June 17, 2020


Are We All Christians Now? A Review of Tom Holland's Dominion (Daniel Strand,  June 17, 2020, Providence)

When I taught Western civilization, I was always looking for a book like Holland's. Too often the Western civ. curriculum industry focuses on historical events and less on cultural or moral ones. We are prone to be incurious about things that are so deeply assumed. Dominion explores the shifting assumptions in Europe through hinge moments where we can see something new or notable. Whether first-century Galatia or twenty-first-century Germany, Holland shows the manifestations and echoes of Christianity in how events play out and how historical actors describe their motivations.

As opposed to intellectual history, which too often floats above historical events, Holland focuses on historical actors and their motivations, which is much more convincing and persuasive to the average reader. Rather than an abstract discussion of paganism and Christian monotheism, he has Pompey strolling through the Temple in Jerusalem.

Holland's method shows how Christian ideals often frame the conditions on which our debates occur, whether the debaters are aware or not. At times the argument works more persuasively than others. One can perhaps find too much Christianity behind each and every cultural event or historical turning point. The motives and reasons for acting are often unclear, and pressures on historical actors are numerous.

Christians and non-Christians alike should read this book because Holland presents a very realistic picture of historical events and the influence of Christianity. Christians don't come out looking like heroes, which is closer to reality than the narrative of triumphalism. History plods and is filled with ups and downs. There is much to the history of Europe that deserves our admiration and much that deserves or condemnation. Christianity laid the groundwork for some of the most humane and wonderful aspects of Western society. It also played a role in some of its darker moments.

My hope is that Holland's book gains a wide readership and that Christian communities seriously debate and digest it. That said, I want to raise one substantive question. Holland offers mainly a history and, every now and then, a bit of reflection, but one question recurred as I read his narrative: What is Christians ethics? By that I mean, what is the goal of the moral life that Christians believe is incumbent upon all those who claim this faith? Holland's book presents a fascinating and sweeping vision of Christianity's effect on a particular civilization. But he prescinds from, self-consciously, the theological question that drives these effects in society. Western society imbibed Christian morals that transformed it, but what will happen if there are no Christians to support those values? If we assume Holland is right about his thesis--that the values of Western civilization are essentially Christian--are these Christian values sustainable without Christians who live them out?

Holland is not terribly clear on this point. He relentlessly points to this religion whose "molten heart" is a crucified man who had a lasting and profound revolutionary effect on society. Even Christianity's critics judge Christian failures by Christian assumptions, showing the extent to which Christianity has, in a sense, become inescapable. But can Christian ideas of love, sacrifice, care for the weak, humility, and the universal body of Christ be detached from the roots that nourish it? Can one have Christian values without the faith? At times Holland implies that we can and do.

While folks often speak of places like the Scandinavian nations as secular and post-Christian, the more of their culture you consume the more you realize how profoundly Christ-haunted they are.  The question is whether that is durable.

Posted by at June 17, 2020 12:00 AM