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The subversive legacy of Christianity

Tom Holland's Dominion shows how Christianity has shaped the Western mind.

Helene Guldberg

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Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind provides a fascinating and compelling account of the history of Christianity, how the Bible was created and its legacy in Western morality and thought. And he argues convincingly that Christ’s teachings, and the act of his crucifixion, are the basis for our belief in equality, our commitment to rights and our compassion for our fellow human beings. Yet does Holland overstate his main argument? Is it right to see Christianity as the overriding influence on the Western mind?

St Paul’s subversive gospel

Like Larry Siedentop, in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Holland argues that St Paul was the revolutionary. That is to say, he was the individual with the most enduring impact on Western thought over the past two millennia. And this is because of the profound impact of his argument that humans are equal in the eyes of God, and are personally responsible for interpreting God’s will.

Holland acknowledges that Paul’s teachings did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, they were heavily influenced first by Jewish scripture, and second by Ancient Greek thought:

‘Never before had Jewish morality and Greek philosophy been fused to such momentous effect’, writes Holland. ‘That the law of the God of Israel might be read inscribed on the human heart, written there by his Spirit, was a notion that drew alike on the teachings of Pharisees [an ancient Jewish sect] and Stoics [a school of Hellenistic philosophy] – and yet equally was foreign to them both. Its impact was destined to render Paul’s letters – the correspondence of a vagrant, without position or reputation in the affairs of the world – the most influential, the most transformative, the most revolutionary ever written.’

Paul saw himself as an apostle of Christ. He was not there to preach the law of Christ, but to help his converts recognise Christ’s message within themselves. This was a key departure from legalistic Judaism, in which scripture, handed down from God, dictated individual action.

To illustrate this, Holland provides a fascinating account of the formation of the Bible. It begins with Marcion of Sinope, a follower of Paul. In the second century, Marcion put together a selection of writings by the apostles which he regarded as the definitive teachings of Christ. This was the first known ‘canon’ of Christian scriptures, containing ten of Paul’s letters, and an edited version of the gospel written by Paul’s follower Luke.

‘It was a momentous innovation’, writes Holland. ‘Never before – so far as we know – had a Christian proposed a canon.’ Fifty years later, Irenaeus, a Greek bishop, promoted an expanded corpus of writings from the age of the apostles. Alongside Luke’s gospel, he included those of John, Matthew and Mark. ‘As the generations passed, and the memories of those who had known the apostles with them’, Holland writes, ‘so could the faithful find in the gospels of Irenaeus’ canon a sure and certain mooring to the bedrock of the past: a new testament’.

Then, at the start of the third century, the Alexandrian scholar, Origen, who was devoted to Christianity’s inheritance from the Jews and the Greeks, embedded Jewish scripture within the Christian canon. He enshrined it as an ‘Old Testament’.

Saint Paul writing his Epistles, probably by Valentin de Boulogne, circa 1620.
Saint Paul writing his Epistles, probably by Valentin de Boulogne, circa 1620.

Holland marks this collective effort as that which set Christianity apart – human beings making their own laws through interpreting God’s will and through reflection on their own souls. ‘You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts’, Paul wrote. By arguing that God’s commandments are written on our hearts, rather than set in stone (with the exception of the Ten Commandments), Paul was emphasising that we are all equally responsible for interpreting God’s will.

Equally important was Paul’s key message — namely, that every human being, each made in God’s image, possesses an inherent worth. In other words, we are all equal in the eyes of God. Christianity was to be a universal, not an exclusive religion, reserved for a select few.

Breaking with the morality of the past

Holland demonstrates well how Christianity broke from the morality that dominated Ancient societies – a morality that it is hard to conceive of today. For example, Romans had no conception of the equal worth of human beings. ‘Terror of power was the index of power’, Holland writes. Might was right. Sex was not seen as a consensual act, but an exercise of power. A Roman master was entitled to use his slave however he desired, including for sexual gratification. ‘While the body of a free-born Roman was sacrosanct, those of others were fair game’, Holland writes.

Whether in Leonidas’ Sparta, where infants judged to be unfit were abandoned on a hillside to die, or in Ancient Rome, there was a ‘complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value’, Holland notes. Paul’s writings challenged this view: the strong and powerful were no more or less the sons of God than the weak.

