By: John Anderson
Tom Holland’s latest book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, was listed in the Uk’s Sunday Times Best History Book of the Year list, for good reason.
It gives an impressive overview of how Christianity, despite its seemingly quiet, humble beginnings, went on to revolutionise the Western world.
In the first century a historical revolution began in an obscure Eastern region of the great Roman Empire that by the fourth century would capture even the Roman government, and would go on to become a global revolution of culture, institutions, and ideas. This was the Christian revolution, inspired by the life and teachings of a rabbi named Jesus. In short, Christianity is “the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world” and “the single most transformative development in Western history.” (xxv)
Christianity is an evolving tradition historically, and we in the West today are still a part of that evolving tradition, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. Our deepest liberal democratic beliefs in universal human rights, the dignity of humankind, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state, and the injustice of slavery are all part of the Christian revolution and its historical legacy that Tom Holland unfolds in this book.
“We have slaves drawn from every corner of the world in our households….and it is only by means of terror that we hope to coerce such a scum.” (xiv)
“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”
The first quote was written by the great Roman historian Tacitus, the second by the Jewish convert to Christianity, Paul (Galatians 4:1). The Apostle Paul also proclaimed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Tacitus and Paul’s lives overlapped in the first century, but today we can see whose views prevailed in the long run. According to Holland, even if Christianity did not overthrow slavery immediately, Paul’s injunction to treat slaves rightly and fairly would soon be understood as a command to abolish the institution of slavery entirely. Ancient Christians not only routinely rescued babies cast to the elements to die, but paid to have slaves set free, and by the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great unequivocally condemned the institution. (124-5)
Christianity brought about a revolution in morals because it first had a revolutionary view of God that was grounded in the Jewish scriptures: a God of love, a God devoted to his people, a jealous God, a God who would sacrifice even his own Son for us. (53) Compared with conventional ancient views of the gods, who exemplified all the vices of the worst humans, and treated humans as, at best, pawns in a cosmic game, the Judeo-Christian conception was very strange indeed.
Although it would be far-fetched to call early Christianity as feminist in any modern sense, the dignity and nobility of women evident in scriptures had a long-term historical impact. Holland says “…whenever the (Holy) spirit was believed to have descended upon a woman, her standing among them would be no less than that of a man.” (76) Paul’s teachings on sex and the human body were a part of the Christian revolution. Prostitutes and boys were not mere playthings but temples of God. Paul, by proclaiming the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), gave “the bar girls and the painted boys in brothels, the slaves used without compunction by their masters, a glimpse of salvation.” (81)
Significant for Holland is the Gospels’ account of the risen Jesus first appearing to women, and commissioning women to spread the news of his resurrection. (259) In an age in which the testimony of women was worthless, this was incredibly counter cultural. According to Holland, the ideals of marriage set out by the canon lawyers of the middle ages were a clear break from the ancient world, and better for women: “No couple could be forced into a betrothal, nor into wedlock….It was consent, not coercion, that constituted the only proper foundation of a marriage.” All of which Holland associates with “an altogether more subversive principle: freedom of choice.” (267)
The social revolution unfolding throughout the Roman Empire as Christianity spread throughout the populace culminated in an institutional revolution: the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312. “Constantine, by accepting Christ as his Lord, had imported directly into the heart of his Empire, a new unpredictable, and fissile source of power.” (118) Constantine united the church and the state but maintained the distinction between the church and state, a distinction made by Jesus himself when he counselled his listeners to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)
Augustine emphasised the distinction in his City of God, distinguishing between the earthly city and the heavenly city. This was quite a novel understanding of religion and government in the ancient world, because Near Eastern cultures, and, later, the Roman Empire, typically saw kings and Emperors as divine. Jesus’ distinction between church and state would evolve over time into a separation of church and state – a cardinal principle of modern Western politics.
It was Charlemagne (Charles the Great) who oversaw the creation of an orthodox Christian West in the eighth and ninth century, and he did not shy away from the sword. But as well as unifying Western Europe under Trinitarian Christianity, Charlemagne saw to it that learning and education became central to that civilisation. The Frankish Emperor commissioned the best scribes in Europe to come to his palace to copy books that would otherwise be lost, and also gave the world a new form of script which introduced punctuation, capital letters beginning new sentences, and spaces between words: the script you are reading right now. According to Holland this was part of Charlemagne’s life mission: “the schooling of his subjects in the authentic knowledge of God.” (195)
Here we have the rise of Medieval Europe, Christendom at its height. But it is also a period in which the church and state became increasingly distinct. According to Holland, “The separation of church from state was an upheaval manifest across the whole of Christendom.” (218) So distinct did they become that they were often in conflict. Later Protestantism would sharply distinguish between the Two Kingdoms, one earthly or “secular”, the other spiritual. (308) In Christian civilisation, the state’s pretensions to unlimited power on earth were always challenged by the church.
