God is Not Great - an Appraisal  - Appendix 2


This is the Appendix 2  Page for the appraisal of the contents

of Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great.

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Appendix 2: Church & History





Church & History


I, as a Christian, am required to have integrity, and honour the truth. Much of what Christopher Hitchens says about things that have happened in history and what he has witnessed around the world appear absolutely right and those of us who are Christians should be the first to agree and say it is wrong.


However, I don't always think it was as simple and straight forward as he makes out and I am certain that many of his comments or observations about what happened in history are lacking understanding. For this reason I would like to make the following observations:


1. Using the name of Christianity


Without a shadow of doubt the name ‘Christian' has been tagged by nationalists or indeed politicians of many persuasions at many different times in history to authenticate their claims and activities. When the founder of Christianity declared, “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Mt 5:44) that gave no grounds for violence by words or deeds and therefore those who have resorted to violence in the name of Christianity have simply been using it for their own ends and not worshipping its God.


Professor Keith Ward in his book, Is Religion Dangerous (that we referred to briefly in chapter 1) makes a good point:

“If it is argued that religious texts breed intolerance, the question that must be asked is: what causes people to choose those texts, which according to the general scholarly consensus of religious scholars were for situations long ago in the past, and which have since been overridden both by other specific texts and by the general sense of scripture?

The answer to that question can only be given by detailed examination of the social contexts in which such choices are made, usually contexts of social and economic injustice and deprivation.

In short it is hatred and intolerance that causes religious texts to be chosen to give a sham moral support to perverted natural inclinations. It is not religion that causes intolerance. It is intolerance that uses religion to give alleged ‘moral' support to the real cause of intolerance – hatred of those perceived or imagined to be oppressors or threats to one's own welfare.”


2. What Quality of Christianity?


What I think many of us don't realise is that supposed Christianity of the Middle Ages was more often akin to superstition than what the modern understanding of the Bible provides for us today. The fact that today we click on the Internet or put a Bible CD into our computer drive and go anywhere we like in the Bible with the search abilities available to us, possibly makes us forget that in those days the Bible was only accessible to a few and their understanding also was limited. Thus in terms of Biblical knowledge as well as spiritual vitality, there was a distinct barrenness.

It is not surprising therefore that guilt and superstition generated the Crusades and when a call came from the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire, they were easy prey to go along with it. Similarly when the power house of the Pope gave blessing to a crusade that added respectability to what was happening. It is probable that fear of Muslim occupation was as much national as religious fear.


Again and again when we look to the past, there is the indication that those who led institutional Christianity from Rome or Constantinople had more political concerns than spiritual. The reality is that it was a small miracle that Christianity survived through those times, possibly despite institutional religion instead of because of it.

Having said this David Bentley Hart in 'Atheist Delusions' provides plenty of evidence to show that down through history, there were large numbers of prominent members of the Church who were providing immense help for the poor, the needy and the sick. It is a somewhat 'solid read' but well worth it to counter the delusions that are often put about by the atheist lobby of the Church's part in history.


3. Fluctuating Christianity


A number of writers have pointed out that the most vibrant form of the Christian church was that which existed in the first two centuries and that which was regenerated by the Holy Spirit in certain parts of the world-wide church in the twentieth century.


The fact is, we would suggest, that the church was never designed by Christ to be a single worldwide organisation, merely many different local churches linked by travelling ministries. Where that had been so, there had been increased security because opposition came against individual local churches rather than against a world-wide body. It was only when the Church was institutionalised by men did it take on a political rather than spiritual nature and resort to the techniques of politics to survive, instead of reliance upon God.


Even under Rome in the earliest centuries, the church often had such a good local reputation in the eyes of local Roman leaders, that when they heard of persecution being ordered by Rome, they would warn the local church to leave until it had passed. Such was the esteem in which the local church was often held because of their good contributions to local society, so that this often enabled them to survive the early ravages of Rome.


However the further history moved from the origins of the Church the less vibrant it became. Thus the so called ‘Dark Ages' were not only so called because of lack of historical information available to us today, and lack of cultural vibrancy, but also because of the lack of life in the Church. By the Middle Ages, corruption in the Church was upsetting to many and was partly the eventual cause of Martin Luther's kicking the Protestant Reformation into being.


Some have suggested that throughout the two thousand year period of Church History there have always been some pockets of genuine life and vibrancy scattered around the world, yet the truth has to be acknowledged that for a long time, that life and vibrancy was largely absent. When it was, all that was left were institutional leaders acting more as politicians than as spiritual leaders.

An interesting examination of the history of the Christian Church reveals that although what we have said above is so often true, there were also these many pockets of life and vibrancy that helped move the church on. Specifically the periods of so-called revival are worth study and reveal that it is far from the truth to think that most of church history was poor.


4. Christianity versus Culture


If we may pick up another thread from the first part above, it should be noted that the drives of culture and politics, blended in with superstitious religiosity (a far cry from genuine Christianity) were often the things that motivated or energised culture. As has been commented upon above, it is not religion that causes intolerance or whatever other ‘sin' you want to point to, but it is the feelings already within society that then seek to twist and make use of religion for their own purposes. Simply, the drives of history that caused negative behaviour did not originate in Christianity but used it for their own ends.


5. Imperfect People


One of the things that atheists seek to do is pick on Christians from the past who, struggling with their limited knowledge of the times, came out with less than perfect understanding. If we wanted to be nasty we could take examples within science where, many times, scientists have proposed a theory or even facts, only for them to be recanted at some later date in the light of subsequent research. History is an ongoing process of learning, and that has applied to religion as much as to any other subject.


For religion it has not been a case of new or amended texts being found, added in or whatever, but of greater understanding of those texts and particularly in the light of the knowledge of the day. This is not to say the text changes, but perhaps our understanding of what it means. Probably one of the classic examples of this was in respect of those who concluded that the world came into being only five thousand years ago by making certain assumptions about Scripture. The reality is we will never know certainly this side of heaven how old the world is. My own feeling is that those who talk of hundreds of millions of years are just as much groping around in the dark making lots of assumptions as those who went for the five thousand year period – but then I'm not phased by however God did it and however long back He did it! And by the way, that comment is no more a statement of faith than the scientist's is of a long period after there was a ‘big bang' or whatever!


When we come to religious philosophers many centuries back, let's not write them off or demean them when they moved into the realm of philosophy instead of theology, because they were just trying to make sense of their understanding like any other philosopher. One of the reasons I dislike the history of philosophy is that it is a record of the ideas of one after another of these thinkers, and each subsequent thinker showed the faults in the previous ones. Eventually we have come to a time when we have all of these stalls laid out and no one dare claim any of them have the answers. Of course relativistic thinkers then get upset that anyone dare suggest that perhaps the Creator has spoken and His declarations may be the only right ones! But please remember, if you are a relativist and deny there are such things as absolutes, then you cannot say that I am absolutely wrong!





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