To Change the World, by James Davidson Hunter

I recently saw some mentions of this book, and then stumbled across an early version of the essay which makes up the first third of the book. After reading it I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book itself. But then I read these three paragraphs from Andy Crouch’s review [emphasis added]:

The irony is that there is no phrase more beloved to a certain kind of Christian than "to change the world." But in Hunter’s persuasive account, the strategies those very same Christians have pursued are, by themselves, woefully incapable of changing the world. (Hunter’s greatest interest is clearly Christianity’s theologically conservative varieties, though he attends to mainline and progressive Christianity as well.) One group focuses on personal renewal and national revival, while another—championing a "Christian worldview"—locates the necessary condition for cultural change not so much in the heart as in the mind. Either way, the premise is that once the hearts and minds of ordinary people are properly revived and informed, the culture will change. "This account," Hunter says flatly, "is almost wholly mistaken."

It is mistaken because of its individualism: it ignores the central role of institutions in transmitting culture. It is mistaken because it is not just institutions that matter, but institutions at the cultural "center" rather than the "periphery"—so that an op-ed in the New York Times is of vastly greater importance than one in the Sacramento Bee. It is mistaken, perhaps most of all, in its egalitarian assumption that the hearts and minds of ordinary people matter—in fact, cultural change is almost always driven by change among a small élite who occupy powerful positions in those culturally central institutions.

And Christianity in America, as Hunter sees it, is very much on the periphery, for all its numerical strength. Its institutions, such as they are, tend to be weak, they tend not to be in culturally central locations, and they tend to address the "lower and peripheral areas" of culture—secondary education rather than university research, popular culture rather than high art, ministries of mercy rather than public policy. At their worst they glory in their marginal status, feeding a subculture that churns out substandard cultural products for consumption by other Christians, simultaneously the most energetic and the least effective culture-makers you could imagine.

But wait, there’s more. Hunter’s second essay examines three Christian movements, the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists who carry on the work of John Howard Yoder. One of Hunter’s conclusions:

What none of these movements can truly imagine, Hunter maintains, is a genuinely cultural vision, one that seeks human flourishing and sees the intrinsic value of culture in its manifold forms. The tragedy of all three movements is their impoverished understanding of culture and of cultural power, and the degree to which they have become captive to ressentiment, the rehearsal of grievances (whether the enemy is secular humanists, Christian conservatives, or the imperial state) rather than the pursuit of a true common good.

What does Hunter see as a preferable alternative?

And this leads to the last, and most hopeful, of Hunter’s essays, in which he calls for a Christian posture that is neither "defensive against," nor "relevant to," nor seeking "purity from" the culture. (Be assured that, as with his whole argument, Hunter frames these broad categories with considerable nuance—he is no sloganeer but a deft analyst.) Rather, Hunter calls us to "faithful presence"—fully participating in every structure of culture as deeply formed Christians who also participate in the alternative community of the church. Whereas the first essay is relentlessly sociological, the last is surprisingly theological, even doxological, in its call for Christocentric, ecclesially formed cultural presence. The vision Hunter would have us embrace turns out not to aspire to world-changing at all—the very idea of "changing the world" is rooted in a quest for dominance that fundamentally misunderstands the Christian gospel and the way of Jesus, not to mention the realities of our pluralist, late modern society. Rather, we should embody a sacrificial love for our neighbors, of all faiths and none, expressed in acts of culture-making and institution-building that serve their good and leave the ultimate fate of our culture to the judgment and providence of God. And by this third essay, the strategic concern for élite presence has faded into the background—Hunter envisions Christians practicing that presence at the "periphery," in the "center," and everywhere in between.

Wow. Now I very much want to read Hunter’s book.

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“I don’t know what to say!”

This cartoon is funny, but taken at face value it is also ludicrous. Not because we aren’t trying to pass on the cost of our irresponsible spending on to future generations—we are surely doing that—but because it assumes that the children will meekly, dutifully shoulder the burden.

Of course, the cartoonist has cheated by making the children look like cute first graders. It’s not first graders but high school and college graduates entering the work force that we are expecting to carry those burdens. Is this how you expect those folks will respond? I think they’ll know exactly what to say.

Pomplamoose

When Chris and I are driving somewhere we spend a lot of time listening to NPR, especially All Things Considered. And Chris is guaranteed that at some point I will gripe about some trivial story that received ten minutes of national airtime. The best example, still burned in my brain, is the segment on people accidentally dropping cell phones in the toilet.

