The Necessity for Christianity

Professor Paul Johnson

The Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, that superbly gifted but curmudgeonly and occasionally malevolent writer, had a wickedly sharp tongue, and sometimes behaved as though he loved to inflict pain by his words. One day, a brave woman dared to ask him: 'Mr. Waugh, you say such horrible things to people, I cannot believe you are really religious. How can you behave as you do, and still remain a Christian?'

He replied with grim sincerity: 'Madam, I may be all the things you say. But believe me, were it not for my religion, I would scarcely be a human being.'

Waugh was not, as it happens, saying anything extraordinary. He was merely stating a fundamental truth, which applied just as well to people much kinder than he was. It is a truth we can appreciate in this terrible century of ours, where the process of de-Christianisation has been followed, step by step, by a growth in the scale and intensity of human depravity without precedent in history. As Waugh was implying, without God, mankind quickly degenerates into the sub-human. The point was elegantly made by Francis Bacon 360 years ago in his essay 'On Atheism': 'They that deny God, destroy man's nobility. For certainly, man is akin to the beasts by his body. And if he be not akin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.'

One of the most penetrating and sophisticated of modern theologians, the Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, who died recently, reached exactly the same conclusion by a complex and exhaustive theological inquiry, to which he devoted his long life. He argued that, if the image of God faded completely from our minds, so that all knowledge and perception of the deity were lost and the very word 'God' became meaningless to the race, we would slowly cease to be human. Of course we would retain our intellectual capacity, our ability to make ever more complicated machines. But by cutting the umbilical cord with God completely, our source of ethic vitality would be gone. Morally, we would become nothing better than a species of fantastically clever monkeys. Our ultimate fate would, and must be, too horrible to contemplate.

The truth is that all of us are Jekyll and Hyde creatures, part saint, part beast. The great strength of Christianity is that, while insisting that man is made in the image of God, it accepts that there is a radical flaw in the reproduction. From time to time, God's image is reflected in man's face as in a hideous distorting mirror. Theologians call this the doctrine of Original Sin. But this is merely to rationalize what we can all observe but cannot explain. Shakespeare, in his marvelous play Hamlet, in which he tried to pour everything he knew of man's ambivalent nature, has his hero say: 'What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a God!' And yet, he adds, man is the quintessence of dust. Man can be, and often is, the most destructive, cruel and malicious of creatures. When Dr. Samuel Johnson was touring the Scottish Highlands with James Boswell, Lady Macleod of Dunvegan Castle asked him if no man was naturally good. He replied: 'No madam, no more than a wolf!' Boswell: 'Nor no woman, Sir?' Johnson: 'No, Sir!'

Dr. Johnson's listeners were shocked by his rigor, but what he meant was obvious enough. We have a propensity to evil in our natures which cannot be entirely corrected from our own resources. We need external help to keep our dark side under control; and the most obvious way in which that help manifests itself is by inducing fear. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote in Psalm 111: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom'.

Dr. Johnson was speaking towards the end of the 18th century, that fascinating age in which barbarism and rationality sat in uneasy conjunction. For the first time, the century witnessed a continuous, and cumulatively quite rapid decline, among the poorer classes, of belief in Hell, in the literal sense of a place of eternal fire to which the wicked were inevitably sent for sins committed on earth. In his book The Decline of Hell (London 1964), Dr. D. P. Walker has pointed out the marked correlation between the fading of popular belief in Hell and the determination of the ruling class to keep down crime by replacing fear of the next world by statutory punishments in this. Thus as Hellfire sank down, the gallows arose from its ashes. During the century, the number of statutory crimes carrying the death penalty rose from 60 to about 200, and by its end included appropriating stolen goods, killing or wounding cattle, destroying growing trees, cutting down fences, damaging ponds, lock-gates and sluices, stealing fish from private rivers and a variety of petty theft.

