Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, though, Holland did his work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie the traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

Continue reading “Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out”

Paul Put the Pieces of a Puzzle together for Dionysius at the Areopagus

Some people want to fit the pieces to the puzzle together.

Perhaps, my favorite speech (sermon) in the Bible is Paul’s address to an elite group of people in Athens. The people in Athens were fond of spending their time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new”. (Acts 17:21) When some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul in the marketplace, they brought him to the Areopagus.

Do you know people like that? They like to talk philosophy, but they don’t do it out of a love for the truth. They just like the intellectual challenge or the exercise of the imagination. Those conversations are ultimately unfulfilling unless truth is the object.

When Paul came to Athens, he was struck by all the idols he saw. (Acts 16:17) Athens was filled philosophies and gods of unending variety. In this way, Athens was like the modern Internet: a person might not ever exhaust all the possibilities. A person could spend a lifetime trying without ever synthesizing all the information and fitting the pieces to the puzzle of life together.

Paul cut the chase. Referencing an inscription: “To the unknown god”, Paul opened his speech with the statement, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

I love that! Paul started where they were. He started with something familiar to them, and he used it as a segue into an introduction of “[t]he God who made the world and everything in it”. There were temples everywhere in Athens, but Paul was not shy in saying that the “Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by men”. (Acts 17:24)

Paul wasn’t interested in small talk, or ideas for nothing but the novelty of them.

I also love that Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to them. He quoted Epimenides of Crete for the proposition that “In him [the God who made the heaven and earth] we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted Aratus for that proposition that we are His offspring. (Acts 17:28)

Paul was educated, and he could speak the language of educated people. He could take poetry and use it in a sermon on God. He didn’t play their games, though. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He didn’t pander to their penchant for novel ideas.

He called them to account: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30)

Paul preached the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, redeeming us from destruction and giving us the hope of everlasting life, but Paul lost most of his audience at that point. They weren’t interested in “dogma”. They took offense at the exclusivity of Paul’s message. They liked ideas, but they weren’t interested in truth. Sound familiar?

Truth, of course, is exclusive. That’s the nature of truth. People like the Athenians, and people who embrace post-modern thought today, don’t want to want to hear ideas that are exclusive. They want variety. They want to keep their options open, ironically even to the exclusion of truth.

A few people, though, were moved by Paul’s sermon. They wanted to hear more. Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite. For Dionysius, Paul provided him the missing piece to the puzzle of his life.

Continue reading “Paul Put the Pieces of a Puzzle together for Dionysius at the Areopagus”

Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul

The big issue that threatened to divide the early Church

Paul wrote to the Galatians to address a grievous error in their thinking. They were holding on to a belief that followers of Christ, even Gentiles, must continue to follow Jewish law. Though Jesus prayed for unity among his followers (John 17:20-23), it was a rocky start for the fledgling following.

To emphasize the gravity of the point, Paul recalled to the Galatians a time when he opposed Cephas (Peter the Apostle, himself) “to his face” over the issue! (Gal. 2:11)

Paul seemed to have a lot of gall, didn’t he? Peter lived with Jesus for 3 years. He was one of the closest people to Jesus during his life. He was there when Jesus died, and he was one of the first people to see Jesus when he returned, risen from the dead.

Paul was never around back then. He despised Jesus and his followers! He was there, holding the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death, and he was hellbent on quashing the “rebellion” of the Jesus followers to the traditions of Judaism… until Jesus dramatically revealed himself to Paul. Then, Paul changed completely and became the boldest of proclaimers of the Gospel.

Still, what gall to confront Peter of all people! Right? First for a little back story.

In my last post, I described Peter’s vision of animals on a great sheet and the encounter with the Roman Centurion that convinced him Gentiles can be saved from their sins, the same as Jews. It was no small revelation. It took quite the orchestration of visions, angels, voices and a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit to convince Peter to accept the fact that God wanted to share the Gospel with Gentiles.

Peter experienced his own change, though not as dramatic. He went from being concerned that he should be not associating with Gentiles to baptizing the Centurion and his entire household and welcoming them into the family of believers!

I also wrote about this story in relation to the theme of the unity of believers: Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius. The great shift from the following law to faith, was a change to beat all changes.

It took a nothing short of a divine appointment of Peter, the Apostle on which Jesus said he would establish the Church, orchestrated by God with all the bells and whistles to provide clear direction. We might think that this encounter settled the score for Peter, once for all, right?

Not so.

Continue reading “Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul”

Before East Goes West: The Intersections of Monotheism in the 5th and 6th Centuries Before Christ

Connections that are left unwritten by Tom Holland in his book, Dominion, that go back to his starting point

The graves of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes near Persepolis, Iran

I am finding a wealth of subject matter in Tom Holland’s history of western civilization, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Of particular interest is the place where he starts his history of the west – with Darius, the great Persian conqueror of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in the east.