Now, I’ll grant that some of those stories I’ve griped about unfairly, because they aren’t so much trivial as they are uninteresting to me. And about a week ago I was on the other end of the stick, when they aired a story which was likely just mildly amusing to the average listener but very much of interest to me.

The story was about a band called Pomplamoose, which isn’t so much a band as a musical project being pursued by a young couple, Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. They are in the business of covering songs, recording all the parts themselves in a spare bedroom and making videos of the process. They post these videos to YouTube for their fans, and also sell downloads of the audio through services like iTunes. The videos are not at all elaborate; Conte and Dawn say they take about a day or two to lay down the tracks, and then another few days to edit the video together.

The videos are great fun. Here is their most popular one, viewed over four million times at this point.

This is ephemeral music, but so what? I’ve never heard the original, but this strikes me as responding to it with a childlike delight. I like that, and I might like it even more than I would like the original because of what the process filtered out.

Conte and Dawn don’t perform live, don’t have a record label, and yet they can say this:

WERTHEIMER: I was just going to say, how do you make a living? Is this a career?

Mr. CONTE: Oh, yeah, yeah. We…

Ms. DAWN: Oh, definitely.

Mr. CONTE: Yeah, we make our living off of MP3 sales.

Ms. DAWN: Full time. We don’t have any other job. […]

Mr. CONTE: Yeah, I mean, what does it mean, really, to need a label? I mean, we’re making a living. We’ve got a sustainable business. We’re growing every year as a good business should. We’re happy. We don’t have to do things that we don’t want to do. We don’t have to please people that we don’t want to please. We get to make the music that we love.

Yeah, we’re not on the front page of Rolling Stone magazine, and we’re not getting $10 million checks in the mail, but we don’t need that to have a nice life.

Ms. DAWN: And also, our goal has never been to be a huge hit band. We just started…

Mr. CONTE: We want to make a living doing what we like to do.

Ms. DAWN: Exactly. We’re just making a living.

There’s a growing excitement among musicians over what Kevin Kelly calls the 1000 True Fans model, the idea being that an artist can make a living if they can enlist enough fans that will regularly and reliably pay for their creations (buy their CDs, come to their shows, buy coffee mugs and T-shirts). It’s not clear that it is actually possible to make a living this way—see Kelley articles here and here that explore the limits of the model—but there are musical projects emerging that closely approximate the model, and Pomplamoose is the closest yet.

I’ll be writing in more detail about the 1000 True Fans model on the music weblog, but I thought the Pomplamoose story was fun enough to be worth a mention here.

The Box, by Marc Levinson

I just finished reading The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, a book I found very helpful, and I can confidently say that this is by far the best history ever written about shipping containers—since it is likely to be the only one (turns out there is at least one other!) and I’m surprised that even this one was written. Pleasantly surprised, though; it is well written and well organized, a fine example of how to trace the economic impact of a technical innovation. If there were a hundred more like it, the average reader might have some hope of understanding how we got from pre-modern to modern times. As it is, we spend our time parroting the economic fables sold to us by those with vested interests, if we spend any time on the subject at all.

The story Levinson tells is specialized enough that I would only recommend it to folks who are not only deeply puzzled about how globalization came about, but have spent some time trying to seach out and fit pieces of that puzzle together. For me the book answered a simple question I’ve had for quite awhile: how and when did shipping costs effectively drop to zero? For this is the way things are now, and as a result many strange and wonderful things have come about.

Briefly, the answer is that shippers figured out that it was more efficient, in terms of both time and labor, to put shipments of goods into large boxes and loading/unloading them with cranes than it was to load the goods piecemeal into a ship’s hold. Now, that sounds so obvious as to be ridiculous—who wouldn’t know that? And, in fact, shippers knew it long before it became a reality. But there were good reasons that the old, piecemeal system existed. Nobody shipped enough stuff to fill a box on their own. Stacked boxes wasted lots of space in oddly spaced cargo holds. Ships made many stops, and it was difficult to figure out how to load the boxes so that they were easily unloadable at the right time. Economies had developed around ports—factories, communities of longshoremen—which had a vested interest in things not changing. And so on.