With the revival of religious belief early in the 19th century, it became possible to abolish many of these statutory capital sentences. Indeed, the contraction of capital crime until it consisted solely of murder and treason, which marked the Victorian age, was in fact accompanied by a statistical fall in recorded offenses per head of the population. This was made possible by the strong religious spirit which prevailed in those decades: over 50,000 new churches were built in England alone, and church attendance continued to rise until the 1880s.

What we have witnessed in the 20th century, and especially in the last few decades, is an entirely new and sinister development. For while the invisible sanction of religion has declined in most parts of the globe-often rapidly and catastrophically-the visible sanctions of the law have been systematically and deliberately liberalized, so that the evil propensities of mankind have been checked by the fear neither of divine nor human justice. The unwillingness of parents and schools to instill fear of the Lord has been matched by a growing unwillingness of the state to instill fear of the courts. The result has been a growth in everyday crime on a scale never before experienced, and to which the statistics provide no real yardstick-though all of us, as individuals, are painfully aware of its magnitude. The prevalence of crime, of unpunished crime, and especially of violent and unpunished crime, has induced in many bewildered, law-abiding citizens a kind of desperation, so that they are increasingly tempted to defend their lives and property by violence and, in the absence of effective law-enforcement, designate themselves judge, jury and executioner in their own cause. Thus liberalism in the law produces not an increase in civility but a reversion to the law of revenge, which, as Bacon says, 'is a kind of wild justice'. He adds: 'The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs there is no law to remedy.' 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord' (Romans 12:19). Yes: but what happens when belief in the Lord's vengeance has faded, and men and women hold the ability of society to avenge effectively on their behalf in even greater contempt? Then, to use Dr. Johnson's expression, the nature of the wolf arises in man; and wolf begets wolf, and we move progressively towards that social breakdown so graphically described by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, where there is 'continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'.

It is important to grasp, however, that Christianity, as a form of social control and a curb on man's propensity to evil, is not based on fear of punishment alone, and indeed runs directly counter to the notion of draconian punishment. There are Middle Eastern societies today-Saudi Arabia, for instance-where crime is controlled by the application of Islamic criminal law in all its primitive severity: public executions and floggings for comparatively trivial offenses, and the hideous business of judicial mutilation. That is not the Christian way, and it never has been. For Christianity has its moral theology rooted in Judaism, and Judaism diverged from the characteristic Middle Eastern notion of retributive justice as early as the Second Millenium B.C. If we compare the Hebrew law-codes outlined in the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers, with other Middle Eastern law-codes of similar date-the laws of Hammurabi, for instance, of the Mid-Assyrian law-code from ancient Ashur-we find significant differences. Whereas these codes make the rights of property paramount, the Hebrew emphasize the essential rights and obligations of man, and their laws were framed with deliberate respect for moral values. Again, whereas Assyrian and other codes lay down a horrific system of punishments, including impalement, facial mutilation, castration and flogging to death, Hebrew codes from the start embrace the idea that the human person is entitled to respect, being in God's image. Flogging was limited to forty strokes but carried out 'before the face of the judge, lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee' (Deut. 25:3).

Christianity built upon the humanist structure of Judaism, and added its own notions of mankind's dignity and responsibility. It provided a much clearer vision of the afterlife, and how it was to be attained, so that in its inducements to obey the moral law, which it made much simpler and practical than the Mosaic one, it stressed the power of hope as much as the power of fear. It was, too, universalistic in its message and in its appeal; and, recognizing the infinite diversity of men and women, it was endowed by its founder with a glittering variety of insights and guidelines calculated to evoke responses from all natures. It proved a matchless combination of spirituality and dynamism. It offered answers to metaphysical questions, it provided opportunities and frames of reference for the contemplative, the mystic and the devout; but at the same time it was a relentless gospel of work, and an appeal to achievement. Christianity provided the essential matrix of Europe itself, as it merged from the Dark Ages; and when Europe spread overseas, it carried Christianity with it in its ships, so that the Western world order, as it emerged in the 19th century, had its origins in Christianity and indeed until 1914 was essentially Christian in its values and its codes of conduct.

