And now for something completely different

I’ve been having a hard time picking a new book to go through now that we’ve finished On Guard. I happen to have a copy of Lee Stroebel’s The Case for Faith, but you know it’s just going to be more of the same old same-old. I thought about picking some articles from some of the big name apologetics web sites, but I looked through a few and there’s just not much substance there. It’s mostly just inspirational stuff designed to pep up people who already believe.

I’m in the mood for something different, and I think I’ve found something that fits the bill. We’re going to take a break from trendy modern rationalizations for God and go back to the roots of Christian apologetics. I’m talking about Justin Martyr, the Father of Apologetics, as translated and published by Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). I’ve been doing some reading there, and I’ve got to admit, it’s a lot more interesting than I expected. The language is a bit over-embellished for modern tastes, but his perspectives and assumptions regarding Christianity are fascinating. Evidently, some things have changed a lot since the early days of Christianity. And then again, some haven’t.

Justin, as the CCEL introduction informs us, was an early second-century Christian who had previously been a disciple of the philosophies of Plato and Socrates. Well-educated, well-financed, and well-travelled, he was, perhaps, in a unique position to step into the role of founder of Christian apologetics. Though the CCEL introduction goes a bit overboard in terms of venerating him, and though he has a reputation as being blunt and unpolished as an apologist and author, his writing both sets the stage for later apologetic efforts, and incidentally gives us some intriguing insights into the mind of the early Christian church.

His first book, prosaically titled “The First Apology of Justin,” is a plea to Caesar for an end to the religious persecution of Christians. And he makes some really good points that Christians today would do well to remember. He begins with an introductory paragraph that I would like to have written myself.

Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow the opinions of the ancients, if these be worthless… For we have come … to beg that you pass judgment, after an accurate and searching investigation, not flattered by prejudice or by a desire of pleasing superstitious men, nor induced by irrational impulse or evil rumours which have long been prevalent, to give a decision which will prove to be against yourselves. (Chapter 2.)

Granted, the sentence structure is a bit convoluted, and I trimmed it down quite a bit to keep things more to the point, but despite the lack of literary polish, there’s some good stuff in there. This was written back when it was still a good thing to be wise and to commit yourself to following reason instead of superstition. How times have changed, eh? Justin is going to fail to live up to the standard he sets for Caesar, not too much farther down the road, but still it’s nice to see that he sets up Reason as the standard by which judgment ought to be obtained, after “an accurate and searching investigation.”

Then again, perhaps the reason why Justin sets such a fair and objective standard is because his goal is to obtain earthly, material justice. His argument is that punishments should be reserved for those who have done actual wrong, and not just passed out to people on the basis of what kind of people they are.

[We] demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve… But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men… And every sober-minded person will declare this to be the only fair and equitable adjustment, namely, that the subjects render an unexceptional account of their own life and doctrine; and that, on the other hand, the rulers should give their decision in obedience, not to violence and tyranny, but to piety and philosophy. For thus would both rulers and ruled reap benefit. (Chapter 3.)

This goes back to what I’ve been saying in my other blog on the topic of gay marriage. The state should only punish people for causing harm to other people, and should only forbid those actions which are harmful (which gay marriage is not). Justin is appealing to this principle in defense of Christians, and rightly so: just as gay couples should not be punished simply for falling in love differently than hetero couples do, so Christians should not be punished simply for believing differently than non-Christians do. And that’s true even though religious belief is much more of a voluntary choice than same-sex attraction is.

Justin’s argument is that by punishing only those who cause actual harm, rulers are doing good not only for their subjects, but are also benefiting the rulers themselves, by ordering their lives in obedience to piety and philosophy.

“Piety and philosophy.” That’s an interesting expression. Nowadays, when we use the word “philosophy,” we’re thinking of a bunch of egghead philosophers talking about topics so abstract that you need a set of Cliff’s Notes handy just to be able to look up all the esoteric terms. In Justin’s day, however, philosophy was a broader and more accessible concept. It meant simply what its name implied: the love of wisdom. Back in the day, people used to value intellect instead of sneering at the “elites,” and anyone who aspired to any position of influence wanted to be known as someone who was a deep thinker and whose thoughts and deeds were founded on a rigorous application of Reason. Good times.

