In What’s So Great About Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2007), Dinesh D’Souza builds a case for the distinctiveness, truth, and blessings of the Christian faith. “Christians are called,” he argues, “to be ‘contenders for their faith” (p. xiii). Rather than slip into a comfortable Christian sub-culture, where everyone shares a common and comfortable worldview, D’Souza urges believers to do battle with skeptics (demonstrably evident in the corps of contemporary atheists now attacking the Faith) and make credible their allegiance to their Lord. “The Christianity defended here,” he (a Roman Catholic) stresses, “is not ‘fundamentalism’ but rather traditional Christianity, what C.S. Lewis called ‘mere Christianity,’ the common ground of beliefs between Protestants and Catholics” (p. xv).
D’Souza begins by noting that there has lately been a “huge explosion of religious conversion and growth, and Christianity is growing faster than any other religion” (p. 1). Whereas the tired old liberal version of Christianity (famously defined by H. Richard Niebuhr as proclaiming that: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”), traditional, deeply orthodox churches are booming, particularly in South America, Africa and Asia. Europe may well be collapsing into atheism, but theism thrives in non-European realms. Amazingly, China may soon contain the world’s largest Christian community!
To explain the power of Christianity around the world today, however, D’Souza insists we recognize how it provides the key to understand why so many things developed in the West under its guidance. Take, for instance, the idea of limited government. Jurgen Habermas, though himself an atheistic Marxist, insisted that: “’Christianity and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source’” (p. 41). Just as the majestic music of Bach and Handel, as well as the artistic grandeur of Michelangelo and Rembrandt, are unique to Western Christian culture, so too the notion of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to God the things that are God’s” provided a basis for the liberty and justice that characterize a good society.
A good society recognizes the importance of natural structures independent of state control. Thus the family, exalting “heterosexual monogamous love” (p. 58), was highly honored in Western nations. Marriage, in the Catholic tradition, was a sacrament, and the marriage relationship was considered an analogy to that between Christ and the Church. Rather than the arranged marriages found in many non-Christian cultures, a Christian couple was formed through the mutual consent of both the man and the woman. With this came the uniquely Christian celebration of romantic love and an appreciation for the dignity of women. “Christianity did not contest patriarchy, but it elevated the status of women within it” (p. 69). The stern prohibition of divorce was one manifestation of this concern for women’s well being.
Thus, with much disdain, the prototypical atheist Nietzsche decried “’Another Christian concept, no less crazy: the concept of equality of souls before God. This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights’” (p. 67). A study of history reveals how rarely have all persons been regarded as equals! Indeed, D’Souza insists: “The preciousness and equal worth of every human life is a Christian idea” (p. 68). If all men are created equal, it follows that they should have a voice in their government. Thus, as John Adams “wrote, ‘What do we mean by the American Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people . . . a change in their religious sentiments’” (p. 72). Unfortunately, D’Souza warns, the past century has witnessed a growing commitment to Nietzsche rather than Christ! As the West slides quickly into secularism, the “new values” Nietzsche propounded are becoming ascendant. So we see emerging “the restoration of infanticide, demands for the radical redefinition of the family, the revival of eugenic theories of human superiority” (p. 78).
The atheism evident in Nietzsche stems from an Enlightenment conviction that science has discredited religion. So D’Souza devotes seven highly readable and persuasive chapters to defending Christianity as an ally of science—and of science as an ally of Christianity. He declares: “An unbiased look at the history of science shows that modern science is an invention of medieval Christianity, and that the greatest breakthroughs in scientific reason have largely been the work of Christians” (p. 84). In fact, certain Christian beliefs, such as creation ex nihilo, have been unexpectedly validated by scientific discoveries. A careful analysis of anti-Christian diatribes, launched by journalists such as Christopher Hitchens, quickly reveals how wildly flawed is the opinion that science and Christian faith are at odds. “Indeed, historians are virtually unanimous in holding that the whole science versus religion story is a nineteenth-century fabrication” (p. 102). Take the celebrated case of Galileo! Much that’s said about him is demonstrably false, and a careful study of the case reveals how cautiously the Church sought to preserve orthodox doctrine while being properly open to new scientific evidence.
Indeed some of today’s finest scientists find belief in God quite credible. With Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary physicist (and anything but a Christian) they acknowledge: “’It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us’” (p. 115). Evidence regarding the “Big Bang” has both transformed physics and validated the ancient Christian conviction “that the universe was created in a primordial explosion of energy and light. Not only did the universe have a beginning in space and time, but the origin of the universe was also a beginning for space and time” (p. 116). In the profoundest meaning of the word, this was a miracle!
And miraculously, mysteriously, the universe even seems designed for us human beings! Thus many scientists embrace an “anthropic principle” holding that: “We live in a kind of Goldilocks universe in which the conditions are ‘just right’ for life to emerge and thrive. As physicist Paul Davies puts it, ‘We have been written into the laws of nature in a deep, and I believe, meaningful way’” (p. 130). To Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, “the anthropic principle ‘means accepting that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind. To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way’” (p. 131).