The medieval period cultivated another seed of Judeo-Christianity – human rights. Lawyers went to work figuring out what was entailed by the command to help the poor. They concluded that not only do all Christians have a duty to help the poor, but that the poor have a “right” to be helped. (223)
“The evolution of the concept of human rights…had come to obscure its original authors. It derived, not from ancient Greece or Rome, but from the period of history condemned by all right-thinking revolutionaries as a lost millennium, in which any hint of enlightenment had at once been snuffed out by monkish, book-burning fanatics. It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages.” (385-6)
It was the sixteenth-century priest and scholar Bartolome Las Casas who documented the brutal colonisation of the West Indies and developed a doctrine of human rights. Against those who saw the Indians as inferior to the Spanish, Las Casas responded, “All the peoples of the world are humans, and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational.” Paraphrased by Holland: “Every mortal – Christian or not – had rights from God.” (331) Of course, similar thinking would feed into the later British anti-slavery movement spearheaded by the evangelical MP William Wilberforce in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Central to the rise of modern democracy was the Puritan movement, itself arising out of the Calvinist wing of the sixteenth-century Reformation. The Calvinists developed political arguments justifying not merely disobedience to Catholic rulers, but tyrannicide. (318) What developed out of the Puritan tradition of political thinking – based on their readings of Scripture – was a heavy emphasis on government by consent, a kind of social covenant or contract – eventually morphing into liberal democracy. This democratic model of political legitimacy was practised by the early Puritan communities in Massachusetts, which helped shaped the American tradition of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. (326-7) Says Holland, “The genius of the authors of the United States constitution was to garb in the robes of the Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that was the prime religious inheritance of their fledgling nation.” (384)
Holland’s thesis is that those Enlightenment philosophers who offered moral philosophies that we accept to this day were merely re-expressing Christian principles in Enlightenment terms; those who genuinely broke from Christianity offered moral visions we moderns consider abhorrent.
“The doctrine of loving one’s nature is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to nature.” So said the Marquis De Sade, famous for fantasising about torturing women and children. De Sade had an alternative approach to morality, or better, amorality: “Wolves eating lambs, lambs devoured by wolves, the strong killing the weak, the weak falling victim to the strong, such is Nature, such are her designs, such is her plan.” (393) Christianity’s most powerful opponent in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche, would express identical sentiments.
Nietzsche had no time for Christian morality masquerading as rational or enlightened: “When one gives up the Christian faith”, said Nietzsche, “one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.” (448) Nietzsche, like De Sade, much preferred the ancient morality that gloried in strength, and lamented that owing to Christianity “mankind grew ashamed of his cruelty.” (449) Both Mussolini and Hitler were great admirers of Nietzsche and sought to eradicate Christianity once and for all. Both aspired to create a “new breed of man” worthy of a fascist state. (455)
A longer-lasting assault on Christianity than fascism was Marxism. It would be tempting to see Marxism and Bolshevism as a clear break from Christianity with their hatred of organised religion and atheistic stance. But Holland disagrees, “The godlessness of the Soviet Union was less repudiation of the Church than a dark and deadly parody of it.” (454) Marxism eerily resembled Christianity: history plunged into struggle, the working class as saviour, a day of judgement (the revolution), and thousand-year reign of peace (communism). Even Marxism was a continuation of Christianity in a distorted form. (454)
But neither fascism nor Marxism could eradicate Christianity, and even as church going and doctrinal belief declined in the second half of the twentieth century, Christianity indirectly maintained a hold over people’s imaginations. Committed Catholic, J.R.R. Tolkien would write The Lord of the Rings, “the most widely read work of fiction of the twentieth century.” (470) Christianity would also survive into the second half of the twentieth century with the popularity of the love ethic as propagated by the Beatles – “all you need is love” – and John Lennon in particular. For Holland, it’s no coincidence that Lennon’s song arose in a civilisation whose historical religion taught “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) At the same time, Martin Luther King was fighting for civil rights in America by drawing almost exclusively on the stories, moral teachings, and language of the Bible.
The final chapter of Holland’s book is simply entitled ‘Woke’. For Holland, wokeness – a strong belief in social justice based on Marxist rhetoric of oppression, with a special emphasis on racial, LGBT, and gender issues – was another strange continuation of essential Christian ideas of human dignity and rights, albeit oblivious of its Christian origins. Even modern critics of Christianity, such as Richard Dawkins and woke social justice advocates, are more indebted to Christianity than they think. As Holland says, our so-called secular principle intuitions of equality, human rights, and human dignity are largely repackaged Christian ideas. Ironically, even Christianity’s strongest critics declare, unwittingly, their devotion to the Christian revolution that created the modern world, whether they know it or not.
Holland’s thesis is not that everything good comes from Christianity, nor that the history of Christianity was without grave injustice and atrocity. His thesis is that the long arc of Christian history is one where the injustices and atrocities accepted and perpetrated by Christians found their most powerful opposition from the Christian tradition itself. Indeed, Christians would come to practise slavery, but it was largely out of Christianity and its teachings that slavery was ultimately defeated in the Christian West.
Holland’s Dominion is already regarded as a masterpiece of sweeping philosophical history, grounded in a deep reading of the primary sources. It is difficult to find anything to be seriously critical about it. Maybe the best way to test the credibility of Holland’s thesis is to examine the most important literary source from which the Christian revolution sprang: the Bible, the New Testament in particular.
Article supplied with thanks to JohnAnderson.net.au.
Feature image: Book cover art
About the Author: John Anderson served as Deputy Prime Minister of Australia from 1999 to 2005. A committed Christian, John now hosts a podcast and creates content interviewing thought leaders from around the world on politics, culture, academia and faith.