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.

Is God Really Good? — Fractured Faith Blog

Here’s to tough English teachers, careful use of the English language and God’s direction and formative influences that He allows into our lives. I am reblogging this piece that reminds me of a turning point in my life, and the tough English teacher who met me at he turn.

I was an angry, rebellious youth, living a recklessly self-destructive teenage life, drinking, smoking pot and taking unnecessary risks. I don’t know why I was that way, but that’s how I was.

I think I was desperately searching for something meaningful, trying to fill the voids, unwilling to settle for mediocre. But the things I was using to fill those voids left a deeper void.

An unrelenting, stubbornly idealistic and sternly enthusiastic English teacher is just what I needed. She challenged me, and it turns out I was ready for the challenge. The two papers I wrote that semester, on Joseph Conrad’s, Lord Jim, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, Crime and Punishment, were just the rigorous tests of critique and simultaneous self-reflection necessary to jump me off the nihilistic track onto the path to truth and meaning that can only be mined with same kind of relentless, stubbornly idealistic and uncompromising confidence in the effort that my teacher demonstrated for us.

The blog, Is God Really Good?, reminds me of these things, and the gratitude I owe to my “very grumpy English teacher”. Only she, was less grumpy than enthusiastic, but none the less effective in her influence on me.

When I was at school, and Queen Victoria sat upon the throne, I had a very grumpy English teacher called Mrs Hume. I felt sorry for Mr. Hume if she was as grumpy at home. Mrs Hume was a well balanced woman. She had a chip on both shoulders. Life had dealt her a poor […]

via Is God Really Good? — Fractured Faith Blog

The False Promise of Pleasure

Statue of writer and playright Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland.

“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure….  No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”

This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure. If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. Wilde, of course, was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.

Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. His book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)

We know much of Wilde’s private life. Many of his secrets were paraded before the world to see in a much publicized court case, ironically, when Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.

Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense to the libel charges was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde brought against Queensberry left him bankrupt and exposed.

Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure. He also wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. He championed licentiousness in his art and in his life.

Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery in his writing, though it’s use would have likely been considered sacrilegious. During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested copies of the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.

As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde.

My friend is in a hospital ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him uncommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace in the middle of the difficulties they face.

We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain. Sometimes, however, the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain.

Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain. Though pain can be the result of our own reckless indiscretions, it isn’t always so. My friend in the hospital is proof of that.

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CS Lewis on the “True Myth”

All myth is an attempt to shine light on truth. True Myth is the ultimate Light shining on the ultimate Truth. 

The Areopagus in Athens

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”

This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and reference CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate with me.

He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, than any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.

Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Apostle Paul, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he met in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address an erudite Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Greek poet: “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28 quoting from Phenomena 5)

Paul used a quotation from a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) Paul connected with the people “where they were”, using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul knew enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.

CS Lewis observes that myth contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is a shadow of the True Myth.

All myth is an attempt to shine light on truth. True Myth is the ultimate Light shining on the ultimate Truth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story, though; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.

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Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript

I have taken some time in previous blog articles to summarize my comments about an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. Ehrman talks about his early induction into a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that possibly factor into his loss of faith, and the most recent articles address a modern view of miracles that avoids wrestling with evidence of the resurrection, and an observation that I share with others: that atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible similarly (two sides to the same coin).

One way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible.  For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition.  Either the Bible is all literally true, or it is all literally false.

This is a false dichotomy.  It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical meanings, context, and many other things.  It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.

Harris’s reliance on Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind.  If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim.  That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point. They don’t believe in miracles so they don’t take evidence of miracles seriously, whatever the evidence is.

This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me.  Yet, Harris is a scientist.  Erhman is a scholar.  While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.

When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools.  Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes.  This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript”