A Gift to the World

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Several weeks ago, I sat down to share about the DIFW vision with a prospective donor. As I began to explain our mission, I could tell there was a mental obstacle.

“So, you can’t evangelize in schools or business or the government,” he said. “So what it is exactly you’re trying to accomplish?”

Before I could reply, the conversation moved to Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, and the contentious religious liberty issues surrounding the overt faith of their founders. Though I’m personally encouraged by the Cathy and Green families, I could tell that our organization was being sucked into a culture war, one that tends to see the Church as almost a drain on a liberal, pluralist society – one that impinges on the  rights of the individual.

But instead of getting drawn into the culture wars, I instead decided to say what has been true for millennia: the church is a gift to the world. There’s a reason why we chose the title “A Gift to the City” for our recently release 2015 Impact Report. It’s worth remembering that for centuries, Christian men and women have seen their work as an opportunity to bring life to society. The Church has long been a blessing to all – both Christians and people of other faiths (or none at all).

How has the church been a gift to the world? A few examples come to mind:

1. The Church gave us the first universities.  The University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (1150) and the University of Oxford (1167) all were born out of Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, dedicated to not only training clergy, but also learning about law, astronomy, medicine, music, math, and the “trivium” – grammar, logic and rhetoric. Say what you will about the drawbacks of medieval Europe: all modern institutions of higher education have a historical debt to Christians believing that investigating God’s world could benefit society at large.

2. The Church gave us the foundations for capitalism. No, it didn’t start with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Nor was it due to the Protestant work ethic. Rodney Stark has convincingly made the case in The Victory of Reason that the free market enterprise system was flowering in 12th century Italy. The supposed “dark ages” bloomed with inventions like the water wheel, horseshoes, fish farming, the three-field system of agriculture, eyeglasses and clocks. Why? There’s a good reason that capitalism didn’t arise in China, Islam, or the global south. Stark explains, “All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason.” Innovation, the power of reason, and the moral underpinning of capitalism (of which trust is the most important) all flowed not from either Roman law nor Greek idealism – but from Christianity.

3. The Church gave us the framework for human rights and democracy.  Christianity offered to the world a doctrine which would forever reshape our political life: all people are made in the image of GodEveryone. Though a form of democracy did start in ancient Greece, we see in Plato’s Republic that his version of democracy is one we wouldn’t want to see anywhere today: a republic where only property owners could vote, where women and slaves were property, and where philosopher kings ruled. There was voting, for sure. But certainly not a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The roots of democracy we enjoy today come principally from the Magna Carta, composed in the Christian West. (Which is one reason why today’s Chinese Communist Party leadership doesn’t want it touring around their neighborhood.) First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Magna Carta (1215) originally limited the rights of kings, but was later used in the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution as precedent for protecting the rights of all people. Though nearly all societies have, at times, had their leaders approved by the people, the theological doctrine that all people are made in the image of God was the original source of one’s human rights – far before secular versions arose in the Enlightenment (See Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution). Though the Church has also been guilty of violating human rights (i.e., The Inquisition), it has also been the source of the protections and rights we enjoy today in a liberal democracy. (If you need more convincing here, read Marcelo Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. It’s stunning.)

4. The Church gave us the birth of science. Isaac Newton did more theology than science, and Francis Bacon not only gave us the empirical method, but also worried that his methodology would be used by demons to distort its good intention. Sounds weird, but they lived in both the worlds of Christian theology and scientific inquiry. Talk of investigating the “book of nature” was a Christian idea – that we could see who God was both through Scripture and in his creation (Ps. 19, Rom. 1).

Often we only hear half of the story – that the Church opposed Copernicus’ heliocentric universe and persecuted Galileo, the “father of physics” and observational astronomy. But truth be told: Galileo’s run in with Pope Gregory XIII was more political than scientific (the Inquisition thought his biblical interpretation looked Protestant). His insights were initially adopted by Pope Gregory and used to revise the church calendar in 1582. Galileo himself believed that God had given us reason, senses and intellect and expected us to use them as tools to interpret Scripture. Galileo writes, “For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge.” Generations of scientists, from Blaise Pascal to George Washington Carver (including a large number of prominent scientists today, like Francis Collins), are motivated by their faith to do science.  Again, Stark makes the case that it’s the doctrine that God, the Logos, is a God of reason that led to science erupting not in China, Islam, India, or the Americas – but in the Christian West. Controversial thesis, I know. But hard to ignore the civilization in which the scientific revolution took place.

5. The Church gave us the art of Michelangelo and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is perhaps history’s greatest work of art. And Johann Sebastian Bach would often sign his symphonies Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), one of the five “solas” of the reformation.  Handel would often do the same. Artists for generations have drawn fuel from their faith – from Leonardo Davinci’s The Last Supper to contemporary artists like Makoto Fujimara. Bono isn’t half bad either.

6. The Church gave us the Civil Rights Movement. It also bears mentioning the Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist preacher. The fundamental drive for Dr. King’s leadership in a nonviolent movement to correct “America’s original sin” (slavery, and hence racial discrimination) was a Christian notion of love – even love for one’s enemy. This was first and foremost a movement of churches – and only secondarily was it political. The Civil Rights Movement would have been impossible without the Church.

We could go on and speak of the monks in Ireland washing the feet of travelers and setting the precedent for modern hotels, or Basil of Caesarea creating arguably one of the first hospitals (at a time when many Romans abandoned the sick or dying in plague ridden cities – see Stark’s The Rise of Christianity), or heroines like Florence Nightingale who essentially founded the profession of nursing out of a sense of duty from God’s call.

Though any Christian would be quick to confess that we’ve sinned deeply in the past (the Thirty Years Wars comes to mind) and today as well (the tragic segregation that remains in our churches), we can’t forget: the church has long been a gift to the world. 

So, with that, the question of the Church’s role in the world need not focus on fear-based arguing about losing a position of relative influence in the now post-Christian West. Instead, as those inspired most fundamentally by the grace of God (grace=gift), we can instead ask, What has God put in my hands that I might give to another? Instead of just going to church to get “filled up” by worship music and a sermon, might the Triune God actually use the Church to be the conduit of his abundant life to the entire human family (John 10:10b)?

Featured Photo: Christ Feeding the 5000