Why Religion will Return to the West

This is an important article by Greg Sheridan – which we republish with permission. Please do read the whole article – but this quote stuck out for me –

Christianity was just as weird to the sophisticated first-century Graeco-Roman civilisation of the Mediterranean as it is to the most disillusioned sophisticate of today.Happily for contemporary Christians, they have a readily accessible account of how the first Christians spread the gospel in a hostile, alien and comprehensively pagan culture. It’s a primary source, uniquely immediate and reliable, and still in print.It is found in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, and in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It’s worth reading these two short books – only 50 pages between them – straight through, as they offer a gripping, vivid picture of the first Christians.

And then this….

But the gospels, and Paul’s own words, make it clear that the Christian communities have an obligation to spread the message of Jesus to everyone. Not to compel anyone to follow that message but to preach it to everyone, to make it available to everyone. The Christian churches have that central obliga­tion to preach the gospel even when it’s illegal to do so. Paul comments in I Corinthians: “Woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel.”

And this…

When Jesus died on the cross the apostles were terrified and could barely move out of their meeting room. After he rose from the dead they became the bravest and most consequential force human history has seen. They were able to do this because Jesus is the truth.The way they did it, among cultures more uncompromisingly hostile even than our own, can teach today’s Christians invaluable lessons.

I am thankful for two main things – firstly Greg’s analysis and understanding is spot on! And secondly how wonderful that such an article is printed in Australia’s best mainstream newspaper!

David Robertson

Why Religion will Return to the West

The West is entering a phase of paganism. And history shows paganism is inherently ripe for conversion.

By GREG SHERIDAN

The ruins of ancient Corinth in Greece.

From Inquirer

December 24, 2022

10 MINUTE READ

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What sociological survey could have predicted the conversion of an ancient and sophisticated civilisation at the hands of a small group of uneducated labourers?

– James Shea in From Christendom to Apostolic Mission

Christianity will revive in the West in a very big way in coming decades. (If this prediction is wrong, I invite any reader to tax me on it severely in 50 years.) For the West is entering a phase of paganism. And history shows paganism is inherently ripe for conversion.

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The best historical example is the debauched and raucous port city of Corinth at the time of Paul the Apostle.

If Christians could crack first-century Corinth, contemporary Manhattan, seedy Kings Cross, swinging Soho, atheist Amsterdam, these should be a walk in the park one day.

Back to Corinth in a moment. Is the West really becoming neo-pagan? It’s not an original judgment. The great religious and cultural thinker Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made this argument. The West’s new paganism, in his view, was evident in the death of the underlying commitment to marriage and to the sanctity of life.

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Sacks also argued religion would return to the West because “science, technology, the market and the state cannot answer: who am I, why am I here, how then shall I live?”

Anthony Fisher, a thoughtful student of cultural history and the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, argued recently that “as the old religion fades, a pagan hedonism fills the void”. He gave a pithy summary of the stats: “Those who do believe and count religion as important in their lives are now just over half of Americans, a quarter of Canadians, a fifth of Australians and a tenth of Britons, French and Germans.”

Western culture now includes post-Christians, those who knew at least a little of Christian belief in childhood and gave it away; believing Christians; and pre-Christians, those, especially people under about 40, who have no familiarity with Christianity at all.

Is it fair to label this group pagan?

I asked Kanishka Raffel, the impressive Anglican Archbishop of Sydney.

“There is a generation that is innocently unaware of the content of the Christian story, and also unaware of the Christian contribution to their secular values,” Raffel tells Inquirer.

“Would I call them pagans? Greek and Roman pagans worshipped gods of war and sex and power. And so does our society today. The pagan gods are back, but we don’t use religious names for them today. The world those gods created was brutal. And it was made much less brutal by Jesus.”

Pilgrims and tourists pray at the grotto, believed to be the site of the birth of Jesus, at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 22.

Paul Morrissey, president of Campion College, has a similar view: “People under 40 have no real idea of Christianity and are basically pagans. So Christianity does appear weird to them. But that weirdness can be attractive. Where Christianity has become fully liberal it just fades into the background.”