Each of these obstacles eventually fell, but not in an orderly fashion, and the process resulted in huge amounts of economic disruption, what some economists call “creative destruction.” Although longshoreman unions exerted a surprising amount of power in directing the process—mostly because shipping companies, like all companies, do not object to regulations on principle, but only when they can’t figure out how to game them—some unions made fatal missteps in their negotiations, others saw the writing on the wall and agreed to be bought off, and the rest were bypassed as shippers moved to locations that they didn’t control. Shipping companies redesigned their ships, docks, and warehousing systems to accommodate containers, but had to guess at what changes were needed to make a currently nonexistent system workable—and many went bankrupt as a result of wrong guesses.

Most interesting, changes in the system led to unanticipated benefits, which caused even more disruption as the world of manufacturing changed to take advantage of them. For example, before container shipping and for about twenty years after it was introduced, nearly all shipments involved either raw materials headed for a factory, or finished goods leaving a factory. Shipping was expensive enough that it needed to be minimized, and so it didn’t make sense to make parts in one location and ship them to another; as a result, parts suppliers were located very near their customers. But as shipping prices dropped, manufacturers realized that they could make more money if they simply ignored those costs and conducted each stage of the manufacturing process where it could be done most cheaply. And when manufacturers began shipping partially finished goods, the volume of shipments increased dramatically, leading to further efficiencies of scale, resulting in shipping costs that actually do approach zero (at least in relation to the total cost of a product).

The value of Levinson’s book is that it shows in enough detail exactly how this change came about, and the effects that the change had on the economy at each step along the way. The story of the shipping container is an excellent example of where the modern quest for efficiency takes us, the benefits that are gained and the damage that is done in the process. Levinson’s take on the results are favorable, but his presentation isn’t biased—I don’t think he would even consider the possibility that the results might not be a good thing—and so the facts of the situation are just as available to those of us who are less inclined to see the results as a blessing.

Meeting the challenge of the Great Books

Recently I linked to a short essay by Patrick Deneen, called “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer.” I’ve written before how one of the major turning points in my intellectual path came when I met every month for five years to discuss readings from the Great Books with friends. And for a long time I thought it would be a great way to spend four years attending St. Johns College, where the curriculum consists entirely of the Great Books. So it might be surprising that I find myself mostly in agreement with Deneen—at least taking his assumptions as given. But I do have a deeper quibble.

Deneen characterizes enthusiasm for a Great Books education as follows [emphasis added]:

The Great Books have long been recommended by figures ranging from Allan Bloom to William Bennett as the basic texts of a liberal education and for containing essential knowledge about the Western tradition. An education in the Great Books was seen as essential in the cultivation of the educated person, and as the source of ideas that gave rise to many of the treasured inheritances of the West – including constitutionalism, liberal democracy, separation of Church and State, individual rights, a free-market economy, and the dignity of the human person. Knowledge of the constitutive texts of the West was seen by many of its defenders as the prerequisite for the informed citizen, someone not only who would believe in the traditions of the West, but be able to muster an articulate defense of the same.

However, for anyone with even passing familiarity with those constitutive texts, it is readily evident that these texts provide nothing of the sort.

Now, this is not accurate. The Great Books are indeed the source of ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, and so on—that is why they were selected as Great Books. But given what he says next, I assume Deneen’s objection is that those aren’t the only ideas you will find there. You will also find each of those ideas strongly criticized, and just about every possible alternative explained and promoted.

These texts are hardly primers on liberal democracy or any other political, ethical or economic system, but rather contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on. The texts typically listed in such a course of study are marked by severe and profound disagreements.

I agree with this, as far as it goes.  Each writer put forth multiple arguments and conjectures, some prevailed while others didn’t, and Western tradition is what remains after all the filtering. Thus, Western tradition is not contained even in a proper subset of the Great Books. Anyone reading one or more Great Books is likely to encounter ideas and criticisms that failed to win the day, making them useless as primers. But taken together they are excellent tools for conducting a critical study of the Western tradition, as well as being excellent tutors in how to conduct a critical study.

So why might this be a problem?

Any student confronting such a wide variety of texts will be driven to make some sense of them, to evaluate their strong and contradictory claims. It’s not enough to state that higher education should consist of an exposure to the Great Books and leave it at that: students will need some way of negotiating their way through the philosophical thicket into which they are being thrown.

Fair enough. But any student comes to the task with some means of negotiating the thicket, even if it is just helpless bewilderment. What are the alternatives? The writer that Deneen is criticizing offers one.

For Kronman [an advocate of Great Books education], this is exactly the point: exposure to this diversity of views encourages a probing examination of the best way to live, or "the meaning of life." Any student confronting these texts in even a remotely serious way cannot be left complacent -he must confront his own presuppositions and articulate a response to the many challenges to which he will be exposed.

