Now, now, now. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Yes, I am still an atheist. But I am also, at heart, a Christian. And so are most of you.
I was reminded of this recently in a NYT column titled How Christmas Changed Everything, by Tish Harrison Warren:
… if you live in the West, the claims of Christmas have profoundly shaped your life and view of the world. You don’t have to believe in Jesus or even think about him for that to be true. The West is “so saturated in Christian assumptions that it is almost impossible to remove ourselves from them,” said Tom Holland, a British historian and author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. He continued, “We tend to take for granted that the lowest of the lowest do have dignity.
The fact that this basis tenet of Christianity seems to have escaped the notice of Trump’s merry little band of “Christians” has had little to no effect, however, on the law of the land. Nor has it much effect on the moral assumptions of a broad segment of our population. In fact, the dignity of the “lowest of the lowest” can be found as a basic tenet of many of my favorite fellow atheists. People who have been appalled that I sometimes argue that the Christian church has been a force for good. Even more appalled when I tell them that they, themselves, have been immersed in a Christian ethos from birth. Why?
Because this, I maintain, IS a Christian country and IS founded on Christian principles, and if we believe in the dignity of all people everywhere, it is because we are in fact Christians of the ancient order of Western Civ. Which has been informed by the tenets of Roman law and Greek philosophy put through a fine sieve by the precepts of the Roman Catholic Church. Talkaboutcher Influencers!
Now, say what you want about the Roman Catholic Church – and the worse it is the more likely it is to be true – nearly all reform movements within that Church from St. Francis to Martin Luther were about getting back to first principles. And what were first principles? Catholic scholar Garry Wills put it this way on The Charlie Rose show some years ago. It’s all wrapped up, he said, in this definitive prescription from Jesus himself:
I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ “The righteous will then answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!’
The Roman Catholic Church, along with its Eastern counterpart and the many descendants of the Reformation, have deviated from this prescription in ways too numerable to count. But that is to be expected from institutions of power.
But the power of the Christian message doesn’t come from the powerful. It comes from a peasant boy who seems to have struck a spark of compassion into the established traditions of the Pharisees and the cold hard logic of Roman law.
Do I believe in the god of Christianity? No. The concept is unimaginable to me. But do I believe in religion? Yes. I do. I don’t partake in it, since I can’t buy the founding precept. But I do check myself every now and again. Have I fed the hungry? Why, yes. Have I given a drink to the thirsty? Yes, again. Have I welcomed strangers to my home? Clothed the naked? Yes and yes, although I can’t say I have welcomed naked people in, since none have appeared on my doorstep in that condition, but my local Goodwill store knows my face. Have I cared for the sick? Of course. I’ve even visited people in prison.
And I am not alone. Those precepts might well be written into the “Statement of Purpose” of any humanitarian organization, secular or religious. It is, in many ways, written into our own precepts of civilized society. Which precepts have been sewn into the very fabric of “Western Civilization” as we know it.
Which at this point in time, makes Christians of us all.