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Tom Holland interview: ‘We swim in Christian waters’

27 September 2019

The faith of the Church transformed the West — and the entire world, Tom Holland tells Andrew Brown

Charlie Hopkinson

Tom Holland

Tom Holland

THE historian Tom Holland has written about the Roman and Persian empires; he has examined with a sceptical eye the foundational myths of Islam. Now he has turned his attention to our own civilisation. His latest book, Dominion (Books, 13 September), might appear to be a history of Christianity, but that’s not how he intended it.

“This isn’t a history of Christianity,” he says. “It’s a history of what’s been revolutionary and transformative about Christianity: about how Christianity has transformed not just the West, but the entire world.

“People in the West, even those who may imagine that they have emancipated themselves from Christian belief, in fact, are shot through with Christian assumptions about almost everything. . . All of us in the West are a goldfish, and the water that we swim in is Christianity, by which I don’t necessarily mean the confessional form of the faith, but, rather, considered as an entire civilisation.”

At this point I ask what exactly he means by “civilisation”. It seems to me that the imaginative content of Christianity has changed so much over the centuries that it’s very hard to extract a set of beliefs that has remained constant over the centuries. Some years ago, I was walking across the piazza in Trento, outside the buildings where the Council of Trent had met in the 16th century, and I realised that I had never met a single Christian whom the Council fathers would not have considered a heretic.

Holland does not see this as a problem, though. “Change is almost the essence of Christianity as a civilisation, because what it does is to import into societies the idea that progress is something to be welcomed.

“Essentially, what happens distinctively in Latin Christendom — more than in the world of Orthodoxy or the Eastern Churches — is the idea that lies at the heart of Christian message: that you can be born again, that you can be baptised, that your sins can be washed away, that your soul can be enlightened by the action of the Spirit.

“This serves as a kind of depth charge, a massive explosion. And one of the aftershocks that ripples out, particularly through Latin Christendom . . . is the very notion that change is a positive.”

FOR Holland, there are two fundamental revolutions in the development of Christianity which led to our contemporary society. The first, of course, is the idea of the incarnation, and the revelation that God took the form of a powerless, tortured, innocent criminal. The second came a thousand years later, with the Hildebrandine papacy.

“I think of Christianity as a series of explosions. You have the primal explosion, which happens in the first century, and its after-effects. Then, again, another really distinctive explosion happens in the 11th century. The measure of how significant the 11th century is is that most people have forgotten it. Most people don’t know a huge amount about it, but it sets the pattern for all subsequent revolutions.

“What happens in Latin Christendom from essentially the year 1000 onwards is that this becomes an agent of societal revolution: revolutionaries who, by the standard of earlier Christians, would rank as heretics, seized control of the most significant and prestigious bishopric in Latin Christendom — that of Rome — and they use it as a weapon with which to radically reconfigure the understanding of the role that kings, emperors, and other traditional offices of power, in not just Europe, but across the world have played.

PAWorshippers pray as firefighters battle to extinguish a giant fire that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, on 15 April 2019

“Their word for this was reformatio. This sets Latin Christendom and, by extension, the West, on a radical new course.”

One of the organising principles of the book is that Holland talks about Christianity almost as a dialectic, in which the tradition constantly renews itself by criticism from within. Then, at some stage after the Reformation, these weapons are turned against Christianity itself, so that not just the conduct of Christians is attacked, but so are their beliefs, for failing to live up to the promises or demands of the Christian revelation.

“Our Western form of assumption that angels and demons and, indeed, God, are simply superstition is, of itself, bred of something deep within the marrow of Christianity as it has evolved. . . It may be that atheism becomes a kind of inevitable endpoint to Christianity,” he says.

If that is the case, it’s not an endpoint that Holland really believes in. The God whom he fears no longer exists is a very Christian one, whose work is mostly visible in the softening of human hearts.

“Although the book is not in any way a work of apologetics, I’ve tried to be as objective as I can to describe what I find objectionable about what Christians have done, as well as what’s heroic.”

An unsympathetic reviewer might think that he has his thumb on the scales when making these judgements. The abolition of the slave trade gets as much space, perhaps more, as its continuation for centuries as an accepted Christian practice (at the time of the Norman conquest, in the middle of Tom Holland’s first great reformatio, one third of the population of Anglo-Saxon England were slaves). But this is necessary for his argument, which is a story of the development of our modern moral sensibility.

