A meditation on Christ in the manger, angels singing, the Magi coming, is welcome this time of year, but this isn’t such a reflection. This is about how an event transformed a world that still refuses to believe it’s been transformed.
The “enlightened”, educated, popular, settled science narrative of history is grounded in environmental determinism (meaning climate, geography, cataclysms, birth rates, innovations, etc.), that civilizations rise and fall due to climate/geography (the Bering Land Bridge that enabled Asian tribes to cross over into the Americas), the dissolution of sclerotic empires (Persian indolence making way for bold invaders like Alexander), plague shredding established institutions and authority, invention and innovation (the Roman and British empires), low birth rate civilizations succumbing to high birth rate civilizations (a declining Rome in relation to the northern and eastern tribes).
According to this deterministic model, Europe’s ascendancy derived from environmental advantages, with Christianity a footnote, or a distraction.
Today, the majority of historians analyzes history from such a deterministic (in some cases, one could say dogmatic) perspective, and then strives to fit the historical record into this narrative. Which environmental slot (or slots) does a historical development or event fit into? Thus, there’s nothing transcendent about history, nothing that can’t be defined by science and probability. But is this what a panoramic view of history actually depicts?
I’m a voracious reader of history: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume Story of Civilization; David Crouch on the Normans; Jay Winik on Enlightenment Europe; David McCullough and James Flexner on John Adams, George Washington, and early America; William L. Shirer’s on the scene history of the Third Reich; and George Weigel on John Paul II and the 20th century. Literary histories as well: The Iliad, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Dickens and Victor Hugo’s stories. These contain differing and fascinating perspectives, few of them explicitly Christian, on why things happened the way they did.
Prior to the Christ, history witnessed competing and warring tribes, some evolving into kingdoms and empires—Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Rome and Carthage, Chinese and Indian dynasties—where human life was cheap and human rights were defined by the ruling elite, be they on thrones or on horseback.
With one exception: Israel, a culture and a deity that expounded a singularly humanistic and transcendent ethos, a culture guided by patriarch-prophets such as Abraham and Israel, liberator-prophets including Moses and Joshua, judge-prophets like Gideon, though these leadership models were eventually rejected as too dependent on the deity’s providence. Kings followed, and Israel began to look and behave like its neighbor kingdoms, though their inconvenient prophets continued to proclaim this humanistic and transcendent ethos.
Out of nowhere comes the Christ, proclaiming to be Israel’s Messiah-deliverer, and the son and “Viceroy” of Israel’s deity, in the literal sense. Born of a humble woman in a negligible town, and raised in another negligible town, this Christ affirmed what the Jews had been taught about Israel’s deity, and went further in his parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, and his Sermon on The Mount, then even further by himself displaying the deity’s radical love for humanity: rescuing the woman caught in adultery, touching and healing the unclean, and especially his own sacrificial life and death.
Dismissed by Israel’s leaders and by Rome, he was condemned to death and oblivion. But this Christ wouldn’t stay dead. To Israel’s leaders and Rome, his influence stubbornly persisted. To his disciples, he lived again after his death. His cult exploded, attracting Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, the wise and the ignorant, the sedentary and those on the move, young and old, free and slave. He had taught and lived and died a radical humanism in which every person’s dignity and immeasurable worth proceeds from the life-giving love of their Creator/Father, and where each and every person is called to become what their Creator/Father created them to be, as individuals and within a Christ-centered family, the Church.
The Roman Empire was infected by the Christ, and after Rome came unglued, the Christ’s ethos persisted in Europe, the Near East, and northern Africa. In Europe, this radical humanism fostered heroic institutions to serve the poor and downtrodden; spectacular art of a depth, subtlety, grandeur, not produced anywhere else in the world; and, eventually, representative government, along with evidence and experiment-based scientific inquiry from a culture that valued reason and human liberty, even when the support of rulers and churchmen was lacking.
Many insist there’s nothing original or unique about Jewish and Christian humanism, that it was informed by prior and contemporary cultures, or environmental factors, or that the viewpoint of a Christianity-infused Europe being unique and special suggests cultural chauvinism. However, the pagan gods—north, south, east and west—are mirrors of their cultures, and as Peter Kreeft says, “…all the pagan gods, Northern (Germanic) or Southern (Mediterranean) are, like us, partly good and partly evil. They are ‘divine’, or superior, not in goodness, but only in power—in fact, in three powers: power over nature by a supernatural or ‘magical’ technology, power over ignorance (cleverness, farsight, and foresight), and power over death (immortality)…The Jewish and Christian claim that the one God is totally good and not evil was as much of a shock to the old paganism as it is to the new.”
Wait, the objectors insist. Europe? Continent of vicious wars, despotic governments, religious persecution? Yes, that Europe, because despite injustice and depravities, Europe was the womb of universal human rights and human liberty. This ethos proceeded from the Christ’s ethos and living example, and where we find this ethos outside of Europe, we find the Christ there too, explicitly or implicitly. We often overlook this obvious connection because people immersed in cultures for lifetimes and centuries can become as oblivious to what underpins their culture as many in my home state of Michigan take for granted the fresh water that surrounds us.
Not that human rights and human liberty came about because Europe wholeheartedly embraced the Christ and his ethos—far from it. Human rights and human liberty came about because women and men, by the thousands, infused with a heroic hope the Christ bequeathed to them, lived this ethos and brought it alive in their particular societies, in spite of indifference, opposition, and even persecution.
In every instance where the Christian ethos has been jettisoned, it has “not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult; and left untried,” as G. K. Chesterton so presciently observed, and when societies “outgrow” the Christian ethos and embrace a post-Christian false freedom without self-regulation, and with expedient moral codes, the social fabric is rent and they regress, sooner or later, to competing/warring interest groups, mobocracy, or tyranny.
These historical determinists and Christ scofflaws are a small number, but via their lofty academic positions and access to a sympathetic media they have big bullhorns, and they’re persuasive with those who don’t know any better, even though evidence and experience aren’t on their side.
This Christ and his ethos is the formula, if you can call it that, for authentic freedom, peace, and justice, what ancient and modern ideologies, philosophies, and secular projects profess to desire, but cannot deliver. Societies where the Christ is cast out, and where his loving Creator/Father is rejected, are piled high with brutality, misery, human sacrifice, depravity…and hopelessness. As Aragorn says in The Lord of The Rings: “They are terrible.”
So this is a meditation on the Nativity after all.