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How the Christian Revolution Remade the World

by tom holland
basic, 624 pages, $32

After the Second World War, American intellectuals promoted a grand narrative about the origins and development of Western civilization. The purpose of this narrative was less academic than political. Its goal at home was to catechize a diverse country in an open-ended story that celebrated the contributions of different ethnicities and creeds. Its goal abroad was to equip the nation with a clear set of principles for ideological debate in the Cold War. The West appeared in this story as a synthesis of Greek rationality, Roman statecraft, and the moral teachings of what was called the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a generation of college students learned, these elements combined to produce an innovative world of democracy, science, capitalism, and religious tolerance. What made the story cohere, and what linked its chapters from Plato to NATO, was the ­growing recognition of the value of human freedom.

Authored originally by postwar liberals, this narrative came to be defended almost exclusively by conservatives, who saw their battle against collectivism as a new chapter in its glorious pages. Their cause was noble, and valiantly fought, but they did not succeed, for reasons that seem obvious in hindsight. The very ideals that inspired their secular scripture were the key to its deconstruction. Much of Western history, including many of the “Great Books,” fails to exemplify liberal notions of freedom and equality. Plato’s Republic, for example, seems to be a template for a dystopian autocracy, and Kant’s Critiques seem to disparage racial minorities. What, then, were liberals to do? Rather than reject freedom as the highest value, many began to revile the tradition they had been encouraged to praise.

Was the West’s hubris finally exposed? Or was its supremacy ensured by self-critique? Tom Holland’s book Dominion casts this old debate in a new light. By going deep into our cultural history, and showing its moral transformation over three millennia, Holland proposes to show that progressives and conservatives are bred from the same moral matrix. They are the children of the most subversive revolution in human history, whose legacy is the ongoing disruption of settled patterns of life. That revolution is Christianity, and in Holland’s graceful telling, the West remains so saturated by Christian values that it still merits the name “Christendom.” Dominion has won early praise from Catholic reviewers, who were delighted to see a celebrated author and translator defend the Christian roots of our culture. But Dominion should be read with both appreciation and scrutiny, for the conclusion of its epic story risks being unintelligible to its protagonists.

When did the world become modern? Holland gives an arresting answer. Modernity began with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, we view human beings as individuals defined by their abilities to reason and to choose, capacities that endow them with moral equality. Holland tells us there was nothing natural or inevitable about this perspective; it is the result of a metaphysical earthquake, two millennia ago, that slowly altered our perception of human life. The idea that God died on an instrument of torture, that the Eternal could be revealed through humility and suffering, did not change human history overnight. But it suggested the possibility, dimly understood at first, that the world might be utterly different than it had seemed to be. Perhaps it is not the victors but the victims who are closest to the divine.

The central character in Holland’s story is St. Paul, whose genius was to see that the God revealed in Christ turned the world upside down. Paul questioned what pagan antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are fated to exploit the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are determined by our social status. His vision of a community of believers, drawn from all nations and lands, was disruptive. Paul discovered a ground of human identity, and a depth of motivation, that no pagan thinker could fathom. Human beings are individuals, equal before God, called to act out of love. Paul proclaimed an ethics of universal agape, Holland claims, though he failed to follow through its subversive logic. When confronted by entrenched ideas about gender, sex, and authority, he compromised, counseling wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters.

Dominion presents Western culture as the legacy of the Paul of love and the Paul of law. It features profiles of thinkers, saints, and reformers who lived out that Pauline tension, and in so doing shaped the modern mind. Holland’s book is aimed at a popular audience, and it covers ground that will be familiar to some readers. But its pacing and style are engaging, and its pages are filled with colorful details and vivid portraits. It also brazenly flouts intellectual orthodoxies. As histories go, Holland’s is unapologetically Idealist. It places exceptional human actors and their moral beliefs at the driving center of history. Holland is thus positioned to make his most provocative claim: that Western political history bears witness to the growing power of Paul’s ethics of love. For this ethic—with its belief in human equality, its suspicion of worldly power, and its hope for universal brotherhood—dominates our moral imaginations.

