Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was a fusion of the Ancient Greek thought and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently already appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to treat strangers as brothers, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition
…If the story of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution has been rewritten in the interests of creating a mythical ‘Christian Europe’, so too has the story of the relationship between reason and faith in the Enlightenment. What are now often called ‘Western values’ – democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of speech, etc – are the products largely of the Enlightenment and of the post-Enlightenment world. Such values are, of course, not ‘Western’ in any essential sense but are universal; they are Western only through an accident of geography and history.
…To challenge the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition is not to deny the distinctive character of that tradition (or traditions), nor its importance in incubating what we now call ‘Western’ thought. But the Christian tradition, and Christian Europe, is far more a chimera than a pure-bred beast. The history of Christianity, its relationship to other ethical traditions, and the relationship between Christian values and those of modern, liberal, secular society is far more complex than the trite ‘Western civilization is collapsing’ arguments acknowledge. The irony is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other ists that such defenders so loathe.
We can’t seem to help it; we’re born storytellers. But I still laugh at how pervasive it is, this need to believe in some sort of golden age when things were so much clearer, better, happier or healthier. Myths of purity and simplicity are evergreen themes, but humans have always been conflicted and confused, and it’s only the increasing distance of time that allows us to think that history was ever so neat, tidy and linear.