The Surprising Christian ‘Dominion’
I hate long drives, but the one redeeming aspect of them is that I get to do something I never do otherwise: listen to audiobooks. Driving to and from Dallas is a 16-hours-plus trip from Baton Rouge. I made it with my wife and kids this past weekend, for a wedding. On my son Matt’s recommendation, I listened to historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade The World.
Before I say anything about the book, I want to recommend a cool piece of technology. It’s illegal to drive with standard earbuds in, so Matt let me borrow his bone-conduction headphones, by Aftershokz. They work by sending the sound into your aural canal through your bones. You can hear the audio with perfect clarity, even though your aural canals are open, allowing you to hear traffic sounds, and sounds in the car. An amazing device. I wouldn’t buy a pair for myself, because I’m usually driving alone, and use the car’s sound system. But on this trip, when I wanted to listen to the audiobook while everybody else in the car had other plans, they were terrific.
Now, the book. It’s Holland’s account of how Christianity revolutionized Western culture, and the world. Back in 2016, Holland, whose work focuses on ancient Greece and Rome, wrote an op-ed for New Statesman talking about how he had changed his mind about Christianity. Excerpts:
By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values. My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted puritans who had served as his acolytes. Colour and excitement had been drained from the world. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,” Swinburne wrote, echoing the apocryphal lament of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. “The world has grown grey from thy breath.” Instinctively, I agreed.
The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Read it all. Holland concludes by concluding that “in my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.”
Dominion is his book-length explanation of why.
I’ve never read a Tom Holland book, but now I’m eager to read them all. He is a fantastic storyteller. History is my favorite thing to read, but rarely does one find a historian who makes history as vivid as Holland does. And what a story he has to tell! Mind you, it’s a long audiobook, and after all that driving, I had only made it up to the late Middle Ages, so I can’t tell you anything about how he handles the last 800 years of Christianity. But Matthew Rose’s rave review in First Things is entirely consonant with my take on the book. Excerpts:
When did the world become modern? Holland gives an arresting answer. Modernity began with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, we view human beings as individuals defined by their abilities to reason and to choose, capacities that endow them with moral equality. Holland tells us there was nothing natural or inevitable about this perspective; it is the result of a metaphysical earthquake, two millennia ago, that slowly altered our perception of human life. The idea that God died on an instrument of torture, that the Eternal could be revealed through humility and suffering, did not change human history overnight. But it suggested the possibility, dimly understood at first, that the world might be utterly different than it had seemed to be. Perhaps it is not the victors but the victims who are closest to the divine.
The central character in Holland’s story is St. Paul, whose genius was to see that the God revealed in Christ turned the world upside down. Paul questioned what pagan antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are fated to exploit the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are determined by our social status. His vision of a community of believers, drawn from all nations and lands, was disruptive. Paul discovered a ground of human identity, and a depth of motivation, that no pagan thinker could fathom. Human beings are individuals, equal before God, called to act out of love. Paul proclaimed an ethics of universal agape, Holland claims, though he failed to follow through its subversive logic. When confronted by entrenched ideas about gender, sex, and authority, he compromised, counseling wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters.
None of this is news to me, exactly, but I was startled by how much of this I had forgotten, simply because the story is so familiar. It took a non-believer to reawaken me to how stupendously radical Christianity was in its advent. We tend to think that people in Greco-Roman times were pretty much as they are today, but with Doric columns, togas, and hippodromes. Holland details the cruelty — especially the sexual cruelty — of classical culture, and explains how it cannot be separated from the things we admire about that culture. Christianity was an anthropological revolution, one that toppled a view of the human person that hallowed the strong, and condemned the weak to exploitation, slavery, even — in the case of unwanted infants — death by exposure.
Again, none of this should be news to anybody with a more than slight familiarity with the Classical age, but Holland’s rich, evocative way of telling this story makes the moral drama come alive. You are standing there with St. Macrina, the sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, when she takes in more castoff baby girls to raise. It doesn’t take long before you realize that yes, just about everything we find admirable in human behavior, regarding compassion to the weak, comes to us through Christianity, whether we believe in Jesus or not. To put it another way, if the world of the distant past had never believed in Jesus, the Jewish sage who was the Son of the Most High, the world today would be a far darker and meaner place.
Which brings us to a question: what will become of the world that has ceased to believe in Jesus? Holland has a pro-Christian secular liberal’s view of the matter, as Father Stephen De Young, an Eastern Orthodox priest who also likes the book, avers. Father De Young writes:
Nietzsche had a profound understanding of the nature of Christian teaching and the way in which it had completely upended the preceding worldview of the classical world. He understood it and he hated it. He further foresaw the consequences that would come when Western culture finally decided to divest itself of Christian moral teaching and the worldview whose underpinnings it had already rejected at an intellectual level. These consequences were reaped in blood throughout the twentieth century and, should de-Christianization prove successful in the future, they can only continue and intensify.
