Is there anyone who changed secular history more than Christ? Consider this: the followers of Jesus Christ introduced Gentiles to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Today, two out of five people in the world are Christians.
Likewise, where would civilization be today without Christian notions of compassion and solidarity? As atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Rorty have noted, these ideas spring from the legacy of Christ. You do not have to be a Christian to appreciate parts of the legacy of Christ.
Five concepts worked out by Christian thinkers have especially affected modern ideas of politics and economics: human dignity, liberty and truth, conscience, and the notion of the person.
Human dignity: What is human dignity? The English word dignity is rooted in a Latin word meaning "worthy of esteem and honor, due a certain respect, of weighty importance." Both Aristotle and Plato held that most humans are by nature slavish and suitable only for slavery. Most do not have natures worthy of freedom. The Greeks used "dignity" for only the few, rather than for all human beings. By contrast, Christianity insisted that every single human is loved by the Creator, made in the Creator's image, and destined for eternal friendship and communion with him.
Among the figures of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant is probably the one who most clearly spoke to the concept of human dignity. He did so in the light of a categorical imperative that he discerned in the rational being, and he made famous this formulation of the principle of human dignity: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."
It is not difficult to see in Kant's formula a statement in nonbiblical language of the essential humanistic aspect of Jewish and Christian teaching: "Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19:18); "And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also" (1 John 4:21).
From the view of modern history, of course, it seems absurd to say that humans are not means but only ends. In the twentieth century, more than a hundred million in Europe alone died by violence, often in a way they could not have foreseen even in their worst nightmares. In the twentieth century, history has been a butcher's bench. In this century, the words human dignity have often sounded empty.
Liberty and truth: Jews and Christians explain human dignity by pointing to human liberty. For Christianity and Judaism, human liberty is an absolutely fundamental fact of God's revelation to humans.
Because the teaching of the Gospels is intended for Christians in every culture, political system, and time, Christian philosophers are first concerned with an understanding of the interior act of liberty—and only secondarily as a political and economic act.
Confronted with any proposition—of fact, principle, theory, or faith—humans may choose to give assent or to dissent. They are responsible for gathering the evidence necessary to make judgments wisely, for struggling to understand the necessary materials, and for disposing themselves to judge such evidence soberly, calmly, and dispassionately. When they declare a proposition to be true or false, they in effect assert what is true and real. When human beings reach a judgment, they reveal a great deal about themselves. They are, in effect, under judgment by reality itself, as mediated by the community of inquirers who seek the truth of things, and nothing but the truth.
The concept of conscience:Conscience is not a term of the ancient Greeks or Romans. Neither is it, exactly, a biblical concept, although many texts in the Bible show the inner conflicts that gave rise to the need for such a concept: "And it came to pass afterward, that David's heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul's skirt" (1 Sam. 24:5); "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do" (Rom. 7:19).
After Kant, it has become common for modern people to think of the moral life as a matter of duties to be observed, a kind of obedience. But in earlier Christian ages, the moral life was thought of as a way of life to be lived, a set of paths to follow with Christ as model and the lives of the saints as pathbreakers. "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8:34).
The first practical problem of the moral life is to find out what to do in the unique circumstances in which you (a unique, irrepeatable) person find yourself now. (Here I echo Thomas Aquinas.) The moral life taxes our capacities for practical knowing. Even when we know the model or ideal we are pursuing, the right thing to do now is not always clear. Besides, we sometimes wish to evade clear knowledge, or we prefer to let passion drive us. After we act from passion or evasion, we sometimes see clearly what we ought to have done, and feel the bite of remorse. This bite, too, comes from our faculty of practical knowing.
Conscience, then, is the practical habit of discerning the right thing to do in immediate circumstances, and by which we blame ourselves when we have turned away from this discernment—that is, failed to use the light within us. By frequent failures to use it, and by deliberate abuse of it, we can dim this light and all but extinguish conscience. We can also deceive it. Some of the ways we deceive our own consciences are so classic that C. S. Lewis vividly described them in The Screwtape Letters.
The person: The concept of person also entered Western thought by way of reflection on the Bible. They needed a way to name the special kind of spiritual being capable of acts of insight and choice. Theologians also needed a concept to express what it is in Jesus Christ, who had both a human and a divine nature, that remains the same. A person came to be understood as a being with a capacity for insight and choice, and an independent existence as a responsible agent.
Acquiring this concept of the person was a crucial step for the modern age, leading directly to the first declaration of human rights in history. The Spanish missionaries argued that the Indians encountered in the New World were people of full human dignity, not some inferior species. It was sinful before God, they maintained, and contrary to natural law to offend the dignity of the Indians, as many of their compatriots were obviously doing. They pressed their suit at the Spanish Court to urge the monarch to rule accordingly. The suit was argued successfully by theologians of Salamanca. Outside the United Nations building in New York stands a statue of one of the greatest of these theologians, Francesco de Vitoria (1486-1546), the founder of international law.
The public recognition that oppression of the Indians was sinful and that they should be granted human rights like anyone else did not prevent terrible abuses. Hence, James Madison argued that mere declarations of rights are not enough. Rights are never sufficiently defended by "parchment barriers," but only by internalized habits and institutions that incorporate checks and balances.
THE WORLD IS ALREADY CELEBRATING the imminent arrival of the third millennium after the birth of Christ. The civilizing ideas of human dignity, liberty, truth, conscience, and person have been slowly developed over the two millennia since Christ's birth. They come to global fruition at a crucial time.
Earlier economic development rested on Christian contributions: from the development of factory-like communities by monastic orders to the theological focus on the vocation or calling of every individual to be creative and inventive in a practical way.
Now, more recent economic thought has focussed attention, not on natural resources or wealth, but on the importance of human capital (which for Nobel laureate Gary Becker includes personal and social habits and institutions). Other recent writers (Francis Fukuyama and Lawrence Harrison) have emphasized human trust and the social habits built on trust. Still other current writers have focused on human action (liberty), the human person, and the importance of personal and public choice in economic life.
Without the Christian foundations laid for us in the high Middle Ages and again in the sixteenth century our economic and political life together would not only far poorer, but far more brutal as well.
Michael Novak is the Jewett scholar in religion, philosophy, and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
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