…is a world without the possibility of liberty.
Tom Holland has written a book: Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. At some point, I will read this book and write something about it; I have heard enough from him in interviews that the book seems very worthwhile.
This post is based on one of these interviews, conducted by Glen Scrivener. Glen Scrivener is an ordained minister and evangelist. My following notes pick up at the 29-minute mark; however, the entire interview is worth listening to.
GS: There are many humanists who say Christianity played a part in Western liberal values, but even without Jesus Christ we would have got to where we are.
TH: (chuckling) No. and it’s so odd because it tends to be people who valorize science and Darwin and the theory of evolution… [prior to Christianity] there is nothing at all about the emergence of the qualities or the values or the teaching of Christianity at all.
I don’t recall if it was earlier in this interview, or in another interview with Holland, but Holland describes the Roman world into which Christianity was born. Anyone not a male Roman citizen demanding any sort of rights would be sent to death. Any male Roman citizen had the right to have sex with anyone of any age in any orifice of his choosing. Things like this.
All of this was considered right, and good. It was only in Christianity where the slaves were given equal dignity in God’s eyes, where women had the same rights in marriage and sex as men.
GS: You cannot get these from other sources?
TH: If you want a sense of what the world might have looked like without Christianity you can look at India, where you have very rich philosophical tradition, a very rich tradition of worshipping gods, you don’t have something that emerges and wipes that out.
Certainly Christian-like values did not emerge from India.
TH: I can absolutely imagine a world where Christianity doesn’t emerge, where what the Jewish Scriptures offers to Gentiles remains highly appealing, so there’s a kind of churn of conversion. But because the difficulty of becoming a Jew is such, it could never become universalist on the scale that Christianity does.
It didn’t before Christ; there is no reason at all that it would have been different after Christ.
GS: Could we, though, have generated some sort of human rights [absent Christianity]?
TH: I don’t see why you would. Why would you? The idea that human rights kind of hangs in the ether waiting to be discovered is as theological as believing that the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and sits at the hand of God the Father. It requires a leap of faith.
It is interesting: we consider that natural rights “hang in the ether waiting to be discovered,” and this is true enough. But I think it is only true enough if one first accepts that man is made in God’s image and that God, in Jesus, gave us the means by which to understand proper virtues.
TH: The difference is that Christians recognize the divinity of Christ requires belief, whereas lots of people just assume that human rights exist, but they do not. They are a result of various legal developments in medieval Christendom. It doesn’t just spontaneously emerge.
Prior to and outside of Christianity, societies didn’t thrive by practicing what we today consider proper (i.e. Christian) ethics. Societies thrived via violence and brute force.
TH: The idea that humanists propagate, that science “proves” [the value of liberal values] is grotesque. Science is a mirror in which you see reflected what you want to see. The Nazis used science to justify racial genocide, liberals use it to justify “let’s hug the world.” But both of them reflect the cultural prejudices of people who are looking in that mirror of science.
Holland then describes his view of the fall from Christianity, which he says happened as a result of the two World Wars and people realizing the evils of the Holocaust. I will only say, that the fall happened long before, and Nietzsche’s madman saw this. Holland even references Nietzsche’s “Death of God,” so I do not follow his thinking here at all. He continues:
TH: We no longer needed the devil, because we had Hitler. We no longer needed hell because we had Auschwitz. So, whenever people want to do what is right, what is good, they look at the Nazis and do the opposite of what the Nazis did. The worst insult you can give anyone is that they are a racist or a Nazi.
This kind of [modern liberal] thinking sucked everyone in – universities, politicians, and churches. Therefore, the church no longer determines what people think. Whereas humanism is a kind of a Christian heresy, humanism has become so hegemonic that it has made the church kind of humanist.
This is why church attendance in the west is shrinking – who needs the church when all they do is regurgitate what is offered everywhere else?
GS: So, what would you like to see Christians preach?
TH: I see no point in bishops, preachers or evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff that you can get (chuckling) from any kind of soft left-liberal, because everyone is doing that. If I want that, I will get it from a liberal-democratic counselor.
Holland then describes the incomprehensible truth of Christianity:
TH: If you are a Christian, you think that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured by this strange singularity where someone who is God and man sets everything on its head. To say its supernatural is to downplay it. If you believe that, then it should be possible to dwell on all the other “weird” stuff that becomes part of the Christian package.
Really, no one else is offering this. It sounds like a pretty good product differentiation strategy.
TH: I don’t want to hear what bishops think about Brexit; I know what they think about Brexit and it’s not very interesting. If they’ve got views on original sin, I would be very interested to hear that.
Original sin is a perfect example: if you are a woke liberal, you think “how awful, how terrible; Augustine was a terrible guy.” But watching the kind of shrillness of people convinced of their own virtue, howling down “sinners,” you realize that the concept of original sin keeps us all honest – we are all sinners.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn would write that the line separating good and evil passes right through every human heart. Every single one. Original sin; we are all depraved.
TH: Without original sin, you get a horrible hierarchy of virtue. You get exactly what atheists tend to criticize Christianity for. Christians always have a sense of their own sin; it keeps them honest.
And this is what we see around us today. The hierarchy of virtue is upside down. The greater the evil and the more depraved, the higher up the ladder it goes.
Removing Christianity from community life, as was accomplished in the Enlightenment, has led us to this place. I am reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche, from Twilight of the Idols:
When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet... Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands.
Do you remember what Holland said about the ethics in pre-Christian Rome? There is nothing that keeps us from this.
Is liberty possible in such a world?