Christianity Can Still Surprise the World
Kavin Rowe
Tuesday, April 7, 2020

plant growing from tree stump

Whether we love it or hate it or something in between, the existence of Christianity in the modern West is taken for granted. Its long history of penetration into almost every layer of almost every society in the West makes it virtually impossible to conceive any part of the Western world without some semblance of Christian influence.

Such influence does not mean, of course, that Christianity in the West is here to stay, or that some independent metaphysical law in the unfolding of human history requires Christianity to persist. Indeed, many of the more powerful contemporary currents run directly against basic Christian commitments—the invention and subsequent exaltation of the autonomous individual and its ability to determine its own good, for example. And such currents have rapidly eroded our ability to reason Christianly and embody such reasoning in the world for others to see and experience.

Our contemporary cultural climate is thus a both/and: Christianity is both everywhere present and simultaneously disappearing.  This both/and is a large part of what makes our time so bewildering for Christians. It is quite hard to see what Christianity is and what it entails. Instead of letting our situation lead us into deeper confusion or even despair, however, we should see it as an opportunity—a chance for Christians to return to the heart of the faith and to relearn the patterns, judgments, and practices that animated its presence from the beginning.

Originally, Christianity was remarkably surprising. Beginning from the execution of the Messiah— an unimagined twist in all messianic plots—through to his resurrection and its unfolding power in the life of the community that believed in him, Christianity surprised the world it entered. Within a relatively short time, it went from a tiny Jewish sect to the dominant religious force in the Roman world. In my view, four features made the early Christians what they were and contributed to their ability to surprise the world.

The Story of Everything

First, the Christians told the story of everything. There was God and all that God made, and there was nothing else—God and not-God. When God acted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God was remaking all that he made, reversing the power and sting of death, and putting the power of life to work in the world in patterns of healing and reconciliation. The early Christians knew both from the form of their Scripture and from reflection on how best to communicate that the stories we tell and believe make who we are. There is an inescapable narrative dimension to all of our sense-making and to who and what we take ourselves to be in the world. When, therefore, the Christians told the story of everything, they were giving the largest possible frame for human existence. The story of God and not-God gave people a comprehensive pattern of understanding and being.

Moreover, this pattern involved them personally. They were not some cog in an eternally cycling cosmic wheel but a living part of God’s story of life; it included them, positioned them in the world, and shaped their take on who they were. Becoming a part of the story of everything also meant that it became impossible to divide “Christian” from other parts of life. Being Christian was the whole thing, the macro-context into which all other things were to be fitted. If this meant coming into conflict with other powerful narratives—the story, for example, that all the emperor’s subjects should worship him—then so be it. God would, as he did for Jesus, raise them from the dead.

illustration of linked people

A New Vision of the Human Being

Second, the Christians revealed a new vision of the human being to the world. Obviously human beings had been around for a long time. But what had not entered the world was the vision of the human that was generated by Jesus and Christian reflection on his significance for all other humans. Key parts of Jesus’ own teaching—the parables of the sheep and the goats and the Good Samaritan, for example—redefined king/subjects, master/servant, family, neighbor, friend, stranger, and enemy. The most relevant category became discipleship. All were invited, all were called or re-called (sometimes through prophetic rebuke).

Theological reflection on Jesus, such as in the Gospels or Paul, immediately named his significance for humanity by conceiving him as the Imago Dei, the Image of God (see the genealogy in Luke, Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 4, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1). According to early Christian thought, Jesus was not one particular instance of God’s image, but the very Imago of God himself and the one through whom all other humans were henceforth to be understood. The human as such and in all its individual incarnations was the image of the Image, which is to say that the early Christians learned to see the human being as Christ. “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). “’And who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the bandits?’ … ’the one who showed him mercy,’ that is, the Samaritan. The Samaritan is your neighbor” (Luke 15:36–37).

For all its reflection on human life, the wider Roman world had never seen such a thing as the human generated by Christian vision. There were adumbrations of it in Jewish traditions, of course, but “Human” simply had not shown up in the way it did once the Christians began to understand us through Christ. But with the advent of Jesus and the power of his life at work after death, the Christians began a surprising revolution in human self-understanding and vision of others.

Throughout Christian history, Christians have struggled mightily to keep such a vision alive, to live it through all of their commitments, and to avoid the hypocrisy that comes with the perennial submerging of the vision in favor of one form of domination or another. In short, we have often failed. But the surprising thing is that such a vision came to be at all. It was not a given, not a product of evolving human consciousness, but a gift, truly good news. Indeed, to name our failure as failure or hypocrisy is already to affirm the goodness and remarkable power of what the Christians take us human beings to be.

Christian Institutions

Third, over the course of the first few centuries the Christians developed and invested in institutions. Though we moderns have become quite cynical about institutions and have seen our trust in them eroded by scandal after scandal, and though we often pit vibrant Spirit-led life against the routinization of the Spirit by bureaucratic red tape, the early Christians were committed to building structured, durable forms of life that matched their sense of what they had to offer the world. They knew intuitively and by reflection that to flourish they would need to anchor their vision in social and political structure. So they organized the church with leadership offices and connected the various Christian assemblies across the Mediterranean with each other. They thereby knitted the disparate Christian groups into a social reality with its own independent ground. No bishop, no elder, no deacon was an appointed civic official, and no church office was for sale. The authority of the leaders was determined only by the Christian community itself. Rather than just being another funeral or fireman’s club or a philosophical school—things the Romans initially thought about organized groups of Christians—the early church became a distinct sort of society with its own norms and chains of authority. In short, the structure enabled the church to establish its own political ground, and that ground, in turn, enabled the perception of the critical difference between church and world. And that in its turn enabled the Christians to see the question of ultimate loyalty at stake in the demand not to worship the emperor or other gods, come what may. To which community did you really belong? The institution, not simply the idea, of church built the terms of the choice. As one of the church’s initial critics, Celsus, saw clearly, the early Christians had refused the terms that presumed that all religion was tied to Roman authority. They were building their own thing.

image of flowers growingTo develop this ground, the early Christians devoted themselves to education. They knew immediately that in order to maintain their roots in the Teacher’s teaching, they too had to teach. Early on, as far as we know, most teaching occurred in ecclesial and home settings rather than official Christian schools. But by the time of Justin Martyr in the mid-second century, Christians began to set up schools in which to train students.