I have not much doubt that future ages will regard the 19th century as the apogee and culmination of the civilized and prosperous order which Christianity created. It was marked almost everywhere by the spread of regular law enforcement, equitable justice and the effective protection of life, property and legitimate commerce. Piracy and slavery were virtually ended. Living standards rose, often in spectacular fashion, all over the world; standards of public health and education were everywhere improved. Life became more precious, and richer, and countless millions of people acquired access to privileges and enjoyments hitherto confined to the rich. All this took place within a Christian context, with Christianity spreading all over the world, quite rapidly, and with the hope-expressed as late as 1910 in the First World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh by the American Methodist John Raleigh Mott-of 'the evangelizing of the world in one generation'. Christian ethical notions underlay the structure of public law wherever the Western world penetrated, and of international law and commerce everywhere. Above all the 19th century saw the climax of the philosophy of personal responsibility-the notion that each of us is individually accountable for our actions before some ultimate tribunal-which is the very essence of the Judeo-Christian spirit. It was this doctrine of individual responsibility, resting on the notion of the individual conscience, which created the 19th century world and made it on the whole a prosperous and orderly place.

Then, in 1914, Europe committed suicide, and into this senseless process of self-mutilation it eventually dragged the United States. The world of the 19th century, with all its certitude's and restraints, was gone, never to return. It was a European suicide; it was also, in a sense, a suicide of Christianity. For on one side were ranged Protestant Germany, Catholic Austria and Orthodox Bulgaria; on the other were Protestant Britain, Catholic France and Italy, and Orthodox Russia. European Christianity, supposedly based on a common moral foundation, proved no more able than the network of marriage relationships among the royal families to prevent Armageddon, or to stop it degenerating into mutual genocide. All the participants claimed they were fighting in the name of moral principle and Christian justice.

Such episodes induce a mood of cynicism-even of hostility-towards Christianity. There have always been those who have argued that organized religion is a fraud and itself the progenitor of human depravity. Wars have been fought not only between Christians, each professing Christian aims, but specifically to advance Christian purposes. The Crusades can be presented as the beginnings of European aggressive colonialism, one of the great land-grabs of history. In the 18th century, at a time when Dr. Johnson saw religion as the sole force capable of restraining the wolf in man, free-thinkers took quite the opposite view. In the famous Philosophical Dictionary, published in Paris in 1764, Voltaire defined religion as 'the enemy of man'.

The phenomenon of Christians fighting Christians, both sides waving the Bible, poses perhaps insoluble problems of theodicy. It arose in acute form during the American civil war, when the clergy of all Christian denominations, on both North and South, argued vehemently for the justice of their respective causes. President Lincoln had reflected more deeply on the relationship between religion and political justice than any other man of his time, perhaps of any time. In one sense he had no doubt that God was on his side: it was because of what he believed to be a divine sign that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Yet he accepted an element of inscrutability in Divine Providence . . . Lincoln recast these thoughts into a famous passage of his Second Inaugural Address of 1865, and drew from his perplexity what is surely the correct answer: that while Christian insights do not necessarily explain to us God's purpose, Christian ethics teach us how to mitigate the evils of the world which man's folly creates. We must therefore behave 'with malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right'; and after the war, we must 'do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations'.

I return then to Evelyn Waugh's point, which I believe applies equally to nations as to individuals. Christianity cannot perfect man; cannot even make man good; but can and does make man better than he would be without it. Christianity cannot lead nations into collective wisdom and charity; cannot avert war, civil or international; but it can and does, if only episodically and imperfectly, impose some restraints on the wickedness' of states and the ravages of warfare. I came across the other day, a report by a British naval commander to the Admiralty during the Dardanelles campaign of 1915, which at first raised a smile: He wrote: 'We shelled the Turks from 9 to 11; and then, it being Sunday, we held Divine Service'. At first thought it raises a smile; but not on second thoughts. For if men are to shell their fellow men in any case, is it not better that they should stand in the presence of God afterwards, and pray for guidance and forgiveness, and seek consolation in their anxieties and fears? I have no doubt at all that it is. Again, when the Second World War broke out in 1939, Pope Pius XII advised Catholics everywhere 'to fight with valor and charity'. This struck many at the time and since as an inadequate response to a world calamity. And personally I hold no brief for Pius's conduct before and during the war. Yet such advice in itself is not unchristian. If men must fight at all, it is better that they fight with valor, and still more with charity, than without either; better they should fight like Christians, than like mere animals trapped in a pit together.

