The Ghost of Christian Past

On Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World

For years, Christian conservatives have been sounding the alarm about the post-Christian world into which the modern West has lurched over the past generation. The acclaimed British historian Tom Holland begs to differ: a truly post-Christian world would be far darker and more terrifying than the twilight zone we currently inhabit. Our current culture wars, he argues, represent the confused shadow-boxing of rival Christian intuitions, with the woke as well as the born-again representing variants of Protestant fundamentalism.

Holland’s 2019 book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World landed like a bombshell on the complacently atheistic world of the British intelligentsia, and continues to send shockwaves through the academy and popular discourse. In it, he courageously contends that “To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions….The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored to its Christian past” (13). Indeed, the very fact that this is so hard to see is itself evidence of Christianity’s total transformation of Western history: “So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted” (17).

Holland writes neither as a Christian (though he has since tentatively re-affirmed the faith in which he was raised) nor as an apologist for Christianity per se. Throughout his gripping narrative (even his critics agree that Holland is one of the most gifted writers of historical nonfiction alive today), Holland pulls no punches about the failures of Christians throughout the centuries to live up to their own ideals, as church leaders–like other sinners–have often lusted after wealth, and control. But the key point, he stresses, is that at the very least, they had ideals of love, mercy, and universal justice that they could fail to live up to—and, crucially, were often astonishingly self-critical about their own failures. Over and over he notes the curious tendency of Christian civilizations to be riddled with self-doubt about their own exploits. It is fashionable today to malign the evils of British imperialism, even as we romanticize the empires of pagan antiquity. “Yet the British,” writes Holland,

despite the certitude felt by many of them that their empire was a blessing bestowed on the world by heaven, could not entirely share in the swagger of the [Persian] Great King. Pride in their dominion over palm and pine was accompanied by a certain nervousness. The sacrifice demanded by their God was a humble and a contrite heart. To rule foreign peoples—let alone to plunder them of their wealth, or to settle their lands, or to hook their cities on opium—was also, for a Christian people, never quite to forget that their Saviour had lived as a slave, not the master, of a mighty empire (429).

The irony of modern discourse is that, for all the vitriol poured on Christians for their failure to love those who are different, care for the marginalized, or stand up for the rights of women, few pause to consider why we should care about doing any of these things. Certainly the pre-Christian worlds of pagan antiquity did not. For your average Persian, Greek, or Roman, argues Holland, it was self-evident that foreigners and the poor were the scum of the earth, good for little except enslavement, and that women’s bodies existed chiefly for the gratification of powerful men. Holland goes out of his way to remind the reader that crucifixion, before it became a symbol of Christ’s triumph, was a symbol of Roman brutality, an ingeniously cruel form of torture that signified the stark power politics of the ancient world. The fact that the Christians would dare celebrate the ignoble end of their leader in a death fit only for slaves is proof enough of the sheer radicalism of the “Christian revolution”; the fact that we scarcely bat an eye at the sight of a crucifix attests to the astounding success of that revolution.

All of this, to be sure, should be of great historical interest, but it is far more urgent than that, as Holland highlights especially in the closing chapters of the book.

First of all, if we fail to realize the saturation of Western culture by Christian ideals, we will be completely incapable of engaging intelligently with non-Western cultures, and baffled by their apparent hostility. In chapter 20, Holland chronicles the tragi-comic story of the Iraq War, in which Western ideologues, convinced that all peoples everywhere would share their commitment to freedom, equality, toleration, and women’s rights, could not understand why many Muslims would rather blow up embassies than accept such liberation. We may trumpet universal codes of human rights, but they are not, have not been, and will not be universally recognized as such; they are the inheritance of Christianity.

Holland never offers a comprehensive list of the various moral commitments that he considers distinctive to Christianity—he is chiefly seeking to write a narrative history, after all—but here are a half-dozen that can readily be distilled from his account.

Violence and pain: For the ancient world, argues Holland, violence was often a way of life, and pain at best a brute fact—if not indeed a source of pleasure when inflicted by the powerful on the weak. That the suffering and death of others should give the strong man any pause would have seemed a mark of weakness, rather than virtue. By treating violence and suffering as problem to be overcome, and exalting the virtue of pity, Christianity remade the world.

Poverty and weakness: If pity was no virtue for the ancients, it stood to reason that poverty and weakness should be objects of contempt. Holland chronicles the bitter irony of Roman emperor Julian the Apostate’s attempt to re-invigorate paganism by aping Christian care for the marginalized:

Certainly there was little in the character of the gods whom Julian so adored, nor in the teachings of the philosophers whom he so admired, to justify any assumption that the poor, just by virtue of their poverty, had a right to aid. The young emperor, sincere though he was in his hatred of ‘Galilean’ teachings, and in regretting their impact upon all that he held most dear, was blind to the irony of his plan for combating them: that it was itself irredeemably Christian (139).

 Slavery, of course, bears mentioning in this connection—although often maligned for its willingness to perpetuate slavery, Christian cultures have in fact been the only ones in world history to seriously question the institution and seek to end it. Likewise, far from colluding in an oppressive “patriarchy,” Christian teaching has consistently advanced the dignity of women relative to pagan predecessors and contemporary rivals.

Universal human dignity: Few phrases come so quickly to modern lips as the idea of “human dignity,” the conviction that all human beings, by mere virtue of their humanity, have equal worth and equal rights. From a pagan perspective, however, this was total poppycock. “That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths” (400). To an ancient Greek, it was self-evident that barbarians were a lesser breed, best ignored or enslaved. To an ancient Roman, the Greeks themselves were contemptible, even if annoyingly good at mathematics and philosophy. But to Bartolome de las Casas, observing the enslavement of Indians by Spanish conquerors in the New World, it was clear that “they are our brothers, and Christ gave his life for them” (308).

Reformation and revolution: We live in a revolutionary age; since at least 1789, Western culture has been saturated by a utopian hunger to create a better world, a confidence that we are not bound to continue in the darkness of the past, but can live in the light of a fresh revelation about human purpose and potential, that we can transform our societies and institutions to be more true, more just, more righteous. This impulse, however, was not the creation of French philosophes; no, argues Holland, it was a fundamentally Christian concept, even if often turned against Christianity in modern times:

To imagine that an entire order might be overturned had rarely come naturally to people….[I]n Rome, anything that smacked of res novae, ‘new things’, had invariably been regarded as a catastrophe at all costs to be avoided. Not the least revolutionary aspect of Christianity had been the sanction that it provided for the very notion of revolution (295).

Toleration and secularity: Today, few accusations are more frequently lobbed at Christians than “intolerance”—but why should we be tolerant? Christians are accused of mixing religion and politics, and failing to uphold ideals of secularity—but why should we think that religion and politics could be separated at all? Few people in history seem to have thought so; and while Rome may have allowed many different religions to peacefully practice throughout the empire, this was a matter of practical policy, not conviction. The emergence of modern religious liberty, claims Holland, was yet another inheritance of Christianity: “Rather than a betrayal of Christ, who had urged his followers to love their enemies, and to turn the other cheek, it expressed a conscious ambition to measure up to his teachings” (369).

Consent: Few concepts are more pervasive today than “consent,” which has been made to underlie everything from our idea of political order to our sexual ethics. But why should consent be important? Why should a human being need to freely agree to something before they can be expected to do it? Neither ancient Greece nor modern Islam would see why, and therefore, for most cultures throughout human history, marriage has been a matter of custom and parental authority, not love or free choice. It was Christianity, argues Holland, that changed this: “Opening up before the Christian people was the path to a radical new conception of marriage: one founded on mutual attraction, on love” (283).

As this brief survey suggests, the key values that most in the modern West take for granted cannot be taken for granted; they are at least in part the fruit—albeit now increasingly overripe and even rotten—of the Christian revolution, and in societies that have not been shaped by that revolution, like the Islamic world, they are either unintelligible or bitterly contested.

