Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

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I Don’t Want To Be a Goat (Matt 25)

There is a valley south of Jerusalem that was once famous for being a center of toxic religion—idolatry is the name the Bible gives to toxic religion.  Seven centuries before Christ the place was called Tophet and a shrine was there, where the practitioners of various toxic religions sacrificed their children.  Tophet was in a valley once owned by the son of Hinnom.  Ge-ben-hinnom  is “valley of the son of Hinnom” in Hebrew.  Over time the name of the place was shortened to Gehenna.

King Josiah, the best king Judah ever had, destroyed the shrine of Tophet.  After that, the whole Hinnom valley was used as a garbage dump.  Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna, the rotten, smoldering, stinking center of toxic religion, as a warning.  Those who prey on children, those who slander others in their arrogant self-righteousness, are in danger of ending up in Gehenna.

Matthew 24 and 25 tell about the Day of Judgment, using several parables.  These parables give several disturbing images of the fate of those who fail the judgment.  In one parable a servant who got drunk and beat his fellow servants is punished by being “cut to pieces” and given a place with the hypocrites, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  That one is puzzling.  If he is cut to pieces, it sounds like he is dead–but there is wailing, so it sounds like the hypocrites being punished there are still alive.

In another parable the punishment is being excluded, shut out.  Those who are not prepared miss out on the joy of the wedding.  They show up too late, the gates are closed and locked, and they are left outside in the darkness.  In another parable a lazy slave is thrown out into “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Then in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the goats are thrown into the eternal fire, the place prepared for the devil and his angels, the place otherwise called Gehenna.

Jesus used imagery and he used hyperbole to make a point.  The point was always serious.  C.S. Lewis said we should be careful about being too certain about the geography of heaven or the temperature of hell.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s revivals swept across the frontier.  There were tent meetings that lasted for days and weeks.  And in the preaching there were always vivid descriptions of hell.  And people were terrified.  And worse, many of the preachers had a theology that said, “You are probably going to hell and there might not be anything you can do about it,” because God has already chosen those who are going to heaven.  Some people got saved and others just got scared.

In the 1800 hundreds, several new religions arose as a way of dealing with the revivalist teaching of Hell: The Seventh Day Adventists teach extinction.  Those who are not saved are just dead forever.  The Mormons teach there are several different degrees of afterlife, some get to live on the earth, and then there are lower and higher heavens that others go to.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that a few will go to heaven, many will be resurrected to a good life on earth in the Kingdom of God, and those who refuse to repent will be destroyed.

The Disciples taught nobody has to go to hell, anyone can be saved.  You are not saved by belonging to the right church but by trusting your life to Jesus.  He has given us easy ways to tell if we belong to the elect or not.  If you are willing to turn from your sins, declare your faith in Christ, and be baptized in his name, you can have confidence that you are saved and on your way to heaven.

Many today are still disturbed by the idea of hell or eternal punishment after death.  What is most disturbing is that it sounds cruel and it seems arbitrary and unfair.

C.S. Lewis said “the Bible is meant for grownups,” by which he meant people who knew how to read literature.  Lewis was troubled by the idea of hell, but he also believed it was important.  He believed it was important to say that the choices we make in this life have consequences that extend throughout this life and beyond, even into eternity.  One of Lewis’s influences was G.K. Chesterton, who taught that “hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.”  Another influence was George McDonald, who was a universalist.  McDonald believed that Hell is a devise God uses to bring the lost to repentance.  It is like the pigsty the prodigal son found himself in. 

C.S. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He also loved the Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, is a depiction of hell.  It is a place God in his mercy prepared for those who chose to reject God’s love.  Sinners get the choices they have made.  The sin one chooses is the punishment for sin.  Those who chose in life to be swept away by passion and lust, are swept off their feet forever in the Inferno, driven by relentless cold winds.  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, again, hell is the result of human choice, God’s gift of freedom.  Satan describes himself as one who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same?

C.S. Lewis wrote his own book on heaven and hell, called the Great Divorce.  It is a dream about a visit to the “gray world,” a joyless, lifeless place that is either Purgatory or Hell, depending on how long one stays.  A tour bus takes a group of the residents to heaven, which is a beautiful, joyous place; but they don’t like it.  It’s too real.  They are too used to their own alternative reality, they can’t handle true reality.  All but one of the tourists voluntarily get on the bus and go back where they are comfortable.

