Can We Change the World Without God?


When you survey the wondrous and tragic history of the human drama on planet earth, it is overwhelming to recount all of the individuals who have contributed positively to human advance. Agriculture, music, engineering, art, political science, mathematics, medicine, genetics, zoology, literature … they each have their own very large “halls of fame” filled with people from different continents and eras and coming from different faiths, worldviews and cultures. Daniel Boorstin in his books, The Creators and The Discoverers writes sweeping accounts of the thousands of years and the hundreds of persons who have contributed to our life together as humans.
It is interesting to consider what part faith in Jesus Christ makes, if any, in bringing about positive change for humanity. Are the contributions of Einstein, Edison, Benjamin Franklin or Freud rendered null because they were atheists or agnostics? I don’t know about you, but I still love the effect of flipping on a light switch along with the various forms of energy harnessed because of atheists like these. The above list represents just a few modern, western atheistic inventors, and says nothing of the Arab, Asian, Latin American or African creators and discoverers who added something to human flourishing without a belief in Christ as savior.
Of course the list of contributors motivated by their Christian faith is quite impressive as well: Michael Faraday (speaking of electric energy), Louis Pasteur, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, not to mention the Arab (i.e. Charles Malik), Asian (i.e. Watchman Nee), Latin American (i.e. Oscar Romero) or African (i.e. Desmond Tutu) followers of Jesus who have added to human flourishing.
Because every human bears the marks of a Creator who infused us with ingenuity, artistry, imagination, governance and creativity – whether they believe in him or not – the propensity for humans to contribute to their own flourishing is simply a reflection of the fact that we were made in the image of a God who loves to make things which flourish. We have much to gain from atheists like Pavlov or Hawking, and I am thankful for the myriad clever, compassionate, God-hating (or sometimes just Church-hating) men and women who give themselves to serve to the poor and marginalized or advance the general well-being of our planet and her inhabitants.
So is there any benefit in knowing Jesus as friend, master, and teacher when bringing about global change?
The Hope Catalyst: One of the most pernicious scourges of humanity, especially among the poor, is despair. Despair is a spiritual condition, and its primary manifestation is apathy towards ones own welfare and the welfare of others. Hope is the only cure for despair and requires something more than wishful thinking. Hope must be grounded in truth. For me the truth of God’s love, incarnate in the man Jesus, and God’s promise to be with us in our trials and sufferings makes a difference. Aligning ourselves with the Creator brings power to confront evil and to right wrongs. Hope – a conviction about God’s love and a future of redemption – is the catalytic power behind a change agent.
The Ear of God and the Mind of Christ: There is something about communion that positively infects the Christian thinker, artist, writer, scientist and aid worker. I’m not necessarily talking about the Eucharist, though this is a picture of what I mean. I am talking about that place of intimacy with the Divine. That God invites us into fellowship, that Christ calls us to consume him, that each believer is possessed by the Holy Spirit – these things make the Christian more than flesh and bone. We have God’s ear in this Divine – human romance, and access to a kind of wisdom that confounds human wisdom. There is a mystical beauty in being united to God which bodies like the UN or people like Stephen Hawking do not understand and it affects how we interact with the world and expands what we have to offer an ailing humanity.
The Perseverance of Faith: I know Christians who have reached places of burnout or become jaded … I’ve danced pretty close to that line myself. But there is something about the believer’s access to Sabbath rest that I often do not see in the lives of others. Some studies suggest that half of returning NGO workers suffer pretty serious burnout, depression or post traumatic stress disorder. For Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity and for the New Friars whom I hang with, there is a qualitative difference in their devotional focus which gives many of them staying power in some pretty awful situations. It has something to do with their ability to get alone with Jesus, allowing him to replenish them. It is as if there is a kind of water available in Christ that quenches a thirst for justice and righteousness and satisfies a tired soul.
Can we change the world without Jesus? Yes. Can we bring the kingdom without the King? No. The kind of change I want to see involves giving hope to the hopeless. It requires the sort of thinking and problem solving that rises out of meekness and divine wisdom. It requires the power to stay with a difficult situation without growing weary. Many good things have come from God’s image bearers who do not believe he exists. But true transformation must have a spiritual dimension – and as someone who believes in a singular, intelligent Creator who made a way for the world to climb out of our mess through his Son, I do not see real transformation coming from anywhere else but him.

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