THE BEATITUDES ARE THE ANSWER: BUT WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
I like to tell my children that kindness is the answer, to which they are apt to ask, “The answer to what question?”
To this, I always respond, “The question is usually irrelevant; kindness is almost always the answer.”
The same can be said of the Christian teaching known as the Beatitudes.
In fact, when it comes to the Beatitudes, what we can accurately say is that: “The Beatitudes have always been the answer.”
As you read on, you will note:
• Devotion to the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit), increased the female percentage of the population by some 40%;
• Devotion to the Beatitudes (Blessed are the merciful), created the institutions of the hospital and nursing profession;
• Devotion to the Beatitudes (Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), laid the groundwork for democracy and for mercy in the criminal justice system;
• Devotion to the Beatitudes (Blessed are the peacemakers), created the “Just War” doctrine, which, once adopted, largely ended Christian religious wars, and promoted human and civil rights;
• Devotion to the Beatitudes (Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), led the movement to abolish slavery;
• Studies have found that Christians, following the Beatitudes, on average, are 25% more charitable than the non-religious (Blessed are the poor in spirit); and
• The list goes on and on — as revealed in the chapters that follow.
How does the Christian today use the Beatitudes for inspiration in a world so often filled with dark, ugly news images from around the world and dystopian films? The same way that Orpheus saved the Argonauts during the quest for the Golden Fleece. To avoid the seductive voice of the Sirens seeking to lure him and his men near to dangerous shoals, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and sang an even more beautiful song. The Beatitudes are the more beautiful, more seductive song needed in the world today, to overcome the powerful lure of the selfish life, that we as Christians must learn to play.
Of course, there is another point of view. It is commonplace today to hear people say: “Religion isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.”
Few would deny that, for better or worse, religion has had a major impact upon history. By way of background, one estimate is that 8.8 billion Christians have, at one time or another, lived on this earth, with 2.4 billion of them alive today. An estimated 70 million of them have been martyred throughout history, and a 2014 Pew study, “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” found that Christians were the most oppressed religion in the world, with some form of persecution in 110 countries. Incredibly, it has been estimated that underground Christian churches — those hiding from persecution, but maintaining their faith — would be the world’s fifth largest religion if separately denominated. As Albert Schweitzer once said, with perhaps just a touch of hyperbole:
One truth stands firm. All that happens in world history rests on something spiritual. If the spiritual is strong, it creates world history. If the spiritual is weak, it suffers world history.
Still, there is plenty of ammunition to support the narrative that ‘religion is the problem’ — not just in polemics like Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith — Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004), but also in academic works like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).
Such opinions have gained support in main-stream society, most recently in reaction to the Academy Award winning film “Spotlight,” documenting the Catholic Church’s frequent mishandling of sexual abuse allegations.
Dawkins’ God Delusion may be the most scholarly of the “atheistic apologetics” genre; he cites, for example, to some actual social science research. That research takes the form of an esoteric sounding article purportedly concerning the correlation between social health and religiosity, by Gregory S. Paul, entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Journal of Religion & Society (2005). Dawkins cites to this study of seventeen countries for his conclusion that:
…higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide…
In short, he implies that Western religious beliefs as a whole cause higher rates of murder. However, if you look up the study for yourself, you will see that the primary hyper-religious country that skews the homicide results is the United States. And if you delve further, you will learn that the truly scholarly studies that have actually looked into why the United States has high homicide rates never correlate it in any manner with religion, but rather focus on the lax gun laws, and other socio-economic factors. See Arkadi Gerney, Chelsea Parsons and Charles Posner, “America Under the Gun: A 50-State Analysis of Gun Violence and Its Link to Weak State Gun Laws,” Center For American Progress (2013). A real study on the global causes of high homicide rates, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) “Global Study on Homicide” (2011), found that “higher levels of homicide are associated with low human and economic development,” not religion.