I think we have to say a few things about Jesus’ parables of judgment.  First, they use imagery.  The imagery points to something real and terrible: exclusion, missed opportunity, living in the land of toxic religion, fire, pain, and weeping.  The imagery points to end result of a life of blind self-indulgence as well as a life deceived by toxic religion.  Hell is “a place with the hypocrites.”  Judgment begins in this life.  The choice of sin is the punishment for sin.  The punishment for selfishness is loneliness, self-imposed exclusion from the joyous celebration God invites us to join.

Second, judgment is a reality.  We are responsible for how we live and we will be required to give an accounting.  The choices we make in life are serious, and we have no guarantee of a  second chance.

Third, God desires the salvation, the well-being and joy of all people.  God is love.  There are several ways Christians have tried to reconcile the biblical imagery of hell with the Love of God.  One way is that hell is the most gracious accommodation God can make for those who refuse his grace.  Hell is the painful refuge.  Rather than destroy his creation, God gives them a place where they can continue in the existence they have chosen. 

Another way is to say hell is redemptive punishment, meant to bring lost souls to repentance.  It is a second chance.  Is there a hint of hope in Jesus’ words, “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” 

Another way is to say hell is a warning.  It is a picture of what the hard-hearted deserve, but God has already provided the alternative.  Hell was not created for any human being, God does not desire anyone to be lost in this life or in eternity, and God has provided a way anyone can have the assurance that they are God’s children and nothing can separate them from his love.

There is one more issue that may trouble us.  What about those who have never heard of Jesus?

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats gives us an answer if we reframe the question.  Make it, “What about those who have never met Jesus?”  And the answer is surprising. 

There is no one who has never met Jesus.  It’s just that he comes to us in disguise.

He comes to us in the form of those we consider least important.  He comes to us disguised as the hungry person we meet, or one who is thirsty, or in need of clothing, or homeless.  He comes to us as the refugee, the immigrant, or the one in prison.

You have probably heard that if you want to go to heaven, you have to accept Jesus.  It’s true.  But what if he already came to you and you rejected him or ignored him?  You’ll meet him again.

Jesus is so gracious, he comes to us in many forms.  He comes to us in the word, the word in the Bible or in the sermon.  He comes to us in the form of his body the church.  He comes to us in the bread and the wine.  And he comes to us in the people we meet in the street.  But make sure we understand: If we have prayed to accept Jesus into our hearts–we are missing something if we don’t accept him when we see him in the street.

When the King comes he will separate the people of all nations into two groups: the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are those who welcomed Jesus when he came to them in disguise.  They will have a wonderful surprise.  The goats are those who rejected Jesus when he came to them in disguise.

I don’t want to be a goat.

Why Small Miracles?

Happy Hanukkah!  Jesus never heard of Santa Claus, but he celebrated the Festival of Dedication (John 10:22), which is what Hanukkah means.  When a brutal Syrian dictator persecuted the Jews and tried to forbid them from worshipping One God and keeping his Law in the traditional way, they finally fought back.  One of the shock and awe weapons Antiochus’s army used was the elephant.  But one of the freedom fighters, at the cost of his own life, ran underneath one of the beasts of burden and rammed a spear into his belly, making the soldiers vulnerable.

The Maccabean freedom fighters won against great odds.  But that is not the miracle Hanukkah celebrates.  After the enemy army was driven off, they needed to rededicate the temple, which Antiochus the mad man had desecrated.  And they needed pure oil to light the lamps for the ceremonies.  Antiochus had made sure he had defiled all the oil in Jerusalem–except that someone had stashed away a small jar, enough for one day.

They lit the lamp and sent a runner to buy more.  The round trip took eight days, but “a great miracle happened there!”  The small supply of oil lasted eight days until the new supply came.

Sonja and I have seen some small miracles in the last few weeks.

But do you ever wonder why God does small miracles but we don’t often see the big ones?

Miracles are signs, not to convince unbelievers, but gentle reminders to the faithful.

When God put humans in charge of the earth, evidently, he was serious about it.  He does not intervene in big ways very often–maybe a few significant times.  How can you believe in God when you see the suffering in Syria, Sudan, a dozen other places?