“When we condemn what Charlemagne’s soldiers did to the Saxons, or what the Spanish Conquistadors did in the New World, or what English slavers did when they were taking people from Africa to the New World — when we see that, by our standards, these are all crimes, we are judging them as Christians would. Earlier civilisations would have seen nothing wrong with this behaviour.”

THE problem that this leads to is obvious: if the stories of the Bible are not actually true, why should anyone try to live up to the ideals that they — or some of them — promote? For much of our interview, Holland is wrestling with this question.

“I have to say that all the reading that I did for this book, all the many Christian apologists, all the many great works of Christian literature — no writer made me feel more personally Christian than Nietzsche, and that’s because he really hates Christianity for everything that most people respect it for.

“Nietzsche’s famous parable is the death of God. The man comes into the marketplace and says that God is dead. Everyone ignores him because people can’t believe it, and the reason for that is that, although God lies dead in the cave, his corpse continues to cast shadows.

“The objects of Nietzsche’s parable are not so much believing Christians; it’s the people who think that they have reached a higher plateau and escaped: the philosophers, the socialists, the liberals, the people who assume that they can have Christian morality, Christian ethics, and Christian assumptions without Christian belief. They are the real object of Nietzsche’s scorn.”

To this extent, it seems to me that Holland dislikes Nietzsche so much because they actually agree so well. Neither man really believes that Christian assumptions can long survive Christian belief. Whether Nietzsche welcomes this or not is a question that I leave to people who know him better than I do.

The more interesting question is what can be done about it. Here, the argument of Dominion takes an interesting twist. In some sense, the book argues that the collapse of Christian belief has come from the inside — from the working out of tendencies that were already present in the religion even when it seemed unassailable.

Church TimesTom Holland and Andrew Brown at the Church Times offices, 4 September 2019

“The process by which the West uniquely feels that it has escaped a need to believe in a dimension of the otherworldly, the supernatural, the divine, is in itself an expression of deep trends within Christianity,” Holland argues.

“One is the emergence of an idea of the secular, and so of the fact that there are things called religions which can be extracted from the secular. In effect, what’s happened with Christianity is that it’s established itself within a ghetto which has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk, and the claims of the secular have grown broader and broader and broader — but that is very much an expression of Christian assumptions.

“The other is the idea that you can purge yourself of superstition and attain the light of the proper understanding of the way that the world is organised. That is in itself, again, deeply Christian. It goes back to the Hebrew prophets, it goes back to Elijah’s slaughtering the prophets of Baal, it goes back to Isaiah and Jeremiah scorning the idols of the Assyrians or the Babylonians.

“In the early centuries of Christianity, this idea results in the construction of something called paganism. All the manifold ways of understanding the divine that are not Christian are understood as ‘pagan’ — and these have to be purged from the face of the earth.

“This is exactly the rhetoric that, in the 16th century, Protestant reformers then turned against the Catholic Church. It’s exactly the language that people in the Enlightenment then turn against the Church as a whole.

“In that sense, liberalism, atheism, secularism, whatever you want to call it, the kind of climate, the moral, the intellectual climate that is now hegemonic in the West, again, is recognisably in a line of descent from this Christian idea that superstition has to be banished and that people have to become enlightened.

“I think that one of the paradoxically Christian expressions of de-Christianisation is in the anxiety that people who’ve been raised in Christian civilisation feel about the authority and the harmony of Christianity itself, to the degree that they want to turn their back on it. That’s the Christian notion that the first will be last and the last will be first absolutely cannibalising itself: that Christianity’s become so hegemonic you’ve got to repudiate it.

“I think that’s the most Christian expression of liberals today — when they say: ‘I’m happy to consider myself a Buddhist or Hindu or something, but I don’t want to be a Christian.’ It’s a rejection of Christianity for deeply Christian reasons.”

“Ultimately,” he says, “the basis of almost everything that we think, at its core, is theological. I think you see this very clearly in the issue of humanism: the idea that humans have a particular value is founded on a theological idea.

“Attempts to sustain that idea without the theology that historically has underpinned it seem to be wholly bogus and doomed to fail. One of the interesting ways in which we can see where this might lead is in the wild fringes of the environmental movement at the moment, which is saying: ‘Actually, well, humans aren’t special. Not only are they not special, but they’re a plague, and there are too many humans. There are too many of us. We are a kind of biological asteroid that is causing a great extinction on the level of the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.’ There’s a reason why, on the darkest fringes of environmentalism, it shades into Nazism.”

I ask: if that is the correct view, why should we care? It’s just another part of nature, like a virus — like every other part of it.

