Christianity's Cultural Contributions
It's quite fashionable to blame Christianity for nearly everything that has gone wrong in the last 2,000 years, says Jonathan Hill. In books from The Da Vinci Code to His Dark Materials, Christians are blamed for inspiring wars, terrorizing people, and fighting against advances in science and learning. But not only are many of those claims either false or greatly exaggerated, they also ignore the many beneficial influences of Christianity in Europe and around the world. What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us?is Hill's response to those who attack the faith. CT corresponded via e-mail with Hill, who is in Singapore working on his Ph.D. in philosophy.
As you say, Christianity has been blamed for intolerance, the Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, and more. Are these fair accusations? If so, have Christians apologized and made amends?
These are fair accusations, at least to some extent. Of course, there's a lot of misunderstanding about these, too. For example, many people think that the Crusades were begun because the Pope didn't like the fact that Jerusalem was occupied by Muslims. In fact, it had been occupied by Muslims for centuries. The Crusades were a response to atrocities against Christian pilgrims by Muslims there. I've heard people claim that the Catholic church burned thousands of witches in the Middle Ages. Actually, there were very few executions of witches in the Middle Ages, and they were mostly done in early modern times by Protestants, not Catholics.
The Inquisition, similarly, was not always the sadistic institution that we associate with the Spanish church. In the Middle Ages, most inquisitors (usually Dominican friars) were quite fair-minded men who sought to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant. That's not to say that there weren't instances like the trial scene in The Name of the Rose, where everything the defendant says is twisted to become "evidence" of his heresy, but that was not the norm. Certainly, the Inquisition was an intrinsically intolerant institutionit was founded on the principle that heresy could not be allowed to flourishbut that was how people thought in the Middle Ages. They believed that heresy endangered the soul. It would make no more sense to be tolerant of heresy than it would to be tolerant of murder.
The Christian churches, like any other social institution, have a very complex history and make-up. Clearly, they've not been simply shining beacons of goodness, and I wouldn't wish to pretend that they have. But by the same token, they've not been simply terrible sources of evil either, and that's the impression that the book is meant to correct.
You mention slavery, which is an excellent example. In antiquity, Christians apparently had no particular problem with slavery as an institution (it is implicitly endorsed in Paul's letter to Philemon, for example), although it became a common practice for rich Christians to free their slaves. After the fall of Rome, slavery remained very common throughout Europe, but Christians increasingly came to abhor the practice, and by the end of the first millennium, it had been outlawed throughout most of the continent. So we see Christians gradually coming to oppose what they recognized as a social ill.
In early modern times, the story was more complex. The Atlantic slave trade made the fortunes of many, including many Christians. Many of them reasoned that Africans weren't properly human, so it didn't matter what was done to them. We often hear that John Newtonthe author of "Amazing Grace"was a slaver before his conversion to evangelical Christianity; we don't often hear that he continued to work as a slaver and pocket the profits for long after his conversion, too. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many Christians argued that slavery was part of God's ordained natural order. The Church of England owned slaves on its Codrington Estates in the West Indies. Many could be recognized by the brand "Society"showing they were the property of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Yet at the same time, some Christians protested against the practice. Pope Eugene IV had condemned slavery in the 1430s, and a century later Pope Paul III repeated the admonition, but unfortunately this meant little to most people in the American and African colonies.