God didn’t start those wars.  War is man’s business.  It is man who starts it and it is up to man–sorry about the gendered pronouns, but in the history of the world the aggressor is usually male–to end it.  We won’t negotiate to prevent a war; that would be weakness.  But after thousand or millions on both sides are dead, after there is nothing left to fight for, the old men sit down to negotiate an “honorable peace.”

The Maccabees had to fight their own war, which was a brilliant success; then they had to govern, which was much more difficult.  But none of that is the miracle Hanukkah celebrates.  It is the small miracle of light.

God does not intervene often in our world.  He is already there; he is present everywhere.  He is present in the cries of the children of Syria.  He is present in the prayers and the contributions and the good works of people of good will.  Those who believe in him and call ourselves his followers (and maybe some others who don’t think of themselves in those terms) are his hands and feet, eyes, ears, and heart in the world.  For them God does small miracles as signs that their work is not in vain.

Philippians 1:19-20 Confident of Victory

It seems that the date of Paul’s trial is near.  Paul will be led from his rented home where he is serving house arrest and taken to the tribunal to be heard by Caesar himself, where Paul will defend the Gospel and his role as an ambassador for Christ.  At the end of the trial either Paul will be allowed to leave a free man, vindicated by Caesar’s court, or he will be led away to the place of execution.

Paul has no human way of knowing the outcome, and he claims no explicit revelation from God: no vision, no clear inner voice, no word of prophecy.  He does, however, have the confidence of faith.  His faith gives him the confidence that God still has a purpose for his life on earth, in particular encouraging his faith family and especially those who are both friends and brothers and sisters from Philippi.  His hopes will not be realized automatically but through the prayers of his friends and the workings of the Spirit.

Regardless of the outcome of his trial before Caesar, Paul has the hope of final vindication before the throne of Jesus; but his faith is also inspired by the examples in the Psalms of those who expressed their hope for God’s deliverance in this life and on this earth.

Paul’s situation is ambiguous and his hope is ambivalent.  We should expect some ambiguity in his language, and it is present throughout this passage (Phil 1:15-26).  Paul confidently expects his trial to result in his salvation.  Normally he uses the word to express the ultimate consummation of a believer’s faith, which will happen when Christ reveals himself to the world as both Savior and Judge.  You could say Paul is hedging his bets, because he is assured of salvation in that sense.  But he is also using the word in the context of God’s deliverance of the faithful from their temporal and earthly enemies, a context seen so frequently in the Psalms.

If David’s faith could give him the hope of triumphing over his enemies, was Paul not entitled to expect the same result?  He is not seeking personal revenge over his enemies—but he does trust that God will grant him a personal victory.  Paul will emerge from the ordeal as a conquering hero.  Paul uses the language and imagery of a military victory parade.  In fact—here’s where some of the linguistic ambiguity comes in—he uses the terms that otherwise normally refer to the Second Coming to describe his anticipated return to the Philippians, in verse 26.  He speaks of his parousia palin.  Apart from reference Christ’s triumphant return, the expression was used in military and political circles to describe the glorious arrival of Caesar, accompanied by his retinue, to a Roman city.

The word parousia is a compound from a prefix meaning “with, beside” and a the verb eimi, which is a homonymn/homograph meaning either “I am” or “I arrive”.  So parousia can mean either “being with” or “presence” or else “coming to (someone’s presence)” or “arrival.”  It is used in the second sense here, and in the context of a victorious appearance.

Since we sometimes fail to appreciate literary subtlety, irony, and imagery, I should point out that Paul’s militant, triumphal imagery is metaphorical and paradoxical language.  The battle from which he hopes to emerge victorious is a spiritual battle, and the weapons that lead to triumph are faith, love, and prayer.  And the defeat of his enemies may well be that they are brought to their knees in homage to Paul’s Lord and become willing captives to him as Paul himself is.

If Paul’s greatest hopes were realized, and if we were able to see the event, we would not see a conquering hero–except through the eyes of faith.  We would see a little old man with scars on his body, dressed in well warn clothing, being unceremoniously released onto a dirty Roman street, perhaps to be greeted by a handful of friends.  But they would have the eyes of faith and would be quietly rejoicing in Paul’s triumph.

Philippians 1:1

1  Timothy joins Paul in wishing grace and peace to the Christ followers in Philippi.  Timothy is not a co-author (Paul uses the 1st person singular throughout the Epistle and will speak later of Timothy in the 3rd person), but he is a witness and vouches for Paul’s authority and the authenticity of the letter.  He is also a role model for the Philippians (2:19-24) and will be a personal delegate from Paul to them.

Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), a phrase modeled after the Old Testament expression eved YHWH, which is a position of great honor.  They willingly acknowledge owing their lives to Christ and being owned by him “in whose service is perfect freedom” and therefore though they are servants to all they can never become slaves of men.

In Galatians 3:26-4:7 Paul explains why the word “slave” is inadequate to describe our relationship with God.  Jesus also taught that we are “no longer slaves but friends.”  We are heirs and friends having a freedom and authority that slaves could never dream of–this applies to those who are slaves “according to the flesh,” in their earthly, worldly status.

The believers are saints (hagioi, holy people) because they have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ for his own purposes.  Their lives are dedicated to God and their behavior is becoming more holy and righteous day by day. To us sainthood or holiness sounds other-worldly, but to become holy really means becoming authentically human, becoming all we were meant to be, being whole and upright, and wholly motivated by love.  It is holy to embrace the joys of life with enthusiasm and zest; it is also holy to fully experience grief and pain, and to share both experiences, joy and pain with others.

The word hagioi also points to future victory: the saints will come again with Christ when he establishes his kingdom and will reign with him.

At the coming of Christ the righteous dead will be raised and given glorified bodies, and the faithful living on earth will receive glorified bodies and will be visibly “raptured” briefly, caught up in the air to meet Christ as he descends, and then get in line behind him as he returns to the earth in victory, where he will be recognized by all who have ever lived.  The imagery of the second coming of Christ “with his saints” is derived from Daniel’s vision and is expressed in the imagery of a Roman conquering hero’s victory parade.  (See Dan 7:25-27, Jude 14, 1 Thess 5:14-17.)

There is no evidence in the Bible for a “secret rapture” of the saints before a great tribulation on the earth.

Of course the saints will not just sit around in the meantime waiting to escape from the world.  They are called to be a Holy Nation, God’s people on earth who experience and demonstrate the reality of his kingdom here and now.  They live at peace with one another in the presence of God, praying for their enemies, showing compassion to the poor, the lonely, the needy, healing the sick, driving out destructive forces that keep God’s creation from flourishing as the creator intended.  (See Ex 19:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9, Eph 3:10, Matt 10:1, Luke 4:18-19.)

God’s holy people are elsewhere called by a name derived from Athenian democracy, ekklesia (usually translated church) the assembly of free citizens who have an equal right of free speech (parrhesia in Greek).  Each believer has spiritual authority and freedom, and the assembly decides local issues by discussion and consensus, voting or other democratic procedures.  The believers form an egalitarian community (Matt 23:8-12, Gal 3:28).  Paul’s letter is addressed to them, to all the saints; but the saints do have leaders and the leaders are not excluded.

Paul greets the saints with the bishops and deacons.  The English word “bishop” actually comes from the Greek word episkopos.  Drop the initial vowel and the ending, then change the initial /p/ to it’s voiced equivalent /b/, and after fifteen hundred years or so, you get bishop.  The original Greek episkopos, however, did not originally refer to a powerful office (like the chess piece) but to a function of leadership and care giving.  A bishop was one who oversaw or looked after others.

Other evidence from the New Testament indicates that the terms “elders” and “bishops” (presbyteroi and episkopoi) were either synonymous or overlapping.  Those with wisdom and experience in living godly lives were respected as elders, and the elders were appointed to the function of overseers.  In the New Testament, that is in the first century, there was always a group of elders in each church.

By the early second century a distinction was made between the bishop (singular) and the council of elders (still plural), in each church, with the bishop serving in a role identical to that of “pastor” in a local church today.  By the third and fourth centuries, the bishop was the leader of the largest church in a city, then in a region, and exercised authority over all the churches in his region.  By the sixth century the bishop of Rome had claimed to be the “first among equals” over the bishops of the other great cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.

But in the early church, the term episkopos did not refer to a hierarchical authoritarian office.  The overseers of the congregation provided spiritual care for individuals and families, looked after the sick and needy, taught the congregation and led worship, and helped direct the overall administration of the local church as the members sought to please God and reach out more effectively among their neighbors.

