledging the contribution of Christianity to our intellectual heritage, whether or not you individually are a Christian.
However, I believe there is a skewed reading of history behind the argument.
As a matter of historical fact, Christians were the first to articulate a universalist ethics, based on the idea that every human soul is precious in the eyes of God. This is the heritage that Baron is alluding to.. However, the Christians also fervently preached the opposition of soul and body, with the body being an unworthy, despicable, temporary prison for the soul. Thus they had no compunctions about torturing, maiming, burning people’s bodies in an effort to save their souls. The wholesale slaughter of heretics, the burning of witches, the Spanish Inquisition are all integral parts of the history of Christianity.
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To argue that the slaughter and havoc perpetrated by Christians does not represent “real” Christianity is disingenuous. It was not caused by a reliance of the Old Testament rather than the New, as some have argued, but by the rejection of the body and the physical world that was integral to Christianity from St. Paul in the 1st Century up to Aquinas in the 13th. Christians mutilated their own bodies, whipped and starved themselves to transcend the prison of the flesh — and it was just a matter of consistency that they would do the same to others to effect their salvation.. The bloodshed was completely consistent with Christian core doctrine. (It may be true that it was inconsistent with Jesus’ intentions, or any other particular individual’s intentions, but that is beside the point. The argument is about the contribution of Christianity, not of Jesus.)
The error here is an attempt to read modern moral sensibilities — the sensibilities Baron was talking about — into history in retrospect. You can’t claim that only those expressions of Christianity that pass muster with modern sensibilities represent “real” Christianity — or if you do, the entire argument becomes circular.
Our modern-day repugnance at human slaughter is not Christian; that is my key point. It is a product of the Enlightenment. It is a fusion product of the universal outlook that Christians introduced — with the Roman conception of law, and the Greek conception that mind and body are a unity (i.e., that the human body is as noble as the “soul”), and the Enlightenment view that all men are possessed of reason and capable of dealing with each other by means of reason and persuasion.
Modern-day, post-Enlightenment Christians are to a large extent secularized. They take for granted their civilized manners and respect for other men’s rights, their mild comportment and benevolent intentions, and imagine that all this is “real” Christianity — whereas, in fact, their moral sensibilities are primarily shaped by the anti-religious, this-worldly Enlightenment. Pre-Enlightenment Christians just did not have that moral repugnance at seeing witches go up in flames that Baron credits them with.
So Baron, I would say that you are committing a variant of the error you argue against. You fail to acknowledge the real roots of your modern moral sensibilities. Just as you are right to point out that pagan religions did not have the respect for human life that we take for granted today, so you are wrong to assume that Christianity did. “Respect for human life” is a very modern concept.
I could go further and argue that specifically Christian sensibilities (as distinct from the Enlightenment respect for other men’s rights) are the root cause of the West’s appalling weakness in the current conflict with primordial barbarians. “Turn the other cheek,” “Love thy enemy,” etc. But that would require another long post.
— North Bridge