More academically influential may be the opinion of Steven Pinker, a Harvard Professor of Psychology, and an atheist, who provides the opinion in The Better Angels of Our Nature (a book given to my daughter as required reading in one of her university classes) that Christianity has played no role at all in the steady decline of violence throughout history. As he puts it: “…to say that Christianity has, overall, been a force for peace in history is factually inaccurate.” Rather, Pinker attributes the long-term trend toward fewer wars to factors such as the rise of the strong nation state and the growth of commerce and free trade — without delving deeper and recognizing, as we will discuss later, Christianity’s contributions to a number of the building blocks (such as the development of constitutional government, independent legal systems, the Enlightenment and capitalism), which laid the foundation for these developments. As another example, Pinker attributes what he calls the “Long Peace” between 1945 and 2016, without a world war, to the rise of liberal principles in the dual form of the pacifying effects of democracy and capitalism. He further attributes “measurable and substantial declines in many categories of violence” to a series of “rights revolutions” including civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights (and the decline of infanticide), gay rights and animal rights; ignoring, again, Christianity’s role in those developments as well. As for Christianity, he utterly dismisses it, calling it a religion that is at its core “benevolent hypocrisy.”
Parts of the Catholic Church’s history make it easy to dismiss. That history includes the Crusades (although attacks on Christian institutions preceded and arguably precipitated it); the Inquisition; the selling of indulgences; a long, sad history of anti-Semitism2; more recently, as mentioned, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal; and even to this day — again in the Catholic Church, the struggle of women to have their voices heard.3
Thus, as explained by Philip Jenkins in The Lost History of Christianity (2009), in everyday discourse, it is commonplace today to recite the Faith’s institutional failures, and little else:
Whatever the religious beliefs of a given audience, a majority of people, whether in private or public life, feels comfortable referring to aspects of that history, and particularly to great institutions or events, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the persecution of witches. Media accounts regularly draw on a standard body of assumptions and beliefs about Christian history, which is seen as a barely relieved saga of intolerance and obscurantism.
And yet, Jenkins’ research found such now standard discourse incomplete:
The conventionally negative account of Christian history includes much that is true, in some places and at some times: we need not look far to find religious hatred and anti-Semitism, militarism and corruption. But the story is much more diverse than is commonly believed.
Indeed, historically, the overall positive, civilizing role of Christianity was unquestioned. Consider this quote from T.S. Eliot:
It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe — until recently — have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning … I do not believe the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.
-T.S.Eliot, Christianity and Culture (1960).
The renowned Depression-era sermonist Emmett Fox put it another way:
Jesus Christ is easily the most important figure that has ever appeared in the history of mankind. It makes no difference how you may regard him, you will have to concede that. This is true whether you choose to call him God or man; and if man, whether you choose to consider him as the world’s greatest Prophet and Teacher, or merely as a well-intentioned fanatic who came to grief, and failure, and ruin, after a short and stormy public career. However you regard him, the fact will remain that the life and death of Jesus, and the teachings attributed to him have influenced the course of human history more than those of any other man who has ever lived… To have been the religious inspiration of the whole European race throughout the two millenniums during which that race has dominated and molded, the destinies of the entire world, culturally and socially, as well as politically, and through the period in which the whole of the earth’s surface was finally discovered and occupied, and in its broad outlines shaped by civilization; this alone entitles him to the premier position in world importance.
— EmmetFox, The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life (1934).
Who is correct then? How, in just a few decades, could the entire verdict of Christian history have changed so dramatically?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of course, famously chastised that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his facts.” The larger issue here, then, is what are the historical facts? And does this new anti-Christian scholarship represent its own new form of prejudice, resulting in a dismissal of the historical impact of two millennia of literally up to two billion individuals simultaneously, but independently, practicing uniquely unconditional Christian love? In short, are these critics effectively historical ‘Christian love deniers?’
Jenkins, in another of his books, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (2003), lays some groundwork for such a thesis. Indeed, as we will discover later, when one digs deeper below the surface, both the spread of democratic theory and the very rights revolutions that Pinker opines as being causative of creating modern peace appear to be, in fact, at least partially, if not substantially, the result of the tiny ripples of hope propelled forth by the acts of a small number of committed Christians, followed by uncounted millions slowly but steadily joining in.
Could it be, as Eliot and Fox imply, that the beneficial influence of the various layers of Christianity, in many cases not through the formal church leadership, but rather through the inspiration of devout lay believers, has been so pervasive that, like the air we breathe, the roof over our heads, and the blankets that cover us at night, it protects us even while being largely taken for granted?
So, yes, the Beatitudes are the answer. No need to repeat the question.