This brings me to my central point. For if the suicide of Europe in 1914 was conducted in what was still a Christian context, the world which emerged from that war bore the first unmistakable signs of total deChristianisation at a state level. For 1917 saw the birth, in Russia, of the first atheist state dedicated to the destruction of religion of all kinds and of Christianity in particular; and that evil regime itself soon evoked, in response, others which repudiated all the restraints of Christianity-and these anti-Christian regimes were soon at each other's throats, like wild beasts, dragging what remained of the civilized world into their arena of conflict.

What is so notable about the 20th century, and a principal cause-I think the principal cause-of its horrors, is that great physical power has been acquired by men who have no fear of God and who believe themselves restrained by no absolute code of conduct. Lenin, who devoted his life to violence, and who created the Soviet Union in his own violent image, hated Christianity as a huge and ubiquitous enemy. He wrote to Maxim Gorky (13 January 1913): 'There can be nothing more abominable than religion'. He said he did not mind a corrupt and sinful priest-such were easily beaten. But he hated and feared the saints. The purer the religion, the more dangerous it was. A devoted cleric, he argued, is far more influential than an egotistical and immoral one. The clergy most in need of suppression were those who expressed their solidarity with the workers and the peasants. It was these he persecuted most ferociously. He insisted there was no such thing as a Christian code of conduct; the only true guide to the behavior of the individual and of the state was what he termed 'the revolutionary conscience'-that is, the party line, dictated by himself as, in his quasi- divine wisdom, he saw fit. Can we wonder then that this monster murdered or starved to death five million of his own countrymen, and that his successor, Stalin-who inherited his mantle-dispatched a further 20 million?

Lenin was a disciple of Marx, who argued that it was the supposed virtues of Christians-the humility, acceptance of suffering, willingness to turn the other cheek-which made it most abominable in his eyes. Adolf Hitler, Lenin's Doppelganger, was a disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that God was dead. He wrote in 1886: 'The greatest event of recent times-that "God is dead", that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable-is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe'. Hitler was part of those shadows; for he personified what Nietzsche, in this sense correctly, predicted would fill the vacuum left by the decline in Christianity: the Will to Power. Hitler was a new kind of Messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. Hitler hated Christianity with a passion which rivaled Lenin's. Shortly after assuming power in 1933, he told Hermann Rauschnig that he intended 'to stamp out Christianity root and branch'. 'One is either a Christian or a German-you cannot be both', he added. Christianity might be destroyed by force or 'left to rot like a gangrenous limb'. The masses would never be Christian again: 'Never again. That tale is finished . . . but we can hasten matters. The parsons will be made to dig their own graves. They will betray their God to us'. In the Nazi party, he created a blasphemous parody of Christianity, with racialism substituted for God, and German 'blood' for the blood of Christ. He had a Nazi creed, marriage service, sacraments. In rejecting God, he gave substance to Fr Rahner's notion that men without God would become mere clever animals. For Hitler wanted to raise the brute in man. He said: 'I want a powerful, masterly, cruel and fearless youth . . . The freedom and dignity of the wild beast must shine from their eyes . . . that is how I will root out a thousand years of human domestication'.

Can it be wondered that these two fearful regimes, created by men dedicated to the destruction of Christian humanism and its ethics, soon plunged the world into a yet more extensive and destructive Armageddon, which cost 50 million lives and saw men resort to degrees of savagery and wickedness never before practiced or even imagined. Had the world ever before seen horrors like Auschwitz or the Gulag Archipelago? Here were the first bitter fruits of a de-Christianized world.

