Bruce Anderson: Wise men should believe in the Christian ethic

'Its unattainability does not undermine its value as an account of human life as it ought to be lived'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of Georges de la Tour's paintings shows the boy Christ in Joseph's workshop. The rough, hairy old carpenter – evidently no blood relation – is gazing at the lad with a mixture of awe, tentative affection and foreboding, as if he can already see the horror of the passion to come. It gives the viewer an overarching sense of the divine.

That does not relate to some mere tribal deity: one-eyed Wotan, or Zeus in disguise, fearing Hera's wrath after his latest philandering expedition. This is the power and the glory of universal monotheism; the Creator who so loved the world that he made himself incarnate in a virgin, sending his only begotten son to suffer, and thus transcend suffering; to die, and so break death's dominion: to sacrifice himself, and to redeem all Mankind.

True or not, it is the greatest story ever told. For if God did not create man, man created God – and in so doing also created the greatest cultural monuments, including the Authorised Version of the Bible. This must be quasi-miraculous, for it emerged from a committee. To anyone with any experience of normal committee productions, that might seem clear evidence of divine inspiration. I rarely open the Bible without agreeing with King Agrippa's comment to Paul: "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.''

But holiness has not always been beautiful. Christianity has created cruelty as well as culture. It may have inspired some men to the heights of the human condition; it has incited others to the depths of infamy. It is easy to feel superior to the excesses of the Taliban, until one remembers that in North Belfast, one group of Christians spent much of this year trying to prevent the small children of another group of Christians from walking to school.

Religion, what crimes have been committed in thy name. At moments, it is easy to sympathise with the implacable rationalists who argue that religions preach their gospels of love solely in order to give men more reasons to hate. But the Christians have powerful counter-arguments, even if their current spokesmen often lack the self-confidence to use them.

Early last century, G K Chesterton said that a man who does not believe in God will believe in something worse. That turned out to be the 20th century's most accurate prophecy – and a summary of its blood-stained history. Marxism, Nazism, Maoism: the destructive power of these secular religions far exceeded the worst crimes of the Christian era. These new faiths professed their beliefs in the perfectibility of mankind. But in their own hideous version of a Buddhist paradox, the road to perfection lay through the death camps.

"Original Sin'' is still the clearest account of the human condition, and those who discard the religion which delivered that verdict cannot evade its judgement. Genesis II and III provides the best – and briefest – explanation for all this. As long as Adam and Eve were God's pets, they lived in simple, nude harmony with nature. Then they became human.They discovered knowledge, good and evil, shame and sex. As humans, they were also condemned to mortality, and to the tragedy which accompanies it. Men may dream of the gods in the heavens; they die as the beasts of the field.

Hence the attempt to reconcile that unacceptable disparity, via religion. The religious impulse seems to have manifested itself even in the earliest phases of human history. This might give the rationalist further grounds for scorn, as he watches modern Christians nourish the cavemen's fantasies, albeit in a more sophisticated form. But it might also provide the rationalist who values social stability with a reason to pause. Such a deeply felt and enduring human need as religion must have an outlet. To repress it would be dangerous and futile; it would merely find other means of expression.

The established Christian churches have had years to canalise the religious instinct and to ensure that, on the whole, it manifests itself in socially acceptable forms. In contrast, one problem in the Islamic world is the relative weakness of established church structures. This makes it easier for rough beasts to shamble towards Mecca to be born.

Any dispassionate observer of social conditions in the advanced West would find it hard to conclude that we were suffering from an excess of morals, ethics and a sense of duty. The breakdown of the social and sexual constraints associated with the Christian ethic has been responsible for burgeoning social problems, and indeed social disintegration. The family, the heart of Christian social teaching, was also the basis of social order. The consequences of the collapse of the family can be seen in our prisons and our mental hospitals.

It could be argued that most Christian churches did not cease advocating the importance of family life; it was merely that most of their former congregations stopped listening. But confronted by the social chaos of many modern cities, and the evident widespread human misery which this creates, it would be foolish to set aside any form of ethical teaching which might make a contribution towards an improvement.

Men did not only endow their churches with the finest artistic products; they endowed those churches with the finest products of the human mind. If God does not exist, and could not have taught men how to live, the doctrines which men invented for God are profound expressions of the human race's collective and historic wisdom. The human race's persistent failure to live up to those doctrines in no way invalidates them.

Prime minister Salisbury, a devout Christian, once talked about the radical impossibility of the Christian ethic. It set men challenges which they could never meet, at least in this fallen world. But the unattainability of the Christian ethic – or more accurately, the Judaeo-Christian ethic – does not undermine its worth as an account of human life as it ought to be lived.

Human beings are more naturally attuned to a simple, hierarchical and religious social order than to life in modern cities. It may be easier for human beings to live peaceably if the basic struggles for food, clothing and shelter necessarily consume most of their energies than in an advanced society, where such basic needs can be taken for granted. But given that – at least in the advanced West – we have made a decisive break with the era of scarcity. Men have more leisure than ever to devote to the basic questions which they have always asked, such as what is the meaning of life, and whether life can really have meaning if it is circumscribed by death. Without answers to such enquiries, prosperity can never bring happiness nor widespread harmony.

Irrespective of whether Christianity is true or not, it would make for greater social stability if a significantly higher proportion of the population attempted to answer those questions in a Christian context.

Merry Christmas.

Comments