In this regard, we cannot understate the importance of the late Roman imperial decrees of the 4th century, by which the subjects of the Roman Empire were required by law to live, as the decree said, ‘according to the apostolic discipline and evangelical doctrine.’
Alan Bekhor, “God, the West and the Scholastic Mentality’
It has been called to my attention by my nearest and dearest that my approximation of a Good Friday sermon suffered from a few logical gaps which might have made it a bit more comprehensible to those who do not know me as more usually mild-mannered on the spiritual front. In truth, I do admit the gaps more resemble chasms, so in the interest of clarity I offer the following:
In my defense, I have been rather under the spell of the Augustinian priory in Suffolk which I had visited a few weeks ago, which in turn led me back after some many years gap after university, to Augustine’s work (in translation, I hasten to add in the interest of transparency). Augustine was a firebrand of the reformed sort, but not entirely lacking in a sense of self-awareness for all that.
The particular passage quoted in the previous post brought to mind what seems to be a fair onslaught in the media of examinations of Western Civilization: in the UK, for example, we have had Niall Ferguson’s treatment of the subject, particularly from the view of its decline in TV and book form; Michael Sandel’s consideration of Justice on the BBC; the talk by Alan Bekhor, as reproduced in Standpoint, to name a few that treat or touch on this point. Some have linked Christianity with the rise of the West, although Niall Ferguson does not appear to be one of them. The closest one of his ‘killer apps’ gets to Christianity is ‘Protestant work ethic’. But for those who do believe there is a strong, even causal, link, it is not just that it drew together many disparate cultures: the set of core values upon which it rests gave impetus to many of the greatest achievements from art to science to politics.
I am afraid that the contemplation of these connections-Roman, Western, Christian-combined with the somber atmosphere of a Good Friday brought forth what might have appeared to be an undignified outburst directed at one of the leading lights of New Atheism, using Augustine as my human shield, for my sins as it were. Not that I am entirely unsympathetic to atheism–some of what goes on in the name of religion is enough to compel one to sign up. And, I am a bit skeptical about the extent and nature of Christianity’s influence in the West. This core set of values, is it important that they are particularly Christian values or that they they represented a moral code backed up by a belief system that made them more widely appealing? I would suppose that the New Atheists would maintain that these are Enlightement values which can be lived without the extremes in which religions often indulge.
However, and especially in view of the Easter stories replayed every year-Palm Sunday, the Passion, the Resurrection-without the larger context of religion, of belief, these values may not be able to offer the kind backbone, fiber, starch whatever term you like to signify the sterner stuff we mere unenlightened mortals may need to keep us on the straight and narrow. I think this is Augustine’s message, I suppose this is what the Romans were after in the 4th c., and what Good Friday is all about.
Phew! Thank God for Easter and chocolate bunnies to take your mind off serious stuff. Next post I promise will be back to Virgil and the bees…