As I am writing this article, I am sitting in the airport in Delhi, India. My wife, Jacqueline, and I traveled here at the invitation of our friend Dr. Thom Wolf of the University Institute, New Delhi. I was asked to lecture on the topic of the dramatic, well-documented impact made by faithful, dedicated Christians across history and in many different societies—particularly in the West.
Our visit to India has clearly highlighted for us the sharp demarcation between differing cultural configurations—what Wolf calls “WV3 matrices” (see the WV3 Geo Lifezones graph below). For example, consider how Christians’ actions or “good deeds” (their worldvenue) are the result of an outlook or perspective (worldview) that has been shaped by their ultimate role model, Jesus of Nazareth (their worldvoice).
Then contrast this with a significant aspect of the Hindu religion—the worship of the lingam, the male sexual organ or phallus, of the Hindu god Shiva. In India, there are an estimated thirty million linga stones/statues in Indian temples and shrines, standing upright in the yoni (vagina) base, representing Shiva’s sexual union with the goddess Purvati. Worshipers will bathe, offer flowers, and pray to these linga idols. Indeed, Shiva is a lustful deity, as are Brahma and Ram (worldvoice). And when a male Hindu deity typically touches a woman, it is either to strike her or force himself on her sexually. One commentator notes the connection between the resultant misogynism of Hindu theology (worldview) and the “acute disease” of rape in Indian society (worldvenue).1
In a succinct introduction to Indian culture, Wolf explains how this WV3 matrix works in India:
Across South Asia, Lord Shiva mythology is an ancient and formative worldvoice—a spiritual prototype, a model person for adoration and emulation…Shivalinga thinking is the resultant worldview—a systemic perspective, a mental posture of analyzing and explaining the world that has evolved from contemplating the Shiva worldvoice….Shivaphallus worship is a religious and ritualistic worldvenue—a social pathway, a manifest pattern of activities or social expressions of Shiva’s worldvoice and the Shivalinga worldview….
Together, they form India’s defining culture, a cultural matrix with a distinctive threefold cultural dimension [WV3]: (1) worldvoice: the model person; (2) worldview: the mindset perspective; and (3) worldvenue: the mazeway practices….Around the world, you can discern which cultural geo lifezone you are in by giving attention to that area’s WV3: the dynamic way of living composed of a worldvoice luminary of adoration, a worldview lens of analysis, and a worldvenue lifestyle of activities.2
All societies are damaged by sin. Certain cultures are directed by different “voices”—Shiva, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus. It is worth exploring the differences between an S-shaped (“Shiva-shaped”) culture and a J-shaped (“Jesus-shaped”) one. The former shows a persistent pattern of being life-fettering while the latter consistently displays life-flourishing patterns.
WV3 GEO LIFEZONES
Geo lifezones are the different WV3 matrices—worldvoice worldview, and worldvenue—the cultural lifezones that release-and-enable or restrict-and-inhibit their peoples according to:
– their resultant lifestyle practices: the social venue or mazeway actions (FRUITS)
– their reflective lens perceptions: the systemic view of mindset analysis (SHOOTS)
– their root luminary prototype: the spiritual voice of the worshipped mentor (ROOTS)
(©2012 Thom Wolf)
Consider the phenomenon of corruption vis-à-vis humanitarian reforms such as abolishing sati (widow-burning). Another area worthy of investigation is the comparison of the concepts that promote or inhibit recognition of human equality, education for all, information for the masses (not just social elites), affirmation of the dignity of the girl-child, or promoting the equal worth of high- caste Brahmins and those in the lowest, “backward” castes (shudra) or no-caste (atishudra or dalit; dalit literally means “crushed”).3
Across history, the ripple effects of the Jesus worldvoice—the root that gives rise to these moral and socially distinct fruits—can be traced. And those J-shaped individuals and communities—the shoots—are faithful followers of Jesus of Nazareth who are dedicated to His saving uniqueness and resurrection power.4 When Jesus-followers live lives of Christian integrity, they will show concern for all of God’s image bearers, and this will affect society.
In this article, I want to talk about specific, well-acknowledged J-shaped changes in history. Five or so of them include modern science, human rights, bioethics, political democracy, and several other democratizing gains.