Though only a slim section of the book, D’Souza’s spirited defense of Christianity against the calumnies of its critics regarding “the exaggerated crimes of religion” is most useful. He relies on the best historians of the Crusades, most notably Jonathan Riley-Smith, to dismiss most all anti-Christian allegations. In truth: “the Crusades can be seen as a belated, clumsy, and unsuccessful effort to defeat Islamic imperialism. Yet the Crusades were important because they represented a fight for the survival of Europe” (p. 206). Equally fallacious are most statements regarding the Inquisition, “largely a myth concocted first by the political enemies of Spain” (p. 206). The historical evidence set forth by Henry Kamen shows that Inquisitors “were fairer and more lenient that their secular counterparts,” often imposing sentences of fasting or community service rather than corporal or capital punishment. As to the numbers killed by the Spanish Inquisition, Kamen estimates “around 2,000. Other contemporary historians make estimates of between 1,500 and 4,000. These deaths are all tragic, but we must remember that they occurred over a period of 350 years” (p. 207). Just compare the numbers killed by the Inquisition with those eliminated by atheistic regimes in the 20th century! “Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s the equivalent of one million deaths today. Even so, these deaths caused by Christian rulers over a five-hundred-year period amount to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Stalin, Hitler and Mao in the space of a few decades” (p. 215).
Christians rooted in the natural law tradition have been far less brutal than atheists because, as D’Souza shows in a well-crafted chapter, they have a sound and enduring basis for their moral convictions. Atheists deny not only the reality of God but of any absolute moral standards. Tellingly, Aldous Huxley admitted that he found relief in a nihilistic world inasmuch as it allowed him to do his own thing: “the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was . . . liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom’” (p. 266). As D’Souza shrewdly puts it, such men are engaged in “a pelvic revolt against God” (p. 268). Atheists also find freedom to live sinfully without confessing their sins for fearing damnation! Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel laureate, argued “that in order to escape from an eternal fate in which our sins are punished, man seeks to free himself from religion. ‘A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged’” (p. 267).
Unlike the non-religious, Christians have reasons for revering human beings inasmuch as they regard them as spiritual beings, made in the image of God. Atheistic, evolutionary psychologists (such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker) and biologists (such as DNA de-coder Francis Crick) and philosophers (notably David Hume and his many epigones) reduce all things human to matter-in-motion. But Christians believe the evidence points to a very real inner self, fully self-conscious and capable of intention and purpose. Significantly human experiences, such as making and hearing and loving music, cannot be explained except in terms of an inner spiritual being radically different from the atoms and neurons in the brain. As the noted British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane concluded: “’If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms’” (p. 246).
Capping off his apologetic work, D’Souza concludes with an invitation to readers: embrace the Faith and find the good life. The Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ provide keys to living well. And: “Ultimately we are called not only happiness and goodness but also to holiness. Christ says on the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ What counts for God is not only our external conduct but also our inward disposition. Holiness . . . means staying pure on the inside. Yet holiness is not something we do for God. It is something we do with God. We couldn’t do it without Him. In order for us to be more like Christ, we need Christ within us” (p. 304).
I cannot better praise this book than with the words of Dallas Willard, for many years a professor of philosophy at USC: “Pastors, teachers, believers, and the sincerely perplexed will find this book indispensable. It sets an example of how to engage vitally important questions without mudslinging and prejudice. D’Souza uses facts and careful reasoning and exposes the atheist attack as intellectual baseless. Rarely have I seen such forceful clarity brought to an issue of such timeliness and importance.”
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Quite different from the D’Souza, given its markedly personal tone, is Paul Johnson’s The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage (New York: HarperPrerennial, c. 1997). Johnson is a distinguished British historian, the author Intellectuals and Modern Times among many others. He writes to defend the reality of God in a secularizing culture that has increasingly rejected Him. Though a professing Christian throughout his life, he undertook the task of writing “to resolve many doubts in my own mind, to clarify my thoughts and to try to define what God means to me and my life. I write it in the expectation that, by straightening out my own beliefs, it may help others to straighten out theirs” (p. 5).
He begins by noting, in a chapter entitled “the God who would not die,” that belief in God (especially in non-Western nations) has proved remarkably resilient. Countless skeptics, countless times, have announced the “death of God,” but He somehow keeps resurfacing in mysterious ways! A variety of Promethean movements, declaring man’s independence from God, easily gain devotees inasmuch as self-worship is one of our species most ancient idolatries. But these movements generally self-destruct quite quickly. Take H. G. Wells, for instance. He was highly acclaimed a century ago, widely respected for his pronouncements of the glories to come as the process of evolution produced a world that is getting ever better and better. But, Johnson says, “it is now almost impossible to point to a single pronouncement of his on society in his own day which carries the ring of truth or even mere plausibility” (p. 20).
