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All you need is love: how the Christian revolution shaped our world
This review of Tom Holland’s Dominion is based on a much smaller piece I wrote for The Catholic Herald at the time of publication in 2019. A similar-ish version of this article has previously appeared on my own website, although I’ve changed a bit…
The Romans are the most ‘epic’ figures in history, to use my young son’s favourite word, exerting a glamour and allure that no civilisation has successfully matched. This magnetism can also appear heightened by what followed, the illiterate bleakness of the early Middle Ages, and the fun-sucking religion that came with it. Many down the years have lamented the switch from the Rome of the Caesars to the Rome of the popes.
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The young Tom Holland was one of them. Raised as an Anglican, the historian’s childhood fascination with dinosaurs evolved into one for the equally glamorous ancients. ‘Although I vaguely continued to believe in God,’ he writes: ‘I found him infinitely less charismatic than the gods of the Greeks: Apollo, Athena, Dionysus. I liked the way that they did not lay down laws, or condemn other deities as demons; I liked their rock-star glamour. As a result, by the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and his great history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, I was more ready to accept his interpretation of the triumph of Christianity: that it had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”. My childhood instinct to see the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised.’
This, indeed, is a widespread view. Since Gibbon wrote his great work in the late 18th century there has existed the popular idea that the Renaissance, with its return to classical values, and the Enlightenment, which saw the birth of reason over superstition, were a reaction to Christianity, which had in those thousand dark medieval years suppressed science and freedom.
Yet the truth and paradox, as Holland shows in this truly epic account of how Christianity came to shape the West, is that the western idea of secularism is itself a very Christian one. Liberalism was never a reaction to Christianity, it was a product, perhaps one might heresy; ditto Marxism, socialism and the various progressive creeds of the modern era, right up to the current Great Awokening with its focus on the sanctity of victimhood.
All our assumptions about progress, the rights of the individual, our horror of racism and sexual exploitation, even the acceptance of gay marriage, are the products of Christianity. They are not in themselves universal or ‘natural’, and to the Romans these ideas of human rights and dignity would have been incomprehensible, laughable even.
Holland made his name with thrilling popular histories set in the ancient world, yet the more he studied antiquity, the more alien it became to him. It wasn’t just that Spartans or Romans killed innocents in large numbers, but that they lacked even the suggestion that the weak might be worth pitying. ‘That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian,’ he writes.
Cruelties such as the exposure of infants – especially female infants – were almost universally accepted in antiquity, except among one or two small German tribes and, at the other end of the empire, a monotheistic people in the eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps the obscenest horror, however, was the practice of crucifixion, a death so cruel that Roman writers barely touched on the subject. Indeed only ‘four detailed accounts of the process by which a man might be sentenced to the cross, and then suffer his punishment, have survived from antiquity. Remarkably, they all describe the same execution.’
This is the story of how on that one Friday in Judea the world was changed forever — with a moral revolution like nothing before or since.
In this polyglot region the God of the Jews had already begun to attract the interest of Gentile neighbours, people who found themselves drawn to synagogues and were referred to as ‘God-fearers’ or theosebeis. Although curious as to what the Jewish God told them, they hesitated to take the ultimate step; and yet when one day in AD33, a pharisee saw a vision of the recently executed criminal Jesus of Nazareth on his way to Damascus, it would spark the most explosive and dynamic example of globalisation in history.
The new faith became a synthesis of Hebrew, Hellenic and Roman culture that spread across the Empire, explicitly universalistic in outlook. Jesus had told his followers the parable of the Good Samaritan, while his apostle Paul had said: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ Paul, the pharisee whose Damascene conversion proved so momentous for humanity, saw that what God ‘most truly wanted was a universal amity,’ and so ‘by urging his converts to consider themselves neither Galatian nor Jewish, but solely as the people of Christ, as citizens of heaven, he was urging them to adapt an identity that was as globalist as it was innovative.’
The faith spread most rapidly in the empire’s cosmopolitan hubs, cities such as Corinth where identity lacked roots and where surviving records show congregations with a mixture of Roman, Greek and other names. They became a new sort of person: ‘citizens of heaven.’ A prisoner in Vienne in Gaul arrested in AD177 during a period of persecution replied to every question with the simple ‘I am a Christian.’ Where he was born, and whether slave or free, even his name mattered nothing in comparison.