Contrary to the relatively recent modern invention of the “warfare” between God and science, Bible-believers—who believed in a God who created an orderly, rational universe as well as working miracles on rare occasions for special purposes—were the leading shapers of modern science. Indeed, remove them, and we have virtually nothing left. These pillars include Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, William Henry Perkin, George Stokes, William Thompson/Lord Kelvin, and J. J. Thompson. For example, J. J. Thomson, who identified and characterized the electron and was the Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, placed over his door in the Cavendish Laboratory a verse from the Bible: “Great are the works of the Lord. They are studied by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2).5
Noted physicist Paul Davies makes this clear: “Science began as an outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists…accept an essentially theological worldview.”6Famed scientist Robert Oppenheimer likewise attributes the growth of modern science to the Christian faith.7 (And do not forget that even Charles Darwin stated that a Creator “originally breathed” life “into a few forms or into one”; he referred to “laws impressed on matter by the Creator.”8) Sociologist Rodney Stark points out that the roots of science have “rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.”9
The modern doctrine of human rights is rooted, not in some secular Enlightenment ideal, but in the doctrine of the “image of God” in all persons.10 America’s Declaration of Independence (1776) emphasizes that God is the foundation for human dignity and worth: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., well-being and virtue).11France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) acknowledges these rights in the presence of “the Supreme Being.” Both of these documents connect God and human dignity and rights.
The figure behind such social contracts is philosopher John Locke, who himself grew up under the influence of a Calvinistic (Puritan) Protestantism. Again, there is that J-shape. He wrote that “all mankind” are “all equal and independent” and that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Why? Locke’s reasoning is that all of us are “the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker.”12
Another leading document is the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948)—forged just after the Nazi and Japanese atrocities of World War II. It affirms “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”13Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard documents how the chief movers behind this document were primarily church coalitions and individual Christian leaders who worked closely with some Jewish rabbis.14
Princeton human rights scholar Max Stackhouse makes clear: “Intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular,’ ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religion.”15
The beginning of the bioethics movement (“fruits”) was led by strategic shapers (“shoots”) who were themselves inspired by the Christian faith and their conviction about all humans being made in God’s image (“roots”). The Tuskegee syphilis experiments (1932–1972)16 and the Roe v. Wade abortion decision (1973) prompted Daniel Callahan (a founder of the modern bioethics movement and co-founder of the Hastings Center) to say that when he first began, the only resources available were theological and “heavily shaped by religion.”17
Though bioethics has become more secularized since then, A. R. Jonsen’s account of the “birth of bioethics” gives chief credit to the “Judeo-Christian religious tradition” and its emphasis on the sanctity of life.18 Ethicist, bioethics pioneer, and Methodist professor, Paul Ramsey, stated that human value is “ultimately grounded in the value God is placing on it” and that the fetus and the adult human have an equal sanctity: “No one is ever much more than a fellow fetus.”19 Biblical theism has provided a suitable worldview context for bioethics.
Political scientist Robert Woodberry of the National University of Singapore has marshalled impressive documentation showing how “conversionary Protestant” Christians—yes, “missionaries”—in particular have been responsible for remarkable democratizing gains in the West. Here are some of them:20 “the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, volunteer organizations, most major colonial reforms [abolishing slavery, widow-burning, foot binding, female circumcision, marriage of pre-pubescent girls, etc.], and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”21
Wherever these Protestant missionaries would go, the following phenomena would invariably accompany them: literacy and education (to promote the reading of “God’s Word”—the Bible), mass printing and print technology (in order to spread God’s Word), and democracy/civil society (the result of educating all rather than merely social elites). Woodberry’s research also shows that countries with more Protestants are more democratic and have more stable democratic transitions.22
This is not surprising, given the democratizing roots of the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism emphasized: (1) the priesthood of every believer before God; (2) the right of every believer to study the Bible for himself in his own language; and (3) the appropriateness of pursuing any honest vocation to the glory of God.
Some might suggest that other influences—ancient Greek democratic ideas or secular Enlightenment ideas—sufficiently explain modern democracy. However, Greece’s elitist version of democracy was very different from modern democracy: Plato’s Republic emphasizes the rule of philosopher-kings; ordinary citizens were not capable of such rule. These philosopher-kings should breed with intelligent women to create intelligent offspring (a kind of genetic engineering program).
As for Aristotle, he believed that some humans were slaves by nature (“animated tools”). Both thinkers considered manual labor too undignified—a kind of semi-slavery.23Furthermore, the writings of Greek thinkers such as Aristotle were widely read in the medieval Muslim world, though without democratizing effects.