But then what about piety? That’s an even more interesting term, because Justin is a Christian, writing to a pagan emperor whose whole worldview is based on polytheism. What common ground could there be between a Christian and a pagan, such that a Christian could, in good conscience, appeal to the piety of the pagan? The Christian surely does not wish to encourage the pagan’s belief in what Christianity identifies as false gods. Nor is the pagan likely to be swayed by a Christian demand that he seek to please some “One True God” who was foreign to the pagan pantheon. Why, then, does Justin use “piety” as one of the qualities that make an emperor good?

The answer, I believe, is that Justin is using the term more in the sense of “moral duty” than in the sense of devotion to any particular god(s). He was, after all, a student of the philosophies of Socrates, and Socrates is the source of the famous question now known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. “Do the gods love it because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?” If the former, then piety comes from some other source than the gods, and if the latter, then piety is arbitrary and thus essentially meaningless.

The key assumption here is that the gods want us to do what is right. Piety, thus, means doing what you’re supposed to do. As Socrates points out, this is actually a fallacy (not to mention a superstition). Gods are not the source of what is right or wrong, and thus it is unreasonable and superstitious to give any god or gods credit for being the source of moral standards. But philosophical objections notwithstanding, in the popular cultural context of the time, “piety” was synonymous with “doing the right thing,” so in that sense Justin can appeal to the emperor to render judgments “in obedience to piety and philosophy.” Condemning those who have done no harm is “impious” because it’s the wrong thing to do, and the god(s) presumably want us to do what’s right.

Justin continues this theme in Chapter 4 (the chapters are much shorter in Justin’s writings than in modern apologetics).

By the mere application of a name, nothing is decided, either good or evil, apart from the actions implied in the name… [We] do not think it just to beg to be acquitted on account of the name, if we be convicted as evil-doers… [On] the other hand, if we be found to have committed no offence, … [then] it is your part very earnestly to guard against … unjustly punishing those who are not convicted… Again, if any of the accused deny the name, and say that he is not a Christian, you acquit him, as having no evidence against him as a wrong-doer; but if any one acknowledge that he is a Christian, you punish him on account of this acknowledgment. Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is.

Notice that Justin isn’t only saying that it is wrong to punish someone for being Christian. He’s also pressing the point that it’s equally wrong to acquit someone who denies being Christian. In Justin’s day, Christians were the unpopular minority, and they knew how bad things could be when mere labels determined how society treated you. How different from today, when confessing Christian faith is more likely to be an easy ticket to acquittal, or at least a more lenient sentence and earlier parole! But today, Christians aren’t the minority any more. Other people are, and they’re having the same problems the early Christians used to have. How much sympathy and support are modern minorities (like, say, gays) getting from Christians who remember their own past? Apart from the liberal believers, not much.

Justin is setting an excellent, ethical, and reasonable standard: punish only those who do actual harm, and even then don’t punish anyone until you’ve done a thorough and accurate investigation of the charges against them, to make sure that they’ve really done harm. It was easy for Christians to see that principle when they were on the receiving end of the punishments. But fast-forward to today, when Christians are in a position to hand out the punishments, and it’s a different story. And if you don’t think so, substitute the name “Muslim” for the name “Christian” in Justin’s arguments, and then google “Gitmo.” There are people today who are saying the same things as Justin, but it ain’t the conservative Christians.

3 Responses to “And now for something completely different”

  1. Tige Gibson Says:

    To Christians the word Sin means disobedience of God’s commandments, and when you Sin you are literally harming God. God is the proxy victim for all immorality. The actual victim and any suffering that person really experiences is dismissed as irrelevant. Morality is a foreign concept to Christians.

    Any attack upon the Church is a direct attack upon God, whereas attacks upon gay people or uppity women are attacks upon Sinful people, people who are harming God, and entirely “morally” justified (literally rationalized).

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    It’s only a wonder that Justin’s writings didn’t get burned as heresy when Christianity was made the state religion.

  3. Janney Says:

    This is all hearsay to me, but unusual hearsay: I hear that the early Christians were actually persecuted for their intolerance of other religions. I hear that Christianity was the first real, vocal, principled exponent of “my way or the highway,” and that’s why they got into so much trouble with other folks.

    That’s a suspiciously delicious irony, so if someone can disabuse me, I’d be grateful.

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