It seems that Holland’s candid explorations of history have fascinated him as much in tracing the threads of his childhood fantasies about ancient history as in busting the myths that arose as part of those childhood fantasies. Below he describes the busting of one of those myths – that the Greeks fought off the evil Persians from the east to save the west:

In Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, which focuses on the Persian incursion into Greek territory, Holland realized that the Spartans were no champions for freedom, and the Persians were no moral monsters comparatively. In fact, the Persians were the ones motivated by what they believed were moral callings – something that would have been a completely foreign concept to the Greeks.

Darius and the Persians during his reign believed in Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian supreme, creator God. When I was in college, I learned in my World Religion class that Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion. I had my doubts then about that statement, as I do now (see The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East), but the fact is that monotheism developed in the ancient Near East. Not in the west.

The first reference to Ahura Mazda appears in the Behistun Inscription by Darius. Darius reigned from 522 BCE until his death in 486 BCE. While Holland uses more “traditional” historical sources for Dominion, Hebrew Scripture intersects with Persian history in this time period.

Before Darius, the nation of Judah was exiled to Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Prophet, Jeremiah, describes the siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 39:1-10 & 52:1-30), and Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned throughout the first four books of Daniel, who was one of the exiles from Jerusalem in Babylon.

Though Nabonides succeeded to the throne after Nebuchadnezzar, his son, Balshazzar, was left in charge in Babylon for ten years while Nabonides was away on an archaeological expedition. Balshazzar is mentioned in Daniel, chapters 5, 7 and 8. Daniel mentions his death, which occurred after Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) conquered Babylon (539 BC). Nabonides was also killed on his return to Babylon that same year.

Cyrus conquered Babylon while the Hebrews were exiled there, and the Hebrews were still exiled in Babylon when Darius 1 (Darius the Great) took over as the king in 522 AD. Again, the biblical reports intersect with the more “traditional” archaeological and historical sources.

Continue reading “Before East Goes West: The Intersections of Monotheism in the 5th and 6th Centuries Before Christ”

Contemplating the Influence of Power and Wealth on The Church

It is “a supreme paradox” that ‘the church in freeing itself from the secular itself became a state”, says Tom Holland.

Miniature showing siege scene of conquest of Jerusalem, 1099. Nunez de Balboa House-Museum, Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain

I am working my way through Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. I have just finished the segment on Pope Gregory VII and Pope Urban II at the turn of the first millennium since the birth of Jesus Christ.

Since Jesus first told an antagonistic group of religious leaders that people should “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s”, and for centuries afterward, the church was at the mercy of the state. Not even a generation after Jesus died, the Roman government, which controlled Judea where Jesus lived and his following sprung up, ransacked Jerusalem, scattering Jews and Christians into the countryside and beyond.

Through the first three centuries, the best the followers of Jesus could hope for was an indifferent Caesar or provincial ruler. At various times, they suffered at the hands of a Nero or more local prefects of local Roman rule in places like Lyons, Vienne or Carthage. The powerful Roman government was to be suffered and obeyed.

Christianity was illegal until Constantine decreed the prohibition lifted. Within a generation or two, Christianity was not just legal in the Roman Empire; it became the favored religion. Christian rulers became part of the governing structure of Rome, serving by the appointment and the pleasure of ruling authorities from mid-way through the 4th Century on.  

Over the centuries, the Roman Church became a player in the ebbs and flows of power and influence in western and central Europe. When Gregory VII was made Pope by acclamation of the people, however, he hid himself, not having been chosen through the usual protocols. When he was affirmed, nevertheless – his affirmation having as much to do with popular will as with political protocols, it marked the beginning of a change.

Gregory and Henry IV, the Roman Emperor, had a fitful relationship. Gregory excommunicated him three times, each time undoing it, the last time on his death bed in a remote outpost to which he been banished by the powers that be. Henry IV, for his part, declared antipopes in opposition to the papacy of Gregory, but his antipopes never rose to the position of acceptance by the people. The tide was turning.  

When Pope Urban II gathered and commissioned a vast army in the sacred duty of marching on Jerusalem to reclaim it from the Saracens who had overrun it a couple centuries earlier, the victory they attained in 1099 AD (the First Crusade) marked the completion of a transition. Carrying forward the efforts of Pope Gregory to divorce the church from the state, the goal was accomplished by the military victories won for Christendom – not by any Caesar or secular emperor, but by people marching under the banner of The Church.

Holland described the irony that, in obtaining freedom from the state, the church became a state. Holland calls it is “a supreme paradox” that ‘the church in freeing itself from the secular itself became a state”.

Continue reading “Contemplating the Influence of Power and Wealth on The Church”