What has Athens and Rome to do with Bethlehem?

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

The debate between Holland and Grayling shows why the example of Jesus confounds both philosophers and law-makers, says Erik Strandness.

In the fifth installment of The Big Conversation from Unbelievable?, historian Tom Holland and philosopher A.C. Grayling debate whether or not Christianity gave us our human values. In this episode, Anthony finds his bromance with the Peripatetics threatened by no greater love, and Holland has his awe at the power of the emperors brought to its knees by a crucified criminal. No doubt Holland will be reflecting on the debate with his atheist counterpart when he speaks at this year’s Unbelievable? Conference on 9 May.

Breaking the Code

The question to be debated was - are human values a Christian construct? Grayling rightly pointed out that there have been many religions older than the Judeo-Christian tradition that have come up with a moral code. Even St. Paul recognized that Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires. (Romans 2:14) So the real question is not who first codified them but rather who best explains why humans have a moral compass in the first place? The problem isn’t the morality but rather the metaphysical foundation upon which it was based.

As Christians, it is no surprise that image-bearers would recognize the value of other image-bearers. If, as C.S. Lewis declared, we have never met a mere mortal then we are constantly bumping into people of eternal worth. Grayling would like us to believe that we just evolved from the dust of the earth but that would mean that our value can only be based on the quality of the dirt. If, however, we are also God-breathed then we have all inhaled the same divine air and each and every one of us is breathtaking.

Holland made a powerful case that it was the worship of a resurrected crucified criminal that gave people of lower social station value and hope. Grayling tried to dismiss this idea by appealing to the many other stories of dying and rising gods, but as far as I am aware those stories never gave voice to the oppressed.

Pushing Aside the Unmoved Mover

Grayling tried to make the case that Christianity almost destroyed classical Greek thought. I would argue, however, that Christianity actually payed homage to the Academy by acknowledging that the questions the philosophers were asking were actually very important.

Augustine and Aquinas didn’t apply a coat of philosophic paint to Christianity in order to give it a veneer of respectability, rather they took Greek thinking to the next level and painted in the details of their unfinished philosophical portraits by identifying the Unmoved Mover, the Thinker of the Ideas, and the Logos behind the universe.

Interestingly, the very philosophers that Grayling wants to praise for introducing human rights are the also the ones who contemplated the heavens. He wants to give them credit for the idea that people should be treated equally but forgets that this idea cannot be considered in isolation because it is just one part of their comprehensive well-integrated philosophical systems, which embarrassingly for Grayling, incorporated the immaterial realm.

He ignores the foundations of their works by pushing the unmoved mover out of the way, reducing the realm of ideas to collocating atoms, and replacing the Logos with a roll of the dice. Sadly, by dismissing the immaterial realm he has to go back to the blackboard and construct a moral code from the law of the jungle.

Grayling tried to make the case that the Greeks lifted up the little man but Holland pointed out that they actually only elevated the elite philosophers. Sadly, Socrates’ dictum that an “unexamined life is not worth living” ended up leaving those who were not philosophers as good as dead. And even if slaves could somehow become philosophers they did so to escape a valueless peasant existence.

When Power Gets Quite Cross

What can we learn from this discussion? While I have been harder on Grayling, I believe that we need to listen carefully to what he has to say. Christians need to acknowledge that when the church is joined to the state it can be source of all sorts of problems.

The cross of Christ should never be used as a banner in a battle for political control. Jesus makes for a very poor poster boy for any movement that seeks to obtain worldly power. Wars may need to be fought to restore order in the city of man but they will not bring about the city of God. Lord Acton’s maxim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is applicable to both the sacred and secular domain.

The difference is that secular abuses of power can only be corrected by equal and opposite forces applied from the outside, while Christian abuses of power are corrected from the inside by those who recall that their victory was actually won by the weakness displayed by their founder. The historical excesses of the Christian church always get corrected by those who turn their gaze from thrones and once again survey the wonderful cross.

Sadly, Christians love Jesus but seem a bit embarrassed by his leadership style. They don’t quite see how they can get stuff done if they have to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, or put their life on the line for sinners. Therefore, we must always remember that we are citizens of a Kingdom to come and are devoted to a King who leads as a suffering servant. We adhere to a constitution that is Good News to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. A rule of law that honors those kicked to the curb and not the well-heeled. A Kingdom that will ultimately prevail not with the power of the sword but with the power of the pierced.

What has Athens and Rome to do with Bethlehem? What does the Academy and the State have to do with a manger? I would argue that it is only when the powers-that-be surrender to the power found in weakness that human values will flourish. The Good News is that Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities on the cross, and while many may consider it a stumbling block and folly, it is only when we embrace His example of suffering service that we can truly value all human beings.

Watch AC Grayling and Tom Holland debate ‘History and Christianity’ on The Big Conversation

Dr. Erik Strandness is a neonatal physician and Christian apologist living in the Pacific Northwest. He has authored three apologetic books and blogs on a regular basis at www.godsscreenplay.com