Yet Jesus’s teaching was not at all like other philosophers. ‘The standards of virtue he preached – to love one’s enemy, to abandon all one’s worldly goods – were so demanding as to seem impossible to meet. He was peculiarly tender with sinners. He dined with Jews who violated the law and talked beside wells with adulterers.’
Opposition to female infanticide and divorce made the new religion especially attractive to women, who outnumbered men in the early church. Even women of the lowest class could, absurdly, rise to heights in a way unthinkable in Roman society, even if the price was very high. Blandina, a slave girl in late second century Gaul, was tortured and executed for her faith, and yet with her courage and nobility she had triumphed in death, worshipped in churches where it was said her broken body appeared transfigured. ‘That a slave, “a slight, frail, despised woman”, might be set among the elite of heaven, seated directly within the splendour of God’s radiant palace, ahead of those who in the fallen world had been her immeasurable superiors, was a potent illustration of the mystery that lay at the heart of the Christian faith.’
The religion’s preference for the poor meant that every week, in churches across the Roman world, ‘collections for orphans and widows, for the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked, and the sick’ were raised by fellow-believers. Congregations grew in number, and with them a system of social security based on radical ideas about the poor. When the fourth century Martin of Tours handed his cloak to a beggar, and then dreamed that he saw Christ in those same clothes he had given away, it was a powerful statement about the individual humanity within each of us, even the lowest. This was revolutionary.
Martin, in his keenness to destroy pagan shrines, is seen as also representing the dark side of the new faith – the intolerance and righteous conviction, something it shares with its many secular heresies, from the French Revolution to the culture warriors of the 21st century. Yet Holland is not convinced, as some argue, that Christian zealots persecuted the old believers out of existence, arguing that most pagan shrines were just left to ruins rather than being demolished. ‘Blocks of masonry were not readily toppled, after all. Easier by far to leave them to weeds, and wild animals, and bird-droppings.’ Indifference to religion, as our own age shows, can be the most effective form of suffocation, more deadly than hatred.
Christianity contained within it the seedbeds of even more radical ideas. In the same century as Martin, Gregory of Nyssa began to take Christian thinking to its next logical step, arguing that the ancient and universal practice of slavery was an offence to God. Why, if man was created in God’s image, he argued, could any of God’s children be held in bondage?
Holland’s narrative sweep is ambitious and achieved by using each chapter to hone in on a particular time and place, shining a light on individuals and the moral leaps that took place. There is a grand cast of characters, figures such as Elizabeth of Hungary, the 13th century princess who spent each evening in a hospital, attending the sick, bathing them and cleaning up their bedsores and injuries: ‘her mopping up of mucus and saliva from the faces of the sick; her making of shrouds for paupers out of her finest linen veils; here were gestures that had prefigured her far more spectacular self-debasement in the wake of her husband’s death.’ Despite this misery, Lady Elizabeth had said: ‘If there were a life that was more despised, I would choose it.’
Some of these individuals appear very odd to our ironic, post-Freudian age. Elizabeth employed a spiritual tutor, Master Conrad, who went around Germany on a tiny mule telling off heretics, and who would beat her violently. ‘Willingly she sustained repeated lashes and blows from Master Conrad – being mindful of the beatings endured by the Lord.’
Then there was Catherine of Sienna, who fasted obsessively and ‘was tormented by sexual yearnings sent by the Devil’. Strange as she might be to 21st century readers, women such as this had power unimaginable to their non-royal Roman predecessors. In 1376 Catherine even turned up in Avignon insisting that Pope Gregory XI return to Rome – he was gone in three months. Urban VI forced his cardinals to listen to Catherine lecture them on their failures, and told them that ‘This weak woman puts us all to shame.’
There was St Paulinus, an early church father, described as ‘pale from his sparse diet of beans, and with his hair roughly cropped like a slave’s, his appearance was calculated to shock. His body odour too. In an age when there existed no surer marker of wealth than to be freshly bathed and scented, Paulinus hailed the stench of the unwashed as “the smell of Christ”.’
