A Review of: The God that Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, by Robert Royal (Encounter, 311 pp., $25.95)
In The God That Did Not Fail, Robert Royal tells the story of Christianity’s role in world history, a story in which the religion symbolized by the cross acts as a lantern lighting the way as civilization progresses. The president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, he treats religion generally, arguing that faith has built and sustained Western civilization from Hebrew, Greek, and Roman times through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the rise of modern democracy, and to the crisis of secularism that assails us today. But the vindication of Christianity is the beating heart of this excellent new book.
The author’s point is provocative in the context of the present cultural moment. For, needless to say, there is a competing story being told in the media and in the universities. It insists that faith, and especially Christianity, has done little other than impede civilization’s progress. With its dogmatic and anti-scientific irrationalism, Western religion is a curse.
It is not just the press and academic elites who sound this theme. The same week I was reading Robert Royal, I got into a discussion with a secularist and an ex-Catholic who rarely misses an opportunity to discuss his childhood faith. Making fun of what he understood to be the pointlessness of medieval Christian theology, he said, “Well, that’s religion for you. In the Middle Ages, the theologians did nothing but sit around and argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!”
One of the virtues of Royal’s book is the way it punches holes in myths like this one:
No known medieval theologian asked the question usually cited to show their irrelevance: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? But if someone had asked this, it would have been to make something like a true mathematical observation: if you believe that angels are pure spirits who do not occupy space, then an infinite number of angels could be said to fit on the smallest pin head—a reflection that resembles infinitesimal calculus more than it does mere foolishness.
Royal reminds us, as the sociologist Rodney Stark has done (most recently in The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Lead to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success), of Christianity’s contributions not only to philosophy but to the rise of capitalism and science and to the development of democracy. Building his case for Christianity as the prime engine of cultural advancement, Royal shows how the religion’s earliest theologians inherited not only the Hebrew Bible from the Jews but also Platonism from the Greeks.
Centuries later, Benedictine monks emerged as technological and economic innovators, introducing techniques for milling grain, propelling looms, and working metals with water power. After the Dark Age following the barbarian triumph over the old Roman empire, monasteries revived agriculture: “Fields were put back under cultivation, swamps drained, wine and beer production increased, and craft workshops opened.”
Religious inspiration drove Columbus and Newton. An evangelical English Methodist, William Wilberforce, was the leading moral voice for suppressing the slave trade in the British Empire. When Eastern Europe was freed from Communist tyranny—the modern form of slavery—it was again Christian-inspired leaders who led the way: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II.
But Royal’s shrewdest point is more subtle. Religion, he argues, is a necessary component of a successful democratic culture. Even the skeptical Jefferson asked, in Notes on the State of Virginia: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath?”
Royal adds that it isn’t merely the popularity of religious belief that secures liberty but the quality of that belief:
To keep democratic systems from becoming self-destructive, two things are necessary: good institutions that provide checks and balances over power and, equally important, a vision of human life that will be able to give a credible account of the democratic belief in human dignity, while pointing out that not everything people wish to do under the rubric of liberty is good for them or for a free society. Religion—specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West—is quite good at that.
If citizens living in a democratic state cannot explain why a human being possesses inherent dignity, or why some things one might vote for are wrong or injurious, then that polity is in deadly danger.
On the last page of his book, the author puts his finger on a cultural force that has undermined what was once a universal appreciation for the eternal truths about man and morality: Darwinism. With its dogmatic teaching that humans arrived on the scene exclusively through an undirected material process of natural selection, Darwinism undercuts any claim to inherent dignity we might make for ourselves. It also shreds any claim to our possessing a transcendent moral code, since it casts doubt on transcendence altogether.
Understood this way, Darwinism is the enemy of democracy. Royal observes that “we must assert something about human nature that is not captured by the usual Darwinism if we do not want to see religion and even human nature itself obliterated.” This is a brave and wise statement that concludes a brave and wise book.
I could end here, but for one caveat. While Royal’s theory of two competing stories of religion’s role in the West has an appealing elegance, I wonder if he overlooks a third narrative line that makes better sense of the evidence.
He writes that it was the goodness of the early Christian communities on the edges of the Mediterranean that first drew massive numbers of converts in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Maybe so. But that goodness is hard to identify during much of the 1300-year period when Christianity was in political power and closely linked with the might of the state.
The brutality that runs through the history of the Christian empires and kingdoms is impossible to deny. The cruelty of the Crusaders’ rampage through Europe, for example, is striking in the history of a religion that identifies God with Love.
But when America, an enthusiastically Christian (though officially secular) country, was founded, goodness seemed to reenter the history of Christianity on the public stage. Ever since, Christian morality has been improving. What changed in the nature of the religion to produce the miracle of the American Founding?
Here’s a thought inspired by Royal’s reflections. He writes that it has been necessary in every generation to achieve the proper mix between Greek and Biblical ways of thinking. Judaism has traditionally been wary of Greek influence: Jews observe a day of fasting—the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet—in order to recall tragic incidents in Jewish history, including the translation of the Bible into the Greek Septuagint.
Perhaps, in the centuries when technology triumphed but morality languished, the mix of Hebrew and Greek in Christian culture excessively emphasized the Greek. But that changed with the coming of American democracy. American history has consistently highlighted Christianity’s Hebrew heritage:In fact, Royal’s argument that the quality of religious belief—not its popularity—is central to the maintenance of ordered liberty goes back to the Ten Commandments, inscribed on two tablets at Sinai.
The use of two tablets was deliberate, and recognizing this fact is crucial to understanding the Decalogue. As far back as the second century C.E., in the rabbinic text Mechilta, Jewish tradition has taught that the mirror symmetry—five commandments on one tablet, five on the other—show how theological ideas influence a society’s success in other fields of endeavor.
The first five statements concern man’s relationship with God. The second five deal with his relationship with other people, and thus with the extent to which his way of life is civilized and humane. According to rabbinic tradition, the nation that accomplishes the first five stands a better chance of living up to the second.
Besides the two stories Robert Royal points to—one that degrades Christianity, another that exalts it—there may be a third narrative: a Jewish one, in which the West’s most popular faith partly lost its way for some centuries, but eventually rediscovered its Hebrew core.