Nifty fractal

What Problem is Christianity Trying to Solve?

When I first started work in Beijing, there was a large billboard on my walk to work with a China-red background and a cutsy schoolgirl icon that read:

文明朝阳 Civilized Chaoyang
精彩有我 Magnificent with me!
(Chaoyang is the district of Beijing where I lived.) The translation kind of confused me, because hasn’t China been civilized for thousands of years? A few months later at a work social I asked a coworker what 文明 meant, since surely “civilized” was not the real meaning. She said, “no, that’s actually what it means.” “But hasn’t China been civilized for thousands of years?” “They mean ‘don’t pee in the bushes’, ‘don’t let your dog poop on the sidewalk’, ‘don’t spit on the ground’, etc.” Ohhh… yeah, I had seen all of those by that point.

Ever since then I have been thinking about what I call “Civilization” based on that conversation. The normal usage artistic refinement and technological advancement, but I initially thought of Civilization as being concerned about how other people are experiencing you. Sure, it is convenient for you as a taxi-driver to pee in the bushes, but maybe the people in the residential area do not experience it so conveniently. Sure it is convenient to drop your drink container on the ground when you are finished with it (instead of walking fifty feet to the nearest garbage can, which were not in short supply), but maybe other people do not experience a bunch of trash so favorably. (And not to only pick on China, in the US, it might be convenient on the subway to watch videos loudly on your phone instead of bothering with poor-noise-isolation earbuds, but maybe the people around you did not sign up to listen to your video with you.)

On a deeper level, maybe residential designers should consider how the residents experience the complexes. I noticed Beijing had no green spaces. There was a park in a triangle where a street split, and it had packed earth and some trees; not an inviting place. By contrast, Taipei had little triangular areas with lush plants behind some benches, which did look inviting. (Overall, Taiwan felt a lot more Civilized, although in those days Beijing felt a lot more dynamic and raw, like anything was possible.) Public spaces, such as stairwells in residential towers or courtyard areas, were poorly maintained and either plastered with ads for residential services (stairwells) or overgrown (courtyards).

However, now I think that this initial definition of Civilization is only a subset of Civilization. Taken to its logical conclusion, “how are you experiencing me” becomes almost “do to others what you would want them to do to you” (Luke 6:31). I say “almost” because while most moral systems have the negative version (“don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you”), Jesus actually gives a positive version. Not only should you not treat people in ways that you would not like to be treated, but you should treat them like you want to be treated. Do you want to be loved? Then treat others lovingly.

And, at least from a secular, academic sort of perspective, this brings me to the problem I think Christianity is trying to solve: Civilization is fragile. A small, close-knit town where everyone knows and respects each other can leave their doors unlocked. I have heard some stories where you could just walk in to someone else’s house and borrow some sugar without even asking, because they trusted that you would do the same for them. But it only takes one thief to destroy this entire system; one thief makes everyone self-protect and lock their doors.

This fragility seems to be inherent to the very nature of things. It is almost always to someone’s local advantage to act selfishly. I get more stuff if I beat you up and take your stuff. Historian Brett Devreaux observes that for most of history war was profitable. Since gains in efficiency are practically non-existent on individual timescales in an agricultural society, the only way to increase one’s wealth was to rule over more land. Thus, human history is a story of constant warfare; we see a nod to this in the introduction to David’s dalliance with Bathsheba: “in the spring, when kings go to war…” (2 Sam 11:1) The purpose of the introduction, of course, is to subtly observe that David was not at war, but its matter-of-fact statement illustrates the point: normally kings went out to war [every year / many years] in the spring.

The more insidious problem is that you must go out to war as long as your neighbors do, because a kingdom that is successful in conquering its neighbors is able to field larger armies, which makes it easier to conquer all the peaceful neighbors. So if you want to remain independent, you need to attack all your neighbors to ensure that your neighbors do not do it first. [1] This situation happened in Anglo-Saxon England, which initially had small proto-kingdoms where the local strongman exchanged military protection for food around 600 A.D., and then over a century or two these kingdoms merged into seven kingdoms, which then consolidated into the kingdom of Wessex by around 900 A.D. [2] Devereaux observes that this situation occurred in continental Europe in the 1700s, leading to an uneasy balance of power in the 1800s. [3]

