Dinesh D Souza, The Greatness of Christianity: Table of Contents
Cf. Dinesh D’souza, What’s So Great About Christianity, at Amazon
“For the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.” —St. Paul, Letter to the Romans, 7:19
I NOW WANT TO EXAMINE a second major feature of Western civilization that derives from Christianity. This is what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “affirmation of ordinary life:’ It is the simple idea that ordinary people are fallible, and yet these fallible people matter. In this view, society should organize itself in order to meet their everyday concerns, which are elevated into a kind of spiritual framework. The nuclear family, the idea of limited government, the Western concept of the rule of law, and our culture’s high emphasis on the relief of suffering all derive from this basic Christian understanding of the dignity of fallible human beings.
Let’s explore this by considering two related themes that arise from the same Christian root. The first is Paul’s statement above. Here Paul in a single phrase repudiates an entire tradition of classical philosophy founded in Plato. For Plato, the problem of evil is a problem of knowledge. People do wrong because they do not know what is right. If they knew what was right, obviously, they would do it. But Paul denies that this is so. His claim is that even though he knows something is wrong, he still does it. Why? Because the human will is corrupt. The problem of evil is not a problem of knowledge but a problem of will.
I also want to focus on the Christian exaltation of the low man, the common man, and the underdog. These groups were not favorites in the world of ancient Greece and Rome. Homer ignored them in his epics, concentrating entirely on life among the ruling class. Lesser men appeared, if at all, as servants. Aristotle too had a job for low men: slavery. Aristotle argued that with low men in servitude, superior men would have leisure to think and participate in the governance of the community. Aristotle cherished the “great-souled man” who was proud, honorable, aristocratic, rich, and (if this were not enough) spoke in a low and measured voice.
But Jesus was not such a man. Jesus was born in a stable and lived most of his life as a carpenter’s apprentice. He usually traveled by foot and occasionally by donkey. As literaryscholar Erich Auerbach writes, “Christ had not come as a hero and king but as a human being of the lowest social station. His first disciples were fishermen and artisans. He moved in the everyday milieu of the humble folk. He talked with publicans and fallen women, the poor and the sick and children. It may be added that Christ came to a bad end on the cross, hanged like a common criminal and flanked by two actual criminals.
Yet Auerbach notes that despite Christ’s undistinguished origins, simple life, and lowly death, everything he did was imbued with the highest and deepest dignity. The fishermen the Greeks would have treated as figures of low comedy were in the Christian narrative embroiled in events of the greatest importance for human salvation. The sublimity of Christ and his disciples completely reversed the whole classical ideal. Suddenly aristocratic pride came to be seen as something preening and ridiculous. Christ produced the transformation of values in which the last became first, and values once scorned came to represent the loftiest human ideals.
Charles Taylor notes that as a consequence of Christianity, new values entered the world. For the first time people began to view society not from the perspective of the haughty aristocrat but from that of the ordinary man. This meant that institutions should not focus on giving the rich and high-born new ways to pass their free time; rather, they should emphasize how to give the common man a rich and meaningful life. Moreover, economic and political institutions should be designed in such a way that sinful impulses—what Kant termed the crooked timber of humanity—could nevertheless be channeled to produce humane and socially beneficial outcomes.