“Did Christianity make the world better?”

When asked this question, I always give an unequivocal answer. Possibly. Then again, possibly not.

A civilisation is born

In any case, that wasn’t the intent. Christ didn’t set out to improve this world; he set out to save it.

Talking specifically about people, Christ didn’t want to make us better. His purpose was to show us how we could make ourselves better.

To that end God gave us his most precious gift: free will, the ability to make free choices between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, vice and virtue.

But couldn’t he have done better? Couldn’t he have turned us all into little angels with nary a bad thought among them, strumming their lutes in luxuriant, redolent gardens? And if he didn’t, doesn’t that mean he isn’t omnipotent? Just look at us, killing one another in ever-increasing numbers.

That’s right, Christians kill. So do pagans. So do Muslims. So do Jews. So do Buddhists, if you get them angry enough. So do atheists and, if modern history is anything to go by, they run up the score like no one else.

History meanders, it zigs and it zags, its events flash before our eyes at a kaleidoscopic speed. However, one thing remains constant: people, whatever their faith if any, kill.

And of course God could have stopped it: he is, by definition, omnipotent. Yet doing so would have deprived us of that precious possession, free will. We would no longer be people; we’d be automata or else puppets in the hands of a wire-puller.

Then it wouldn’t be obvious why God bothered to create us in the first place, or sacrifice his son for our salvation. If we were unthinking, unfeeling machines, we wouldn’t need saving. The odd bit of routine maintenance would do the trick.

It’s reasonably clear that, given a free choice between right and wrong, many, possibly most, of us choose wrong much, possibly most, of the time. But that still doesn’t settle the question in the title.

Because ‘better’ is a comparative, not an absolute. Evelyn Waugh once pointed this out with his usual wit in a letter to his friend Nancy Mitford.

“You are a Catholic,” wrote Mitford, “but you are still a nasty bit of work.” “Yes,” replied Waugh, “but you don’t know how nasty I’d be if I weren’t a Catholic.”

Since we’re entering the murky waters of the subjunctive mood, it’s best to leave the question open. Christianity might or might not have made the world better.

But what’s indisputable is that Christianity made the world intelligible. It created its own system of thought and, as far as I’m concerned, no other comes close in its ability to explain the world, especially man.

Christ, fully God and fully man, created in his person the unique synthesis of the physical and metaphysical, body and spirit. He showed that (and why) an animal man might be, but he isn’t just an animal.

He’s a creature endowed with an atom of God’s reason, and even such a tiny particle is enough for man to understand much, if not quite everything, about himself and the physical world.

All it takes is the first step, accepting the story of the two Testaments on faith, the way a scientist accepts a hypothesis. That done, we can test the hypothesis against all available facts, revealed both empirically or intellectually.

And suddenly things that didn’t make sense before begin to do so. Moreover, all competing hypotheses and theories begin to look puny, at times downright vulgar.

For example, doesn’t the notion of free will exercised poorly explain our miseries infinitely better than the vulgarities of behaviourists, psychologists, Darwinists and other parasites? Doesn’t it tally better with the evidence before our very eyes?

Doesn’t it explain, say, crime more convincingly than any set of socioeconomic conditions? Some poor people steal because they feel their poverty justifies such an act. Some equally poor people won’t steal because it’s wrong. The denominator of poverty is common; the freely made choice, individual.

And doesn’t original sin explain human behaviour more convincingly and verifiably than all those Rousseauian inanities about the noble sauvage – to say nothing of that transparent mountebank Freud, with his salacious fantasies?

It’s not just man but also his physical environment that became intelligible thanks to Christianity. Those who claim that religion and science are incompatible should ask themselves why most scientific knowledge has been acquired in the West, with other civilisations offering only scraps here and there.

An inventor creates something new; a scientist uncovers what’s already there. Newton didn’t invent his laws of thermodynamics; he prised them out of a chest of secrets.

It’s illogical to accept the existence of rational natural laws while denying the existence of a rational law-giver. Since only things rationally created can be rationally knowable, Judaeo-Christian cosmology is an essential presupposition for any scientist, whether he’s aware of it or not.

The term Judaeo-Christian is composite; it implies the synthetic nature of Christian thought. Indeed, Christianity is what I often call an asset-stripping religion: it borrows what it finds useful, such as Jewish cosmology and Greek philosophy, and discards what it finds harmful, such as Jewish legalism and Greek morality.

But this synthesis isn’t mechanical. Rather, it adds a new revelation to the old, or else a touch of divine reason to the finest achievements of the human mind. It’s in that sense that, as the saying goes, Aquinas baptised Aristotle.

Christendom transformed Hellenic thought to create by far the deepest and subtlest philosophy any other civilisation could muster. Hence the so-called Age of Reason is a pernicious, cynical misnomer – in fact, it dragged reason from its cosmic heights down into the mire of turgid musings, soul-destroying materialism and fanciful half-thoughts.

Yet a great civilisation did exist, born 2019 years ago. It’s going through a rough patch now, and some might think it’s dead or at least dying. Perhaps.

But one day it’ll come back in all its glory. For, as its founder taught, indeed showed, just as there is death in life, there is life in death.

Merry Christmas!

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