History of Christianity

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek,  and author of American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House, reviews Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, by Diamond MacCulloch, in the New York Times Book Review, April 4, 2010.

Meacham tells us he is officially sympathetic to christianity.  ” I am an episcopalian who takes the faith of my fathers seriously“,  but then, with qualification: “if unemotionally“.   He notes, too, that MacCulloch is also sympathetic to christianity, but also with qualification:   “I would now describe myself as a candid friend of christianity. I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human experience and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems” . . yet, “I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”

So, Religion is OK, but only unemotionally, and don’t forget it is crazy.

Meacham seems to accept that religious faith is necessarily dogmatic, rigid, opposed to critical thinking, and intolerant.  He doesn’t seem to know that what makes religious faith, faith, is that it is a decision held knowingly in the face of known doubt and uncertainty.  And contrary to his concerns, the history of christianity is full of debate and philosophy and disagreement.

Meacham seems also to equate having religious faith with being ‘literalist’ –  taking the words of the Bible as only factual, without metaphor.  In this thinking, one is all or none – the Bible is all factual truth or all metaphor.   Yet he very likely would not deny that the Bible is great literature, written over thousands of years by numerous authors mostly unknown to each other, truly an authentic compilation of human literary effort.  And he would without doubt affirm that there is great truth in literature.  Not one element of profound literary theme or structure is missing from the Bible.

To the religious, the question of the literal truth of the Bible is not a meaningful, or even valid question.  It seems intended to diminish the sophistication of faith, and deserves no answer.  Is not all knowing, all conceptualization, ultimately metaphorical?  Is not story a powerful way to communicate profound truth?

Meacham approves of MacCulloch’s accusation that the Apostle Paul justified slavery.  But this is a weak point.  Paul wisely advised the very fragile early church to avoid radical opposition to the “existing social distinctions.”  This included slavery, which was, in those times, the ubiquitous norm of all civilizations. Meacham seems unaware of the powerlessness of the early christians, despite having read this history.  Their swift demise would have quickly followed any political stance against Roman power.  This, after all, is precisely what happened to Jesus.  A surviving movement was better than no movement at all.

Meacham also notes, approvingly, another MacCulloch opinion:  “For most of its existence, christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths, doing its best to eliminate all competition, with Judaism a qualified exception”. Huh?  Christianity has had its corruptions, and has been an instrument of political power, but what religion has built more hospitals, schools, and universities?  What religion has most fostered the independence of learning and the pluralistic societies of our day?

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