And Columbanus, one of countless heroic Irishmen of the early Middle Ages, who travelled to Francia with a small band of followers, ‘clearing away brambles, draining marshes, building an enclosure out of the shattered masonry, seemed to the Franks men of supernatural fortitude. When hungry, they would gnaw on bark; when weary after a long day of physical labour, they would devote themselves to study, prayer and penance.’
It was said of Columbanus that bears would obey his commands, but even kings would be wise to listen. When a local monarch asked him to bless four children by four different concubines, the Irishman refused, even in the face of threats. The Christianisation of the north meant the taming of these blond beasts, including their sexual urges. Once men had been sacrificed to Woden, drowned in the Low Countries or hung from trees and stabbed with spears in the Saxon forests. Likewise, a powerful figure might take a slave girl as and how he wished, and marry more than one woman – it was the way it had always been. But no longer, for marriage would now be between one man and one woman only.
Slowly and surely the Christian roots went deeper into western soil, even as some were questioning it: ‘A sexual order rooted in the assumption that any men in a position of power had the right to exploit his inferiors, to use the orifices of a slave or a prostitute to relieve his needs much as he might use a urinal, had been ended.’
Instead, as Paul had commanded, every human body was sacred. ‘Instincts taken for granted by the Romans had been recast as sin. Generations of monks and bishops, of emperors and kings, looking to tame the violent currents of human desire had laboured to erect great dams and dykes, to redirect their flood-tide, to channel their flow. Never before had an attempt to recalibrate sexual morality been attempted on such a scale. Never before had one enjoyed such total success.’
Christianity had brought ‘revolution to the erotic’ in a quite spectacular way. ‘The insistence of scripture that a man and a woman, whenever they took the marital bed, were joined as Christ and his Church were joined, becoming one flesh, gave to both a rare dignity. If the wife was instructed to submit to her husband, then so equally was the husband instructed to be faithful to his wife. Here, by the standards of the age into which Christianity had been born, was an obligation that demanded an almost heroic degree of self-denial.’ Divorce was prohibited, and to leave a wife was to ‘render her an adulteress’, as Christ had said. Even more radically, couples could no longer be forced into marriage and priests were instructed to join them even without the permission or knowledge of their parents.
‘The Church, by pledging itself to this conviction, and putting it into law, was treading on the toes of patriarchs. Here was a development pregnant with implications for the future. Opening up before the Christian people was the path to a radical new conception of marriage: one founded on mutual attraction, on love. Inexorably, the rights of the individual were coming to trump those of family. God’s authority was being identified, not with the venerable authority of a father to impose his will on his children, but with an altogether more subversive principle: freedom of choice.’ This, paradoxically, would in the 21st century lead to the conception of gay marriage.
One of the least attractive figures in the story is Martin Luther, a constipated, tormented German anti-Semite fond of burning books. The revolution he unleashed in 1517 led to an explosion of violence but also new ideas and interpretations, and eventually atheism, even if this atheism was itself of a particularly Christian variety.
Of all the radical new groups that sprung up after Luther, perhaps none was more disproportionately influential than the Society of Friends, a pacifist sect strongest in the north of England. Some Quakers would preach naked, others in sackcloth and ashes. One Quaker woman addressed Cromwell as dunghill and spent an hour urging him towards repentance. Another went as far as Constantinople where she preached to the Sultan. Whereas medieval mystics appear sexually tormented to modern audiences, these new Quakers just appear… tedious. Yet, as tedious and sanctimonious people sometimes are, they were also correct about a lot of things.
In the 1670s Irish Quaker William Edmundson was touring the West Indies, where he was trying to have Christianity taught to African slaves, and from where he wrote to his fellow Friends: ‘And many of you count it unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?’ Quaker leader William Penn, though he had owned slaves, cited the scripture passage ‘God has made of one blood all nations’ to himself, pricking his own conscience. Very soon the Friends concluded that slavery was an abomination – and they were on the right side of history. Many years later, with the international Atlantic trade abolished and slavery a memory in the British Empire, an American diplomat called the slave trade a ‘crime against humanity’, and ‘the term was one calculated to be acceptable to lawyers of all Christian denominations – and none.’ This was the language of human rights, an explicitly Christian one.
