Dominion by Tom Holland; Generic, 2020
FITTINGLY enough, I finished Dominion, Tom Holland’s history of Western Christian thought and its shaping of the Western mind, on the same day as the fall of Kabul. Holland’s book is a magnificent, magisterial work that not just all Christians but anyone who cares about the ascent and decline of Western civilisation should read. Although perhaps sometimes it overstates its case, it brilliantly succeeds in its objective of showing how much Western thought owes to Christianity, rather than, say, the Enlightenment.
Crucial to its success is that it starts its journey in a thorough examination of the cultures and intellectual development of the pre-Christian world of classical antiquity: Greece, Rome, Judea and Persia. This illuminates just how revolutionary Christian ideas, particularly St Paul’s doctrine of equality, were in a world where might was right, and the poor and the needy were to be despised. Although you might expect such novel teachings to find favour with those less fortunate, what is striking is how they also converted some, such as St Martin, who were born to great wealth and status. Whether it was in the post-Roman early Middle Ages or 19th century Africa, the power of Christian ideas inspired men and women to spread the Christian message at great personal risk and sacrifice.
Holland states that so dominant and embedded did Christian thought become in the Western mind that even later intellectual movements hostile to Christianity such as Marxism could not help to but do so in a Christian context: that the world could be made anew – reformed – was a fundamentally Christian idea. Here I think Holland may overstate his case somewhat, as to a sceptical humanist this logic may seem rather circular: after all (if one discounts divine inspiration) if the birth of Christian ideas was initially possible in a classical context, why was a Christian context necessary for similar ideas later?
Covering the entire sweep of Western Christianity as it does, the book excels at countering the prejudices of the atheist and committed Christian alike. The modern liberal prejudice that religion was and is nothing but hocus pocus holding a benighted humanity back is absolutely skewered. Likewise, a Protestant such as myself, brought up to believe the Roman Catholic Church to be a benighted, authoritarian and quasi-pagan institution, can appreciate its many achievements, not least the work of Abelard and St Thomas Aquinas in marrying faith and reason. Roman Catholics may be surprised to see Oliver Cromwell given a sympathetic hearing – Holland claims he was far more tolerant than his critics allow, and his actions, despite his Puritan leaning, were often more based on the spirit of Christ’s teachings rather than Sola Scriptura. This tension between spirit and the literal word in Christianity is another theme Holland returns to again and again, emphasising its enormous importance in great social movements such as the abolition of slavery – a thoroughly Christian achievement. However, throughout the book Holland does not shy from the evil repeatedly done in Christ’s name – the persecution of the Cathars, the attempted accommodation of the Lutheran Church with Nazism and so on.
The final section of the book deals with Christianity’s decline as new ideas such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species challenged biblical truths. The rejection of Judeo-Christian ideas and their substitution with supposedly more rationalist doctrines leads to the total darkness of the Nazi period. As the book moves into the post-war era, those who have read Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe will find it especially interesting to see Murray’s thesis in the context of the decline of Christian belief. Despite the dying of the light, Christianity was still instrumental in the Civil Rights movement in the United States and in the later undermining of South African apartheid. Holland deals bravely with the rise of Islam, explaining how foolish is the liberal assumption that its ideas are necessarily compatible with Western Christian ones.
And on that subject, regrettably, for me, the weakest paragraph in the book is the closing one, as Holland somewhat glibly states that ‘nor, even if the churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these [Christian] standards are likely to change’. Really? Plastered across or TV screens these last two weeks has been Western humiliation of the fall of Kabul, and much justifiable concern for the consequences for Afghani women and girls. However, just two weeks before that a Muslim woman died after being found on fire in the street in Bury, Greater Manchester. The item was buried in the regional news. Culturally, the Taliban are already with us, but little is said or done about the presence of Islamo-savagery in our midst. So much for judging by Christian standards.
Still, in Dominion, Tom Holland has given Christians the intellectual armoury in order to go into battle in the great Kulturkampf raging about us. I strongly recommend it to Christians and indeed to anyone interested into how we go to be who we are.