To What Source Do We Owe the Debt for Western Values?

Holland traces the assumptions of the modern western world forward through the evolution of religious expression.

Tom Holland, in his book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, published in 2019, traces western civilization from Darius, the Persian king, through the present time. Holland links the development of modern thinking to its various sources as expressed through the thread of religious views form age to age.

The mode of his analysis is, perhaps, a unique one for an atheist. It also exposes the wellspring of one predominant source for most of the fundamental assumptions of the modern western world. Holland was surprised, himself, to find how prominently one source showed through.

To his chagrin, Holland found that source flowing from the influence of an itinerant, first century carpenter of humble background. Holland’s work reveals that the source of modern western thought is decisively Judeo-Christian, and particularly Christian.

The river in which the Christian spring wells up is, first, Mesopotamian (the Persian version), then Greek, then Roman, but the source of the thinking that invigorates all our basic, western assumptions is not reducible to Persian, Greek or Roman principals – or any combination of all three. Holland’s work demonstrates how the spring of Christianity overwhelmed the river leading to modern western thought and irrevocably changed and defined its course.

Holland traces the assumptions of the modern western world forward through the evolution of religious expression. From Persian Zoroastrianism that was, perhaps[1], the beginning of monotheistic thought, through Judaism converging into the Roman world that combined Greek gods and philosophy, Holland finds from the currents of religious expression the sources of those assumptions that inform the modern western mind and sensibilities.

Holland’s history reveals that the values we take for granted, like the water that comes from a tap, find their source predominantly in Christian origins. Like a spring that swelled the river and came to define it over time, despite its headwaters and tributaries, Christianity overtook the river and ineffably changed and defined its course.

For Holland, the discovery that the values that inform his modern, humanist worldview are Christian came as paradigm shift from the Enlightenment, modern and post-modern position. His book shows how a modernist can no more escape the spring of Christian influence than drain the water from the river.

The ways in which the theme reveals itself are myriad. Following is one example revealed through the life of Flavius Claudius Julianus. Julian, who would be known as Julian the Apostate, was the nephew of Emperor Constantine. Constantine, of course, set the course of history in his conversion to Christianity and decree to lift the prohibition against its practice. Up to that point, Christianity flourished only despite the efforts to curtail it.

Julian was also raised Christian, but he renounced Christianity to embrace the paganism of his ancestors. Tom Holland how describes Julian sought to reclaim the empire from people who had “’abandoned the ever-living gods for the corpse of the Jew’”. 

Julian believed the god, Cybele, had rescued him from the darkness of Christianity. In his effort to win back the worship of Cybele, Julian wrote a letter to the priests in Galatia, blaming them for what he called a lack of faith in Cybele, the god whose temple they kept. His accusation against them? That they were getting drunk in taverns instead of devoting themselves to the poor, and he committed the funds himself to a program of providing food and drink to the poor, travelers and beggars.

Holland was a noted historian of the Greco-Roman world before writing Dominion, knowing well the values of that world. He addresses the incongruity of Julian’s appeal as follows:

“The heroes of the Iliad, favourites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden. So, too for all the honour that Julian paid them, had philosophers. The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control. Only fellow citizens of good character, who through no fault of their own had fallen on evil days, might conceivably merit assistance. Certainly, there was little in the character of the gods whom Julia so adored, nor in the teachings of the philosophers whom he so admired, to justify any assumption that the poor, just by virtue of their poverty, had a right to aid. The young emperor, sincere though he was in his hatred of ‘Galilean’ teachings, and in regretting their impact upon all that he held so dear, was blind to the irony of his plan for combatting them: that it was itself irredeemably Christian.

“’How apparent to everyone it is, and how shameful, that our own people lack support from us, when no Jew has ever to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.’ Julian could not but be painfully aware of this. The roots of Christianity ran deep. The apostles, obedient to Jewish tradition as well as to the teachings of their master, had laid it as a solemn charge upon new churches always ‘to remember the poor’. Generation after generation, Christians had held true to this injunction. Every week, in churches across the Roman world, collections for orphans and widows and the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked, and the sick had been raised. Over time, as congregations swelled, and ever more of the wealthy were brought to baptism, the funds available for poor relief had grown as well. Entire systems of social security had begun to emerge.”

Holland was keenly aware of the pagan world to which Julian wanted to return. It was his focus as an historian. In an interview and discussion with Justin Brierley and AC Grayling, Holland describes how he was fascinated by the extravagant decadence and pomp of the classic Greco-Roman world, but he found nowhere in it any hint of the ethic that is ingrained in modern humanism to care for the poor, save for one source alone: Christianos, the derogatory term given to the followers of Jesus by the Romans.

Throughout the book, Holland identifies the various roots of modern ethics and principals that are no longer seen as distinctly Christian, because they are simply taken for granted – like Julian’s assumption that caring for the poor was a moral obligation, though no such obligation can be traced to the gods and philosophers he embraced in rejecting Christianity.

The idea that correct thinking (belief) is more important than ritual practices, inalienable (human) rights and equality, the importance of education (not just for the elites), the separation of church and state, and many other things find their origins in spring of uniquely Christian thought. The book is well-written and provides much food for thought.


