Christianity is far more than just pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. Wherever Christian missionaries and workers have gone, there has been tremendous work in social reform. The Christian Gospel is not just about getting souls into heaven, but bettering conditions on planet earth as well.
Two thousand years of Christianity have involved both: rescuing souls and improving living conditions. This has been amply documented. Back in 1899 James Dennis wrote a three volume study entitled Christian Missions and Social Progress which ran well over 1200 pages.
In it he said this: “Missionary effort has a sociological sphere to fill as well as an evangelistic. It has necessarily to come into contact with corrupt social customs, non-Christian practices, barbaric ideals, and a complex heathen environment. . . . It therefore becomes clear that the mission of Christianity is to transform and elevate man, as well in his associate relationships as in his individual life, and to build up throughout the heathen world a civilisation whose centre is a church of redeemed souls, and whose circumference is only measured by the radiating influences of Christian teaching and practice.”
Somewhat more recently has been the monumental work of Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968). He wrote extensively on the history and spread of Christianity around the world, and on its social impact. Perhaps the most important part of his work is his 12-volume history. The first seven volumes, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (1937-45) was a meticulous look at how the Christian faith spread. The set was followed up by a five-volume work, looking at recent Christian missions: Christianity In a Revolutionary Age; A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1958-1969).
For those without the stomach – or time – to digest the 12 volumes, he also penned a two-volume history (A History of Christianity, 1953), and he also wrote a one-volume work, Christianity though the Ages (1965). Other specific studies were written as well. Latourette was arguably our most prolific and exhaustive historian of Christianity. He makes it perfectly clear that Christianity has had a tremendous social, intellectual, political, cultural, educational and artistic impact wherever it was spread.
All this is simply the matter of historical record. Yet when one encounters the works of the new atheists, a completely different picture is presented. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et. al., want to convince us that religion in general and Christianity in particular are utterly harmful and disadvantageous. Hitchens can entitle his 2007 book: god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Their diatribes against religion are as vicious as they are inaccurate.
Thus it was quite surprising to hear an atheist come out recently and actually defend Christianity. He in fact believes that it has done a lot of good, and we would be impoverished if it had not existed. I kid you not.
The atheist in question is Matthew Parris. Writing in the Timesonline last December, his piece began with the provocative title, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”. He starts his article with these words: “Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.”
He continues, “It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
He realises that this is not just about doing good works, but the faith which lies behind the charitable deeds: “I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith. But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”
He reminisces about missionaries he has known: “We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”
And he notes the major worldview differences between Christianity and African tribal beliefs: “Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things – strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders. How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds – at the very moment of passing into the new – that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? ‘Because it’s there,’ he said.”
He continues, “To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation – that nobody else had climbed it – would stand as a second reason for passivity. Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.”
He concludes by noting the importance of worldviews: “Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.”
It is refreshing and surprising to see such candour coming from a confirmed atheist. I suppose what makes Parris so different from his fellow atheists is that he has actually been to other parts of the world and seen the good that Christianity has achieved, while the others tend to stay in their ivory towers.
Parris has actually seen firsthand what Christians have been up to. He can testify to the incredible benefits of practical and biblical Christianity. Too bad the other atheists don’t get out of their offices more often, and see what life is really like. But they would then have to ease up on their militant atheism. One suspects that many of these zealous atheist evangelists would rather cling to their reductionist ideology than allow facts and evidence to actually alter their worldview.