THE BLOG
10/29/2013 05:53 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

THE MYSTERIOUS FORCE BEHIND THE WEST

For good and ill, one force above all has made the West what it is. The force is Christianity. But it is not what we think it is. This strangest of all religions has two very different sides. One is wonderful beyond measure. The other has caused untold misery and nearly destroyed the world. Christianity accounts for the moral ambivalence of the West - all that is best about it, and all that is worst. And for practical purposes, Christianity affects believers and unbelievers the same way; it is baked into our psyche.

Though churchmen and rulers throughout the ages have tried to deny it, Christianity grew up as a revolutionary force. It had three original traits - it made God personal and available to individuals; it made ordinary people supremely and dangerously important; and it made the self-improvement of individuals the be-all and end-all of life. The original version of Christianity was blasphemous, iconoclastic, highly personal, open-ended, egalitarian, optimistic, activist, and profoundly intolerant; it was universal yet divisive; above all, it was hugely engaging and challenging for anyone caught up in its whirlwind.

Christianity was the world's first individualized, insistent self-help movement. It is also the reason why all Westerners - whether Christian, agnostic, atheist or members of other religions - see the world differently and behave differently than people outside the West. It is the main reason why the West has been more successful - so far - than the other 40 or 50 civilizations that have walked the planet.

Christianity grew out of Jewish and Greek thought. The Jews took religion more seriously than any other people. They believed that history was moving forward, that God acted in history to shape events on earth, and that they were essential actors in God's drama. In the centuries before Christ, a string of eloquent prophets called for moral regeneration, social justice, compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and began to suggest that individuals were accountable for their deeds to God.

In parallel, Greek philosophers held that the world was a kind of super-mind, an ordered cosmos run by a pervasive intelligence, evident in the design of nature, and accessible to the sophisticated human mind and soul. Humans should be autonomous and take charge of their destiny. Human and divine purposes could harmonize. 'The gods did not reveal, from the beginning, all things to us,' said Xenophanes, 'but in the course of time, through seeking, men find that which is better.'

Mind-Blowing

The Christianity of Jesus and Paul combined and magnified the Jewish and Greek ideas, producing a world-view much more strange and startling, yet incomparably more potent. This could not have been expected from the get-go. Nearly all the first Christians were Jews. They thought of themselves as Jews - the word Christian had not been invented. They observed Jewish worship, rituals, and food laws. In the decade after his death, the Jesus cult looked set to stagnate or die, one of many small, obscure Jewish sects.

But wait. Christianity was about to receive its Greek influences and become the most powerful idea on earth. The creators of Christianity were Paul of Tarsus, a Greek-educated Jew; Luke, who was not a Jew at all; and 'John', the author of the fourth Gospel. They translated the ideas about Jesus, and the meaning of his life and death, into a Greek intellectual framework, making the new religion much more sophisticated, yet also more exciting, and accessible to educated and illiterate alike. New Christianity comprised one overarching belief, and four action implications that have reverberated volcanically throughout history:

• The overarching belief was that God became man, lived, suffered, died, and rejoined the divine realm. This moved humans and God together.

• The first action implication was a massive elevation of individual personal development and responsibility.

• The second was the power behind self-improvement - the novel and even bizarre idea that believers could tap directly into God's love, and even become part of God. The boundary between the individual and the universe was dissolved. People could reach out and take power from the force of good in the universe.

• The third action implication was an unprecedented commitment to help the underdog - the poor, the dispossessed, outsiders. All religions stress social justice and concern for the poor. But of all faiths, primitive Christianity was the most radical, egalitarian, and inclusive. Paul said it all: 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

So far so good. Almost every good development in the West - the economic growth that made humans a biological success for the first time, and ended hunger and disease for large tracts of humanity; the end of slavery and oppression; the development of gentle and kind relationships between men and women and their children; the removal of discrimination against foreigners, women, and other minorities; the rule of law and social equality; and the commitment to end suffering wherever it occurs - can be traced to the good side of Christianity.

The Dark Side

But there is an ugly underside. I said there were four action implications, and the fourth one is incredibly unfortunate. The early Christians had a burning sense that conversion to their views made the difference between eternal happiness and eternal torture. Hence it became the first and most successful missionary religion.

It is impossible to know whether this sense came from Jesus or not. There are divisive and frankly callous words attributed to him in the gospels, especially that of Matthew and John. I prefer to believe that these are interpolations into the record made in the forty years after his death. But who knows?

What is indisputable is that from Paul onwards, there is a passionate intolerance, bordering on violence, towards those who refuse to be converted - dramatically in tension with the movement's other emphasis on love, service, and self-sacrifice.

John's Gospel, otherwise a work of immaculate light and reason, had a terrible anti-Semitism. John has Jesus telling the Jews, 'You are from below ... you belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning.'

The impulse to impose right ideas by force, to divide the world into the sheep and goats, to Crusades against infidels and violence against Jews, to mass murder in pursuit of God's vengeance, to cruelty in pursue of a higher end, to the Inquisition, to intrusion of private thought by torture, are all part of the West's Christian heritage. By and large, recent brands of Christianity - fundamentalism excepted - have excised extreme intolerance from the faith, stressing only the legacy of love. But fanaticism in the pursuit of purity keeps popping up in secular guises - in revolutionary terror, extreme nationalism, communism and Nazism, in severe Islam and perversions of other religions. We should remember in all humility that these guises, too, came largely from Christianity and the West.

The deviant gene of Crusading aggression - backed terribly by science, technology, and the most potent economic and military systems ever devised - mightily powered the West, leading in the nineteenth century to total world domination. In the first half of the twentieth century, this deviant gene - divorced from religion, but retaining its true millenarian ruthlessness, nearly tore the West and the world apart. When reunited with religious fundamentalism, divisive intolerance could poison our lifestyle, not just from outside, but more menacingly from within.

The power of Christianity is the power of unleashed ambition, of believing that men can become God, can co-opt God, can internalize the secrets of the universe and then re-shape it according to human desire. It is a vision with two sides. Destruction against building, hate against love, impudence against responsibility, intolerance against sympathy. Christianity has flirted with the idea that good coexists with evil, that God fights the devil; only to deny, ultimately, that evil can triumph.

We shall see. But the huge strength of Christianity is the rider that it is up to us. God and the devil - who wins? Humans decide. The stage is history. The jury is out, right up to the end. So far, no overall verdict is returned - yet provisional verdicts are evident every time any of us make a choice of good or bad actions, every time we side with the light or darkness within and without.

This view - eccentric, unprecedented, and perhaps deluded - is the glory of the West, and of its weird and wonderful religion. It is a serious and totally individualistic perspective. Are you for good or bad? There is no third way.