The weirdness of Christianity that Morrissey identifies was central to its success. Christianity was just as weird to the sophisticated first-century Graeco-Roman civilisation of the Mediterranean as it is to the most disillusioned sophisticate of today.

Happily for contemporary Christians, they have a readily accessible account of how the first Christians spread the gospel in a hostile, alien and comprehensively pagan culture. It’s a primary source, uniquely immediate and reliable, and still in print.

It is found in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, and in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It’s worth reading these two short books – only 50 pages between them – straight through, as they offer a gripping, vivid picture of the first Christians.

Paul’s letter, I Corinthians, is strikingly modern in its reson­ances. According to John Barton’s authoritative A History of the Bible, I Corinthians was likely the second earliest book of the New Testament, after only Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Barton thinks it was written only 20 years after Jesus’ death.

St Paul writing his epistles by Valentin de Boulogne.

Corinth then was a big, raucous city. It had been a Greek city for hundreds of years and earned a reputation for extreme licentiousness. It practised the cult of Aphrodite and one legend had it there were a thousand temple prostitutes, though some scholars think this was a slander put about by Athenians who saw Corinth as a rival. To “Corinthianise” meant to engage in prostitution.

Corinth made the mistake of rebelling against Roman rule and in 146BC the Romans destroyed it completely, a reminder of how red in tooth and claw the ancient world was.

The Romans founded a new Corinth in 46BC, It was a Roman city in Greece. Corinth is located on the narrowest neck of the Greek isthmus and is thus a port city on both its west and its east. It was a wild and cosmopolitan place. Sailors from all over the Graeco-Roman world frequented its ports. Its base population was originally freed Roman slaves. Its leading citizens quickly amassed big fortunes.

There were temples to the many Greek gods of fertility and wealth and power, but there were also imperial temples to the Roman gods and the Roman rulers elevated to the status of gods. A big proportion of Corinth’s population were slaves. Sometimes it hosted the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympic Games. Sometimes these were taken away. While it was often a rich city, some seasons there were famines. The gulf between rich and poor was enormous.

Its elite was rapacious and self-seeking. Paul’s boss, St Peter, in his first letter, described Roman life as “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, idolatry and reckless, wild living”. Corinth put Rome in the shade. What we would now regard as human-rights abuses were routine. Fathers had the right to kill their children after birth if they didn’t want them. Masters could do whatever they liked with their slaves. Status with the Roman authorities was important to Corinthian citizens, as was ostentation and wealth.

All of these features mixed together. Big dinners, official and private, were a feature of city life. These routinely featured gluttony, excessive drinking and the serv­ices of after-dinner prostitutes.

So into this teeming, rich, competitive, sharp-elbowed, striving and corrupt city came the early Jesus movement, known as the Way, planted initially by Paul.

The Christians were by far the weirdest, most countercultural movement ever known in that city. I Corinthians is exceptionally valuable for the modern reader because it concerns Paul trying to address both the basic issues of Christian belief, but also trying to work out the shape a Christian community should take, indeed the shape a Christian life should take.

The first Christians were accused of incest because they called each other brother and sister; they were accused of cannibalism because they spoke of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood; they were accused of atheism because they had no visible gods and didn’t worship any of the pantheon of pagan gods.

Figurants in traditional costumes of the Living Nativity, pose to represent the scene of the Nativity of the Child Jesus, set up on the churchyard of the Papal Basilica of St Mary Major, in Rome on December 17.

Their sexual ethics were regarded as bizarre, the idea that all human bodies, even the bodies of slaves and of lowborn women, possessed ineradicable human dignity, that young men should exercise restraint, that marriage was a bond of mutual surrender and giving: what planet did these nut-jobs come from?

Even more grotesque, in the view of Corinthians, of Greeks and Romans alike, was the Christian view of power. They worshipped a crucified Jew. This tiny, uninfluential sect thought the inverted power of the cross more important than empire and city.

Reading Acts and I Corinthians is a bracing, uncompromising experience. The second half of Acts concerns the life and journeys of Paul, surely, after only Jesus himself, the most compelling and astonishing figure of the New Testament.