A confrontation with the Great Books, according to Kronman, is to disrupt easy assumptions about the meaning of life and force students to more deeply articulate their beliefs. But Kronman is quite explicit that arriving at life’s meaning will be the result of an individual’s negotiation between these various texts. The "meaning of life" will be developed from each person’s own capacity to arrive at a personal response to the many challenges these books represent.

Apparently Kronman thinks the best way to approach the Great Books is cold, and in fact the Great Books will do you the favor of clearing away any assumptions you might bring to them. Deneen points out that this will likely lead one to a bad place.

Confrontation with these texts reveals the expansiveness of possible ways of life, beliefs, ethics, and economics: they teach us that "each of us can make, and wants to make, a life uniquely our own – a life that has no precise precedent in all the lives that have gone before and that can never be repeated exactly." These books reveal the "plasticity of human nature."

Thus, even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated "meaning of life," a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the "meaning of life" is always highly personal and relative to each person.

Now, it may be that moderns tend to take the diversity of thought found in the Great Books as teaching that we can and ought to make our life uniquely our own—but I don’t think that its what the books themselves teach. Just the opposite, in fact; most of the writers are fierce advocates of following the One Right Way, they differ only in exactly what the nature of that Way is. The problem is the modern reader, who rather than evaluating the different candidate Ways and choosing based on rightness, would prefer to think that there is no One Right Way, or even that Ways can be ranked, but that personal preference is the only basis for choosing. Exposure to diverse thinking may exacerbate this mistaken belief, but diverse thinking is not responsible for it.

Deneen goes on to detail other ways that a Great Books education as currently envisioned tends to support a relativisitic worldview, and suggests an alternative which might mine the Great Books usefully while avoiding the temptation to relativism.

In my view, the reinstatement of the Great Books would accomplish little in the contemporary academic context. What is needed is a more serious and potentially contentious discussion of the underlying philosophy within which these books would be read and taught. Teaching as I do at a Catholic and Jesuit university, I would like to see these books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide. […]

The Great Books would and should be taught, but not as if the faculty is indifferent to the ways that they should be received. Students should at least know that these books cannot be rightly approached from a basis of "neutrality," since that approach itself contains a teaching, and that teaching is one that reinforces the relativist orthodoxies of our age.

I agree with Deneen that the Great Books—as well as any other writing or thinking—should not be approached neutrally. But here he goes far beyond that, proposing an approach that I can’t really distinguish from indoctrination. Do we really need teachers to guard our hearts and minds so closely, carefully choosing the ideas we can risk being exposed to, being there at every step to counter unorthodox thinking with the party line?

I sympathize with Deneen’s worries. I do think that most students arrive at college with feeble, comfortable worldviews that have never been challenged, and that being exposed to such challenges without some sort of guidance can be a disorienting experience that can leave one subject to every wind of doctrine. But I don’t think it’s so difficult to prepare a child for such challenges, either from college or from life. In our own case, we’ve focused on teaching one simple strategy: evaluate what you hear against what you think you know, giving preference to what you think you know but being open to challenges. Our children will never need to construct a worldview from scratch, but only modify one in the face of legitimate challenges, a manageable task.

And from whence comes the worldview that they proceed to modify in the face of challenges? From their mother and father, of course. We’ve spent years teaching them how they ought to view things—just like us.

Apologetics

Faithful reader Laura A. rightly points out that my negative comments about apologetics in the previous post don’t tell the whole story.

I do agree that”way of life” is by far the more important factor in evangelism. But there are a certain number of people who, once attracted to Christianity through the examples of others, need a certain amount of apologetics to push them up to the edge so they feel they can make the leap of faith. As my pastor says, there *is* no airtight argument for any religious belief. But there is a point where the preponderance of the evidence makes it possible for you to put aside your constant doubts long enough to act on it.

I don’t think you set up a false dichotomy, but I just wanted to emphasize that there is a very legitimate use for apologetics. I struggled mightily with skepticism as a college student, and apologetic works were a great help to me. They still are. But I do think that apologetics exists to make way for belief, not as an end in itself.

I agree with this. If your mind rebels against something the Bible tells you is true, then further explanation will often help to put your mind at ease and accept it. But I think our eagerness to offer up hard-won explanations can sometimes cover up dangerous pitfalls.

First, I think that apologetics is more often motivated by our love of explanations than by any need to explain. The Trinity is an answer to a question that was asked only by pagans for the first few hundred years, and one that I don’t think has significant implications for the normal Christian life. So why are so many people eager to address the issue in Sunday school classes, introductory books, even in casual conversation with a new believer? I think it is because the one doing the explaining has so much invested in the explanation that imposing it on others is a sort of validation—listen up, now, this is important (even though you never asked). Some are so in love with their thinking on this particular issue that they try to expand its implications into a way of life—Trinitarian living, whatever that means.

Second, I think that “I don’t understand this” is often used as an intellectually respectable substitute for “I don’t like this.” I came most of the way to conversion through reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which presents Christian beliefs simply and straightforwardly. But prior to reading the book my objection to Christianity was not that it baffled me but that it struck me as ridiculous. Most of that, of course, was because I was simply mistaken about what the Bible taught. Lewis’s presentation is clear and congenial, and by the end of the book I was thinking, “Well, I don’t know if I believe this or not, but it certainly makes sense on its own terms.” Since even that weak standard is one that most alternatives don’t meet, it wasn’t long before I accepted it as the best available explanation. (Faith came a bit later.)

If there is a legitimate misunderstanding, it ought to be addressed as clearly as possible, and the tools of apologetics can be helpful for that. But once a point is understood, I think a person should be allowed to struggle with its implications without further interference. Not only can smooth explanations be taken as an excuse not to struggle directly with the claims of Christianity, they can rob us of the benefits of such struggling.

Third, I’m afraid that apologetics often feeds our love of systems, our vain hope that if we can just figure out the right rules then our flesh will simply acquiesce and behave in accordance with them. I’ve known people who thought of themselves as musicians because they hung around with musicians, owned several expensive instruments, and knew music lore inside and out. But they never played much music, preferring to talk about it instead. And they often bored the real musicians to death with their eagerness to talk about the thing itself, music, while the real musicians would have preferred to be producing some (and reserved their respect for those who tried, however poor the result).

I recently watched a Fawlty Towers retrospective, where John Cleese explained that Basil Fawlty was in love with the idea of managing a hotel, and would have been a happy man except for the customers—i.e. what he despised was the actual running of a hotel. Exactly. Just as one might be an expert on neighborliness but unable to treat one’s actual neighbors lovingly, or be an advocate of church authority who goes running when the discipline stick is about to be wielded against him. Understanding why one should love or submit is a long way from actually loving or submitting. And the person who loves or submits has done the needful thing, regardless of how deep his understanding.

Fourth, an inordinate love for apologetics can lead us to place more faith in our explanations than in our experience; our eyes skim right past difficulties, both in scripture and in practice, that our explanations tell us are not there. How else to account for the modern Christian’s comfort with affluence and wealth-seeking, promoted from even (especially?) conservative pulpits, with Jesus’ dire warnings about the dangers of riches, or the evidence surrounding us that wealth and power inevitably corrupt both non-believer and believer? Or the modern Christian’s propensity to separate ourselves from brothers over differences large and small, when scripture exhorts us to unity in all but the most extreme circumstances—such as contentiousness, something in a brother that is more likely to draw our admiration than lead us to separate from him?

I say all this as someone who once loved systematic thinking, and still appreciates it for its good points. But over the years I’ve slowly learned the dangers of confusing knowledge with understanding, and understanding with wisdom. Knowledge precedes understanding, and understanding precedes wisdom; but one will not inevitably lead to the other. Other things must be brought to bear—mostly practice, probably humility, almost certainly a childlike faith.

Worldview, or way of life?

I’ve just finished reading Robert Louis Wilken’s book Christians as the Romans Saw Them. It taught me a few valuable things. First, that once Christians had the upper hand they proceeded to destroy what had been written by unbelievers that was critical of their faith; what remains of those writings must be pieced together from what Christian writers quoted as they proceeded to refute their critics.  Second, the Romans and Greeks, who had a faith that went deeper than the conventional ridicule of idol worship would suggest, saw the gospel not so much as a theological challenge as a social one—to them, religion was the foundation of community, and they saw Christian separatism as a refusal to shoulder social responsibilities—and much of the response from church fathers was to explain why Christians did not present any such challenge.

Third, many of the more sophisticated theological concepts (e.g. the Trinity) emerged from efforts by scholarly Christians to make Christianity more respectable in the eyes of the pagans whose respect they craved; when pagans who respected monotheism objected that the Christian worship of Jesus was tantamount to polytheism, the average Christian didn’t care much what the pagans thought, but the objection stung the big thinkers into coming up with rational defenses.

