I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.
Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.
Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:
Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.
Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.
Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.
Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:
“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”
The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!
The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.
The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.
Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:
Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.
While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.
Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.
Holland lately wonders if that respect for the value of human life can survive severed from the roots from which it grew:
Holland’s research suggests that humanism is a “godless Protestantism”, though it is culturally contingent on Christianity. In making this observation, Holland admits his own former bias that obscured the import and influence of Christianity. He describes how the Christian revolution and 2000 years of Christian influence continues to provide the fuel for modern, humanistic ethics in the area of sexuality, for instance:
Other people seem to be waking up to the same realization as the modern, western world continues on its post-Christian trajectory. Tim Keller, in his critique of Holland’s book, references other thinkers who are rediscovering the massive and radical change Christian values introduced into the Greco-Roman world.
“Brian Tierney of Cornell University showed that the idea of universal human rights and the equality of every individual was developed not by the philosophes of the Enlightenment but by Christian canon lawyers in the 12th century, based on Genesis and our creation in God’s image.”
“Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma has shown that the idea that every person has a right to his or her own body—and that therefore sex must be completely consensual—was a startling new concept that came into the world through Christianity.”
In Holland’s history, he doesn’t obscure the examples of unjust, oppressive, and power mongering behavior of Christians, but Holland notes these threads run counter to the main story. The Crusades and other barbaric behaviors of Europeans in the name of Christ are examples of the persistent resilience of more ancient paradigms – distinctly Greco-Roman ones at that, though the entire ancient world assumed similar values before Christ.
Holland knew well the way of conquerors over the conquered. Nowhere is it more shamelessly and unabashedly displayed, perhaps, than in the Greco-Roman world, which is Holland’s distinct forte as an historian. The idea that might makes right is the story of mankind, not just the western world, up to and beyond the death of Jesus on the cross. That the western world continued in that vein shouldn’t be at all surprising.
The surprising thing is that another value system “championed” by the sacrificial example of the dying and rising Christ so seeped into the ground of western thinking that we now view the more ancient, primal instinct as evil and worthy of judgment.
When people in the name of Christ followed in the vein of ancient conquerors, they are judged – not on the basis of Greco-Roman (or Enlightenment thought), but on the basis of the fundamental Judeo-Christian principal that all people are made in the image of God and deserve dignity, respect, and freedom. That we now view those Greco-Roman values as cruel and inhuman we owe to Christianity. Holland says:
“Repeatedly, whether crashing through the canals of Tenochtitlan, or settling the estuaries of Massachusetts, or trekking deep into the Transvaal, the confidence that had enabled Europeans to believe themselves superior to those they were displacing was derived from Christianity.” (p. 504)
The story, here, isn’t that Christians, having achieved to the stature of conquerors continued in the vein of conquering civilizations. The real story – the paradigmatic shift – is found emerging in the midst of and taking hold despite the age-old history of conquering civilizations and the assumptions that fueled them:
“Repeatedly, though . . . it was Christianity that . . . provided the colonized and the enslaved with the surest voice. The paradox was profound. No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors . . . had installed . . . an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power.” (p. 504)
Embedded in Christianity is the ideal of the suffering servant who proclaims to the consciences of all men that the greatest among you is really the one who serves and nudges them to pick up their own crosses to follow Christ. Embedded within Christianity is the antidote to might and power and the ennoblement of all who are lowly and powerless.
“Tom Holland punctures common myths about Christianity and secularism in every chapter. In no way does he let the church off the hook for its innumerable failures. Nor will he let secular people live with the illusion that their values are just self-evident, the result of reason and scientific investigation.”
Above the secular humanist, above the Christian, is the God who judges all men. This same God is He who stooped low to empty Himself of His power, privilege, and position to become a part of His own creation, to subject Himself to it, and to sacrifice Himself for it. This God came to set captives free and to offer hope to the hopeless, love to the unlovely, and strength to the weak in the moment of their weakness.
This is the uniquely Christian influence that remains still, though most of western society, perhaps, is reluctant or unable to identify it any longer. How long can or will it remain as modern humanists pick at the threads in the fabric and discard them? What devolution will result without Christ, and him crucified, at the center of the western paradigm uniquely constructed on a Christian view of the world?
These are questions the secular, humanist and Greco-Roman historian, Tom Holland, is now asking. Can the values he assumed without regard to their original framework survive without the original foundation to hold them up? It seems like a rhetorical question to me, and I think Tom Holland would increasingly agree.