As a syncretic religion, Christianity is difficult to analyse. There is no agreement among Christians themselves as to its essence, hence there are many Christian churches. To probe into Christianity, one has to examine its history.
Within the first few centuries, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, evolved into a religion with universal aspirations, incorporated Greek philosophical ideas into its doctrine, and became a state religion. Christianity stands therefore on three pillars – Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy and Roman administration. Correspondingly, its foundation texts are written in three languages – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, while the Latin translation of both texts had been used in the Catholic Church for nearly two millennia.
In Christianity, beliefs are more important than practices. All its Churches make claims to orthodoxy, ie the correct set of beliefs. Christians are indifferent to how they dress and what they eat but focus on what they think. In Judaism and Islam, orthopraxy prevails hence there are strict dietary and clothing rules in both religions while beliefs are relatively simple. In Islam, a declaration of faith is sufficient to become a Muslim. In Judaism, one is born a Jew.
Christianity has strong rational and humanistic elements. These elements are so dominant that some critics of Christianity deny that it is a religion. En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos, John writes in his Gospel. For the Greeks, Logos meant the underlying order of reality. John’s passage can be read as “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God”. Christian God can therefore be understood as deified Logos, or Reason, combined with the personal God of the Jews.
Socrates asks whether that which is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. He answers that the gods only recognise the holiness which already exists in holy things. This thought became the basis of the Christian theology. It equates God with the Good and Necessity. God is benevolent. What follows is that God is not omnipotent. God cannot appear again and declare that the Decalogue will now include new commandments urging believers to rob, rape and murder. Similarly, God can only do things that are not contradictory or impossible. God cannot change what I ate yesterday for breakfast.
One of the papal encyclicals is titled Fides and Ratio, faith and reason, and this combination makes Christianity a peculiar religion. The centrality of Aristotelianism in the Catholic Church prompted Russian emigre philosopher Lev Shestov to declare that Catholicism is a rationalist philosophy masquerading as a religion. Shestov expands on Dostoevsky’s criticism of the Papacy in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky accuses the Church of corrupting the original message of God that his kingdom is not of this world, and sacrificing freedom for earthly welfare.
“Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”. Pope Benedict XVI used this statement by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus to reiterate the Church’s attachment to Reason. The Church cannot accept Tertulian’s Credo quia absurdum because it denigrates Reason. God can be both known through Revelation and rational thought. It is therefore legitimate to seek rational proofs of God’s existence. Shestov writes that Catholics believe that they have the key to the universe and that that key is Reason.
Jean Fouquet Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, ca 1452
The other central aspect of Christianity is its anthropocentrism. The New Testament says that Jesus was sent to Earth to die for our sins in an act of atonement. Jesus became Man and suffered as a human being for the sake of humanity. His human characteristics are stressed to such an extent that this may not be the case of God becoming Man but Man being celebrated as God. In Western art, Jesus is portrayed first as a baby with his loving mother, then as a merciful teacher and, finally, as a humiliated and suffering individual who is executed together with common criminals. If a Martian landed on Earth and visited art museums and Catholic churches, he would have concluded that Christianity is the religion of Man. Catholicism acquires feminine characteristics through the cult of Mary, the mother of God. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Sensualism of certain saints verges on eroticism. Religious themes in painting, but also in music, provide ample evidence of Christians celebrating beauty in themselves, also physical beauty. There is disarming sweetness in cantatas of Bach and Vivaldi or paintings of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.
By worshiping their God, Christians worship the order in the universe and themselves as deified human beings. Christianity is therefore prone to be perceived in human, rational and, ultimately, secular terms. It is only seemingly a paradox that Christian societies had evolved into modern welfare states. The original Christian promise has found its fulfilment in a secular society which treats Christian principles as its own. Even the pessimistic doctrine of the original sin has turned out to be a blessing, so to speak. Man is born in sin and incapable of perfection. If an individual transgresses against divine and human laws he will be dealt with according to the severity of his transgression, with the aim of rehabilitation rather than revenge. Among Western societies, only the US retains the capital punishment. In Islam, striving for perfection is a religious obligation and those who fail in jihad are harshly punished.
Christianity is unique among religions. It encompasses rationalism and humanism and this combination places it on the antipodes of Islam and orthodox Judaism which are both strictly theocentric. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are oriented towards their holy texts as homini unius libri, or men of one book. Judaism has its reformed branch which originated in Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and mainstream Judaism embraced modernity to the same extent as mainstream Christianity. The fact that most Jews had lived in diaspora in Europe for two thousand years is reflected in the history of Israel which is a state with Western institutions, although with complications of geopolitical nature.
Islam though is past-oriented and anti-modern and will remain so until it revisits the dispute of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), an Aristotelian philosopher, with Al-Ghazali, an enemy of Aristotelianism. Islam diverged from Christianity when Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of blasphemy and infidelity, punishable by death. Al-Ghazali killed the flourishing Islamic civilisation which abandoned Reason and reverted to Revelation, discouraging an interaction with visible and tangible reality and focusing instead on the holy text as the primary aspect of reality.
Christianity chose an opposite path when it opted for Aristotelianism as its core in the thirteenth century, and it made all the difference for Europe and its outposts on other continents. Modern civilisation can only be built on three pillars – rationalism, empiricism and humanism. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity that can be criticised but, on balance, Christianity has played a positive role in the history of the world.