But despite Christianity’s emphasis on protecting the weak, Holland shows that ‘in the years that followed the sack of Rome [in the fifth century], the western half of the empire became ever more a playground for the strong’. In place of the single Roman Christian order initiated by Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, there was now a patchwork of warring barbarian kingdoms, of Visigoths, Vandals and Franks.

The Christian nobility during this period saw poverty as a fate to be avoided at all costs. ‘What they wanted from bishops and holy men was not admonishment on the inherent evil of riches, but something very different: an assurance that wealth might indeed be a gift from God’, Holland writes. They got this assurance from St Augustine, a fourth-century Algerian-Roman theologian. He argued that the poor were no purer in heart than the rich. Instead, all were equally fallen. ‘Get rid of pride, and riches will do no harm’, was one of Augustine’s messages.

For centuries, the papacy became ‘an institution pawed at and squabbled over by local dynasts’. After the formation of the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century, bishops were often installed by kings. However, in the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII took the drastic step of prohibiting kings from meddling in the business of the Church. Bishops were servants of God alone, Gregory VII told Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.

Separation of church and state

Known as the investiture controversy, this conflict between secular and religious powers is what Holland described as ‘the revolution that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course’.

Having been excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s authority was shattered. Many princely vassals used the opportunity of his excommunication to increase their authority and dismember his kingdom. Henry IV was reduced to standing begging for three long days, barefoot and shivering in the depths of winter, outside Canossa castle in northern Italy, where he knew Pope Gregory was staying. ‘Finally, ordering the gates unbarred, and summoning Henry into his presence, Gregory absolved the penitent with a kiss’, Holland writes.

Gregory’s justification for the separation of the earthly and heavenly realms could be found in the New Testament. Jesus, when asked whether his followers were permitted to pay taxes to pagan Rome, asked the questioners to show him a coin and tell him whose image was stamped on it. ‘Caesar’s’, they replied. ‘Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’, Jesus answered. Under Gregory VII, ‘the concept of the “secular” had attained a spectacular bloom’, Holland writes.

The papacy went on to accrue immense riches and became steeped in corruption. In the 14th century, the most popular preachers in the slums of Europe were those who condemned the wealth of the Church. By the 16th century, the authority of the Catholic Church was severely damaged.

The challenge to the Church from within Christianity

What lends Christianity its world-shaping power, argues Holland, can be seen in the fact that challenges to the Christian church’s authority originate, in the main, from within Christianity itself. The underlying principles of Christianity are immutable and continually reassert themselves.

According to Martin Luther, the German monk who launched the Protestant Reformation, Gregory VII’s claim that the clergy was an order of men radically distinct from the laity was a swindle and a blasphemy. ‘A Christian man is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject to none’, Luther asserted. ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God.’ By 1546, when Luther died, many German princes had become Protestant. Denmark had been Lutheran since 1537 and Sweden was becoming so. By the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, with much of northern Europe embracing the Protestant faith, ‘the ideal of a shared unity in Christ had been irreparably shattered’, Holland writes. ‘There could be no soldering the fragments of Christendom back together, no reversing the process of its disintegration.’

But by the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, signatories ‘pledged themselves not to force their own religion on their subjects’. ‘Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists: all were granted the freedom to worship as they pleased’, Holland writes. ‘Toleration of religious differences had been enshrined as a Christian virtue.’ All these revolutions in Western thought – the idea of equality, of freedom of conscience, the concepts of the secular and religious tolerance – all derived from the teachings of St Paul, concludes Holland.

Holland explores the various ways these fundamental beliefs come back into play, despite the odds. He believes the Letters of St Paul continually made their impact on various epochs and on key revolutionary figures in history, from Martin Luther himself, and Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, hailed by many as ‘the chief atheist of our age’, to the 20th-century Baptist pastor and civil-rights campaigner, Martin Luther King.

Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King addresses a meeting in Chicago, 27 May 1966.
Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King addresses a meeting in Chicago, 27 May 1966.

For example, the Pauline epistles, according to Holland, are the basis of 14th-century Renaissance humanism, which emphasises the value and agency of human beings, and of the Protestant Reformation’s conviction of the supremacy of individual conscience. And more recently, Martin Luther King’s dream that one day his four children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’ was similarly based on the idea that we are all God’s children and equal in the eyes of the Lord. ‘Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, Christianity has sent reverberations across the world’, Holland writes.