Only a few enterprising [Christian] intellectuals, and only after more than one hundred years of Christian history, had begun to take the risk of expressing Christian beliefs within the philosophical ideas current in the Greco-Roman world. Most Christians were opposed to such attempts. As late as the third century, after the apologetic movement had introduced Greek ideas into Christian thinking, Christian preachers complained that the rank-and-file opposed such ideas. In the few places in early Christian sources where philosophy is mentioned up to the mid-second century, the term was used pejoratively. It referred to pagan belief, never to Christian teaching or life.

But probably the most interesting thing I learned was that some pagans viewed Christianity not as a superstition but as a credible philosophical school, which had a very specific meaning to them.

As we have already observed, earlier critics had agreed in calling Christianity a superstition. That Galen [a second century philosopher] does not use this term may be significant; yet what is more significant is that he chose a new term—namely, philosophical school. The term superstition accented that Christianity was a foreign cult whose origin and practices stood outside the accepted religious standards of the Greco-Roman world. Superstition, by definition, was opposed to genuine religious feelings.

The philosophical schools, on the other hand, were part of the public life of the empire. There were times, as for example under the capricious emperor Domitian, when philosophers were sent into exile, but in general people respected the philosophical life, and some from the upper classes identified with particular philosophical schools. In Galen’s time the emperor Marcus Aurelius had become a Stoic even though his tutor Fronto disapproved. Fronto, like Pliny, preferred rhetoric to philosophy. Marcus nevertheless went ahead with his plan.

In calling Christianity a philosophical school, even one whose dialectical skill did not impress him, Galen gave Christianity a boost on the ladder of acceptance within the Roman world. From another of Galen’s works it is clear that what led him to call it a philosophy was the success Christians had in leading men and women to a life of virtue. [Emphasis added]

In these enlightened times it doesn’t make much sense to us to judge a philosophy based on its effectiveness in changing lives. The most important things about philosophies (or systematic theologies, or biblical worldviews) are that they be rationally consistent and complete—because, presumably, an airtight argument will have its day and the rational man will acquiesce in the face of one. But though such a view of philosophy had once held sway in ancient times, by the second century it had lost its appeal.

Philosophy in Galen’s day had become less a way of thinking than a way of living. Although philosophers were the inheritors of intellectual traditions that dealt with the great metaphysical issues, and many still wrote books on these topics, they had gone into the streets of the cities to address the populace and to offer men and women advice on how to live. As we have already seen in Lucian’s account, the term used to describe the philosophical schools was bios (way of life), and the selling point of the various philosophies turned more on life-style and ethics than on metaphysical or epistemological questions. Philosophy was a matter of moral discipline, and its goal was a life of virtue. Marcus Aurelius described philosophy as a moral ideal which contrasts with the vain and empty goal most men pursue. Socrates was said to have risen above his ordinary human instincts by the practice (not study) of philosophy. […]

In the early years of the Roman Empire philosophy had become a popular idea. The philosophical schools offered, writes A.D. Nock, not only “intelligible explanations of phenomena” but also “life with a scheme.” They spoke about fear and friendship, about courage and peace of mind, about anxiety, love, freedom, about old age and death, about wealth and fame. In short, they preached to men and women about how to live among the twists and turns of fate and fortune. The philosophers sought to set people on a firm and sure path. For this reason, when a man or woman turned from his or her former ways to embrace philosophy, he or she was sometimes said to be “converted.”

It is in this sense that Galen identified the early Christian movement as a philosophical school. Christians led people to embrace lives of discipline and self-control, to pursue justice, to overcome the fear of death. Though they did not provide men and women with intellectual foundations for their beliefs, they did achieve a way of life not inferior to that led by “those who are truly philosophers.”

Galen recognized that Christianity successfully offered “life with a scheme,” not because of the soundness of its intellectual foundations—it didn’t have any—but because of the demonstrable changes it occasioned in the lives of believers. This is consistent with Rodney Stark’s observation that early Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world, going from a few hundred believers to thirty million in just three hundred years, primarily because of the lives that believers lived before a watching world.

We’ve long since remedied the lack of intellectual foundations in Christian thought. But it’s also been a long time since the watching world marveled at the lives lived by ordinary Christians. Perhaps the quest for intellectual respectability has robbed us of something else. In his biography of Aquinas, Chesterton tells a similar story:

It was of [St. Dominic] that the tale was told … that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none;’” and the Spanish friar answered, “No, and neither can he now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”