HOW CHRISTIANITY SAVED CIVILIZATION …
… AND MUST DO SO AGAIN
By Mike Aquilina and James L. Papandrea
Sophia Institute Press, 2018
270 pages, $18.95 (e-book, $9.99)
Opining in Roe v. Wade about the history of abortion law, Harry Blackmun noted that the ancient world tolerated a variety of positions on abortion. The Hippocratic view forbidding abortion prevailed, he says, only because Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire.
In 1973, Blackmun recognized that the “choice” ethic of abortion roots lies in paganism — and eerily thought America would be better off reverting to it.
Aquilina and Papandrea’s book sets out clearly how much Greco-Roman pre-Christian and today’s post-Christian paganisms have in common, especially in terms of hostility toward Christianity.
The authors identify “seven revolutions” Christianity brought about that stood Greco-Roman values on their head: revolutions of the person (intrinsic value of every human life); the home (the family as a community of love, not a social contract); work (something noble, rather than unworthy of men); religion (internalized moral commitment rather than external patriotic custom); community (the equality of all persons); death (an understanding of an afterlife and respect for the human body); and the state (leaders serve the led, not vice versa). The values Christianity substituted have become so intrinsic to our culture that we forget who originated them.
Aquilina and Papandrea, long students of the Fathers of the Church, are experts in the life of the ancient Church. Seven chapters paint an enlightening picture of life in ancient Rome, where every baby was adopted, in the sense that a child could be killed if not accepted by its father; entertainment meant watching professional murderers kill each other; society was glued together not by love but self-promotion through patronage and class systems; work was a function of class; religion was not spiritual but a pledge of allegiance; and the best and brightest were bored with life but confused about death and beyond. Christians, by their life and values, challenged that, changing society by changing minds — often one at a time — through their witness and their resistance. It brought them persecution. But it transformed a world. And the authors believe that can happen again.
The book’s last two chapters draw parallels between the values of then and now, offering concrete suggestions for how to re-engage the culture. The authors are unsympathetic to calls for withdrawing into Christian “ghettoes,” communities where we might hope to live our values while not bothering or being bothered by the secular world.
Avoiding that conflict with the world is impossible: “Like the early Christians, we may find ourselves facing a choice between two kinds of sacrifice. We will either sacrifice our place of comfort within society to speak up for life and freedom, or we will sacrifice our convictions and accept the current definition of freedom (that is, absolute freedom for the convenience of the individual and freedom from having to be confronted with expressions of religious faith that may convict one of selfishness).”
A well-written book with fascinating historical detail, I take three exceptions to it: Confirmation was not separated from baptism in the West so Christians could “confirm their baptism by their own choice” (p. 118), but because the Church wanted to emphasize the bishop as the sacrament’s original minister; speaking of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as “manifestations or persons” (p. 113) steers too close to Modalism; and Constantine’s legalization of Sunday, while breaking up workweeks, did not create the “weekend” as Americans understand it (p. 187). I’d also like to see more comment about the scandal of contemporary “Christianity” that has made its bed with neo-paganism: Just consider how Christian sexual ethics, traditionally understood, is dividing Anglicans and Methodists right now.
Thomas Cahill’s best-seller, How the Irish Saved Civilization, is a bit misleading: The Irish did what they did not just because they were Irish but, above all, because they were Christians. How Christianity Saved Civilization makes Christianity’s role in civilizational genesis clear.
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.
All views are exclusively his.