We know that the twelve apostles were men, although women played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and were in fact the first to preach the Gospel of the Risen Christ to the apostles.  We know that the bishops whose names were recorded in the second centuries and beyond were men.  But Gordon Fee and others have pointed out that there may have been women in the earliest church who exercised the role of providing spiritual care and direction.  Fee mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.

Phoebe is described as a diakonos and a prostatis, the latter term having a meaning similar to that of episkopos, one who “stands before” another, giving aid, spiritual or physical care, or leadership and direction.  We know from 1 Cor 11 and 14 that women exercised the function of speaking “for the edification, encouragement, and instruction” of the church, a function described as “prophesying.”

Any group, no matter how egalitarian, needs leadership, guidance, and support.  Leadership in the early church arose in at least three forms:

1) Spiritual maturity and wisdom was recognized, and elders possessing such qualities were appointed to offices called “elder” or “bishop.”

2) Charismatic gifts gave individuals the ability to exercise various roles, including speaking, teaching, and leadership roles.  These gifts were recognized and evaluated by other believers.

3)  Persons who were prominent in the larger (civic) community had means, including houses large enough to host the church, and influence, such as connections with city leaders to provide some protection, legitimacy, and support to the church.  These persons provided a kind of natural leadership in the churches.

Over time no doubt some of these roles faded, some merged, and occasionally there was some conflict among them.

Deacons were servants in the church who took care of the poor, but also became ministers of the word of God.  The Greek word diakonos originally referred to a waiter or server, who served meals in a private home.  The original idea is one who “waits on a table.”  But then bankers also had tables, so sometimes financial managers were called diakonoi.  Those who served the congregation by feeding their souls, bringing them the bread of life, were also called diakonoi.

It seems the first deacons are those described in Acts 6, young men full of the Spirit, of wisdom, and of faith, who were chosen to deliver meals to the widows in the growing Jerusalem congregation.  They no doubt prayed with them, listened to them, encouraged them and were encouraged by them, and grew in their faith as a result.  The first deacons named went on to become ministers of the word and evangelists, including the first martyr Stephen.

The Greek word diakonos (plural diakonoi) gramatically is of common gender, the same form applies to masculine and feminine nouns.  Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

One reason the bishops and deacons are mentioned could be that they were officially in charge of collecting, managing, and sending the offering to Paul.

WFPS 2012

Religion on the American Frontier, 1801-1901.

The Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars will explore

the theme of New Religious Movements in the 19th century.  Several colorful and novel religious movements sprung up in America as the country was expanding westward; some promoting new revelations and new practices, and others claiming to return to primitive patterns and teachings.

What was it about this period of history that produced diverse groups such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Disciples of Christ and churches of Christ, and Pentecostals?

The WFPS will meet in Manhattan, Kansas, October 19-20, 2012.  Stay tuned for further announcements, and watch your mailbox and email for an official call for papers.

More than a Reaction

Kit-Kat and I read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions over the weekend.

In some ways, the title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the book is merely a reaction to Richard Dawkins and his buddies like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I suspect that the work was already underway when pop-atheism books became best sellers.  Hart does make some reference to these authors, mainly to point out their lack of philosophical sophistication as, for example, when Dawkins  asserts that

“natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.”

Hart responds,

The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all.

The real point of Hart’s book is indicated by part of the subtitle, “The Christian Revolution.”  The book is primarily a historical essay on the influence of the Christian Gospel.  Hart is not primarily defending the church as an institution or Christendom as an ideal civilization.  He is tracing the influence of the Gospel’s revolutionary ideas that each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.

Had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for his brethren . . .

Had we not inherited a civilization based on these beliefs, we would never have come to believe in human rights, economic or social justice, or the basic human dignity.

Hart describes the basic brutality and inequality inherent in the classical civilization that Christianity replaced.  Then he describes the unspeakable horrors brought by the secular societies that replaced Christianity–the more than 100 million victims of mass murder in the 20th century.

In the process of his narration, Hart corrects many myths about Western history, including myths about witch hunts, the ignorance of the middle ages, and the antagonism between the church and science.

One essential difference between the Christian vision of reality and the post-Christian version is the definition of freedom.  In the Christian vision freedom means the opportunity to develop one’s true nature, to become what one is meant to be.  In the secular, post-Christian world, freedom means the arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of one’s choice, free from all restraints.  When secular rulers began to exercise their will uninhibited by the restraints of conscience, the results became genuinely horrendous.