Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Christianity as Creed, Christianity as Deeds

Anne Stott guest-blogs at Normblog to question the claim that religion poisons everything and concludes as follows:

The story of Christianity is full enough of bigotry, violence, sexism and homophobia to fill many volumes, but a balanced account will also reveal compassion, heroism, and unselfish dedication to noble causes. Is this complexity and contradiction really too difficult for our strident contemporary secularists to take on board?
It seems to me that much turns here on the meaning of "the story of Christianity" -- whether that refers to the cumulative deeds of every professed Christian throughout time, or whether it refers to the creedal commitments that distinguish Christians from non-Christians.

On the former reading, clearly we can review the entire history of Christians doing things in the world, from the first century CE until this afternoon, and observe a broad spectrum ranging from "bigotry, violence, sexism, and homophobia" to "compassion, heroism, and unselfish dedication to noble causes" and plenty inbetween. And beyond, for that matter -- as a matter of historical fact, Christians have done worse than the worst things listed there, and better than the best things listed.

The latter reading, under which Christianity is a definite creed, presents a clearer picture. In the light of Stott's extended example -- the abolition of slavery -- there is nothing in the Nicene Creed calling for the abolition of slavery on either moral or pragmatic grounds; and there is nothing in the Christian Bible calling for the abolition of slavery:
Christianity does not have a clear position regarding slavery, in favour or against. As a religion, it neither promotes slavery nor condemns it. In the early years of Christianity, slavery was a normal feature of the economy and society in the Roman Empire and well into the Middle Ages and beyond. Well into the modern era, groups who advocated abolition of slavery invoked Christian teachings in support of their positions, and those opposed to abolition invoked their own interpretation of Christian teachings in support of their positions.
Slavery coexisted with Christianity qua that-which-Christians-actually-do for roughly seventeen centuries; to this day, Christianity qua creed condones it. The same is equally true of the rest of Stott's litany -- violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, all of which find scriptural warrant. This is valid grounds for "strident secularists" or anyone else to condemn Christianity, even as we recognize that Christians have done, and will continue to do, both evil and good in the world.

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