Holland argues that early Christians did to Paul’s teaching what Paul had done to his vision of Christ. They “diluted” its most radical implications, tempering Paul’s ethics with a sober acknowledgment of social necessities. For Holland, this was a happy betrayal, since it enabled Christians to undertake the civilizational project that we now call the West. His portraits situate their subjects against this culture-building background. We meet ­Irenaeus and Origen, theologians who forged concepts with which Christians could explain their beliefs and examine the natural world. We meet Gregory the Great and Gregory VII, popes who secured the freedom of the Church and exposed the secularity of the state. We meet Alcuin and Abelard, teachers who standardized language and pedagogical methods for an increasingly literate elite. We meet Martin of Tours and Elizabeth of Hungary, saints who provided humanitarian ideals to young Christian nations. We meet Gratian and Cajetan, commentators who codified systems of law that ensured the equal legal rights of the baptized.

Holland sees the early and medieval Church fostering the characteristic attitude of Western society. He calls that attitude reformatio, a mindset that seeks continuous reform. He traces it to the dynamism inherent in Paul’s hope to see all people inwardly freed from superstition and cleansed of sin. ­Holland emphasizes the Christian roots of this moralistic mindset. Whereas antiquity was fearful of what the ­Romans called “new things,” Paul bred a suspicion of “old things.” He saw human beings as tempted to revert to habits and worldviews inherited from the past. The Christian ambition for never-ending reformatio altered the practices, manners, and traditions of medieval Europe. As Holland concedes, it spawned obvious ­excesses—fanaticism, intolerance, and utopianism. But the project of reformatio gave the West a distinct social attitude, whose most revolutionary possibilities were yet to be seen at the dawn of a new age.

As Holland looks to modernity, he observes the work of reformatio turning first against the institutional Church and then against the Christian faith itself. In Holland’s telling, the roots of the secular Enlightenment are not found in modern science or in a rediscovery of pagan humanism. They are found in Christian moral teaching, whose emphasis on individual conscience and human equality had nurtured a distrust of human authority. Holland’s claim, distilled to its essence, is that Western Christianity incubated moral ideals that undermined its own doctrinal basis. And so in a final Pauline paradox, it was the Christian past, and Christian traditions, from which the enslaved needed to be liberated. Holland’s survey of post-Enlightenment thought focuses overwhelmingly on Protestantism and the politics of northwestern Europe (his Europe is Germanic, not Latin). His sympathies seem to lie with dissenting Protestant movements, such as the Quakers, whose earnest activism embodied a powerful modern expression of Christian love.

When Holland turns to the radical Enlightenment, however, the book wobbles. Dominion devotes time to Spinoza, Voltaire, and Marx, each of whom saw Christianity as an intellectual blight on Europe and an obstacle to human emancipation. Though ­Holland does not ignore these figures’ anti-Christian animus, he is eager to claim them as the natural children of the Christian revolution. He does not argue, as others have, that their skepticism and atheism helped to purify Christian thought and life. He claims that they gave new voice to Paul’s hope to see the entire world purged of error and set on just foundations. Does not Spinoza want us to read Scripture with clear eyes and a pure conscience? Does not Voltaire want to eliminate dead ceremony from religion? Does not Marx seek human brotherhood? For Holland, each bears witness to the Christian hope for a new dispensation of universal human amity. “The ambition of setting the world on a new order, of purging it of superstition, of redeeming it from tyranny,” Holland writes, “could hardly help but be shot through with Christian assumptions.”

Dominion closes with reflections on the spirit of the sixties, feminism, and the sexual revolution as the most recent carriers of the Christian revolution. Here Holland’s ­enthusiasm feels forced. He is right, I suppose, that only a culture formed by Christianity’s erotic idealism could imagine same-sex marriage. And he is right, too, that our “social imaginary” (to use Charles Taylor’s term) remains unintelligible apart from our Christian past. Today, even our most zealous secularists defend human equality, social justice, and special concern for the marginalized and suffering—ideas that would have seemed foolish, if not incomprehensible, to our pagan ancestors. Holland arrives at his conclusion by way of history, not theory. Our common morality, even in its most progressive expressions, is derived from Christian teaching about the sanctity of the individual. It is a sign of the unique power of Christianity that it can spread its values even while claiming to do the opposite. In the past, Christianity spread by conversion. Today, it spreads also by secularization.

I wish that Holland could tell us when Christian self-criticism becomes self-destructive. For if he cannot, others will. Nietzsche looms in the background of Dominion. Holland comes close to saying that Nietzsche was right about Christianity’s influence on Europe, but wrong to reject that influence as dehumanizing. Nietzsche loathed Christianity for the same reasons Holland admires it. Christianity made us tender and empathetic and shifted the burden of proof against the aristocratic sentiment that tolerates cruelties and inequities. In doing so, it gave us bad consciences, wounding our self-love and pride. Nietzsche mocked Europeans for clinging to Christian values once they had drifted from Christian faith. Holland’s response is that Nietzsche was mistaken to distinguish them. To be a Christian is to keep faith with its vision of love and equality, which in the end requires shedding the dead husks of dogma and the Church’s exclusive claim to salvation.

Holland discloses that he wrote Dominion after a spiritual awakening. As a young scholar, influenced by the histories of Gibbon and Burckhardt, he had assumed that modernity was the rebirth of ancient freedoms after centuries of religious oppression. But his belief could not survive his growing knowledge of antiquity and the realization, ­obvious to any honest reader, that the pagan world was morally repugnant. Holland is circumspect about his own faith, quoting Tolkien that the Christian story is perhaps a “true myth.” It is a literary strength of Dominion that it avoids abstract theological discussion. But it does, of course, presume a theological perspective, and in this case a medieval one. In the twelfth century, Abelard argued that Christ saves human beings not by satisfying a debt to God, but by changing our perceptions of him. Abelard’s “moral influence” theory of the atonement, as it came to be known, explained that God redeems humanity by revealing the nature of true love: Salvation means moral ­enlightenment.

Holland echoes Abelard’s argument in a modern key, but in doing so he evades a difficult question. He suggests that the influence of Christianity is so pervasive as to be no longer a matter of individual belief. Christianity has become a pattern of deeply ingrained social practices, the way we experience and belong to a social group. One can be a Christian without knowing it, even while insisting otherwise. But the problem is obvious: Almost none of the Christian heroes of his story believed this. In fact, his book suggests that the opposite is true. If these men and women are any indication, the moral influence of Christianity requires radical believers who seek first of all communion with Christ, not ethical-political outcomes.

Recently my family attended an annual St. Martin’s Day festival at a local German preschool. We watched as children staged the story of Martin offering his soldier’s cloak to a beggar in Roman Gaul. The story captures, with dramatic simplicity, a moment of civilizational metamorphosis. A martial ideal of antiquity is transformed by the ideal of Christian charity. As the night grew dark, we sang traditional German songs about the light that we carried in our hearts, in memory of ­Martin’s deeds. No mention was made of ­Martin’s faith or of Christ, who revealed in a vision that it was he who was disguised as the freezing beggar. Martin laid the moral foundations of a Christian culture, yet he knew nothing of the “West” or of “Europe,” terms that would not come into self-conscious use for three centuries. The grand narrative of which he was a part was not about worldly power or individual freedom. St. Martin, like St. Paul, believed that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead, and that the world he saw passing away could be made new only in Christ.

Our modern conceit is that no other age has been so near the culmination of history, and so essential to its redemption. Holland’s book seems to participate in this conceit, imagining that we, unlike St. Paul, see the inner truth of Christianity, which is reformatio. But St. Paul teaches otherwise, as have Christians throughout the centuries. St. Martin gave away his coat in order to draw nearer to what transcends history, not in order to advance its moral progress. And if the Christians in Dominion bear witness to what is true, then a society that embraces an ethic of love but fails to seek its divine source will regress, not progress, for its notions of inclusion, equality, and compassion will be disordered. Instead of serving reform and renewal, they will conceal an unaccountable oligarchy and decadent populace.

Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute.

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