What about the European Enlightenment explanation? Consider, for starters, how formative an influence was the Calvinist education or family background of Enlightenment democratic theorists and practictioners such as Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.24
Even the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are modeled on previous colonial compacts utilizing theological and biblical terms—well before the publication of social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), who were preceded by Puritan and Protestant Nonconformist arguments for the equality of all persons. As Woodberry points out: “Even between 1760 and 1805, political writings quoted the Bible more often than either Enlightenment or classical thinkers (34% versus 22% and 9%, respectively).”25
During colonial rule, European Protestant missionaries often protected indigenous peoples from abusive colonial powers. They were selected to act as fair-minded judges to punish or reprimand military officials or magistrates in cases of murder, land seizure, and forced labor. These missionaries sought to apply the same legal standards for whites and nonwhites. They often documented atrocities through detailed information, later through photographs. And without Protestant missionaries and ministers, mobilizing mass protests against colonial abuses would have been difficult. These missionaries helped create a kind of “cocoon in which non-violent, indigenous political movements could develop” to press for democracy and decolonialization.26
The documentation for the impact of Protestant missionaries throughout the world is quite thorough and the results are clear and persuasive. Woodberry urges us to look at any map: where Protestant missionaries have been, there you will find more printed books and more schools per capita. And you will discover that in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, “most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools.”27
Woodberry’s results have held up under severe scrutiny, including rigorous testing of his theory and its many variables. The summary article of his findings in the American Political Science Review required an additional 192 pages of supporting documentation. And this article has received several awards, including the prestigious Luebbert Article Award in 2012 for the best article in comparative politics.28 Here is a summary of his findings: “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”29
While we could quote plenty of sympathizers, let’s look at what scholars who disagree with the Christian worldview have to say. We’ll see clearly that, contrary to what atheist Christopher Hitchens declared, faithfully lived Christian religion doesn’t poison everything.
Perhaps Europe’s most prominent philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, is an atheist, yet he acknowledges the inescapable and profound debt that human rights discourse, democracy, and equality today owe to the biblical worldview:
Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.30
Likewise, the postmodern atheistic thinker Jacques Derrida made the same kind of affirmation about the Christian faith:
Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, what is sacred in humanity. You should not kill. You should not be responsible for a crime against the sacredness, this sacredness of man as your neighbor…made by God or by God made man….In that sense, the concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.31
One Chinese scholar representing one of China’s premier academic research organizations—the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)—told a group of foreign visitors: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.” CASS thought that the answer might be the West’s military might or its political or its economic systems. Their research led them to a different conclusion—a J-shaped one: “In the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”32
Harvard (and former Oxford) historian—and another atheist—Niall Ferguson sees the same connection between Protestantism and a strong work ethic; this work ethic is one of the six “killer apps” that propelled the West forward as a civilization. (Other “apps” include civilizational competition, science, modern medicine, property rights, and a free market.) He draws the connection that as Christianity declines in Europe, this has led to Europeans becoming the “idlers of the world”; he connects China’s increasingly strong work ethic to the shaping influence of Protestantism in the West.33
Christians and the Common Good
Because dedicated Christians follow a suffering Savior, we should not be surprised that they identify with the less fortunate, the disempowered, and the suffering. Agnostic political scientist Guenter Lewy offers this penetrating contrast between the secularist and the genuine Christian:
Adherents of [a secularist] ethic are not likely to produce a Dorothy Day or a Mother Teresa. Many of these people love humanity but not individual human beings with all their failings and shortcomings. They will be found participating in demonstrations for causes such as nuclear disarmament but not sitting at the bedside of a dying person. An ethic of moral autonomy and individual rights, so important to secular liberals, is incapable of sustaining and nourishing values such as altruism and self-sacrifice.34
While an agnostic, journalist Malcolm Muggeridge spent many years in India and Africa, where he witnessed “much righteous endeavor undertaken by Christians of all denominations.” By contrast, however, “I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society or a Humanist leper colony.”35
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Brian Stewart recounts his slow, reluctant conversion from unbelief to faith in Christ because of humble, brave Christians in the world’s remotest corners working for the common good: “It is these Christians who are right ‘on the front lines’ of committed humanity today and when I want to find that front, I follow their trail.” He adds: “I’ve never reached a war zone, or famine group or crisis anywhere where some church organization was not there long before me….I’m often asked if I lost belief in God covering events like Ethiopia, then called ‘the worst hell on earth.’ Actually, like others before me, it was precisely in such hells that I rediscovered religion.”36
A NEW ORDER: COMPASSION
The earliest Christians of all social strata—master and slave, Jew and Gentile, male and female (Gal. 3:28)—were exhorted to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; etc.). They would eat together as equals at “love feasts” followed by the Lord’s Supper, and they would call one another “brother” and “sister” as their spiritual family adopted by their Father through their crucified Master and Savior Jesus Christ. This created a new social structure, identity, and mindset for the earliest Christians—what one historian has called the “resocialization of conversion.”37
Yes, professing Christians have certainly tarnished the reputation of Christ in the past, and we aren’t trying to paper over this fact. However, this democratizing, transformational, Jesus-shaped mindset has prompted Christians throughout history to be change agents in society. And this continues in the present with Christians defending human dignity and equality, inviting everyone to share in a new humanity in Christ. In places like India, those same biblical “roots” continue to produce remarkable humanizing “fruits” through Christians of integrity—the “shoots.”
Paul Copan is Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. He has authored or edited thirty books, including An Introduction to Biblical Ethics (IVP Academic, 2014) and Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker, 2014).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith