Tom Holland, author of the recently published Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, has done a great service to current discussions on the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. Holland crystallizes discussions about the nature of Christianity to the development of culture and politics in Europe—and then in places like North America and Australia—and how Christianity influenced the world in numerous other ways.
To many who have read and researched this topic, the answer seems straightforward: Europe and Western civilization as a whole is indelibly and fundamentally indebted to Christianity. The values that we all hold dear, Holland shows time and again, spring not from Greece or Rome, primarily, but are distinctly Christian in orientation and inspiration. Sure, Rome and Greece have left profound marks upon the Western mind, but not of the same order of magnitude as Christianity. Our sense of time, our division between religion and politics, our basic view of the human person, our devotion to compassion and mercy, our commitment to the moral equality of all persons, our deeply rooted conviction in the intrinsic worth of the human person, our sense of right and wrong, our belief in transcendent truth, our commitment to education and liberal arts, and so much else are the fruit bore from the roots of Christian faith. This is not a new claim. In fact, it is a very old one. What has changed is the cultural context. Whereas claiming the West was Christian a century ago was relatively uncontroversial and positive, now it’s viewed as controversial and negative. We must escape our Christian hang-ups and repression, the critics say.
A string of good recent books that are more specialized, such as Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods and Kyle Harper’s From Sin to Shame, are more specific to the immediate context of the Roman Empire and late antiquity. Inventing the Individual, an intellectual history of the development of Western individualism written by Oxford philosopher Larry Seidentop, is the closest thing in recent memory I have read that approximates Holland’s project. Holland is a historian, which provides a more concrete and persuasive case.
Holland’s book is bold, and one might add pretentious, for telling a master narrative spanning roughly 2,500 years. This is the book’s greatest virtue, as well as its greatest weakness. Proving a thesis is tough. In fact, it’s historically not provable. But Holland provides event after event to argue that the fundamental factor in shaping Europe, and Western civilization, especially in terms of moral ideals, is Christianity. He writes:
This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive, how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of it instincts remain—for good and ill—thoroughly Christian.
The central thesis of the book is that Christianity thoroughly upended the classical Latin world without completely throwing out the classical culture and replacing it with a new one. It did so within the classical culture, transforming it slowly over a period of almost two millennia. For example, Christians don’t jettison marriage but work from within the received marriage practices from the ancient world to introduce and infuse marriage with completely new meaning. No longer is it the arena for the exercise of male domination but a binding lifelong covenant for mutual service and love.
Holland is a master storyteller. The stories he weaves together are captivating and lively. One might think that history would be boring or monotonous, but he shows how reality is more interesting and surprising than fiction. Unlike his previous books, which are focused on discrete and circumscribed historical events, the panoramic scope of his narrative is breathtakingly ambitious and requires someone with the skill and knowledge to pull it off. On this score, Holland succeeds. But the book is more survey than serious history; that is, its ability to tell a coherent and convincing big story means that it will leave some, perhaps historians in particular, unsatisfied since he is selective in his stories and moves too quickly to present detailed evidence.
When I taught Western civilization, I was always looking for a book like Holland’s. Too often the Western civ. curriculum industry focuses on historical events and less on cultural or moral ones. We are prone to be incurious about things that are so deeply assumed. Dominion explores the shifting assumptions in Europe through hinge moments where we can see something new or notable. Whether first-century Galatia or twenty-first-century Germany, Holland shows the manifestations and echoes of Christianity in how events play out and how historical actors describe their motivations.
As opposed to intellectual history, which too often floats above historical events, Holland focuses on historical actors and their motivations, which is much more convincing and persuasive to the average reader. Rather than an abstract discussion of paganism and Christian monotheism, he has Pompey strolling through the Temple in Jerusalem.
Holland’s method shows how Christian ideals often frame the conditions on which our debates occur, whether the debaters are aware or not. At times the argument works more persuasively than others. One can perhaps find too much Christianity behind each and every cultural event or historical turning point. The motives and reasons for acting are often unclear, and pressures on historical actors are numerous.
Christians and non-Christians alike should read this book because Holland presents a very realistic picture of historical events and the influence of Christianity. Christians don’t come out looking like heroes, which is closer to reality than the narrative of triumphalism. History plods and is filled with ups and downs. There is much to the history of Europe that deserves our admiration and much that deserves or condemnation. Christianity laid the groundwork for some of the most humane and wonderful aspects of Western society. It also played a role in some of its darker moments.
My hope is that Holland’s book gains a wide readership and that Christian communities seriously debate and digest it. That said, I want to raise one substantive question. Holland offers mainly a history and, every now and then, a bit of reflection, but one question recurred as I read his narrative: What is Christians ethics? By that I mean, what is the goal of the moral life that Christians believe is incumbent upon all those who claim this faith? Holland’s book presents a fascinating and sweeping vision of Christianity’s effect on a particular civilization. But he prescinds from, self-consciously, the theological question that drives these effects in society. Western society imbibed Christian morals that transformed it, but what will happen if there are no Christians to support those values? If we assume Holland is right about his thesis—that the values of Western civilization are essentially Christian—are these Christian values sustainable without Christians who live them out?
Holland is not terribly clear on this point. He relentlessly points to this religion whose “molten heart” is a crucified man who had a lasting and profound revolutionary effect on society. Even Christianity’s critics judge Christian failures by Christian assumptions, showing the extent to which Christianity has, in a sense, become inescapable. But can Christian ideas of love, sacrifice, care for the weak, humility, and the universal body of Christ be detached from the roots that nourish it? Can one have Christian values without the faith? At times Holland implies that we can and do.
The secular or non-Christian response is clearly yes. Christian-inspired morality can be upheld and lived out in secular Europe, and some would argue lived out better, than in the Christian Europe of old. Visit Europe today and you might be tempted to agree. But to the extent we believe that Christianity is a religion of salvation, being born anew, being brought from death to life, union with Christ, transformation by the Holy Spirit, life lived before God (coram Deo)—our answer has to be no. Christian ethics cannot be about merely upholding and claiming certain values that flow from the Christian faith. That would be to mistake the fruit from the tree. The very center of the Christian life is not what the cross teaches us morally but what the cross did for us in atoning for our sins and bringing us from life to death in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The transformation of the person from death to life and the ultimate union with the Triune God in the City of God is the goal of all Christians. Their works of mercy and sacrifice for neighbor and their culture-building over millennia are a testament of this transforming power. We make a mistake if we think the fruit is the goal or that we can separate the fruit from the tree that produced it.
Augustine, looking back at Romans’ great deeds and virtues, captures this truth. To the naked eye, the Romans were an impressive people because they sacrificed their lives for the good of the city and performed great deeds, even when it cost them their lives, in order to uphold their highest standards of honor and bravery. Augustine acknowledges that this example should in fact challenge Christians to imitate this mindset. But these great deeds, though seemingly magnificent, are nothing compared to the faith and seemingly insignificant deeds of Christians because Christian virtue is aimed at pleasing God and loving neighbor. “However much we may praise and proclaim the virtue which serves the glory of men without true godliness, it is not for one moment to be compared with even the first and least virtue of the saints who have placed their hope in the grace and mercy of the true God” (City of God V.19). Roman virtue has the appearance of virtue, but inwardly it was aimed at achieving worldly glory and domination. Likewise, any Christian values that have the appearance of mercy, dignity, and humility will, eventually, become distorted or destructive if they are not properly ordered by the love of God.