Maundy Thursday evening we spent almost four hours with my wife on a hard
church bench listening to the St. Matthew passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. This
was as good a sermon as any, reiterating the last supper, the agony in
Gethsemane and finally the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
These days “Christ is Risen” is chanted in Orthodox churches, and it is the customary greeting among the believers during eastertide. Whether true or not, His life and death on the cross has had a tremendous impact. Christian faith is a major, if not the major force behind the rise of Western civilization, which today affects every corner of the world.
This statement may be controversial. Nevertheless it appears obvious to me. Christian faith and Christian values are underpinning our efforts to practice voluntary human cooperation. Or in my own vocabulary, they empower us to play wide-ranging, value-creating plus-sum games.
The Christian way of life was erected step by step on the magnificent ruins of Greco-Roman culture. At the start, the congregations were democratic with elected priests and bishops. The reformation deconstructed the totalitarian superstructure of the church. The very diversity of protestant persuasions was a guarantee against overwhelming centralization. Eventually dissenting congregations became the template for democratic self-organization.
Intriguingly, both science and business thrived in this atmosphere of increasing individual freedom and responsibility. Sciences are modern cathedrals built in the service of truth. The market economy, a wonderful provider, is fulfilling our material wants. Technological progress has served and will serve us well, provided we retain our proficiency at creating value together.
Honesty and openness are the decisive success factors of plus-sum play. This moral capital does not emerge from thin air but needs a foundation of basic faith. In the West, Christianity has been the source of public morality. By the fruits you know the tree. The explosion of creativity, enterprise, wealth and knowledge during the last half-millennium testifies to the truth of the underlying fundamental values.
The humanitarian progress has been equally remarkable. We still have the poor among us, but never before has the care for the sick, the destitute, the deprived, the disadvantaged of every shading been so far-reaching. The danger is that when caring for ourselves, we lose sight of any higher purpose. God is not so much denied as forgotten in the whirlwind of our petty problems.
Many misdeeds have been done by humans in the name of God. Even so the experiences of the last century should give pause for thought. Hitler, Stalin and Mao, not to speak of lesser potentates, all carried out the greatest crimes against humanity under the banner of outspoken atheism. Human ambition, the will to power, was realized without any constraint. Ruthless dictators assumed the position of omnipotent and omniscient gods. Shameful idolatry, unspeakable cruelty, deep misery and rivers of blood were the fruits of these particular trees.
On Maundy Thursday Bach, the fifth evangelist, draw a full house. One man’s faith and art played on our minds with blissful empathy, which reached across centuries. Whether Christ rose from the dead is immaterial. He is still mercifully alive among us, endowing meaning to life and to death.