Are we living off the moral capital of Christianity?

Barney Zwartz ponders the legacy of Christianity in building Western civilisation and culture.

As Australia moves into a post-Christian phase, I have been pondering the legacy of the faith in building Western civilisation and culture.

We are still living off Christianity’s moral capital, and some attributes may be so deeply entrenched that they will continue – at least as aspirations – for a long time.

Here are five characteristics – all explicitly Christian virtues – whose loss would greatly impoverish society. I don’t suggest that only Christians admire them, but that they became admired because of Christianity and embedded as virtues in the general culture where atheists and agnostics imbibed them as well.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and teaches that true leadership involves serving, not lording it over others.

Evidence of this is their absence in cultures untouched by Christianity, such as ancient Greece and Rome, Japan or China.

The first is humility. The ancient world demanded honour and praise – Homer’s Iliad overflows with its heroes’ pride, while appropriate recognition is part of the achievement of Aristotle’s “great-souled man”.

In contrast, the Bible teaches that the king is not to consider himself above his fellow Israelites or the law (Deuteronomy 17). Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and teaches that true leadership involves serving, not lording it over others. Paul instructs Christians to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves”.

The second is guilt, contrasted with shame. Shame is a public matter, involving the condemnation of others, whereas guilt is an inward recognition. The fraudster feels no shame unless he is caught and exposed, whereas to Christians, he should be remorseful whether he is caught or not.

The third virtue is commitment or passion, contrasted with the classical notion of good life as one stripped of hopes and fears (the Stoic philosopher Epictetus).

Against that, Christianity teaches that we are fulfilled through our commitments, to God but also to vocation. We are not to be “cool”, evincing no desires, but passionate and dedicated. Paul spoke of his sufferings (being stoned, lashed, imprisoned and the like), not as the source of shame it would be to his contemporaries, but as evidence of his proper commitment.

Fourth, work is dignified, which stands in contrast to the classical idea of leisure. To the Greeks, labour was obsequious, to be done by slaves and servants. Against that, Jesus was a carpenter, Paul a tent-maker, and the Bible says all and any work can be dedicated to God – Luther spoke of washing nappies to the glory of God.

Fifth, and most shocking to the ancient world, was compassion. Of course humans feel for each other, but compassion for outsiders was seen as weakness. Christianity made it a duty.

It seems to me that all but the third and fourth are in decline. I hope I am wrong.

This article first appeared in The Age.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.