That we today study the great Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton, a contemporary of Wells, rather than Wells, gives witness to the simple superiority of faith in God rather than man. So “what is God, then?” Johnson asks. For all his studies, he still believes basically what he learned in Catholic schools as a child and explains why he finds sophisticated modern theories, especially pantheism and its offspring, fatally flawed. He further endorses the importance of the Natural Law, “which has been part of Christianity since its inception” and provides “a form of moral absolutism” compatible with “Christian teaching, which I believe is true for all times and peoples” (p. 66).
Without a foundation in the Natural Law, people easily drift into moral relativism, which is “a great evil, one of the greatest of all evils because it makes possible so many other evils” (p. 67). That so many intellectuals (including most academics) espouse moral relativism deeply distresses Johnson, because it “has been the cardinal sin of the twentieth century, the reason why it has been such a desperately unhappy and destructive epoch in human history” (p. 67). Sadly enough, the moral relativism that shaped monstrous movements such as Communism and Nazism has subtly infiltrated the media that shapes contemporary culture. Even the churches have fallen under its sway! Thus we find “the pathetic spectacle of some churches trying to justify perverted sex—because there are such people as practicing homosexuals—or divorce—because so many people do get divorced—or pre-marital sex—because couples who live together without benefit of marriage are so numerous nowadays” (p. 68).
Johnson further defends the Catholic Church and her “dogma, authority, order and liturgy” for giving us truthful answers to life’s great questions. (Parenthetically, Johnson’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, art and music enable him to proffer marvelous illustrations while discussing these items.) Importantly, he devotes separate chapters to the “four last things,” beginning with death. However clever our evasions, so evident in circumlocutions such as “falling asleep” we can never quite avoid death. Troubling to Johnson is the increasing tendency in churches to “celebrate” the life of the departed rather than acknowledge his death and announce the good news of his hope in life eternal through Christ! Following death, Christians believe, comes the Judgment. And if the Judgment has meaning, we will enter either heaven and hell. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued . . . that Hell was a necessary consequence of free will” (p. 160). Through his addiction to opium Coleridge felt he gained insight into eternal damnation. For he “had more than a glimpse of what is meant by Death and utter Darkness, and the Worm that dieth not—and that all the Hell of the Reprobate is no more inconsistent with the Love of God, that the Blindness of one who has occasioned loaothsome and guilty Diseases to eat out his eyes, is inconsistent with the Light of the Sun’” (p. 161). But Heaven awaits the redeemed. That preachers fail to rightly proclaim the good news of future bliss dismays Johnson, for it promises us, as St Cyprian described it, a place where we will “’be allowed to see God, to be honoured with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God’s friends’” (p. 174). This is “the timeless world waiting” us.
To enter that world we must pray—pray for faith, “asking God to give you the key to everything else” (p. 185). We may not understand much about God, or about prayer, but in praying as well as can, primarily using the “perfect prayers” in Psalms, confessing and repenting in the process, going to church where we often pray more easily, we may end our “quest” and find the God perennially proclaimed by the Church.
Johnson writes well and gives us an impressive testament of faith from a persuasive thinker.
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I’ve favorably reviewed several of N. T. Wright’s works in an earlier edition of my “Reedings” (#187) and now commend his foray into apologetics with the publication of Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperCollinsPublishers, c. 2006). “My aim,” he says, “has been to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside” (p. ix).
Wright divides his treatise into three sections, the first titled “Echoes of a Voice.” He finds, by listening to the world’s hungers, how the Christian Faith aptly answers them. First there’s the insatiable quest for justice, amply evident everywhere. Amidst both the tragedies and comedies of life we know things should be “made right” but cannot find how to do so. We can, as do many secularists, simply resign ourselves to the probability that our hopes for justice are sheer fantasies akin to daydreams. “Or we may say,” Wright contends, “that the reason we have these dreams . . . is that there is someone speaking to us, whispering in our inner ear—someone who cares very much about” us and “has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights, ourselves being put to rights, the world being rescued at last” (p. 9). Additional “echoes of a voice” include man’s sense of spiritual reality, the certainty that we are “made for each other” in manifold ways, and the “beauty of the earth” that manifests both the nature and handiwork of its Creator.
In the book’s second section Wright “lays out the central Christian belief about God. Christians believe that there is one true and living God, and that this God, revealed in action in Jesus, is the God who called the Jewish people to be his agents in setting forward his plan to rescue and reshape his creation” (p. x). What Christians believe about God all centers in His Son Jesus, for in Him “God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up” (p. 92). Living, dying, and rising from the grave, Jesus did it all! And we are both called and privileged to be His representatives in our world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we carry on His work. How we do this is detailed in the third section of the book: “reflecting the image,” something we do through prayer, biblical study and meditation, commitment to and working within the church.
Though Simply Christian is a solid treatise, its value (to me at least) is as an illustration of a highly
distinguished biblical scholar’s effort to proclaim the Faith for a popular audience.
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