But this survey suggests another conclusion, perhaps even more important. For if we fail to realize the saturation of Western culture by Christian ideals, we will fail to grasp the true shape of the ideological conflicts currently tearing our own societies. These are best understood, Holland insistently argues, as effectively intra-Christian conflicts. A quick glance through the values surveyed above proves the point. The pacifism and humanitarianism of modern liberal society reflects a kind of Christian pity on steroids. The obsession with the “marginalized,” and the determination to hunt down oppressed groups and raise them from their ash heaps, originally grew out of a Christian impulse. The obsession with universal human rights, and the quest to propagate it throughout the known world, is readily recognizable as an echo of the missionary zeal of the Dark Age monks who implored Saxons not to torture their captives, or the British colonial administrators who begged Hindus not to immolate widows. The sheer apocalypticism of so much modern “woke” discourse, convinced that history is rushing forward and all things are to be made new, reflects a revolutionary imagination first made possible by Christianity. Toleration, secularity, consent, freedom of choice, as these are understood today, are all a transmuting of ideals initially forged by the Christian church and now increasingly weaponized against it.

In this profoundly important argument of Holland’s book, stressed particularly in chapters 20 and 21, we can recognize a similar claim by C.S. Lewis eight decades ago in The Abolition of Man

What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.

To be sure, Lewis says this of “the Tao,” which he takes to be universal natural law, not of Christian morality per se. And indeed, my one real critique of Dominion is that Holland is too inattentive to the vestiges of natural light that have been scattered even in pagan darkness, to which Christian teaching came as an illumination of something dimly perceived, rather than as something wholly new. Still, even if paganism was occasionally able to discern the Tao, it rarely conjured the resolution to implement it in law and society.

Of course, this does not mean that we need to simply make our peace with woke-ism as one legitimate expression of Christian ideals, much less capitulate to it as the authentic expression. Here, another memorable passage in The Abolition of Man may shed some light on our present predicament: 

this is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. 

So many of the incoherencies of late liberalism are of the “Irishman’s two stoves” variety. If it helped women to insist that they had equal dignity with men, perhaps it would help them even more to pretend they are interchangeable with men. If marriage was improved by stressing that it required the consent of the partners, maybe it would be even better if we reduced it to nothing but consent. If society need not be trapped within a status quo and history could show forward progress, perhaps we should try to remake the world every decade, and bulldoze every status quo out of the way.

Such is the reductio ad absurdum of the world we now live in. But absurd though it may be, we must have the eyes to see it as a distinctively Christian absurdity—and confront and correct it accordingly. Moreover, the cultured despisers of Christianity today, argues Holland, must learn to grudgingly admit their own debt to the tradition they are so eager to malign, must dispense with their hubristic delusion that they are simply the apostles of reason.

Why is this so urgent? Alongside Holland’s admonition that we understand Western conflicts with the non-Western world, and conflicts within the Western world, as the product of a Christian inheritance, is a third key takeaway, a disturbing warning that Holland offers to his complacent fellow post-Christian intellectuals.

If the argument of Dominion is correct, then Nietzsche, not Julian the Apostate, was right: there is no halfway-house between Christianity and unbelief; the death of God must mean the death of everything that has been built, these past two millennia, on the foundation laid by the “pale Galilean.” Although the self-assured Enlightenment philosophes declared that a new order of reason, fraternity and equality would be built on the ruins of Christianity, their dark and disturbed contemporary, the Marquis de Sade, saw far more clearly than them: “The doctrine of loving one’s neighbour,” Holland quotes de Sade, “is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature” (407). Holland continues, summarizing,

The true division in society lay not between friends and enemies of the people, but between those who were naturally masters and those who were naturally slaves. Only when this was appreciated and acted upon would the taint of Christianity finally be eradicated, and humanity live as Nature prescribed….More clearly than many enthusiasts for enlightenment cared to recognize, he could see that the existence of human rights was no more provable than the existence of God. … ‘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’ (408-9).

Although both were consigned to insane asylums, it was de Sade and Nietzsche, contends Holland, who were the true prophets of reason. They, unlike so many of their contemporaries and so many self-satisfied Westerners today, actually grasped the essential difference between paganism and Christianity. As Christianity fades into the twilight, Holland tacitly warns, we should not be surprised to find monsters that we thought long since slain again stalking the darkness that lies behind the death of God. Perhaps there is some neutral, universal, secular ground for holding at bay the predation of the strong upon the weak, the casual use of women’s and children’s bodies for the gratification of powerful men, the perpetual domination of the privileged over the poor. But if so, we have not yet discovered it; and if our society wishes to persist in its attempts to exorcize the ghost of Christianity, it may find that what it had thought a tormenting demon turns out to have been its guardian angel.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Bradford Littlejohn

Bradford Littlejohn is a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.

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