Paul’s message is repentance, redemption and resurrection, that the old world is over because Jesus has come with his message of repentance and love, and he has conquered death. Jesus has inaugurated a new way of living, in which human beings are elevated to their true destiny. Paul, who is often bad-tempered and discouraged, is nonetheless on fire with the love of Christ. He is an organisational and theological genius, and a prodigious engine of energy.

Time and again in Acts, Paul is imprisoned, and frequently enough flogged, for the scandalous things he preaches. But he’s no sooner released than he’s doing it again. He does what he can to defend himself legally. He asserts his rights as a Roman citizen. (It’s unclear how Paul’s family acquired this citizenship.)

But the gospels, and Paul’s own words, make it clear that the Christian communities have an obligation to spread the message of Jesus to everyone. Not to compel anyone to follow that message but to preach it to everyone, to make it available to everyone. The Christian churches have that central obliga­tion to preach the gospel even when it’s illegal to do so. Paul comments in I Corinthians: “Woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel.”

In our time, the case of Andrew Thorburn, who was effectively sacked as chief executive of Essendon Football Club because it turned out he was chairman of a group of conservative Anglican churches where one of the pastors, a decade ago, had preached a sermon giving expression to orthodox Christian teaching on abortion and sex outside marriage, and in the orthodox Christian view marriage is between a man and a woman, is instructive.

None of these teachings is remotely compulsory for anyone to follow, of course, no more compulsory than in first-century Corinth. But the demented reaction, the rage and hysteria against the very idea that traditional Christian teaching could receive any tolerance in the new public square, was almost insane.

Essendon finally apologised to Thorburn, but the striking thing was how few non-religious voices were raised in his defence. It’s an unmistakeable sign of the trend to make it all but illegal to profess Christian beliefs.

Andrew Thorburn.

The lesson is that those Christian churches that continue to believe in the gospels have to continue to preach their contents. But here is a paradox. You don’t preach something because it is weird, you preach it because it is true. But the weirder Christianity is, the more it’s likely to succeed. People are naturally religious and naturally attracted by strong flavours.

As Paul characteristically declares in I Corinthians: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

There is great compassion in everything that Paul does. His message, as I say, is repentance, resurrection and love. But there’s an uncompromising element as well.

At one point in Acts, Paul is in the custody of the Roman governor, Festus. Paul is always keen to defend himself publicly. As part of one such episode, Paul says: “… the Messiah (Jesus) must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

Festus, who is disposed to like Paul and find a way to release him, can’t believe his ears. He jumps up: “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

You can imagine the voices of the sensible and cautious as they counselled Paul privately: “You’ve done enough, Paul, don’t expose yourself to prison again. Must your sermons be quite so explicit? Couldn’t you just focus on Christians’ charitable works and generous giving? We must observe, Paul, the signs of the times. Corinthians have had these customs for a long time now, we should respect their culture.”

Paul would have none of that. Paul had a fanatic heart; fanatics drive history.

In I Corinthians Paul sorts out specific issues and disputes for the young Christian community: Christ is the centre of everything; the greatest command is love; Christians must lead moral lives; they must be generous; they must pray; they shouldn’t sue each other in civil courts; the highborn and lowborn must relate as equals at the Lord’s Supper; marriages with non-Christians are fine; within marriage the husband must give himself to the wife and the wife give herself to the husband; live for others; worship should be orderly; don’t forget we’ve got to raise some money.

Love recurs constantly. Famously, Paul declares: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Paul insists absolutely that Christ is physically risen and that everyone will rise from the dead eventually. If that is not true, he says, then “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. The real alternative to belief is insatiable hedonism and lust for power.

When Jesus died on the cross the apostles were terrified and could barely move out of their meeting room. After he rose from the dead they became the bravest and most consequential force human history has seen. They were able to do this because Jesus is the truth.

The way they did it, among cultures more uncompromisingly hostile even than our own, can teach today’s Christians invaluable lessons.

GREG SHERIDAN

FOREIGN EDITOR 

 Following

Greg Sheridan is The Australian’s foreign editor. His most recent book, Christians, the urgent case for Jesus in our world, became a best seller weeks after publication. It makes the case for the historical reliabi… Read more

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