Regarding the impact historically of Christianity, I view it as a mixed bag. For example, slavery and misogyny were both strongly maintained and partially challenged in the Old Testament and New Testament. The abolitionist and feminist movements were both influenced and retarded by the biblical teachings. But, if the Bible had kept a balanced emphasis on feminism/masculinism and transcendence/immanence throughout the Scriptures, such as how it started with males and females being created both equally in the image of God, then the Scriptures and history afterward would have been much, much healthier. Instead, the Bible did not refer to God as a She, abolish slavery or provide substantial equality for women (although Jesus and Paul began a slow process toward better treatment of women). What I am specifically criticizing is the regular claim from believers that God was able and willing to give the biblical writers the full truth about reality…….when God clearly did not do this in the case of what I just explained.
One reply I often hear is that God gave the Jews a gradual or progressive revelation because they could not handle the fully virtuous standards and humane ethics in those ancient, pre-Christian times. I think this assertion is ridiculous. First, it didn’t work. Although the Jewish customs were unique in many contrasting ways to their neighbors and the Jews do gradually learn to live within them (for one reason being that they were threatened with punishment from God otherwise), there is no observable moral change of the “heart” in the Jews of the Bible (with the exception of various prophets, leaders and small groups) – they behave just as humans do everywhere, sometimes rebelling, sometimes cooperating. They remained significantly immersed in polytheistic cultural habits and beliefs throughout the Old Testament, along with involvement in monotheism. What level of change did God expect to happen in Jewish behavior or attitude to prepare them for Jesus’ arrival that could remotely justify the incredibly brutal commands and laws of the Old Testament? Some theologians have said that though these scriptures seem extremely harsh, the neighboring societies were far worse. Again, the plan of progressive revelation didn’t work – in large part, the Jews rejected and still reject Jesus. Second, if God was providing guidelines that were “easier” than He/She would offer later, then why were other incredibly difficult moral/legal/spiritual requirements included in the Torah, such as the Ten Commandments and the expectation that monotheism be practiced immediately with severe consequences for delaying one’s conversion, even though the Ancient Near East was deeply grounded in and committed to polytheistic beliefs and cultural structures. God could have just as well demanded prohibitions against slavery, misogyny, and pre-emptive colonial and seasonal warfare. And these are just a few of the ethical, philosophical and theological problems with the Bible and the aspects of later theology and church history that were uniquely based on the Bible.
I agree with Christians who claim that humanism, the Enlightenment and modern liberal values were deeply influenced and spurred on by many Christian teachings. However, the Bible was so muddy and unclear about these topics that it took almost two thousand years for Christian leaders and theologians to begin noticing and engaging (intellectually and morally), speaking and acting toward, these values. The abolitionist movement, for example, was partly driven by extreme liberals such as Unitarians. Many famous and now revered Christians, such as Jonathan Edwards, owned slaves. Martin Luther was very, very anti-Semitic in his later writings (see his book, “On The Jews And Their Lies”). John Calvin put to death another theologian, Michael Servetus, because of doctrinal disagreements. And there are so many other stories from Christian history like this. It’s not just a cultural problem or a matter of human sin. It’s also that the Bible itself often teaches unhealthy, unethical and misleading things.
Do you have any guesses as to why the Enlightenment emerged mostly in the Christian West and not in China or in the Islamic world? Do you think the fact that Jesus was killed by the state rather than a head of state was an advantage? Do you think that, in an ironic way, the weakness and divisions within Europe during the Middle Ages made Enlightenment possible whereas the strong states of China and the Islamic world made Enlightenment less possible? Or are there some aspects of Christianity that assisted free inquiry? Since Islam was more advanced than Europe in 1000, how did Europe/Christianity recover?
I think many complex factors contributed to why the Enlightenment rose in Europe instead of in China or the Islamic world. Here are three of them:
1. Greek philosophy – Provided an abstract foundation for scientific and ethical thought. In China and the Middle East under Islam, the philosophical systems were integrated with culture, tradition, family and religion. The Greeks, in the pre-Socratic philosophers and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, attempted to start from scratch. Socrates questioned the mythologies that were dominant in his time. He wanted to know what truth was, regardless of what the gods or cultural tradition said it was.
2. The intense Mediterranean cultural and power rivalries over thousands of years (explored in depth by Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” http://amzn.to/2I1dlDq) – Whether in the Middle East where few natural barriers existed to protect people groups from invasions or southern Europe where the sea gave the opportunity and challenges of trade and conquest, it was highly competitive. China was isolated for much of its history, largely by choice. Islam’s religious foundations were very rigid and ultimately blocked them from advancing fully and freely toward an open inquiry of science and social philosophy for more than a few hundred years. Increasing levels of European and American secularization from the 1600s onward, built upon the earlier innovations and breaks from traditions during the Renaissance and Reformation, allowed Westerners to try out and improve many new ideas and practices, including capitalism, industrialization and Enlightenment humanism (and related humanitarianism).
3. Like Islam and Judaism, Christianity’s belief in monotheism and a stable physical world was a strong advantage in scientific development – Contrast that to the thousands of mythologies and religions that were cyclical and metaphorical and made very few claims about history (Hinduism, Taoism/Daoism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, earth-centered beliefs of many indigenous peoples in the Americas, etc.). The Abrahamic faiths were grounded in a linear-historical framework. Their God had carefully made every aspect of the cosmos. Believers could learn and commune with God as they studied and engaged the physical world. This, along with the ancient Greco-Roman accomplishments (which gained much from ancient Egypt, India, China, etc.), provided a solid foundation for continual scientific advances.
I don’t have an opinion about advantages or disadvantages of the fact that Jesus was killed by the state rather than a head of state. Do you have some ideas on that topic?