A proselytising religion by nature must expand, and the abolitionist movement soon turned its attention to a baffled Islamic world. In 1842, when the British consul-general to Morocco made the case for abolishing the African slave trade, the sultan declared that it was something ‘on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of Adam’. But no longer.
Yet the long-established faith now faced great challengers at home. The Thirty Years’ War had shaken Christianity, leading to the first real stirrings of atheism under Baruch Spinoza and the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers. A bigger shock came at the behest of a practising Anglican whose observations of the natural world would shatter the faith of many. ‘To believe that God had become man and suffered the death of a slave was to be believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat. Darwin’s theory, more radically than anything that previously had emerged from Christian civilisation, challenged that assumption. Weakness was nothing to be valued. Jesus, by commending the meek and the poor over those better suited to the great struggle for survival that was existence, had set Homo sapiens upon the downward path towards degeneration.’
‘For eighteen long centuries, the Christian conviction that all human life was sacred had been underpinned by one more doctrine more than any other: that man and women were created in God’s image. The divine was to be found in the pauper, the convict or the prostitute as it was in the gentleman with his private income and book-lined study.
‘That every human being possessed an equal dignity was not remotely self-evident a truth. A Roman would have laughed at it. To campaign against discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality, however, was to depend on large numbers of people sharing in a common assumption: that everyone possessed an inherent worth. The origins of this principle – as Nietzsche had so contemptuously pointed out – lay not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible. Ambivalence that came to roil Western society in the 1970s had always been perfectly manifest in the letters of Paul.’
The great apostle had balanced his ‘stern condemnation of same-sex relationships; with his praise of love. ‘Raised a Pharisee, learned in the Law of Moses, he had come to proclaim the primacy of conscience. The knowledge of what constituted a just society was written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on human hearts. Love, and do as you will. It was – as the entire course of Christian history so vividly demonstrated – a formula for revolution.’
Today the faith, in Europe at least, is much diminished and continually losing its battle against secularism. Within our lifetimes the West has undergone a fundamental change in values and a sexual revolution, although some have perhaps more accurately referred to it as a ‘sexual reaction’. Certainly Holland sees in Hollywood’s widespread sexual abuse scandal almost a return to Roman values, so that sexual freedom tends to be, ‘as in antiquity, the perk of a very exclusive sub-section of society: powerful men.’
The #metoo scandal played a part in the Great Awokening, the radical shift in values that began around 2013, spurred by social media, and especially focussed among America’s elites. The social justice theory of intersectionality is just the latest sub-strand of western thinking that owes its origins to Christianity, a hierarchy of victimhood that could be best summed up as ‘The last were to be first, and the first were to be last.’
In October 2017 leaders of Women’s March convention in Detroit, one panel ‘Confronting White Womanhood’ offered white feminists the chance to acknowledge their own entitlement, confess their sins and be granted absolution. If this isn’t religion, what is? Indeed, in many ways the new progressive faith, obsessed with the right side of history and an end time victory against the forces of bigotry, is less rational than the parent religion. As often as not, as Holland explains, these culture wars are ‘less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions’.
Christianity’s revolutionary message lies at the heart of our cultural assumptions, especially on the – theoretically more secular – political left. Angela Merkel opened up Germany’s borders to Middle Eastern refugees for this reason ‘The daily message was: Love your neighbour as yourself. Not just German people. God loves everybody.’
All of these beliefs owe their descent to that most revolutionary of ideas, a revolution that the author marvels at: ‘It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth.’
Holland became an established popular historian with Rubicon, his account of the fall of the Roman Republic, but this is certainly his greatest accomplishment so far, a masterpiece. Telling the entire Christian story in 500 pages is a challenge of mountainous difficulty, and the author succeeds spectacularly, keeping the pace and articulating the central point. To make the stories of St Paul and Augustine a page turner, and indeed a moving one, is no mean feat. When he recounts how Peter proclaimed his love for Jesus, who responded ‘Feed my sheep’, it is hard to not shed a tear. It helps, of course, that it is the greatest story ever told.
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