The most outstanding school was the “university” that Origen established in Caesarea after he left Alexandria. Origen’s university was for those who could work at an advanced intellectual level in the search for and service of Christian truth. But the work of the students, no less than their master, was not simply reading and thinking. It was also living. In fact, as Origen saw it, the way for students to learn what they needed to think was for them to learn disciplined living. In Caesarea, the students and teachers lived in close fellowship, and the students thus had ample time to observe their teachers and apprentice themselves to them. The school practiced the conviction that discipleship was the sort of knowledge at which Christians aimed. The highest of the heights of allegory were related to the way one ate, slept, spoke, dressed, and lived.

The early Christians also discovered that the vision of the human they received required them to invent institutions that had no preceding basis. Prior to the Christian intervention, for example, there were no Roman programs of poverty relief. There were, of course, various attempts to halt famines with influxes of free or low-cost food, but all such provisions were tied to citizenship. Assuming they could produce evidence of their citizenship, for example, rich and poor received the same amount of grain. In the eyes of the Romans, it was the cities that needed the help, not the poor within them. City and citizen, citizen and city: that was the bond that really counted and the way society was seen.

The Christians, however, looked on those in society with profound need and, for the first time in the Roman world, saw not cities and citizens but the poor. This move created a new social imagination and linked people together in one complex whole. The Christians, that is, conceptualized the social fabric in a way that tied all humans together with respect to their economic vulnerability or lack thereof. No longer was citizen elevated above economic reality; poor now received priority of place. Indeed, so much so that over time the Christian bishops became known as the “lovers of the poor.”

So, too, the sick and the orphans. There were no hospitals in the ancient world. Medical care by expert physicians was provided in the home and mostly only for those at the economic upper end who could afford it. Home remedies, magicians, and quacks were the other options on regular offer. Through long and difficult experience of tending the sick both in daily life and through plagues, the Christians discovered that they had to invent a more robust way of caring that could receive the sick and provide for them. They thus invented the hospital: an institutional response to the truth of the human as Christians knew it to be. Absent the hospital, the Christian vision of the human in the sick had yet to make its way categorically into the world. By contrast, the creation of the hospital brought to life in tangible and taking-up-space-in-the-world ways what it was to see the Image of God.

Orphans were common in the ancient world. Their adoption was not. When they were adopted, it was most often by family members. Based on their scriptures, where they read that God was particularly tender to orphans and widows, and their understanding of Jesus’ ministry, the earliest Christians were immediately concerned to take care of the orphans (see Acts and James, for example). And by the third century, Christians were clearly adopting orphans on a regular basis. Their practice created a new category: the orphan as such. Orphans were not just orphans-of-family-or-close-friends but orphans. Their mere existence required a response. The church thus sought to rear and care for them. By so doing it doubtless grew, but growth was not itself the point or the goal. Whether it grew or shrank, the church knew from its story that it had to tend the orphan as it would Christ.

Over time, the Christians realized the care for orphans needed a more systematic response. In the mid-fourth century, they established the first orphanage (orphanotropheion). According to scholar John Fitzgerald, it was an “utterly unique, truly sui generis institution in the ancient world.” As with the sick and the hospital, the orphans had been made categorically visible in the world by means of the institution created for their care.

In short, the Christians surprised the world by developing enduring, structured forms of life that both embodied and broadcast their story and what it required of them to live it. The growth and staying power of Christianity in the ancient world is all but inconceivable without the institutions they invented. Despite all the real problems institutions could and always do develop, the early Christians knew that institutions were indispensable to the maintenance, development, and flourishing of Christian life.

drawing of church

Christian Hope

Fourth, the Christians hoped. Hope was no more a given in the ancient world than it is today. Indeed, many in the Roman world who thought about it saw it as a vice or a weakness. Expose yourself to hope, and you exposure yourself to the chaos of the world and certain disappointment and ruin. Even if the things of life don’t crush you, death will eventually find you out. For the Christians, however, hope suffused their lives. Their hope was not a naïve optimism that believed, say, that all sick people would get better or that all adopted orphans would turn out to be pious, faithful church goers, or that the world was, after all, getting to be a much better place for everyone. Nor was their hope founded on a denial of death, the belief that somehow we can get to death without knowing we are dying or even get out of it altogether. Their hope was, instead, based on the resurrection of Jesus and his defeat of death: they could hope because he made the path on which they would also travel.

This hope enabled them to train for death—even early death—not only in the overt political sense of resisting imperial or civic pressure when necessary but also in the more mundane sense of caring for those with deadly illness even though they might catch it in the process. In the context of ancient society, hope like this—and the actions it engendered and sustained—was nothing short of a surprise. The sure and certain hope of the early Christians enabled their lives and surprised their world.

Christians can still surprise the world. Indeed, our current cultural confusion opens a door to fresh articulations and examples of what Christianity is and can be. Learning from the early Christians how to tell the story of everything, what we are to see when say “human,” what kinds of structural commitments we need to put this story and the vision it gives into durable practice, and how to embody hope in the midst of turbulence, suffering, and uncertainty can invigorate our thinking and witness in a world that continues—all the time—to long for what Christians have to give.