Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

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.

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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, Holland did the painstaking work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the fossil lineage of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the fossil progression that evolved into 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 as 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 beginnings and ancestry 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”. His find caught him off guard: 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 the historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced in that heritage that it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

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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.

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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”.

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Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought

The law of loving your neighbor as yourself written on the tablet of the heart by God

In Chapter 9 of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, he traces the idea of natural law back to 1150 AD when a lawyer named Gratian compiled the first canon of law in the west. His work (the Decretum Gratiani, as it came to be called) was derived from and Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. It was an attempt at comprehensive harmonization of those two sources.

The original notion of natural law came from the Stoics: “The Stoics believed that the fundamental moral principles that underlie all the legal systems of different nations were reducible to the dictates of natural law.” Gratian syncretized the Stoic notion of natural law (the law of nature) by attributing it to divine origins which he found in the nation of law written on men’s hearts, summarized as the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Holland observed that for a millennia Christianity existed without “what Muslim lawyers had long taken for granted – a comprehensive body of written rulings supposedly deriving from God Himself”. Holland is struck by the contrast of the Christian notion that God “wrote His rulings on the human heart”.

Holland first picks up that theme in his book with Saint Augustine of Hippo in Chapter 5. Hollands description of Augustine’s words – that “God writes His laws on the heart,” and, therefore, “Love, and do what you like” – is a theme Holland traces as he finds it in the history of western thought.

So, again, Holland picks up on the fact that Gratian opened his Decretum Gratiani (as it came to be called) with the statement that all law can be summed up in a single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Gratian called this idea “natural law”, summarized by the statement, “all souls are equal in the sight of God”. Gratian identified this principal to be the foundation stone of true justice.

Holland mistakenly attributes the notion to Paul (“Paul’s authority on this score was definitive…. [e]choing the Stoics”) and finds Gratian’s syncretism of the law a decisive departure from earlier ages:

“Much flowed from this compilation that earlier ages would have struggled to comprehend. Age old presumptions were being decisively overturned – that custom was the ultimate authority, that the great were owed a different justice from the humble, that inequality was something natural and to be taken for granted.”

This is the central theme of Holland’s book – “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (its alternate title). His book is an attempt to trace back the roots of modern notions, such as the idea that people have “equal rights” stemming from natural law (“inalienable rights”) that fundamentally inform modern, western thought.  

Holland notes that these ideas do not flow out of Greek or Roman philosophy or law. They were are much foreign to the world of classic Greco-Roman thought. They are definitively Christian – Judeo-Christian – in their origins.

Holland, of course, is an atheist. He comes to these conclusions through his study of western civilization. He is an “outsider” to Christianity, which perspective makes his observations so interesting – the that he picks up on the novelty of these ideas as being a distinctively Christian departure from classical Greco-Roman thought.

He also wrote Dominion coming off the heels of writing a similar work on the history of Islam. The contrast was striking for him. Whereas Islamic scholars attempted to proscribe laws for every detail of human life, including things like how to brush your teeth and dog ownership, Christians distilled law down to a single phrase – love your neighbor as yourself – and rested in the confidence that God writes His laws on people’s hearts (“not in ink” as Augustine said). The influence of Holland’s awareness of that contrast is striking.

It shouldn’t be surprising, coming from his perspective, that Holland doesn’t get things exactly right. When Augustine focused on love, he wasn’t championing anything new, and Paul was not the source of the notion that the law can be summed up in the phrase, love your neighbor as yourself or the belief that God writes His laws on human hearts. While he might attribute these things to Paul and Augustine, the history is much older and deeper than that.

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