British historian Tom Holland’s brilliant book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World describes the sometimes unrealized, even covertly paramount, influence of Christianity over Western and even universal modern civilization. “Secular” persons often unknowingly argue for their brand of justice and equality without realizing the spiritual origins of their premises. Current iconoclasms and protests for racial justice are direct heirs to this tradition.
Many disputes within American “culture wars” are themselves really a civil war in which originally Christian assumptions about justice and equality are fiercely debated. Progressivism and concerns about aligning with history descend from the Christian understanding of Providence.
Many Western Christians imagine that “secularism” directly threatens their faith without realizing that secularism is itself a child of Christianity, as Islamists and Hindu nationalists often recognize as they contend against it.
Holland stresses that Western assumptions of Christian decline are myopic. Not only is Christianity growing in the Global South, but immigrants are replanting faith in Europe and America.
An historian of antiquity, Holland traces Christianity’s revolutionary introduction of human equality and dignity into classical civilizations where cast and hierarchy had been unquestioned for millennia. Suddenly there was a new expectation that the last will be first, and the strong should extend compassion to the vulnerable.
Holland sees a future where Christian developed “secular” progressivism continues to unfold, where Nietzschean neo-paganism and contempt for weakness reasserts itself, or a revival of traditional Christian faith in the West.
This conversation with Holland has been among the most fascinating and fun. I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy, as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in beautiful downtown Washington, DC, although our streets are still empty today. And I have the pleasure of conversation with the British historian Tom Holland and his wonderful new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, whose underlying thesis, if I can encapsulate it correctly, is that Christianity has had a profound impact on shaping the Western world and the world itself for the better, in terms of generating ideas of human rights, human dignity, compassion, and sympathy for those who are in need of sympathy. So, Dr. Holland, thank you so much for joining us.
HOLLAND: Thank you very much for having me on.
TOOLEY: Well, as I was just asking you earlier, the reviews for Dominion seem to be have been overwhelmingly positive, but you were mentioning that at least in Britain some reviewers, I assume on the more secular side, have been astonished by your proposal that Christianity has been a positive influence in the role of developing Western civilization.
HOLLAND: Yes, I think that there are certain elements within Britain, and within America as well, who have an almost theological objection to the idea that Christianity has played any positive role at all and would trace the origins of everything positive and beneficial in contemporary Western society back to the Enlightenment. And I have some sympathy with that view, because it was one that I used to hold. But, one of the reasons that I came to write Dominion was the realization that actually, the stories that the Enlightenment told about its origins were deeply mythical. And they were mythical in a profoundly Christian sense. Because the stories that the Enlightenment told about how it came into being didn’t just come from anywhere. The very idea of the people who walk in darkness seeing a great light, is of course, absolutely—its origins are a scriptural one. And the idea that superstition is something to be banished, and that idols must be overthrown. Again, these do not originate with Voltaire, they originate, the idea of that comes from the Protestant Reformation, and in turn from the very beginnings of Christianity, and in turn ultimately all the way back to the Hebrew prophets. So, I began to realize that essentially, pretty much everything in the West, even Atheism, even the reaction against Christianity, is shaped by Christian assumptions. And lots of people have, I think, excepted the validity of that argument, but equally there are some people who felt that their profoundly held beliefs are being challenged by that idea.
TOOLEY: The American sociologists called the Enlightenment the “laughing air” of the Reformation, so…
HOLLAND: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true, and it’s funny you say laughing. I mean, the kind of spirit of satire that you get with the Enlightenment, famously with Voltaire, which in France is kind of obvious as Charlie Hebdo, I think that that spirit ultimately does go back to the kind of spirit of blasphemy that the Protestant reformers turned against Catholic imagery. I think that the kind of distinctive French tradition of blasphemy that you still get in Enlightenment circles in France to this day, absolutely you can trace it back to that kind of primal Reformation spirit.
TOOLEY: And your book is vindicated even as we speak, as protesters march down the streets of Washington proclaiming “black lives matter,” there’s an assumption of human equality for all, with very few making arguments understanding the originality of that assumption.
HOLLAND: Well yes, I mean as I’ve been writing this book, I felt that, kind of, events have overtaken me—which is kind of quite an odd experience for a book that actually begins, you know, two and a half thousand years ago. But again and again, whether it’s the Me Too movement, or Black Lives Matter, or the kind of prevailing global assumption that slavery is an evil, I think the interesting question is to ask, “Well why do we assume this?” Why, when women insist that their bodies are something sacrosanct, and not to be subject to men’s carnal needs, why were men ready to accept that? And why when black campaigners say, “black lives matter,” are so many people who aren’t black willing to accept the justice of that? And why when people say slavery was an abomination, a crime, for which we absolutely must show repentance—again why do people think that? Because all of these things seen in the broad perspective of distant time and the entire span of various global civilizations, are not obvious at all. And you know, as recently as 200 years ago, it was broadly accepted that slavery was an institution a bit like—it was something like poverty or disease. It was just something inevitable that was there. And the speed with which that change happened is astonishing. And in a sense what’s happening now is the sense that the pace of speed is accelerating even further. But I think that the roots of all this lie in deeply Christian assumptions; it’s kind of the seedbed of Christian theology and Christian history. And the thing about Christianity—that I think particularly in America, gets associated with conservatism, with the idea that it is backward-looking, that it wants to maintain the status quo—nothing could be further from the truth. Over the course of its 2000-year existence, Christianity has been a profoundly revolutionary force, because there is something within it that means that it is always prone to evolve. It is always looking to tear down idols, to uproot injustices, to recalibrate people’s sense of what is right and wrong. And that means that Western civilization, which is founded on Christianity, it’s a bit like San Francisco built on San Andreas Fault. It can stand there looking stable for decades, centuries, and then suddenly, you get this great convulsion, and everything comes falling down. And this happens again, and again, and again, and I think we’re going through another cycle of that right now.
TOOLEY: You include a wonderful anecdote of the early Christian martyr from Lyon, France, a teenage slave girl who suffered terribly as she was killed for her faith and was celebrated by the early church. You note that her owner was also martyred, but her name was not even recorded in history. Instead, it’s the slave girl who was celebrated. Again, a very unique occurrence in any civilization.
HOLLAND: It’s hard to put into words how amazing that is, because you’re right, this slave girl whose name we know, Blandina—and we don’t know her mistress, who also dies in the arena—how amazing it is that she, of all the martyrs, gets picked out. Because both as a woman and as a slave, she would have been regarded by most of the people watching her in that arena as doubly inferior. And yet, towards the end of the account that we have—and it seems that this is an authentic account; lots of the martyrdom narratives probably aren’t, but this one really is—the man who writes it says that towards the end of her martyrdom, she came to take on the form of Christ; this slave girl takes on the image of Christ on the cross. And back in those days, the understanding of what happened after death wasn’t quite the one that we have now. Back then, it was assumed that most people when they died, even if they were a Christian, would go into a kind of annex, a kind of waiting room, and wait for the day of judgement when they would rise from the dead. And then they would ascend and go to the celestial palace of the heavenly king. But if you were a martyr, then you had a kind of fast-track entrance to it. And this is what Blandina has. So Blandina goes straight in to the celestial table. She sits at God’s table. And to understand how astonishing that is, you have to think that the Romans would have imagined God’s palace as being like the great villa complex of the emperor, where slave girls are not allowed to go in and sit with the Emperor. But that’s what they thought she was doing. And the subversive quality of that is like a kind of deep burner. It didn’t leave most Christians—although there was one or two—to think that the institution of slavery itself was wrong—I mean that was a very, very slow burner—but you can see that ideas like this are a kind of match, lighting a fuse, that will burn and burn and burn, and in the long run, it’s still burning now.
TOOLEY: Well you make reference to iconoclasm in the history of Christianity. Obviously, several very important iconoclast periods in Eastern Orthodoxy and the banning of icons, obviously. And many during the Reformation were smashing statues and portraits and you have the Puritan period in Britain. Do you see what’s happening now with the toppling of statues as part and parcel of that tradition?
HOLLAND: Well, I mean, pretty much every civilization has indulged in the smashing up of statues, because they serve as emblems for superseded regimes. But I think that what is really distinctive about the current bout of iconoclasm is that it’s morally focused. So, it’s not like what happened in Baghdad after the Gulf War where statues of Saddam were brought down. Because that symbolized the changing of the order; that was a political statement. What’s happening now with slave dealers and so on being dragged down and chucked into rivers or whatever, it’s an expression of moral revulsion. And that I think—as you say, I think that the obvious precedent for that is absolutely the Reformation, where we talked about this earlier in the context of the French Reformation—but wherever it happened there was a kind of carnivalesque attitude to it, that you were taking down these emblems, these symbols, that had come to be seen as representative of moral folly. And that by getting rid of them, and laughing at them, and trampling on them, you were somehow banishing evil.
And again, this is something that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. If you think of, in the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon missionaries going into the depths of the kind of dank forests of Saxony and chopping down the great oaks that were sacred to the Pagan gods there. Again, this is not just a kind of a toppling of a political order, or a geopolitical order, it’s an expression of moral revulsion. And ultimately, this goes back to the Old Testament prophets; it goes back to the contempt that the prophets expressed for the idols of Egypt, or the gods of Babylon, which are just stock and stone, and will come down, and will crumble. And that is a very powerful source of moral disgust that has expressed itself throughout Christian history and I think it’s absolutely expressing itself now. Because although it may not be being done in overtly Christian terms, the assumptions that govern it are absolutely Christian.
I think that in America, the culture wars are not, as are often framed, a war between Christianity and liberalism, or Atheism, whatever you want to call it. These are doctrinal conflicts within the embrace of Christian assumptions. So, in that sense, it’s another kind of spasm of the arguments about what Christianity properly should be that have roiled Christendom for centuries and centuries and centuries.
TOOLEY: Joshua Mitchell, who’s a political scientist at Georgetown University here in town who writes for our Providence journal, likes to say that once a society or civilization is touched by Christianity it’s irrevocably changed, therefore it’s very difficult to talk about a post-Christian society. That seems to be in sync with your message, that much of what we regard as post-Christian is not really post-Christian at all.
HOLLAND: I think it is very difficult to escape Christian assumptions. And often, the attempts by self-avowed revolutionaries to get rid of Christianity merely affirm how deeply in debt to Christian assumptions they are. And the primal example of that would be the French Revolution, which takes for granted the idea that the first should be last and the last should be first. And in attacking Christianity, they’re attacking it as a symbol of power. But why do they assume that power is problematic? Because they they’ve absorbed Christian assumptions.
And exactly the same is true in the Russian Revolution. I mean Marx claims that his writings are founded on scientific analysis—he’s sat in the British Library, crunched the numbers, lots of graphs, lots of facts, lots of figures, it’s purely scientific—but you only have to read Marx to recognize that there is a kind of deep moral anger that again, is absolutely recognizable from the biblical tradition. Why does he feel so angry that landlords are throwing out children onto the street? Why is he so angry that people in distant plantations are being whipped to death so the bourgeoisie can have their sugar? This is a kind of expression of moral anger that would be entirely familiar to Christian preachers, and indeed the Hebrew prophets before them.
So, I think it is very difficult even for revolutionaries to escape the clutch of Christian assumptions. That said, it is not impossible, because in the 20th century we did have an example of a regime that didn’t just reject institutional Christianity, but rejected many of the key assumptions that underpin Christianity, of which I would argue that the two major ones are the assumption that there is an inherent dignity in being human, that all human beings are created equally in the image of God, and secondly that the strong have a duty of care to the weak, and indeed in a sense, that the weak, the tortured, the oppressed, in a sense, are closer to God, which of course has its primal expression in the image of Christ tortured to death on the cross. The regime that rejected those two assumptions in a way that the French revolutionaries hadn’t, and the Russian revolutionaries hadn’t, were the Nazis. The Nazis absolutely did not think that there was a value and a virtue in being weak. And they absolutely did not think, as Paul had done, that there is no Jew or Greek. They completely believed that Jews and Greeks were fundamentally different. But I think it’s the measure of how deeply Christian the West remains, that for us today, Hitler is the embodiment of evil. ‘Nazi’ is the worst insult that you can throw. And in a sense, the role that they play in our demonology reflects the fact that we regard them as evil because we’re judging them by Christian standards.
TOOLEY: Well that reminds me that Reinhold Niebuhr, whose sort of our patron saint here at Providence, in 1941 called the Third Reich, “the first great revolution against Christianity,” and you just explained how that is.
HOLLAND: Yeah, and I think he’s absolutely right. And I think that in a sense it was a revolution that was kind of emerging of various elements within 19th and 20th century Western culture that were authentically anti-Christian, of which Nietzsche’s philosophy is one, and I think Darwinism is the other. Because Darwin’s theory, I think, was the first major intellectual movement that was not grounded in Christian assumptions and indeed was antithetical to it. Because although Darwin never actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” that was how his theory came to be interpreted, and the understanding was that it provided an ideological justification for the strong to dump on the poor. And this got absorbed into the way that capitalism operated, the way that the European empires operated, the way that America fulfilled its manifest destiny spreading westwards. All of these fed into ideas that kind of met their hideous fulfillment in Nazism. And it means that as a result, even in countries that may consider themselves to be post-Christian, they remain in the shadow of what the Nazis did, and so to that extent they absolutely remain shaped by Christian terrors, Christian horrors.
TOOLEY: Many Christians like to warn of or complain about encroaching secularism, but secularism itself is a Christian invention, isn’t it?
HOLLAND: Yes, and this was one of the things that kind of drew me to write on this theme. I originally was a historian of classical antiquity, and I kept realizing that there are all kinds of words that we use that seemed completely wrong, of which ‘secular’ and ‘religion’ were two. And I increasingly began to feel that to describe the Romans as having religion, or to talk about the secular state in Athens, was as wrong as saying that Julius Caesar conquered France. You kind of knew what it meant, but it was wrong. And the reason for that is that the idea of the secular and the idea of religion is something absolutely rooted in the evolution of Christianity. And it really is implicit in the Gospels; it’s implicit in the famous story of Jesus being asked if people should pay taxes to Rome, and asking for the coin, and asking whose head is on the coin, and being told it Caesar’s, and saying, “Well render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”
But it reaches a kind of theological flourishing when Augustine, in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410 is faced with non-Christian Romans who turn around and say, “Well look, this is what happens when we abandon the gods.” The Romans have a word, religio, which means the bond that joins human beings to the gods. And a religio could be a sacrifice, or a feast day, or a priesthood. It’s kind of like an insurance policy; you show respect to the gods and the gods then look after you. And obviously if you cease the religio days, then the gods will tear up the insurance policy, and before you know it, the gods are stealing all your money. Augustine says, “No, this is nonsense, because actually, Rome doesn’t hugely matter.” Rome is a thing of what Augustine calls the saeculum. And by that he means basically the limit of human memory. So the churn of things, the fact that things are born, they live, they die, they’re swept away on the currents of time into oblivion. And that’s true of individual human beings, but it’s true as well of cities, of empires, even of Rome itself. And he counterpoints this endless sense of flux with the religio that joins humanity to the radiant eternity of heaven, the unchanging eternity of heaven. So, if human beings want to escape the flood tide of the saeculum, they need religio as a kind of rope ladder to get them up into the eternity of heaven. And this establishes a kind of dual understanding of society, that over the course of the centuries that follow in Latin Christendom, evolve and evolve and evolve. And in due course, it comes to reify itself as what we now would call religions, and what we would call the secular.
And it’s pretty much there by the 18th century, when European missionaries have started to go out into the world and meet other cultures. So in the book, I talk about the British in India in the late 18th, early 19th century, trying to make sense of this land that they call Hindustan—full of Hindus, people who live in Hindustan—and they look around them and they say, “Well what is the religion of the Hindus?” I mean it’s a mad question, because the Hindus don’t have an idea of what religion is; they don’t have an idea of what the secular is. This is a wholly foreign concept that the British have taken with them. As you always do when you go to a foreign country, you see it through your own eyes, and you try and impose your categories, your understandings, on the world that you’re in. And that’s what the British did, and because the British are ruling India, and because Indian elite start to speak English, the Indian elites start to buy into this idea that there’s something called the secular, and that there are things called religions that exist at tangents to the secular. And so, you get the invention of the Hindu religion, what comes to be called Hinduism. And even when the British leave, this idea remains. I mean it’s fundamental to the secular, self-proclaimed republic that is founded when the British Raj ends. And so I think what you see with Modi, and the idea to promote Hindutva, the idea that India is properly Hindu right the way through, it’s a kind of recognition that this idea of the secular is a foreign import, and that if you want to truly escape the legacy of British rule, you have to get rid of secularism.
I quote an Indian professor who says that Christianity proceeds in two ways, through conversion—which is obvious, that’s how people tend to think Christianity precedes—but he then says, through secularization. And I think he’s absolutely right. And I think that the assumption of people in the West that the secular is somehow neutral, that if you’re secular, you’ve somehow escaped the bounds of cultural contingency, couldn’t be more wrong. And I think we see that not just in India, but say in Turkey, where Erdoğan is all about the recognition that the [inaudible] Turk introduction of the secular—that wasn’t in any way a neutral move at all; that was an immense repudiation of everything that the Ottoman Empire had been. And Erdoğan essentially, likewise, like Modi, by trying to get rid of the secular, he’s essentially trying to de-Christianize Turkey.
TOOLEY: So, it takes Hindu and Muslim leaders to recognize significant aspects of Christianity that Christians themselves in the West don’t recognize.
HOLLAND: Because we take Christian assumptions so for granted that many of us have ceased to realize where they come from. So, we assume that things like the secular, we assume that concepts like religion and there being world religions, we assume that things like human rights, we assume that the idea that slavery is wrong, we just think that this is obvious. We just think that, “Well doesn’t every right-thinking person think that, and if you don’t then you’re a bigot, you’re on the wrong side of history?”
But even the idea of being on the wrong side of history is a Christian one. The idea of progress, the idea that our understanding of what is right and wrong improves over time, that also is a Christian one, because it goes right the way back to Paul’s idea that the law of God is written on the heart, and that the Spirit illumines what is written on the heart, and so over time, people can come to a better understanding of what God wants. And that, secularized, is essentially the idea of progress. Progressives are deeply Pauline. And because first European empowers, and then the United States, have been so culturally dominant, that even after the European empires collapsed, the cultural hegemony of the West, particularly the American way of seeing things, was so profound that people in the West had the luxury of assuming that things they took for granted were just the way things were.
I think now, as Western power retreats, as the intellectual hegemony of the West starts to crumble, so across the world, the recognition that things that people in the West had assumed were universal are not universal at all, that they’re contingent. And I think that the rise of China means that we now have a superpower with an understanding of what is right and wrong that is profoundly different to the West’s. And I think, inevitably, the effect of this will be to throw people in the West back on an understanding that our morals, our assumptions, our ideals, are not universal. That’s the height of arrogance. They come from a specific source, and I think that that source essentially is the great seedbed of Christianity.
TOOLEY: Now Daniel Strand, in his review, for our publication Providence, of your book, asked a question—which I think was also asked by Matthew Rose in his review of your book in First Things—in terms of your focus on the universalization of Christian ethics, can that universalization proceed without deep personal faith by large numbers of people and some new wave of revivalism or a return to personal Christian faith? What do you think?
HOLLAND: Well this is the huge question. And of course, it’s most troublingly posed by Nietzsche. And what Nietzsche didn’t know when he posed that question was what was going to happen in the ‘30s. So, Nietzsche talks about God being dead, but that his corpse is so huge that it continues to cast shadows in the great cave where it lies, and presumably that these shadows will continue to flicker and look as though it’s alive for many centuries to come. I think that, as we were saying earlier, the manifestation of what the death of God might mean in practical terms, i.e. in terms of jettisoning the Christian concern for the weak and the Christian assumption of universal human dignity, has been so shocking that it’s kind of given Christianity a second wind even though it may not be overt Christianity. And I think that it’s telling that church attendance and doctrinal faith, certainly in Europe, fell off a cliff in the ‘60s, as understanding of what the Holocaust had actually been all about began to dawn. And I think that that wasn’t necessarily because people blamed Christianity for the Holocaust; I don’t think it was even because they thought, “Well, where was God in Auschwitz?” I think it was because, in a sense, they didn’t need institutional Christianity anymore, because Hitler and the Nazis provided them with a model of evil that enabled them to understand what was morally right. So in Europe today, possibly even more than in the United States, when people want to know what they should do, they say, “What would Hitler do?” And they do the opposite.
Now I think that as the war fades from living memory, I think the hold of that is fading as well. And so, I think that we in the West—there are three roads that are open to us. One is the possibility that secular humanism, liberalism, whatever you want to call it, progressivism, has attained take-off, that it, you know, a bit like Christianity provided the rocket that blasted it through the atmosphere, but now it’s got through the atmosphere, and it’s become self-sustaining, and we can expect it to go through space and time forever more under its own power. That’s one possibility. The other possibility is that we’ll return to a kind of Nietzschean understanding that there’s nothing wrong with power, that it’s absolutely fine for the strong to trample down the weak, that there is no human race really, that there are only different nations, that the race goes to the swift. So that’s the other possibility. And the third possibility, which I guess is the course that I’m taking, personally, so I’d like to think that others may as well, is to recognize that the things that I value in Western society perhaps are ultimately unsustainable without the seedbed that gave them, provided the roots are stuck in that gives them the nutrients. And to be honest I don’t know, I’m not a prophet, so I don’t know which of those three paths are likeliest. But I think either the future is liberal and progressive, or it’s kind of crypto-fascist, or it’s a return to Christian roots. I don’t know which of those it will be.
But what I would also say, in that context, is that the West I think is no longer the epicenter of global Christianity. Even as people in the West look at the empty pews in their churches, in Africa, for instance, there is an astonishing rate of conversion, parallel only to the rate of conversion in the early medieval, early Middle Ages in Europe. And I think also that, kind of under the radar, in contrast to Islamic radicalism, which is the kind of expression of religious change and energy that everyone notices, because it leads planes into skyscrapers, under the radar is Pentecostalism, the belief that the Spirit is gusting across the world, that Pentecostal fire is illuming people’s hearts. This is raging across—I live in Brixton, which is an area of London full of high immigration. Up on the hill, just up behind me there’s a ruach, a place where people gather to speak in tongues. I only went there because I got taken by a friend. I have lived here for years; I had no idea it was there. You go in there and it’s like a kind of enormous booming nightclub. It’s pulsing with energy, sweat is kind of dripping off of the roof, people are speaking in tongues. I’ve never felt more middle-class English than I did standing there. And yet that is something that is going on in cities across Europe, across the United States. It’s happening in South America, it’s certainly happening in Africa, it’s happening in East Asia, it’s happening in China. So, I think, you know, who knows where that will go. The wind moves where it will.
So, the story of Christianity in the 21st century, is I think much more complex than the kind of idea that it’s in decline. It isn’t. It’s mutated into strange forms in the West and it is, in its overt form, like a great bushfire spreading across continents beyond the West.
TOOLEY: Tom Holland, historian and author of Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, thank you for a very enjoyable and provocative conversation.
HOLLAND: Thank you very much for having me.