During the last 40 years, since the end of the Second World War, the process of de- Christianisation has proceeded, for the great European empires, which were shaped by Christian ethics, and in theory at least, and often in practice, were based upon Christian ideals of justice, tolerance and equality before the law, have been ruthlessly dismantled or abandoned . . . As Christianity and the West have retreated, totalitarianism in various forms, civil war in all its manifestations, and international war in innumerable guises, have rushed to fill the vacuum; and there has likewise been a reversion to forms of barbarism and savagery, not excluding cannibalism. The cost in human life has been enormous: so-called 'conventional wars' and civil conflicts fought in Asia, Africa and Latin America have claimed over 35 million lives in these four decades. Countless others have died in prisons and camps, often under torture, or in the famines engineered by human folly or even deliberately by human malevolence over large parts of Africa, where the restraints of Christian government have been removed.

I return again to the principle of Evelyn Waugh: that there is no person or situation with Christianity, which cannot be rendered worse, and usually far worse, without it. Take some examples. Until 1959, the Cuban Republic was a broadly Christian country, with a corrupt and occasionally vicious government, a complacent hierarchy, but huge areas of personal freedom and one of the highest living standards in Latin America-living standards that were increasing quite rapidly. Today, Cuba is a de-Christianized Marxist totalitarian state. It has an annual growth-rate, per capita, of minus 1.2 per cent. It has become one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with a national income of less that $1,000 a head, worse off than neighboring Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Mexico, on which it once looked down. It has 150,000 political prisoners, many of whom have rotted in gaol for nearly 25 years. With armed forces of 200,000 it has more men under arms, in relation to population, than any other Latin-American country, indeed than any other country in the world, with the exception of Soviet Russia's other surrogate, Vietnam. And of the Cuban people, between one-fifth and one-quarter live in exile.

Vietnam, now the most militaristic state on earth, fighting wars and skirmishes round all its borders, is another example of de-Christianisation. It was once under the protection of France, a great Christian power, and in the south at least was partly or even predominantly Christianized, being directly governed by Christian sects. As in Cuba, there was corruption; and, under French rule, some injustice. There was also a high degree of freedom, including the freedom of religion; and rising prosperity. Christianity has now been virtually eradicated, at least to all appearances; and other religions such as Buddhism operate under the same restraints imposed by the Soviets on Russian Orthodoxy. Again, a fifth of the population are in exile; and the remainder live in this grim, totalitarian armed camp in conditions of privation and servitude. In neighboring Cambodia, a fifth of the population have been murdered, another quarter are refugees, and the rest administered by the occupying Vietnamese armed forces.

As one glances around a suffering world, many other examples spring into view. Angola and Mozambique once formed the jewels in the Portuguese Christian empire, an empire characterized by much poverty, some oppression and corruption, but also by a multi-racial spirit and Christian idealism, albeit in somewhat rudimentary form. Guerrilla war, and a change of regime in Portugal, ended the empire; it has been succeeded by Marxist states of a kind, by civil war in both cases, continuous terrorist activity, the destruction of the infrastructure, oppression on a scale unimaginable in the Portuguese era, a progressive decline in living standards and, in many areas, famine and starvation.

Further north is the tragic case of Uganda which, during its brief efflorescence under Christian colonial rule, was perhaps the most delightful country in Africa. Winston Churchill, who visited it in 1908, called it a 'paradise upon earth . . . a tropical garden . . . a fairy-tale: you climb up a railway instead of a beanstalk, and at the top is a wonderful new world.' Uganda had been Christianized by Anglican and Catholic missionaries, who ended the cruelty of its pagan and Moslem tyrants. It was given independence in 1963, fell victim to the military regime of Idi Amin in 1971, and for the next eight years endured one of the worst terrors in the bloody history of African paganism. Amin was the Moslem son of a Lugbara witchwoman, and seems to have practiced ritual cannibalism, murdering and dismembering one of his wives, eating his son's heart and keeping select human members in his refrigerator; he caused to be murdered 250,000 people, many of whom he dispatched personally. The Obote regime which both preceded and followed his was scarcely better, and Uganda is now a ruined country, ravaged by civil war and haunted by ghosts.