The truth, however, as Holland shows, is that the de-Christianizers have not been that successful at all. Atheists attack the Scriptures and Christian history as immoral when compared to the standards of Christian morality. They do not do this to undermine the consistency of the Christian worldview from the outside but rather because they still share that morality which found its origins in Christian teaching.
Holland’s point is that Christianity has so transformed Western man that even atheists are Christian atheists, in that they want to keep the moral teachings of Christianity regarding compassion for the weak, without the metaphysics or the un-fun rules on sexual behavior. I haven’t yet finished the book, but Rose and other reviewers indicate that Holland affirms that one can be a Christian by living according to the Christian way of compassion, without professing Christ. It sounds like he’s a Social Gospel liberal. I don’t say that in a pejorative sense, but simply a descriptive one. He cherishes Christianity — he really does; no one writes a book like this without loving his subject — for what it did for society. But that’s as far as it goes.
Which brings us back to Nietzsche. I’m returning to Matthew Rose’s review here:
I wish that Holland could tell us when Christian self-criticism becomes self-destructive. For if he cannot, others will. Nietzsche looms in the background of Dominion. Holland comes close to saying that Nietzsche was right about Christianity’s influence on Europe, but wrong to reject that influence as dehumanizing. Nietzsche loathed Christianity for the same reasons Holland admires it. Christianity made us tender and empathetic and shifted the burden of proof against the aristocratic sentiment that tolerates cruelties and inequities. In doing so, it gave us bad consciences, wounding our self-love and pride. Nietzsche mocked Europeans for clinging to Christian values once they had drifted from Christian faith. Holland’s response is that Nietzsche was mistaken to distinguish them. To be a Christian is to keep faith with its vision of love and equality, which in the end requires shedding the dead husks of dogma and the Church’s exclusive claim to salvation.
Rose says that Holland “evades a difficult question.
He suggests that the influence of Christianity is so pervasive as to be no longer a matter of individual belief. Christianity has become a pattern of deeply ingrained social practices, the way we experience and belong to a social group. One can be a Christian without knowing it, even while insisting otherwise. But the problem is obvious: Almost none of the Christian heroes of his story believed this. In fact, his book suggests that the opposite is true. If these men and women are any indication, the moral influence of Christianity requires radical believers who seek first of all communion with Christ, not ethical-political outcomes.
It seems to me that Holland is celebrating the light and the warmth that comes from the embers of a dying bonfire.
Reading Rose’s and De Young’s reviews, I couldn’t help thinking about some of the late writings of Rene Girard, who said that Christianity so transformed the world (in the sense that Holland illuminates) that that transformed world is now turning on the source of its transformation.
Girard wrote that “we hear repeated in every way that we no longer have an absolute,” but in fact the concern for victims “is our absolute.” That is, it is the basis for our morality: “it is the concern for victims that determines what is most important.” This is the case because all other sources of absolute value have been lost. More:
The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. … We are living through a caricatural “ultra-Christianity” that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by “radicalizing” the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner. … The intellectuals and other cultural elites have promoted Christianity to the role of number one scapegoat.
Girard says we are at the advent of what he calls “the other totalitarianism,” saying that it is
the most cunning and malicious of the two, the one with the greatest future, by all evidence. At present it does not oppose Judeo-Christian aspirations but claims them as its own and questions the concern for victims on the part of Christians (not without a certain semblance of reason at the level of concrete action, given the deficiencies of historical Christianity). The other totalitarianism does not openly oppose Christianity but outflanks it on its left wing.
This is the force of what in the Christian tradition is called Antichrist. You don’t have to believe in a literal Antichrist figure to grasp what Girard is saying here. Girard points out that in the symbolic language of the New Testament, Antichrist opposes Christ by imitating him and seeking to be better than him. More:
The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.
Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived s complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always “sacrificial,” they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.
Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions. This idea acquires a semblance of credibility in the limited domain of consumer goods, who prodigious multiplication, thanks to technological progress, weakens certain mimetic rivalries. The weakening of mimetic rivalries confers an appearance of plausibility, but only that, on the stance that turns the moral law into an instrument of repression and persecution.
I would love for Tom Holland to essay on Rene Girard, and Nietzsche, in light of his thesis. I don’t know what he would say, but whatever a historian as gifted and imaginative as Holland writes is bound to be worth reading. I hope you will buy Dominion. Whether you are a devout Christian, a lapsed Christian, or a non-believer interested in cultural history, Tom Holland’s book is essential reading to understand who we in the West were, who we are, and who we might yet become.