Should Christians be socialists? Some data points:
* Pope Francis delivered a strongly leftist apostolic exhortation, condemning free markets and endorsing some sort of paternalistic egalitarianism.
* C. S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity that “a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist” — its economics would be socialist, no luxuries would be allowed, no advertising would be allowed, no charging interest on loans would be allowed, and so on.
So both the current most-well-known Catholic Christian and (probably) the most-well-known non-Catholic Christian of the past century endorse some sort of socialism.
* There is the long tradition of Christian institutions practicing what they preach — priests, monks, and nuns vowing poverty and typically living communally with no private property.
* And the long tradition of Christian spokesmen:
St. Basil: “The bread in your hoard belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”
St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”
St. Gregory the Great: “When we furnish the destitute with any necessity we render them what is theirs, not bestow on them what is ours; we pay the debt of justice rather than perform the works of mercy.”
And many others along the way, connecting again to Pope Francis who quoted approvingly St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.”
* But the most important arguments for Christians should come from Jesus himself, so there are the arguments from Scripture: Jesus’ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple (John 2:13-22), encouraging people to give away their possessions (Luke 18:22), telling the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-25), claiming that one cannot love both God and money (Matthew 6:24), talking of camels and needles (Luke 18:25), and more.
So: Does Christianity entail socialism? (Please note that my question is not whether Christianity or socialism are true, but whether Christians should be socialists.)
“But I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”
The immediate context was the great debate over the geocentric and heliocentric models. The larger context was the tension between religious philosophy, which stressed faith in revelation and tradition, and Renaissance philosophy, which stressed observation and reason. How, for example, should we decide whether the earth or the sun is at the center of our cosmos? Should we trust the views handed down to us by the best theologians of the centuries, those views derived primarily from Scripture? Or should we trust the views presented to us by scientists, their theories based on observational data from telescopes and other instruments and mathematical calculations of that data?
The traditionalist position was that reliance on observation and reason — when that conflicts with Scripture and tradition — is heresy. Giordano Bruno was convicted and executed, in part, for such heresy. When reason conflicts with faith, reason must give way. Or else.
Galileo’s solution is to argue that God wrote Scripture, of course, so Scripture contains the truth — and that God also created nature, and so nature also contains truth. God also created us humans, giving us sense organs and intelligence. So we can study Scripture rationally and learn important truths, as theologians do. But we can and should study nature rationally and learn important truths, as scientists do. And since both Scripture and nature come from the same author — God wrote two books, so to speak — the best theology and the best science should be compatible.
Consequently, the real heretics are those who place faith over reason and who use apparent theoretical conflicts as a pretext for persecuting or killing their intellectual opponents. The truly devout, by direct contrast, are those who use their best intelligence, as God intended when He gave it to us, to try to understand the universe and who, when intellectual conflicts arise along the way, use reasonable methods — discussion, debate, and further investigation — to resolve them.
I call this “the modern compromise” because versions of it are also found in Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and John Locke. In Galileo’s version, the intellectual turf is divided into two realms — the natural and the supernatural — and as long as scientists and theologians stick to their own turf, there should be no problems.
Locke uses the same dualist point is used to argue for the separation of church and state: “The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He jumbles heaven and earth together, the things most remote and opposite, who mixes these two societies, which are in their original, end, business, and in everything perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other” (A Letter concerning Toleration ).
So the early modern compromise is to use a strong metaphysical dualism to separate the natural and the supernatural, the realm of science and the realm of religion, the scope of the state’s power and the scope of the church’s, the physical and the spiritual, the factual and the moral. As long as everyone stays on their side of the line, we can avoid conflict.
I sometimes wonder to what extent the dualism was a genuine metaphysical claim by these founding modern thinkers — and to what extent it was a tactical claim to create a safety zone for naturalistic life and inquiry, given the often-dangerous religious orthodoxies of the time.
Despite having lost much of Europe to the Protestants over the preceding century, the Catholic Church was far from toothless, especially in southern Europe, and in 1616 it issued a Codex with a formal response to Galileo’s argument and the threat of heliocentrism:
“Propositions to be forbidden: That the sun is immovable at the center of the heaven; that the earth is not at the center of the heaven, and is not immovable; but moves by a double motion.”
Thus the stage was set for continued tension on both sides and Galileo’s trial for heresy in the 1633.
There’s a calculator at the EFW site with this heading: “The average American’s lifetime share of the national debt is $482,367. What’s your share?”
One enters one’s age and clicks the calculator. I entered age zero to calculate for a newborn American. Result:
“Your lifetime share of the national debt is: $1,536,621.”
How’s that for Original Sin? You are born into this world and haven’t done anything yet — but you have inherited the misdeeds of earlier generations and must spend the rest of your life paying for them.
Nietzsche comments wryly on contemporary religious morality:
“One believes one must disapprove of Cesare Borgia; that is simply laughable. The church has excommunicated German emperors on account of their vices: as if a monk or priest had any right to join in a discussion about what a Frederick II may demand of himself. A Don Juan is sent to hell: that is very naive. Has it been noticed that in heaven all interesting men are missing? — Just a hint to the girls as to where they can best find their salvation.”
This is a good debate between Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza, hosted at the University of Texas. Arguments about religion typically fall into three categories:
1. Philosophical arguments about supernaturalism, faith and reason, the source of morality, and so on.
2. Scriptural arguments about passages in the religion’s core texts.
3. Historical arguments about the record of the religion in practice.
One striking feature of this debate is that history is most prominent in both Bernstein’s and D’Souza’s arguments: Why did Rome fail? How individualistic were the Greeks? What did Christianity accomplish in the Middle Ages? How brutal were the religious wars of the Reformation? What was the significance of the Enlightenment of the 1700s?
The image is Raphael’s version of Hypatia, the astronomer, mathematician, and neoplatonic philosopher who was murdered by a religious mob in 415.
Hypatia lived and died in Alexandria, Egypt, then a clashing hotbed of philosophical schools and rising radical religion. The rising radical religion of the time was Christianity.
Hypatia’s nemesis was Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria and leader of a fanatical group of Christian activists. The Christians lived their mission of converting everyone, by whatever means, to their doctrine. Under Cyril’s leadership, the Christians accused Hypatia of paganism and witchcraft, threw stones at her allies, and became increasingly violent until a violent Christian mob killed her, dismembered her body, and burned it on a pyre.
Fast forward 1,600 years to Egypt now and the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood. The MB movement was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists), and it has led a mostly-underground existence since then. In the second half of the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb became the MB’s leading intellectual voice and his Milestones its manifesto:
“When Islam strives for peace, its objective is not that superficial peace which requires that only that part of the earth where the followers of Islam are residing remain secure. The peace which Islam desires is that the religion (i.e., the Law of the society) be purified for God, that the obedience of all people be for God alone” (Milestones, p. 63).
(Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid’s younger brother, was a university professor in Saudi Arabia, where one of his students was Osama Bin Laden.)
The ousting of Egypt’s thug-president Hosni Mubarak has led to a power vacuum, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s has now become a potent political force in Egypt. The MB’s motto: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
So how different is Egypt 1,600 years later? And whither Egypt’s philosophers, scientists, and independent thinkers?