[1] The accepted historical premise is that Zoroastrianism predated Judaism, but I have my doubts, which I attempt to convey in The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East.

Heavenly Citizens In These Modern Times

What deserves our ultimate allegiance?

City Hall at Ephesus by Brooke Miller

Peter and Paul, the pillars of the Church, were clear that the only citizenship that counts is our citizenship in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) W are only “sojourners and exiles” in this world. (1 Peter 2:11)

Paul submitted to earthly authorities as though they had been established by God. (Rom. 13:1) He submitted to lashing by Jewish authorities five times! He appealed to his Roman citizenship, but, he clearly saw himself not a citizen of this world. He was a citizen of the kingdom of heaven that is coming.

He used his Roman citizenship to gain an audience for the gospel among the Romans, to be an ambassador for Christ as he spoke to people in the public squares. He used his credentials as a Hebrew scholar to gain an audience for the Gospel in the synagogues.

Paul submitted to the processes and protocols of Roman and Jewish authorities. He recognized their earthly authority over him. He appealed to that same authority, not for his own advantage, but for the purpose of advancing the kingdom of God.

When we get involved in politics in the 21st century, do we submit to the authorities established by God as Paul did? Paul boasted of his lashings. Paul used his Roman citizenship, not to get out of prison, but to get to Rome to support the followers of Christ there.

Do we count ourselves, first, as citizens of heaven? Paul longed to be with Chris. He used his time on this earth to advance the kingdom of God while he longed for the day when he would put off his perishable body and put on immortality.

Do we use our earthly citizenship not for our own advantage, but to advance the Kingdom of God? When we fight for tougher laws and tighter borders and the right to walk around without masks, are we fighting for the kingdom of God?

Paul said what needed to be said for the sake of the Gospel, but he accepted the earthly consequences of his focus on heavenly things. Paul lived in an earthly world that was hostile to him and everything that he stood for. He submitted to the world’s authority, but he did it in obedience to the authority of God for the advancement of the Gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes, I wonder whether we resist authorities that do not advance our earthly objectives and appeal to political power and influence to secure our earthly advantage. I wonder how often we have it all wrong.

What are our priorities? To whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance? What are our ultimate goals? Are we seeking to advance the Kingdom of God at all cost, including the cost to ourselves and our own position in the world?

Paul used his station in life as a Jewish scholar and a Roman citizen not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the kingdom of God, to gain audience in front of people, and to spread the gospel. How do we use our station in life, our political power and religious knowledge? To whose benefit are our actions accumulating?

Are we fighting to protect and preserve our own families, communities and country in this world only to lose sight of our citizenship in heaven? Are we striving to save our lives only to lose our souls?

These are questions, not accusations. God knows the heart. I pose these questions in my own heart as write them.

Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family

Some values evident in the original church family have been lost over the years in western culture


Rebecca McLaughlin, in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, made an observation that inspires my article today. I make references to many people, often the same people over and over again, who inspire my thoughts. I am indebted to the many serious Christian thinkers who have plowed ground that make it easy for me to walk the paths after them.

About a third of the way into the ninth chapter (Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?), she talks about loneliness and singles in the church. She strikes some real gold – some nuggets lost in our modern culture. I’m afraid that we have developed traditions over the years in the west that have plowed under values that once informed the early church.

A tradition of rugged individualism and self determination that is, perhaps, unrivaled anywhere in the world, is inbred into our American culture. Our suburban lifestyle is uniquely American, with our manicured lawns separated from our neighbors by fences and hedges. These are, perhaps, the gentrified vestiges of the farmstead claims staked by American pioneers against world, enemies and neighbors alike.

We circle the wagons today around the family unit, which has increasingly come under “attack” from secular constructs of village-raised children and re-imagined, more inclusive family structures to fit changing societal mores. These things changes have caused conservatives and Christians to double down on the traditional, American family construct.

Traditional, though, is normative, and norms change. Not more than 150 years ago families looked different than they do today. In fact, they looked a little more like the modern family than the average person might realize.

From not long after the first generations of New World immigrants came ashore, families and communities of families began to migrate, drifting south, west and sometimes north, clearing areas for homesteads. The ever changing family compositions can be traced from one decennial census to the next. Not may households remained static from one census to another.

My father, who researches genealogies, shines some historical light on the norms of the frontier movement in writing books about those migrations. From census to census to census, the story is told.

Family units were ever changing in combination of husbands, wives, children (both minors and adults). Family often included a grandparent, niece or nephew, neighbor or border. Children were born; children died; children moved away and moved back. Spouses died. They we replaced by new spouses or neighbors who helped with the children and then became spouses… or not.

One of the main challenges of doing genealogical research through the 19th Century is in determining the relationships of all the people in those from one decennial census to another and tracing the changes from decade to decade.

The Industrial Revolution began to change the composition of family units into more static and defined structures that eventually became the “traditional” American family.

