There is a standard idea in the West that one of the objectives of the Christian Church, because it was an objective of Jesus himself, is to make the world a better place. I submit that this is in fact recent by historical measures, dating to the Reformation perhaps, and not really gaining steam as a practice of the churches until it started ramping up in the Anglosphere.
I have mentioned before that Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, does not really talk about improving society, and may be referring primarily to care of other Christians (“my brethren”) rather than even individuals in general. Helping them is not excluded, and over the first few centuries of the Church that indeed started to happen, but the NT focus is on a new tribe, a new people. So too the improvement of society isn’t incompatible with Christian practice, but the focus is different. The distinction may be more important than I recognised, a potential stumbling block for both left and right.
I have wondered how this idea wandered in and grew. It is clearly well in place by the time the Methodists start reforming the institutions of English and American society in the early 19th C. I can’t trace back to a time when one can say that nothing in the church connects with a vision of improving society, but it is largely absent from the thinking before 1500. The focus of charitable work is enormously on individuals, on souls, and not on building a nice place everyone can be comfortable to live in and proud to be a part of. Such is not only a just by-product, it is not even a frequently-mentioned by-product.
Since exploration and colonisation of the world by Christian Europeans, there was a hearkening back to Old Testament rules for societies. Settlers saw their situation as related to that of the tribes of Israel – some indeed stated quite explicitly that they were a new replacement for same – and tried to fit the concepts of in-group justice in OT Palestine to their society. As it wasn’t a bad set of rules, and lots of Christians have been quite literal, there has been a lot of pushing and shoving over the years exactly what of those strictures applies now, either in specific or in principle. Is this God’s order for us as well? YMMV.
So Jacques Barzun’s explanation that this is a Greco-Roman, not a Judeo-Christian idea struck me with some force. Again, I wonder why it did not strike me with force the first time I read From Dawn To Decadence. Perhaps I thought this was but an attempt by a secular scholar to steal credit from the church and give it to the humanists. Perhaps I was looking for something else while reading that section. Either way, I did not see it, but I noticed it this time. The idea of improving society – for the Greeks, the city they lived in, for the Romans, a more mixed idea of demonstrating superiority and keeping the peace in the heart of the empire – was revived in the Renaissance and grafted on to Christian thinking. It was certainly never incompatible with it, but it was not prominent until then.
In Christianity, improving society was secondary; care of the individual was primary.
The ideal of a comfortable and orderly place to live is Confucian as well, and the grand public works projects in the cities of the ancient Middle East and the Mayans suggest that this idea rather naturally occurs to wiser people as they become prosperous. Apart from any milk of human kindness or personal generosity, they find that life is just better when those around you are also doing well. There is less strife, more politeness, and gradually increasing prosperity. It is an earthly wisdom, not a revelation. The Scandinavian nations have increased in this attitude of group good and group order dramatically even as they became more secular. Helping the poor even when it doesn’t do you any good – even when it may cost you a fair bit of discomfort – is the specifically Christian idea.
The argument that this has been a net gain for Christian societies in the West seems overwhelming. Grafting Athens onto Jerusalem has been a winner. Both would build hospitals, for example, and the motives might be seen as complementary rather than competitive. But I think there are hidden costs, and as the church falters in the West, we begin to see those now. There is the rather obvious loss of focus on New Jerusalem in favor of Old Saybrook. That comfort here distracts us from heaven is a Christian cliché at this point, especially at Christmas as Santa pushes Jesus out of the manger. (Santa is now being pushed out himself, in favor of God-knows-what.) Yet it is a cliché we never seem to do anything about. We just chirp about it from time to time, to show we remember the lesson. This world is not my home, we embroider and frame in our comfortable houses, or sing about accompanied by expensive musical instruments over even more expensive sound systems. I’m not trying to kick anyone in particular here. Such contrast is so deeply embedded in our culture at this point that I don’t see how we change it. Even the accusers are guilty, and sometimes they know it.
More subtly, but more perniciously, the value of the individual is eroded. This may seem strange, even impossible, for an idea that came into especial prominence in the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, both distinguished for exalting the value of the individual. But both those movements, however much they purported to be about indivuals, were in the end about the redistribution of power among groups within society. This had enormous practical benefit to many people who had no prospects and no voice before, so that their individual worth in society was indeed increased. But it increased in conjunction with their group’s rise, not their own.
Thirdly, the practical balance that actually has resulted is to look at individuals as part of groups. That is not much part of the NT, but very much part of politics in the West, including America. Not only have we not been able to shake that, it may be increasing. I can’t see that as entirely positive.
It was the best that could be managed at the time, and perhaps for any society at any time, so I don’t fault it too heavily. More, many more, individuals got to be valuable. Some thought worthless at least got some status in our societies, which is not at all the case in most of the world to this day. But that is not the same as all individuals being valuable. They said that, but it wasn’t what happened. The Enlightenment was ultimately a class of people who did better under the new boss.
When you look at it all from a distance, any movement toward improving society is necessarily a movement away from the individual. We allow a great deal of that and approve of it because it improves our individual lives to be made to give money to have fire departments and courts of law. But societies which focus entirely on the their own improvement tolerate less and less deviation by the individual. On the Christian Right, the America-as-Christian-Nation crowd, it is a set of cultural values that are seen as belonging to the good of society, the founding society and the majority society, which the individual resists at his peril. To the Christian Left’s Jesus-was-pretty-much-a-redistributionist crowd, it is the individual’s goods that are seen as belonging essentially to society.
In both cases I am trading in political stereotypes that are not entirely fair. Yet they are both more true than not. The good of society underlies both group’s actions. Take that away, and what do either have to talk about? We don’t see that the very ground they are standing on to pursue their competitive visions of society is entirely earthly terrain. It is an assumption both make that neither sees. In neither case is it a clear NT idea.
I like how it has worked out for me and mine as individuals. I’m not seeing any organisation of society I’d plan to move to instead. But I am seeing a new hidden cost. I don’t see clearly where it’s all headed.