On the Demeaning of Traditions of Faith
Usually I’m quiet and listen, but every once in a while I get fed up with the screeds I often hear against Christianity, occasionally against Judaism, and almost always against Islam. Not to mention the usual dismissal of “organized religion” in any of its guises, as if there could be religion without organization. I am not sure what happened in the last fifty years, but generations have grown up with no idea of either the intellectual or the social history of these faith traditions. For reasons that I do not know or understand, the word on the street is that they are all in business to oppress people. It has become not only easy, but also sometimes even cheered, when you bash the three Abrahamic traditions. At the very least, criticism brings the usual nods in agreement, as if it were self-evident that nothing good can come out of Nazareth, or Jerusalem, or Mecca.
Occasionally I hear glowing reports about Europe and the social programs that exist in most of the countries. Most people don’t realize that these programs exist because of the Christian background of countries like, say, Norway or Sweden. It was a great movement, called “inner mission” at the time, and it grew directly out of renewed faithfulness.
Pick up any responsible history of the early Jewish and Christian periods – try Robert Wilken, Wayne Meeks, Jaroslav Pelikan, or the sociological studies of Rodney Stark, or the writings of David Bentley Hart – and you will discover that early Christians, following the lead of early Judaism, which was crucial, created systems of mercy and care that extended beyond the borders of their own institutions and became important tools for whole regimes.
Who created hospitals and social services? Not the kings of the realm, for heaven’s sake. They were busy trying to consolidate gains made on the battlefield. The monks and the rabbis and rank and file Christians and Jews and, yes, in Islamic countries the Muslim faithful created these institutions. Mercy is at the heart of these traditions. Look at the ethical injunctions of the three Abrahamic faiths and you will find concern for the oppressed, the sick, and the underclass.
In the middle ages, for example, medical care was significantly more developed in the Eastern world than it was in the West, and Islamic doctors led the way along with Syrian Christian physicians. Eastern Christians built hospitals with regimes of treatment as early as the 6th century, when western hospices were little more than shelters for the sick with no specific methods of healing. The Orthodox Church specifically commemorates the “unmercenaries,” doctors who gave free medical care to all who sought their ministrations. This is but one area where there is much misunderstanding and not a little prejudice against the tradition. Science was not the enemy of the faith but its ally, despite the one example that’s always trotted out to prove how backward we Christians are: namely, Galileo. His case is too complicated for a short article, but you should know that Galileo had his defenders as well as his opponents in the household of faith.
There is bad as well as good in the history of all our traditions; no one would deny that. The Crusades were a horrible mistake; Calvin’s persecution of Servetus was another. But what’s the point? So often we encounter disdain not supported by facts or genuine historical inquiry. Maybe it is because becoming a person of faith is not an easy pathway. It costs to invest in these traditions. Perhaps the price is too high, so it is easier to simply demean the traditions. Think about these things.
19 August 2011