Savvas Costi writes: It’s been almost a year and a half since historian Tom Holland released his book, Dominion; The Making of the Western Mind. Since then, there seems to have been something of an influx of interviews and articles relating to the enduring influence of Christianity, or at least the need for it in the modern world. For those still unfamiliar, some excellent reviews have already been written by Joel Virgo, Barney Zwartz and Tim Keller. What I write here is not intended to regurgitate what has already been said, although there may be some aspects which overlap. Given the broad scope of the book, I’ll be homing in on a selection of key insights that are worth exploring and would encourage readers to delve deeper into Holland’s excellent book for themselves.
The first key point relates to the historicity of Jesus himself. As a classroom teacher, I regularly encounter the question of whether we can be sure that Jesus really existed. When it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion, Holland cites a biblical historian in the preface to his book and makes his position very clear;
There is no reason to doubt the essentials of this narrative. Even the most sceptical historians have tended to accept them. “The death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him” (p xvi).
Still there are sceptics who remain unconvinced. Holland gave a damning response on twitter to Steven Pinker’s endorsement of a book promoting the mythical view. We also have a piece written by Stephen Law challenging the view that we can take the New Testament documents themselves as sufficient evidence for Jesus ever existing (although Law himself is not a mythicist). Where does this leave us? John Dickson believes that what the experts are telling us amounts to what’s called an argument from authority, and should be taken seriously because
the fact that there is an obvious consensus of scholarship that places Jesus’ existence [and crucifixion] beyond doubt must count for something: not everything, but something.
If both Christian and secular historians are telling us that Jesus is a historical figure then perhaps Holland’s comparison is apt; to go against this would be the atheist equivalent of literal six-day creationism, or the anti-vaccination crowd in medical science. Dickson’s little book also shows how ‘the writings about Jesus are … the best-attested records from all classical history.’ So much so that the claim that Jesus didn’t exist has virtually no support in contemporary scholarship specialising in Ancient History, Classics or New Testament. To prove otherwise would result in Dickson eating a page from his Bible. What this all goes to show is that unless you want to deny the possibility of knowing any history at all, we are on sure footing when it comes to establishing Jesus’ crucifixion as a real event in the past.
Holland has not written about the history of Christianity per se but has traced ‘the currents of Christian influence that have spread most widely’ (p xxiv). The book reads like a novel and is rich in its research of key events that occurred in the past, as well as tracking the developments in Christian thinking. Holland is less interested in the question of whether the claims of Christianity are true. Instead, like any historian, he is keen to study Christianity ‘for what it can reveal, not about God, but about the affairs of humanity’ presuming their beliefs to be ‘of mortal origin’ (p xxvi). Holland does not profess to be a Christian. Speaking of his experience as a younger child he states that ‘slowly, like a dimmer switch being turned down, I found my belief in God fading’ (p 520). But in a recent interview he went as far as to say that he had surrendered to the truth of the stories of Christianity in a mythical sense. Whatever one is to make of this, the key premise of the book is stated as follows:
The [Christian] faith is at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity, and the index of its utter transformation … 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 (pp xxii & xxv).
And the roots of this, Holland argues, can be traced all the way back to Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha.
Some readers might be shocked, or even appalled by such a statement. It’s one which Holland himself was reluctant to accept after initially agreeing with the interpretation of Edward Gibbon, that the rise of Christianity ushered in an ‘age of superstition and credulity’ (p xxvii). But the more Holland immersed himself in the study of classical antiquity, the more he came to see it as a world totally alien and unacceptable when compared to his own. It’s a sentiment shared by many today who wince at the thought of a society built from the systematic exploitation of others, as was the case in the ancient world. But it was the writings of Paul the Apostle that paved the way for its structural reform, with his letters containing ‘the most influential, the most transformative, the most revolutionary’ message (p 78), delegitimising the widespread belief in a natural hierarchy. The announcement that we were all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) was able to bring together people of every social class. The impact of this was so wide reaching that by the 4th century, Augustine could write, ‘all are astonished to see the entire human race converging on the Crucified One, from emperors down to beggars in their rags’ (p 137).
The egalitarian impulse in the West has its roots in Christianity, and it was this understanding which helped Holland to change his mind. But he is not the first to acknowledge this from beyond the Christian pale. French philosopher and unbeliever Luc Ferry recognised that it was the triumph of Christianity which gave us
the notion that … [all] men were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.
But isn’t this just the product of evolutionary thinking, or enlightened reasoning? It’s striking to note that throughout the current pandemic, measures have been taken to protect the most vulnerable in our society, even if it meant crashing our economy. We did not disregard those who were most at risk but rightly recognised the dignity of all in our attempts to protect life, regardless of age, class, or background. A Darwinian approach might have allowed the virus to rip through our communities to enable survival of the fittest. How very Christian of us that we chose not to go down this route.