Most pathetic case of all perhaps, is Ethiopia, the only African country to retain its Christianity from Antiquity, the last monarchy to fall victim to colonialism, the first to have its independence restored: a strange, colorful, primitive and vulnerable survival from the pre-modern world. There was considerable freedom, and some progress, under the old Emperor Haile Selasse, who survived until 1974, when the Soviets caused him to be smothered to death, and installed a puppet Marxist regime in his place. The worst that could be said of the old Emperor's censorship is that he cut the death-scene of King Duncan from performances of Macbeth; after his fall, Shakespeare was not performed at all. Now, ten years later, Ethiopia is stricken by civil and external wars and is enduring the worst famine in its history, created at least in part by deliberate decisions of its Marxist rulers-thus following the tradition of Lenin and Stalin, who used the famine-weapon to destroy their internal enemies. Soviet aircraft are employed to bomb the refugees from the famine-stricken areas.

If Voltaire were alive today, surveying a world from much of which Christianity has been forced to retreat, and observing the horrors, both physical and ideological, which have rushed to fill the vacuum it has left, I doubt if he would still maintain that 'religion is the enemy of man'. Would he not, rather, be forced to conclude that true religion, by which I mean Judeo-Christianity in all its normative forms, is the friend of man, that with all its limitations as practiced by fallible humanity, it is the only safety-net which keeps us all from plunging into the abyss, and joining the beasts which tear and rend each other below? Would he not now concede, if only in an empirical sense, the necessity of Christianity? I think he would.

He might also note the remarkable, indeed unique, role of America in the world scene. In 1835, long after Voltaire was dead, his compatriot De Tocqueville had been struck by the extraordinary, and to him, astounding, part played by religion in the Great Republic. In his book Democracy in America, he wrote: 'In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other: but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country'. He concluded: 'Religion . . . must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions'.

I believe that De Toqueville's observation remains valid today, and that religious voluntarism, which has shaped America more than any other force, continues to underpin its democratic freedoms and its republican institutions. Moreover, Christianity is not on the retreat in America. In some respects it is undergoing a revival here, what I like to call the Fourth Great Awakening. It finds religious expression in the Moral Majority, political expression in the phenomenon of Reaganism-for in America religion and politics are organically linked, movements in one echoing and reflecting movements in the other. Just as the strength of religion in America sustains and nurtures democracy, so the vigorous spirit of American democracy continually reinforces the people's religion. What distinguishes the current revival is its popular, non-hierarchical nature. For the official religious establishments, indulging in ever-more-extreme forms of liberalism, through the National and World Council of Churches, have provoked an angry, conservative reaction from the disenfranchised rank-and-file. This has taken the form of a new and non-elitist variety of ecumenicalism, a de facto unity which stretches across the Protestant sects and into Catholicism, a popular ecumenicalism based upon a common reassertion of traditional moral values and belief in the salient articles of Christianity not as symbols but as plain historical facts. It appeals to many non-practicing Christians, and even non-Christians, who feel that the Judeo-Christian system of ethics and morals is in peril, and in need of re-establishment- that, in the last decades of this tragic century Christianity is indeed a necessity.

One aspect of the American religious revival is the reassertion of America's role as the city of refuge for the oppressed. America was founded by persecuted sects, and continually reinforced by them. In the 19th century, it took in four millions of oppressed Irish Catholics, two million persecuted Jews from Russia and Rumania; and countless millions of poor Christian peasants from east and central and southern Europe. In the last two decades, it has received, and enabled to live in tolerance and growing prosperity, many millions of persecuted Catholics from Marxist Cuba and Indochina. In the 1980's, as in the days of the Mayflower, the United States is the first and obvious and often the only possible choice of anyone, anywhere in the world, dislocated in the cause of religious freedom. I know of no more positive and visible proof of the necessity of Christianity in the world today than this American role as the last refuge of the oppressed. So I end with Longfellow's lines, to my mind as true as when he wrote them:

Sail on, O Union strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all its hopes for future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate.