Woodbridge's impassioned words were still ringing in my mind when I arrived back home, exhausted from a long day. I collapsed into my favorite chair and picked up a magazine to thumb through. There, quite by coincidence, I encountered an article in which several scholars, writing in the waning days of the twentieth century, speculated about where civilization would have been without Christianity. Their observations picked up right where Woodbridge had left off.26
Michael Novak extolled Christianity's gift of dignity. "Both Aristotle and Plato held that most humans are by nature slavish and suitable only for slavery," he wrote. "Most do not have natures worthy of freedom. The Greeks used 'dignity' for only the few, rather than for all human beings. By contrast, Christianity insisted that every single human is loved by the Creator, made in the Creator's image, and destined for eternal friendship and communion with him."
He pointed to the civilizing ideas of liberty, conscience, and truth that can be traced to Christianity. "Without the Christian foundations laid for us in the high Middle Ages and again in the sixteenth century our economic and political life together would not only be far poorer," he contended, "but far more brutal as well."
David N. Livingstone, a professor in the School of Geosciences at the Queen's University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, focused on Christianity's gift of science. "The idea that Christianity and science have constantly been at loggerheads is a gross distortion of the historical record," he wrote. "Indeed, Robert Boyle, the great English student of chemistry, believed that scientists more than anyone else glorified God in the pursuit of their tasks because it was given to them to interrogate God's creation."
He pointed out that those in the Reformation "believed that God has revealed himself to humanity in two ways-in Scripture and in nature. This enabled them to engage in the scientific investigation of the natural world." The results have been sweeping contributions by scientists who were spurred on by their Christian faith.
David Lyle Jeffrey, a professor of English literature at the University of Ottawa, described Christianity's gift of literacy. "It would hardly be too much to say that literary culture in Europe, much of Africa and the Americas is inseparable from the culturally transformative power of Christianity," he said. "In most of Europe, as in Africa, South America, and in many other parts of the world, the birth of literacy and literature essentially, not accidentally, coincides with the arrival of Christian missionaries.
Perhaps most captivating, however, was historian Mark Noll's exploration of Christianity's gift of humility, a little-noted contribution that had special relevance in light of my discussions with Woodbridge about the ugly side of Christian history. Wrote Noll:
Over the long course of Christian history, the most depressing thing-because repeated so often has been how tragically far short of Christian ideals we ordinary Christians so regularly fall. Over the long course of Christian history, the most remarkable thing-because it is such a miracle of grace-is how often believers have acted against the pride of life to honor Christ. Of all such "signs of contradiction'," the most completely Christlike have been those occasions when believers who are strong-because of wealth, education, political power, superior culture, or favored location-have reached out to the despised, the forsaken, the abandoned, the lost, the insignificant, or the powerless.27
Power, he said, nurtures the idolatry of self. It corrupts and almost never apologizes. But then Noll went on to recount several episodes through history in which powerful people, in whole or in part because of their Christian faith, willingly humbled themselves in public repentance for their abuse of power-an enduring and countercultural testimony to the power of the gospel.
One story particularly piqued my interest because it concerned an obscure but illuminating incident at the conclusion of an episode that Woodbridge and I had discussed: the Salem witch trials.
One of the judges, a prominent Puritan named Samuel Sewall of Boston, became terribly distressed over the role he had played in that debacle. His Christian conscience was finally moved to action when he heard his son recite a familiar Bible passage: "But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless The words broke Sewall's heart.
At church services on January 14, 1697, he gave his pastor a statement to read as a contrite Sewall stood ashamed before the congregation. The statement confessed Sewall's guilt for much of what had happened, saying that he "Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other sins." His humble act of sorrow and repentance prompted several other jurors to confess their failures, too.
I shut the magazine and tossed it on the coffee table. That, I thought to myself, is perhaps one of Christianity's most amazing legacies-the willingness of the mighty to bend the knee of repentance when wrongs have been committed. It was yet another reminder of the power of faith to change lives-and history-for the good.
Was this article helpful?