Neither is rationality by itself enough to sustain the view that we all have an inalienable right to life, because there might be opportune moments to circumvent this for reasonable purposes, as shown by David Hume’s conundrum of the “sensible knave,” or the “shrewd opportunist,” to use Christian Smith’s language. One might ‘strategically choose to break a moral norm at opportune moments … when it is in their enlightened self-interest to do so.’ Allan Bloom put it bluntly when he said that ‘reason cannot establish [moral] values, and its belief that it can is the stupidest and most pernicious illusion.’
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was notoriously outspoken about this. He critiqued Enlightenment philosophers for failing to draw the necessary conclusions for having shunned Christianity. It was directed towards ‘those who did not believe in God’ when the madman asks; “who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” Carl Trueman helpfully distils Nietzsche’s thought when he says that
to dispense with God … is to destroy the foundations on which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been constructed and depends.
(Jordan Peterson teased out the same observation in a recent short clip). This reinforces the idea that many of the values taken for granted in the West have been nourished within the stream of the Christian tradition. Some, picking up on Nietzsche’s insight, have gone further and commented on how the West is in a state of decay that will worsen the further away we move from our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Taken to the extreme, Holland recently said that if you want to know what it looks like for a society to radically reject Christianity, look no further than Nazi Germany! (Watch from 40 minutes in).
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 … The truest and ultimate seedbed … was the book of Genesis (p 384).
We don’t just see the positive aspects of the influence of Christianity in history, but there is also a darker side to religion which is well-documented in Holland’s book. We read about the horrid workings of the Inquisition and how it resulted in the deaths of so many, the mingling of Christianity with colonialism, its misuse to justify slavery, war, and restrict advances in science. It’s no surprise that some have branded Christianity to be a religion for the superstitious, bigoted and more recently, the hypocrite. But it’s important to note that this is a mixed picture and is not representative of all those who profess belief in Christ. John Lennox has helpfully shown how Christendom is not the same as Christianity, because the violence of Christendom was diametrically opposed to what Christ himself taught. This is partly why I will take the results of the upcoming UK census with a pinch of salt because it is difficult to distinguish between nominal and genuine Christians, a theme that is likely to carry over from Christianity’s chequered past.
Neither is it irrational to believe in God. Holland references Irenaeus who knew that ‘beliefs … did not petrol themselves. They had to be promoted, and upheld against their rivals, … he was engaged in an authentic battle of ideas’ (p 95). And Origen ‘who drew on the resources of philosophy to fashion for the Church an entire theologia: a science of God’ (p 105). This doesn’t happen without an engaged mind that has thought seriously and deeply about faith, one not born out of coercion, but persuasion (this is evident through the example of Alcuin on p 193). You can also read Graham McFarlane to see that ‘there is a worldview premised on Scripture that allows faith and reason to kiss.’ Being a Christian does not necessitate the absence of proper thinking. We’re well aware of the dangers of blind faith and its susceptibility to violent radicalisation. Perhaps this is what led to the charge that religion leads to violence.
But the statistics do not support this position either. Andy Bannister has helpfully dipped into the encyclopaedia of wars and discovered that less than 7% of wars spanning a ten thousand year history were actually classified as religious. Even among the 7%, some deemed this to be a misclassification because they were driven more by political/secular factors rather than religious. This hardly amounts to a strong case for the view that religion promotes war.
Another common misconception is that science and religion are two irreconcilable disciplines marked by hostility. The incident with Galileo often springs to mind, but the common view that he was persecuted by the church because science and religion are incompatible is overly simplistic, as John Lennox has shown. The main issues revolved around the Catholic Church wanting to consolidate its position after the rumblings generated from the Protestant Reformation. The impulse to preserve the authority of Rome was understandable even if it was misplaced. The main issue resulted from a clash between Galileo’s science and the reigning worldview of Aristotelian philosophy, not as is commonly supposed, with a reading of Genesis. There is no need for a clash here, especially when most Christians take a non-literal reading of the opening chapters to Genesis. As you read more of Lennox (and Holland), you begin to see that ‘far from hindering the rise of modern science, faith in God was one of the motors that drove it.’
Geology, bred as it was of the biblical understanding of time, seemed less to shake than to buttress Christian faith (p 421).
Space does not permit me to delve into the important role Christians played in the abolition of slavery, or the emancipation of women. You’ll have to read Holland’s book for more on this. Questions may well be asked regarding the extent to which we can establish a clear link between Christianity with some of the more recent, progressive ideologies, as Joel Virgo has asked. Other ideas from within the academy have also played their part in shaping modern views. That being said, Holland has done a brilliant job of highlighting the substantial role Christianity has played in our past, which is welcomed news for teachers like myself. He provides plenty of justification for ensuring that a critical study of Christianity remains within our school’s curriculum. It’s bound to generate some good discussions; whether you agree with Bret Weinstein that Christianity is a useful fiction, or with Tom Wright, as I do, that the evidence for Christ’s resurrection is ‘of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain.’ Tom Holland’s book is well worth a read.
Savvas Costi is a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex. He did his teacher training at King’s College London. He is married with one daughter.