What we assume to be the traditional family unit today is of relatively recent vintage. The Little House on the Prairie is more of a sentimental, re-imagining of the way it was than history. Even then, we get a hint of the interdependence of community that was much more intimate than our anemic sense of community today. This is true even with greater distance separating homesteads than a thin veil of fences and hedges distinguishing suburban lots.

The distance that separates people in modern western life, however, might as well be miles. We live as if we don’t need our neighbors, and we largely don’t even know them. Those fences and hedges might as be walls.

In that sense, the observation that McLaughlin makes reveals the back-filled soil of modern western culture that covers an ancient value that has been plowed under in the process of all those years of western development.

Continue reading “Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family”

What Does the Global Church of Jesus Christ Look Like? And Why It Matters?

The church we know in the United States doesn’t look like Church worldwide.


I read today this tweet by David Cassidy (found here):

The average Christian in the world is not male but female[1], not white but brown or black[2], third world, not first world[3], far more Pentecostal than Presbyterian[4]. The “average” Christian in the world today is a 22-year old brown female[5]. She has not been to your conference…

…she has not read CS Lewis or Christianity Today; she has not read your blog, nor mine, and does not go to Starbucks or care one bit about alternative endings to Game of Thrones or if the latest lyric from Hillsongs [sic] agrees with our confessional standards.

She is also likely the vessel God will use to prophesy to the next generation. She’s not afraid of suffering either: Over 215 million believers are persecuted with intimidation, prison, and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ across the world (Open Doors, USA)[6]

* 42% of the world’s population is under 25[7], half in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia[8] * The median age of the global population is 28[9]. If your ‘mission’ is preservation or expansion of White Christian USA nationalism, you need to wake up & repent

South American and Central American churches are thriving and reviving. Thank God. We have to be about global mission and embrace all people everywhere with the love of God. That starts with neighbors next door but won’t stop there.

White American Nationalist Christians need to be at the feet of these global Christian communities and LEARN again the power of prayer, the presence of God’s power in the absence of political power, and the joy of the Gospel. Man, I have so much to learn!

Much of this tweet rings true to me based on what I have been reading over the past several years, but I spent some time fact-checking the various statements. The results of what I found are linked in the references below.

I was able to verify most of the statements. The only ones I couldn’t verify are the statements about the average age of Christians worldwide and the median age of the world population, which was 28 a few years ago, but more recent numbers show a rise to 30. Studies also seem to show that the average age of religious people in the world is increasing (especially in the west), but I couldn’t find anything specific to Christianity.

Still, most of what David Cassidy says in this tweet is true. The key points being that Christianity is not a white, European-centric or even western religion … at least, not anymore.

Think about that for a moment…. While American Christianity still looks very white and paternalistic, the church worldwide looks very different.

Continue reading “What Does the Global Church of Jesus Christ Look Like? And Why It Matters?”

God Is Always Doing a “New Thing”

We need to be open to hear God’s voice and the direction He wants us to go in these present times


I think many Christians, most of them, look a bit skeptically at the charismatic element of the Church universal. We conjure up images of the prosperity Gospel and “holy rollers”. The New Testament, though, reads like a charismatic diary.

 The dispensationalists will say that God worked like that only for a time, only until the New Testament was “codified” into a cannon. Now we don’t need God to speak to people directly through prophetic words and such. We don’t need signs and wonders because we have the Bible now.

They might be right, but maybe not. God doesn’t fit into the boxes we prepare for Him.

I have come to view all the movements in the history of the Church as various times in which God emphasized specific things to His people for specific purposes. The move to get the Bible in print in plain language for the masses enabled worldwide, grassroots growth of the Gospel. The move to emphasize that salvation is by God’s grace that we receive through faith was necessary to counter error in the notion of how salvation works.

In my view, denominations formed around these movements as people put down tent stakes and tried to camp on those things God was emphasizing at particular times, but God is always doing a new thing.

Not that God changes, or that the truth changes. We change, and the flow of history changes. God is always working through it all to accomplish the ends that He has planned from the beginning.

I think we can never go wrong asking the question: What is God doing now? What does God intend for a time such as this? What is God saying in these times?

So, I am open to the possibility, which I think is a probability, that God is still “speaking” in these times through people to whom God is willing to entrust His voice. There are disparate voices, of course, even in the Church, but it’s always been like that.

I don’t believe God will say anything that contradicts what He has said in the past, but He might be saying things that contradict what we believed in the past. God might be calling us to new ways of doing things.

When God became flesh and lived among the people to whom He had intimately and directly revealed Himself, they didn’t recognize Him. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were amazed as Jesus opened the Scripture to them to reveal all the ways it spoke of Him. They didn’t see it until He opened it up to them.

In the same way, we need to have the humility to recognize that we might have wrong ideas about things. Maybe they aren’t “wrong”, but they just aren’t effective any longer in this time. The last thing that I want is to remain standing still when God is moving.

We need to be open to God showing us “new things” that we didn’t previously understand or appreciate. We have to consider the possibility that we might not recognize God when He is speaking today in the same way that God became flesh, came to His own people, and His own people didn’t recognize Him.

I say these things only as a preface to talk about an article, Continue reading “God Is Always Doing a “New Thing””