Five Gifts to the World

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When Bible scholar Dale Bruner was teaching at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, he was approached by a skeptical student.

“The church only talks,” he said.  “It never does much of anything.” 

Bruner writes, “In a (for me) rare moment of ‘inspiration,’ I asked the student for the names of the major hospitals in Spokane.  He replied a little sheepishly, I think, because the names reflected ecclesiastical sources:  Sacred Heart, Deaconess, St. Luke’s, and Holy Family.”  Furthermore, the city’s two private institutions of higher learning also have spiritual roots: Gonzaga University, founded by the Jesuits, and Whitworth, a project of the Presbyterians.   

Here in my hometown of Indianapolis, Ascension and Franciscan Health (Catholic in origin) operate major hospitals, and IU Health’s largest facility was founded by the Methodist Church.  Butler University, Indy’s best-known local campus, was originally a Bible school, and Marian University retains its Franciscan identity. 

It’s hard to go anywhere in Europe or North America without seeing evidence that Christianity has made a major positive impact on the culture. 

The late Christopher Hitchens held an opposing view.  “Religion poisons everything,” he famously declared.  He and the so-called New Atheists routinely cite Christianity’s sordid record of brutality and hypocrisy – from the Crusades to the Inquisition to witch hunts to endorsing slavery to soft-pedaling the Holocaust to the sexual misbehavior of Catholic priests.

Hitchens did acknowledge that Christians are generally the first in line to hold other Christians accountable for such atrocities.    

But of far greater significance is the reality that there might not even be such a thing as “Western culture” apart from the influence of Christianity.  In his book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, Os Guinness identifies five of the most important cultural contributions from followers of Jesus.

The first is philanthropy

No culture in history can hold a candle to the West when it comes to giving and caring.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan changed forever what it means to encounter people in need.  The answer in the East has traditionally been, “They surely deserve their fate.”  In the West the impulse became, “They surely deserve our help.”

Philosopher Mark Nelson reflects, “If you ask what is Jesus’ influence on medicine and compassion, I would suggest that wherever you have an institution of self-giving for the lonely (and for practical welfare of the lonely), schools, hospitals, hospices, orphanages for those who will never be able to repay, this probably has its roots in the movement of Jesus.”

Second, the West has been continually refreshed by Christian reform movements.

Guinness notes that these have no parallel in other civilizations.  Whether it’s William Wilberforce devoting his life to ending the slave trade, Elizabeth Fry transforming prisons, Dietrich Bonhoeffer standing up against Nazi tyranny, or Gary Haugen battling sex trafficking in the 21st century, individuals who trust Jesus have launched world-changing movements because they dare to believe a better world is possible. 

The third gift of Christianity to the West is education

Virtually every major university – including Cambridge, the Sorbonne in Paris, the medieval cathedral schools, Harvard, Yale, and the Ivy League colleges of America – were founded to advance spiritual learning.  To this day the slogan of Oxford University is the opening line of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light.”

Fourth, Christianity gave to the West its commitment to science.

Yes, the Greeks were insatiably curious about nature.  And throughout the Middle Ages it was Muslims who kept the lights of science burning.  But as historians like Alfred North Whitehead have argued persuasively, the greatest leaps of scientific discovery were made by Christians who believed it was pleasing to a rational God to explore and comprehend the rational world he created.

What about the “war” between Christianity and science?  That conflict, which thankfully is fought only in certain quarters of the Church, is not yet 150 years old.  We must hope that minds and hearts will soften in the future.  As Guinness asserts, “Christians have always been at the forefront of science.” 

Fifth and finally, there’s the gift of human rights

The New Atheists are fond of asserting that human dignity somehow emerged from the Enlightenment, springing from the French Revolution and the pens of people like Thomas Jefferson.  But that is laughable.  The core assertion of Darwinism, atheism’s most formal expression, is that there is no need for God or ultimate meaning.  But that eliminates any real grounds for the worth of the individual.

The legacy of Judaism and Christianity is Genesis chapter one:  Human beings are made in the image of God

That means that every child has eternal worth.  And every older person.  And every disabled person.  And every person who for one reason or another does not appear capable of making a contribution to the common good.   

The notion that everyone matters is one of the world’s most revolutionary ideas. 

And historically it has arisen in only one circumstance – in the setting where a Judeo-Christian consensus boldly proclaimed that God has made it so.

Some look at the Christian story, note the dark chapters, and see only poison. 

But the evidence of Western history is that Jesus’ followers, despite their frailties and flaws, have actually turned out to be just what he said they would be:

The world’s salt and light.