Q. I am currently reading The Religion Virus. Great book. It got me thinking… If Humanism is criticized so heavily by Christians who generally believe in original sin… And anarchy typically relies on the idea that people aren’t as awful as the state and church want us to believe… Do you think anarchy and Christianity can survive together? — Anonymous, originally writing to Megan at The Free Lioness, who tagged me for an additional response.
A. First, a few preliminary comments and disclaimers:
- I haven’t read the book you mentioned.
- I do consider myself a Christian anarchist. Christian anarchy is about recognizing that whatever political authority (or lack thereof) you live under, it doesn’t get your allegiance if you’re a Christian, because that allegiance belongs to God, not any human power. It’s not a political position (maybe an anti-political position?), and it doesn’t come with any policy recommendations.
- Politically, I’m a minarchist libertarian, not an anarchist, as Megan mentioned.
- If you want to learn more about Christian anarchism, Jesus Radicals and Greg Boyd’s comments on church and state (in book, essay, Q&A, and sermon form) are both great resources.
Now, to address the original question section by section:
If Humanism is criticized so heavily by Christians…
Let’s start here. Humanism as most of us in the western world know it began in Europe in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It was developed at the height of Christendom, primarily by Christians like the humanist philosopher — and devout Catholic — Erasmus. Humanism can even claim several Renaissance-era popes among its numbers.
Now, humanism grew out of the philosophical climate of its time. The Middle Ages had seen a new interest in the works of Aristotle, which were previously comparatively unknown in the west. The new influence of Aristotle launched what would become modern science. It also set up a major philosophical debate: Do we know truth according to our inherent reason (rationalism) or by observation of the world around us (empiricism)?
Christians landed on both sides of the argument (e.g. Descartes, a rationalist, and John Locke, an empiricist). Humanism, more than taking a side in this debate, was simply a renewed emphasis on broad learning. “Humanism was not an ideological programme but a body of literary knowledge and linguistic skill based on the ‘revival of good letters,’ which was a revival of a late-antique philology and grammar.” It was about educating people so they could live and choose well.
Now, while some modern humanism tends to be far more secular and even anti-faith in focus (and some Christians do critique it), there is no conflict between these fundamentals of humanism and Christianity.
…who generally believe in original sin…
At its most basic, original sin is the idea that in falling away from God, humans — who were originally made in God’s image, and thus were inherently good — gained in some way a tendency to choose to do evil things. (By the way, acceptance of a literal Adam and Eve and the snake story isn’t necessary for this view.)
From that super generic basis, though, the doctrine is interpreted in a variety of ways, each with its own implications. It sounds to me as if you might have in mind a very Calvinist view of original sin. (“Calvinist” refers mainly to Presbyterian and Reformed churches.)
In this perspective, the tendency to sin is actually something called “total depravity,” which is pretty much what it sounds like. Here, people who aren’t Christians are incapable of doing anything but sinning. They can’t even wantto do right. With that sort of mindset, yes, anarchy seems like it wouldn’t get much support…but I do personally know staunch Calvinists who are equally staunch anarchists — so go figure. Suffice it to say I don’t fall into that camp.
But that’s not the only way to understand original sin and still be well within the range of Christian belief. In the Catholic Church, for instance, the result of original sin is that “human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin.” There’s a balance of humanity’s goodness because we’re made to be like God andour tendency to do wrong. For both Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church, we humans are fallen, but we still have free will.
Other types of Christians have different perspectives still. Anabaptists — the peace churches — hardly talk about “original sin” at all, in part because the phrase is never found in the Bible. Southern Baptists, likewise, do not tend to affirm original sin in the Calvinist sense, preferring to talk about wrongs individuals choose to do.
So, all that to say: Original sin is a much more diverse and less universal doctrine in Christianity than many suppose. And even for those who hold to its most extreme, Calvinist variants, support for anarchy is still an option.
…And anarchy typically relies on the idea that people aren’t as awful as the state and church want us to believe…
Here, again, I’d suggest there are some underlying problems in your assumptions.
The church does not want us to believe that people are awful. (Remember, humanism grew in Christian soil, and Christian humanism exists to this day.) In fact, the church has long been a champion of the worth, value, and rights of all individuals.
Has it screwed up along the way? Absolutely. Have people within the church devalued other humans, sometimes in truly horrific ways? Again, most definitely yes. I’m not interested in concealing, denying, or defending that behavior. It’s morally abhorrent; it’s outside the mission of the church; and, most importantly, it does not look like Jesus, which is our whole goal in terms of relating to other people.
But for all its many flaws, the church fundamentally values people, because each of us is made in God’s image. In fact, human rights as we now know them grew out of this very theology: Locke, the founder of classical liberalism, based his assertion that humans inherently have certain rights and freedom on the Bible. Since then, secular backings for the same rights have been conceived, of course, but Locke’s thought was groud-breaking and remains significant for anyone on the small government to anarchy spectrum.
This emphasis on humanity’s inherent value — not awfulness — has played out in innumerable practical efforts, from Quakers spearheading the abolition movement to missionaries developing game-changing literacy programs.
Indeed, the early church’s charity and civil society efforts played a major rolein the incredibly quick initial spread of Christianity: Within Christian communities as compared to the larger non-Christian Roman empire, voluntary interaction produced longer lifespans, better health, delayed marriages which allowed women more choice in whom (or whether!) they’d marry, and even health care during plagues, when every other group in society refused contact with the stricken for their own protection.
“The [Christians] support not only their poor,” complained the Roman Emperor Julian, “but ours as well.” And they did it because it is not a fundamental assertion of Christianity that people are awful, but that they are each made in God’s image and worthy of our love. As I John 4:8 says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
…Do you think anarchy and Christianity can survive together?
I do! Now, as I mentioned back at the beginning, I’m not an anarchist. But in this case I don’t think it matters, really, for my final point, which is: Despite the impression some Americanpoliticians try to give you, Christianity is not a political system, and it does not rely on the state to survive.
In fact, I’d argue that getting mixed up in government is among worst things which can happen to the church. It was only after Christianity became first legalized and then made the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century that violence, opulence, and corrupt hierarchy crept into the church, marginalizing previous traditions of pacifism, simple living, and a mostly horizontal power structure emphasizing equality in Christ.
Finally, as a Christian anarchist, I’d argue that there’s nothing better for the church and society at large than to have a church which survives without involvement with a state:
Jesus did not come to give us a “new and improved” version of the kingdom of the world. He came to bring us a kingdom that “is not from this world” (Jn. 18:36). He came to bring us a kingdom that would transform the world through self-sacrificial love. But this is not a kingdom that fits anywhere [with the force of government].
That feeling you get when you read something that feeds your soul.