It doesn’t matter if Christianity is true or not. Either way, it’s worth keeping around. Christianity is good for society — it motivates believers to care for the poor, welcome refugees, and give to charity. And churchgoers get to have an additional social safety net and a meaningful narrative that gives their lives purpose, so they’ll have better life outcomes in health, education, and family cohesion.
So the pious sermon goes, preached by people like Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and prominent human rights activist. The argument is a compelling one, and tempting for Christians: Why bother trying to convince millennial “nones” that Jesus was born of a virgin, when we can point to data about Christians setting up programs that care for unwed mothers?
Many Christians have taken the bait, including Brian McLaren, the post-evangelical author and booster of the “emergent church” that Kristof introduced to the readers of The New York Times on Sept. 3. In his column, Kristof doubts that Jesus would even recognize modern-day Christianity. In McLaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, he finds a solution.
“McLaren advises worrying less about whether biblical miracles are literally true and thinking more about their meaning: If Jesus is said to have healed a leper, put aside the question of whether this actually happened and focus on his outreach to the most stigmatized of outcasts,” Kristof wrote.
But if we don’t trust Jesus to have cured lepers, why should we trust the story at all? I could just as easily advise Christians to worry less about whether Jesus actually cared about lepers. Why would we think it is good to care for outcasts in the first place?
This is the problem that arises when we put ethics before truth in religion. I don’t disagree with the ethics for which Kristof is arguing. But I believe that caring for outcasts is good because I believe that Jesus did it — that his actions are normative for my behavior, that his miracles and virgin birth and resurrection give evidence to his status as God, and thus, that he has authority for determining what is good.
If you start picking and choosing what parts of Jesus’ life to believe and which to disregard, this line of reasoning breaks down. And yet our post-Christian culture agrees, broadly speaking, that caring for outcasts is a good thing to do. After all, Kristof writes with this assumption in the pages of The New York Times. Why is this?
Well, the same Christianity that insists that Jesus literally cured lepers has shaped many of the modern world’s ideas about what is and what is not good. Secularists, and others, consider things like equality, freedom, and education important in large part because of the influence of Christians. Take slavery: It was a normal institution in the Roman Empire. But as Christianity took root in the Mediterranean world, the practice of slavery declined drastically, and was eventually outlawed after condemnations from the Catholic Church. When the Spanish and Portuguese created the Transatlantic slave trade, they did it in the face of repeated denunciations from the 16th-century Pope Paul III, denunciations Pope Urban VIII reiterated in 1639. Later, when the abolitionist movement caught fire in Britain, it emerged among the evangelical Clapham Sect, and in the U.S., the rise of abolitionism was closely linked to the Second Great Awakening, a mass, multiracial revival movement.
Look at the elevation of the status of women and you will see a similar story. In the Gospels, Jesus makes space for women to participate in his movement — an unusual move in first-century Israel. You can see Christianity’s role in empowering women play out throughout history, including in the Second Great Awakening. Look even at the treatment of animals — the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed by members of the evangelical Clapham Sect that helped abolish slavery in Britain.
Christians, and entire denominations, have also fallen very short on these issues. But that Christianity has had broad influence in shaping cultural norms — in establishing our understanding of what is right and what is wrong — is undeniable. And the ethical structure of Christianity sits upon a foundation of truth claims — claims like God is the creator, God is trinity, God is love.
If we pull up the house’s foundation, the house will eventually come crashing down. The question of whether Christianity is true or not must come first.
For a great many people, Christianity hasn’t actually been all that beneficial — yet they have believed it, anyway. I’m thinking of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic missionary to Yemen who was kidnapped by gunmen in March and remains missing to this day. When the gunmen attacked the compound where he lived, they killed the four nuns and 12 volunteers they found. As soon as Fr. Tom realized what was happening, he reportedly ran to the chapel — not to hide, but to consume the consecrated host so the gunmen wouldn’t desecrate it. Shortly after, he was taken.
If you don’t think Christianity is true, or that Jesus was capable of performing miracles, then the idea of protecting some bread with your life makes no sense. But if you believe, like Fr. Tom does, that Jesus really did have a Last Supper where he offered his body and blood to his disciples, and that Jesus is miraculously present when we celebrate Communion, then Fr. Tom’s actions no longer look like the product of delusion, but of honor and bravery — ones that confer zero social benefit to himself. He did because it was right.
One Christian woman, a 22-year-old aristocrat named Perpetua, was imprisoned during a Roman persecution around the year 203 A.D. Through the prison bars, her father begged her to recant the faith to save herself, as well as to save her newborn son — whom she nursed in prison — from being orphaned.
While they were talking, Perpetua gestured toward a pitcher and asked her father if he saw it. He said he did. “Can it be called by any other name than what it is?” she asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian,” she said. And so, Perpetua chose death in the coliseum.
Are Fr. Tom or Perpetua to be pitied? Only if the early church is to be pitied. Kristof points back to the beginnings of Christianity to argue for an ethical Christianity. Going “back to the beginning” is a tactic everyone likes to take, but what I’ll say here is that if we do look back to the early church, we also find a multitude of believers not so different from Perpetua — people committed to the truth of Jesus even when it didn’t benefit anyone, including themselves.
Proponents of creed-less Christianity, of Jesus without the divinity, have more than seemingly senseless martyrdoms or miracles like healing lepers to deal with. As the Christian writer C.S. Lewis famously said, Jesus’ claim to forgive sins leaves us with one of three options: Jesus is the Lord, a liar, or a lunatic. I might forgive my brother for, say, breaking my laptop, but I can’t forgive him if he breaks yours. Yet Jesus forgave strangers’ sins against others as if they were sins against himself.
“This makes sense only if [Jesus] really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin,” Lewis wrote. “…Let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
And yet that is precisely what writers like Kristof and McLaren want to do. Kristof, who professes such respect for Jesus’ ethics, is like a man on a tree branch trying to get a glimpse of the sunset. Finding that the other branches of the tree he's sitting on are blocking his view, he descends to the base to chop the tree down. Perhaps he ought to consider sitting on a different branch.