Having to do with History, Human Flourishing, and the Christian Faith

I recently picked up one of the latest books by the prolific historian and sociologist, Rodney Stark. This one is entitled, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the triumph of Modernity, and tells the story of why the West developed the way it did in contrast to the development of other cultures around the world, especially Islamic and Eastern nations and societies. Stark’s fundamental thesis is that the worldview which shaped the West and Modernity is responsible for genuine advances in morality, culture, and technology. At the core of that worldview is the Christian conception of God – Christian theology.

If you have read any of Stark’s works, you know he is an iconoclast. I was hooked on his analysis from the first book of his I read (The Victory of Reason). I am still having my understanding of history over the last 2000 years turned upside down, and continue to include his newer works in my rotation of reading. For example, Stark asserts early in this work that, “Rather than a great tragedy, the fall of Rome was the single most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization….The ‘Dark Ages’ never happened….Europe did not grow rich by draining wealth from its worldwide colonies; in fact, the colonies drained wealth from Europe – and meanwhile gained the benefits of modernity” (pg 2-3). You will have to read the book to see if he makes his case.

This is not a review of Stark’s book or his thesis, though I find it profoundly convincing, but an observation about the kind of apologetic that Stark represents. Stark himself is not an admitted Christian, and does his work as an academic, but his kind of historical and sociological analysis represents a rising trend in the defense and explication of the historical Christian faith.

I have spent a great deal of my adult life in the world of Christian apologetics and can talk with you about almost any form of argument for the existence of God, a defense of the reliability of Scripture, the role of science in faith, and so forth. But a lacunae in the Christian apologetic is represented by Stark’s work – how Christian theology when properly understood and applied redounds to the benefit of human culture. Simply put, Christianity is good for people.

And though he is a prolific and current example of this kind of work, Stark is not the only one. The theologian Jaroslav Pelikan published a work in 1985 titled, Jesus Through the Centuries about this issue. The pastor John Ortberg recently published a popular level work on this same topic titled, Who is This Man? Another one volume work on this topic is, How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin J. Schmidt. Dovetailing the historical and sociological analysis is work done in the field of economics, some of which you can find by tracking down the work of the Acton Institute, the Oikonomia Network, the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, and Samuel Gregg (among many others).

All in all, I find these kinds of works a powerful addition to the fundamental project of apologetics, namely the work of defending the truth of the Christian faith and critiquing the flaws of other worldviews. In these particular instances, the act of defending the truth of the Christian faith takes on the character of defending its truth through its flourishing effects on the human race. We can know the Christian faith is true because it is right and good for the advancement of the human condition.

The basic apologetic is fairly straight forward and can be found in various forms in other fields of apologetics: God created the world and humanity, thus creating the way things do and ought to work, so humans flourish best when obeying or living in the order established by the Creator. It is analogous to assembling and using a complicated piece of equipment according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You can use a laptop as a hammer, but you will eventually fail at hammering things and the laptop will become useless for its intended purpose. You can use a human being or human relationships in any way you want to, but eventually they will fail both at their misuse and their intended use. You can organize human cultures along atheistic, communist principles, but eventually and inevitably the project will fail because humans and human relationships were not created to work that way. And so on.

In its way, this is a variation on Aristotle’s Function Argument. In this argument, Aristotle argues that in order to find out how humans flourish best we need to discover what is unique about humans and how they function. Plants flourish best under certain conditions, fish flourish under different conditions, and humans under other conditions. The key to understanding how humans flourish is to understand what is unique about how humans function, which for Aristotle was found in reason. When humans function according to reason, they flourish. Bringing this form of argument into the historical Christian faith, we can quickly see the train of thought: humans flourish when they function according to their unique purpose/creation which is found in the will and character of their Creator. I think Aristotle would recognize at least the form and potential force of this argument.

I welcome this field of work on the historical Christian faith and I look forward to how various disciplines in the social sciences will fill it out.

In the mean time, I can recommend you read a little bit of Rodney Stark.

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