Scott Alexander in “Meditations on Moloch” observes that life is full of these situations, where you must compete but in competing you sow the seeds of your collective destruction because it is infeasible to cooperate to reach a better outcome. He calls this system “Moloch”, after the Tyrian/Carthaginian god to whom people sacrificed by burning their babies. It is an advantage to me if I add an extra sheep to the common pasture, but if everyone does it the pasture will be overgrazed and we cannot raise any sheep (Tragedy of the Commons). It is an advantage to me to have another child in an agricultural society, but if everyone does this, all our children will have to live on postage-stamp plots of land (Mathusian Trap). It is an advantage to my family if both parents work so we can afford a house in a good school district, but if we all do it then everyone has to sacrifice a life with their family just to afford the house we have (Two-income Trap, Red Queen Effect). Everyone would be happier if companies charged enough to pay their workers well, but it is an advantage to me to pay my workers less and externalize some costs onto society so that I can charge less and gain market share, so the result is everyone has to pay their workers the minimum and no one is happy. [4]

Bizarrely, Alexander came to the conclusion he would welcome a benevolent alien to solve the coordination problem, and then said that the only solution is to kill God and pursue transhumanism, overcoming human limitations with technology. God seems like a reasonable benevolent alien, but apparently Alexander does not believe God’s claims of benevolence, and assumes that technology will somehow enable humans to do something they have clearly and consistently failed to do for all the millennia of recorded history.

Other people have proposed more implementable solutions. Confucianism was explicitly designed to solve the problem of the chaos of constant war he experienced during the Warring States period of Chinese history. Implementing a strong social hierarchy of obedience to the ruler would produce a stable society. It got implemented, but it did not work—dynasties got overthrown every 200 years or so. The Chinese Communist Party even blamed Confucianism for the stagnation that led the China being occupied by European powers in the late 1800s. Confucianism also extracted a large price from those one the bottom of the hierarchy, namely women and girls.

Marxism and Communism offered another solution. Theorizing that the problem was the rich capitalists taking advantage of the working class, the Communists overthrew the rich and made them like everyone else (the ones they did not kill). It completely failed; now it was the Communist Party members who hoarded access to the goods. In addition to the stifling totalitarianism, mass killings and preventable famines killed millions, possibly over 100 million (estimates vary widely. [5] In the modern West, a popular neo-Marxist ideology is having another go at a solution, this time dividing people into (historical) oppressor and (historically) oppressed groups, and valorizing the latter and demonizing the former.

All these solutions have in common that the problem is external, while Christianity’s diagnosis is that the problem is internal, and therefore the solution must be internal. The problem is that Moloch lives within each of our hearts: each of us is willing, given the right circumstances, to sacrifice Civilization in order to advance our own interests. Indeed, everyone has done this intentionally at some point in our lives. We have all shattered Civilization for someone else.

Israel was God’s means of solving the problem, but the prophets record the people as being consistently hard of heart and rebellious. The original deal with Israel in Deuteronomy was that God would bless them if they followed him, and he would curse them if they rebelled. After hundreds of years of rebellion, God’s patience ended and he carried out all the covenantal curses and exiled them from the land. In Eze 36:26-27, after observing that he had punished Israel for their rebellion, God describes his solution: he will put his spirit in Israel, and change their hearts from stone to flesh. Rebellion is hardly limited to the house of Israel; Paul describes all of humanity as rebellious in Rom 1. So God’s solution is not limited to Israel: he said he would pour out his spirit on all mankind (Joel 2:28), which is indeed what we see happen in the first ten chapters of Acts.

Jesus offers a summary of what it looks like to live out of God’s spirit. At the Last Supper he gives his disciples a new, summary command: love one another. This is basically his summary of the Torah to the Pharisee who asked, which was “love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself” What does love look like? It looks like caring for a person beaten and robbed and left for dead. In fact, it looks like loving your enemy by returning good for evil, because “then you will be [of the same character] as your father in heaven” (Matt 5:46)

The prerequisite for Civilization is that every person lives out perfect love, a love capable of loving even when you are intentionally hurt. This also makes Civilization less fragile: if someone does hurt you (which in Civilization would only happen accidentally), everyone is capable of returning love even when they are hurt, so hurts do not spill out to other people like they do now. In fact, there is some evidence within the Bible that this kind of love spreads and reduces the influence of even malicious actors, in which case true Civilization becomes strongly stable and expanding. The only difficulty is that it requires willing cooperation with the Spirit of God.

Thus we see that Christianity solves the problem of Civilization. The solution requires the transformation of every person’s heart through the Spirit of God, but when that happens, Civilization becomes a stable system, instead of the fragile system it is presently.

[1] Devreaux, Brett. “Collections: Teaching Paradox, Victoria II, Part II: The Ruin of War.” A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. 20 August 2021.

[2] Fleming, Robin. Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 - 1070. Penguin, 2011.

[3] Devreaux, op. cit.

[4] Alexander, Scott. “Meditations on Moloch.” Astral Star Codex, 30 July 2014 (Archived,

[5] “Mass Killings Under Communist Regimes.” Wikipedia. Accessed 23 December 2023.