Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it's been found difficult
and not tried.
G.K. Chesterton, quoted in Swindoll, Hand Me Another
Brick, Thomas Nelson,
1978, p. 128.
It is not what men eat but what they digest that makes them strong; Not what
we gain but what we save that makes us rich; not what we read but what we
remember that makes us learned; not what we preach but what we practice that
makes us Christians.
"While witnessing for Christ on the streets of a city in California,
evangelist H.A. Ironside and his associates were often interrupted by questions
from the crowd. "There are hundreds of religions in this country, and the
followers of each sect think they're right. How can poor plain people like us
find out what really is the truth?" Ironside and his friends would answer
something like this: "Did I hear you say there are hundreds of religions?
That's strange; I've heard of only two. True, I find many shades of difference
in the opinions of those comprising the two great schools. But after all, there
are but two. The one covers all who expect salvation by doing; the other, all
who have been saved by something done."
Commentary & Devotional
Would Jesus recognize the faith he founded?
By Martin E. Marty originally published for MSNBC
From the handful of followers who first heard his message to the 2.2 billion
Christians alive today, the followers of Jesus were to be the salt of the earth,
the city on a hill, the force that would heal and transform the world.
Christians now form 33 percent of the world's population, but beyond the
impressive numbers, how successful has this faith been? What are its prospects
for the future? And if Jesus were to return to Earth today, would he recognize
Any individual who has been lifted from despair to hope, moved from hate to
love, or vaulted from doubt to faith is likely to judge the 20 centuries of
Christianity as worthwhile. So would any company of believers who have been
sustained in slavery, oppressed because of race or gender or class, and then
have experienced liberation.
Anyone who has experienced healing, received solace when the candle burns low
or the life of a dear one ebbs, or who has been inspired or intellectually moved
when the faith elicits art or makes sense, will use that experience to do the
measuring. So much for the private side. So very much.
The public side of faith
Christianity, however, has its public side, its powerful presence. From the
fourth century onward, its institutions dominated in East and West. As
dominators, Christians have probably been no better and no worse than Muslims,
Buddhists, Hindus or people of faiths once called "primitive." The
record of holy wars, jihads and human sacrifice is ecumenical, interfaith and
horrifying in all cases. But each faith must do its own accounting, and in our
part of the world, Christianity is subjected to much scrutiny.
First, the negatives: Crusaders in the name of Christ rejoiced when
"infidel" blood swelled the streets above their horses' ankles as they
marched into Jerusalem. In Spain and elsewhere in Europe, Inquisitors in the
name of Jesus ferreted out the suspicious, the troublemakers and the innocents
who seemed different — all for the sake of God's truth and purity, as they
defined it. Then they turned the innocents who were guilty over to the crown for
unusual and cruel punishment, with death being the lesser evil than torture.
Through the centuries, Christian emperors, nobles, knights, invaders,
ruffians and drunken feudal lords fought with one another just as
ethno-nationalist leaders do today. And in cases so common that one has
difficulty thinking of exceptions, right down through the Vietnam War, Christian
leaders blessed the cannon. They called down a God of vengeance, yet spoke of
God as the God of love. Rivers of blood and oceans of ink were spilled in
support of Christian wars. Whoever does not think that the adjective
"Christian" is accurately applied to the noun "wars" need
only listen to the prayers and preachments of the contenders through the ages to
find reason to hang heads in shame.
The good it has done
The public presence of Christianity, however, shows another side and offers a
positive balance. What good has it done? Charity and accuracy bid me to point
out that often this good has been done in conjunction with forces not directly
native to the Christian church. But it has been done, no doubt, with light and
leaven from people of faith often mingled with those of other faiths or no faith
Take, first, modern liberties. Catholic ideas of human dignity and Protestant
impulses for freedom of conscience fused with ideas we associate with others
from the 18th-century Enlightenment. Here is a perfect illustration of how
Christian influences come in tandem with others. Some scholars who hear
Christians claim a patent on liberty ask, "What took you so long?"
The faithful at least ought to send a thank-you card to the secular forces of
modernity. These helped develop what had only been latent in Christian teachings
for centuries, but had never found political expression on their own. Out of
this fusion of the sacred and secular came previously unheard-of personal
liberties, the advocacies of human rights, and concern for the spread of
freedom. The search for liberty is unfinished, and is sometimes inhibited by
some versions of Christian teaching. One thinks of the only partial liberation
of women from spheres and years of abuse, degradation, indignity and
half-fulfillment. Yet the seeds of liberty have been sown.
An artistic heritage
A second accomplishment of Christianity has to do with beauty. No monopoly
here: Buddhist- and Hindu-inspired art evokes awe, too. But around the world, by
no means only in the West, Christianity through the centuries provided what E.
M. Forster called "breathing holes for the human spirit." Its poetry
is for the ages. These were evidenced in the wonders of stained glass in the
cathedrals, through the great classical music of the West, in songs and poetry.
You will hear the soughing of the spirit as well in African Christian chants,
or see the sightings of the Spirit's effects in Latin American or Korean folk
Johann Sebastian Bach said that music was God's greatest gift to God's
sorrowing creatures, to give them a joy worthy of their destiny. Christian art
helped dispel some of the sorrows that come with the human condition and
experience. When one looks at or hears some of the barrenness and vapidity that
go with much Christian artistic expression today there is a temptation to ask
the churches, "What have you done for me lately?" But the record has
been positive overall.