‘First there was the primal revolution: the revolution preached by St Paul. Then there came the aftershocks: the revolution in the 11th century that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course; the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution that killed God [that is, the Enlightenment]. That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths.’

The origins of the principle that every human being possesses an equal dignity and worth ‘lay not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible’. Holland is right. The origin of this principle does lie in the New Testament.

Continuity and change

Holland persuasively demonstrates the revolutionary impact of the Pauline epistles on Western thought over the past 2,000 years, and the key role the Christian church played in ensuring the survival of some Greek philosophy. But Dominion tends to overemphasise the continuities with the past, and downplay the breaks. As a result, Holland underestimates what was new about the prevailing ideas in different epochs. Revolutionaries did not simply use past ideas to suit the present. They made those ideas entirely their own.

For example, to describe Renaissance humanism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment as mere ‘reverberations’ or ‘aftershocks’ of a seismic rupture 2,000 years ago seriously downplays what was new about these epochs and their revolutionary impact on Western thought and society.

Likewise, Holland does not identify key moments in time when the historical conceptions of equality, and what it means to have agency and rights, took on a new meaning. As a result he downplays the momentous struggles of key actors and classes for greater equality and freedom. Take the American Revolution and then the French Revolution in the 18th century. These sent shockwaves around the world and inspired radical demands for equality, freedom and democracy. In Haiti, for example, ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture led a slave revolt against one of the harshest colonial regimes in the world. In Black Jacobins, an account of the Haitian Revolution, CLR James writes:

‘The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman. That was why in the hour of danger Toussaint, uninstructed as he was, could find the language and accent of Diderot, Rousseau, and Raynal, of Mirabeau, Robespierre and Danton. And in one respect he excelled them all.’

The experience of slavery and the ideas of the Enlightenment motivated L’Ouverture and his followers to fight until the bitter end. ‘He accomplished what he did because, superbly gifted, he incarnated the determination of his people never, never to be slaves again’, writes James.

Holland also downplays the impact of Greek philosophy and politics on Western thought. Although Paul and other early Christians incorporated Greek philosophy, notably Stoicism and Plato’s writings, and centuries later, Aristotle, into Christian theology, there was a whole corpus of work from the Greeks, Romans and others, developing within university curriculums and often outside of the control of the church, that had an immense impact on Western thought. Renaissance humanism may have drawn on Paul’s belief in the dignity and worth of every human, but equally important was the Renaissance humanists’ own rediscovery of many long-lost Greek and Roman texts in the 13th century. This is often rightly credited with fostering what we now know of as the Renaissance.

Christianity’s dark side

Holland does not view the impact of Christianity on the Western world through rose-tinted glasses. ‘A Church that proclaimed itself universal had, it seemed, no response to those who rejected it, save persecution’, he writes. The Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews and the burning of witches were all justified in the name of Christianity.

Colonialism was also justified on the basis of eradicating the Arab slave trade in Africa. ‘The British had not begun their campaign to stamp out the slave trade in any mood of cynicism’, Holland writes. But Britain’s prestige on the world stage was burnished by its campaign against slavery. ‘In the heart of Africa, missionaries were starting to venture where Europeans had never before thought to go. Reports they brought back, of the continuing depredations of Arab slavers, confirmed the view of many in Britain that slavery would never be wholly banished until the entire continent had been won for civilisation’, Holland writes. Christianity provided a licence for a scramble for colonies. ‘It was not the slavers who would end up settling Africa, and subjugating it to foreign rule, but – by an irony familiar from Christian history – the emancipators.’

Nevertheless, whether for good or sometimes ill, there is no getting away from the truth of Holland’s contention — namely, that Christianity has had an immense impact on Western morality for much of the past two millennia. But it is not the overriding determinant in Western morality’s evolution. For as powerful and compelling as Dominion is, it risks obscuring those other tributaries to the river of the Western mind, from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment.

Helene Guldberg is author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, and Just Another Ape?. Visit her website here.

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, by Tom Holland, is published by Little Brown. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Pictures by: Getty Images.

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