A healing influence
It is easy to recall how early Christians resisted many scientific advances
that promote healing. Non-Christians did too. But behind the veil of
pre-scientific ignorance, much good was done. Again, Christianity holds no
monopoly here. Medieval Muslims and the ancient Chinese knew a thing or two
about the care of the body through medicine and its alternatives. Yet the
concepts of health care we have today have roots in the Christian West.
No one knew whence came the plague in medieval Europe. But everyone knew that
the priest, the consoler, was not to leave town when it struck. Sisters and
nuns, deaconesses and nurses pioneered in health care and invented voluntary
associations to promote healing. Today, in a scientific age, many are coming
again to recognize that they do well to supplement or support technology with
religious, in this case Christian, arts of healing and agencies of care.
The life of the mind
Intellectual productivity is fourth on the list of Christian achievements.
The temptation arises to question this because so often Christians have been
inquisitors, suspicious of heresy and experiment. They have suppressed the
thought of the "other," be it the Jew in the ghetto, the Muslim at a
distance, the sectarians driven to the mountain refuges far from Rome, the
innovators in the world of science, and often the pious themselves.
In East and West, however, Christians have tried to bring together the Athens
of learning or the Rome of law with the Jerusalem of faith. The creeds most
Christians recite combine Hebraic biblical narrative with Greek thought
patterns. In the Middle Ages, the Christians founded Bologna and Oxford, Paris
and Wittenberg as universities where scholars pursued more than theology. They
have been teaching forces and spreaders of liberty.
In the same period, Christian thinkers revisited Aristotle and the other
philosophers, relearned the ancient languages, and produced both scholasticism
— formidably systematic thought about faith and the world, and new
philosophies — and they still do.
Martyrs and mystics
Lives well-lived are further examples of the good Christianity has done. In
the past year alone, according to human rights monitors, 165,000 Christians died
for their faith. They have a long ancestry among people who paid the final price
for their commitments. From Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther King Jr. and
Mother Teresa, the faith has inspired prophets who risk their lives to change
the world. No one could measure the selfless acts that mark the quiet lives of
many Christians today and their ancestors in faith. But one would be pretty
callow to write them off and forget about them or despise them.
Those examples lead to an observation and a question. The observation: no
part of the Christian record is unblemished. No part of Christian teaching
suggests that Christians will leap out of their skin, escape the limits of the
human condition and not need to ask their God for help. All parts of Christian
teaching say that in the moral quest, one first and finally depends upon grace.
It makes up the weightiest contribution to the balance scale of positives.
Would Jesus know them?
And what does all this have to do with Jesus? The name that goes with the
church and its culture is "Christ-ian" not "Jesus-ian."
Christ is not a last name but a title, a designation. He is the anointed one,
the hoped-for rescuer and the king of his people. Believers would say that the
best good they have achieved is telling about him, preaching the Gospel and
pointing, despite their fallibility, to the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Some Christians cherish the myth that in the church of 20 centuries ago,
everyone shared a culture and formulated the faith in the same way. Never. One
scholar surveyed how the early Christians worshiped, governed themselves and
made moral judgments. These differed vastly from place to place, as they still
do. The cultural gaps between African Indigenous Church movements and St.
Peter's in Rome or a university student group are wide. But despite their
differences, all churches would agree that the human Jesus is also their
redeemer. So Jesus remains the universal and uniting presence. After two
millennia, would Jesus recognize what is done in his name today?
Would Jesus give the modern metropolis a free ride? He didn't do so for the
Jerusalem over which he wept or the Galilean cities whose destruction he
foresaw, at least as the four Gospels represent him. Would he denounce and then
dismiss the cities? Not according to the Gospels. His tears were tears of love
and yearning. He took part in town life with zest, and banqueted whether invited
or not. Would he despair over the half-heartedness he would see in the church?
Nearly. But he did not give up on the ancestors of the lukewarm.
Would he rejoice in the size of the cathedrals, the bigness of budgets, the
mega-ness of mega-churches that have sprung up on the modern landscape? On whose
side would he be when "liberation theologians" come up against
proponents of a market economy? Remember that Jesus hung out with the rich as
well as other sinners. And he clearly explained how hard it is for the wealthy
and the smug to enter the Kingdom of God. Would Jesus denounce armed conflict,
so much of it done in his name? At last there is a simple answer. Simply, yes.
Justice and mercy
Wherever Christians put their energy into the works of justice and mercy and
the tasks of peacemaking — whether in company with others or on their own —
they contribute to the tipping of the Christian balance to the positive side.
And they will do this against formidable odds. They know that because they have
looked at the portrait of Jesus and what he represents, and then into the mirror
to see their own brokenness.
As they look at the portrait and the mirror, the ideal and the reality, one
suspects that the honest realists among them will say that for all the enormous
flaws in the record, the Christian venture has produced great human good and
innumerable positive contributions to culture. Their faith at its best prohibits
them from boasting and they have reason to be penitent as they say, in effect,
"bring on the new millennium." If they have blights and faults that
bring them sorrow, they are also likely to come up with virtues and graces that
they can use to meet more of their own needs — and the enduring needs of the
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at
the University of Chicago. He is a respected theologian, lecturer and author of
numerous books on religion and American culture.