“I say it, because we are what we are,” Holland says. “We want to imagine. It satisfies our pretensions, that we are of some significance. If you’re looking to explain the success of Christianity as a historical phenomenon, the incredible dignity that it gives to every human being must be central to its enormous success and its ongoing success.”

IT’S NOT clear to me whether Holland thinks that this belief in intrinsic human value can arise anywhere outside Christianity. He’s quite clear that it wasn’t present in Greece, or Rome, or ancient Persia, all of which he has written about. His attitude to Islam seems ambivalent, at best, and perhaps coloured by his experience of Islamic State.

In any case, you would not learn from his book that there were resources in Islam for constructing a model of universal human dignity which resembles the Christian one, even if it has been as much honoured in the breach as the observance.

In his discussion of the British abolition of suttee, which is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking portions of the book, the narrative is a subtle story of the way in which resources were found within Hindu traditions to make the burning of widows seem something wrong by the internal standards of Hinduism, and not just by the alien standards of the British.

In a similar way, he sees that the present revolt against traditional Christian morality about sex is itself coming from Christian roots. “The #Metoo movement is dependent for its effectiveness on the fact that most men accept the value of the truth of what the #Metoo progressives are saying. That can’t be accepted as a given. It reflects 2000 years of distinctively Christian teachings on sexual morality.

ALAMYChrist the Redeemer on Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro Brazil

“Christianity is nowadays regarded as patriarchal and repressive, but it is radically egalitarian in the context of the world in which it’s born. In Latin, the word for ejaculate and urinate is the same for men. [That implies that] for the Romans, the mouth, the vagina, the anus of an inferior is like a urinal. It’s something that you void your fluids, and then you move on.

“Against this, Paul is teaching, saying: ‘No, a woman’s body, a boy’s body, a girl’s body, a man’s body, has to be regarded as sacred. And the way in which sexual relations have to be regulated is it has to be modelled on the relationship of Christ and his Church.’ That gives an incredible dignity to women.”

The idea that sexual relations might be based on gender rather than power seems to Holland to be another of the fundamental transformations brought about by Christian thought. If the sex of a partner mattered more than his or her status as penetrator or penetrated, it became possible to distinguish among those penetrated in a way incomprehensible to a Roman, for whom the important thing about a slave boy or a slave girl was that they were slaves, not boys or girls.

“That’s why, without Christianity, we would not have a contemporary assumption that there are things called heterosexuality or homosexual. Again, that’s part of how Christianity has totally rewired our brains.”

IN THE light of this belief, the obvious question is just how Christian he feels he is, and how much more he feels he ought to be. He’s said that Nietzsche made him feel more Christian than anything else. Does he pray?

“I don’t pray.”

Does he go to church?

“I do go to church. I’ve been going to church over the course of writing this book because I wanted to experience what it was like to go to church. . . The process of writing about the Romans, about the Greeks, about the Persians, and then about Islam was to make me feel increasingly that I’m very, very culturally Christian, as I think basically everyone I know is culturally Christian. The Nietzschean question is: can you have this without belief?”

How does he answer it?

“Well, I imagine it’s a bit like being gay and wanting to be straight. You try to will yourself into a condition of belief.

“The dinosaurs continue to hang over me. There was never a spectacular moment when I lost my faith, but because, as a child, I was very obsessed by dinosaurs, I had a kind of neo-Victorian crisis of faith when I was six, and I was given a children’s Bible that had a sauropod and Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. I knew this was a huge problem, and the Sunday-school teachers didn’t really seem to register that there was an issue here.

“Over the course of time, my fascination with dinosaurs — big, fierce, extinct — became a fascination with ancient empires — big, fierce, and extinct. I essentially identified with Pontius Pilate rather than with Jesus. I identified with Athena rather than with the God of Israel.”

ALAMYWinchester Cathedral

What changed this was an encounter with jihadi Islam, when he was making a film about IS and found himself in a Yazidi town in Iraq, on the front line (TV, 26 May 2017): “The women notoriously were enslaved, or if they were too old, were massacred, and many of the men were killed, and some were crucified. We were in this town where people had been crucified, and the people who’ve done this, Islamic State fighters, were a mile or so away across flat, open ground, so within reach.

“For the first time, I was facing the reality of crucifixion as it had been practised by the Romans, face to face. It was physical in the air, it was very hot. There was the smell of dust and the bodies and of heat.

“I was in a town where people had been crucified by people who wanted the effect of crucifixions to be that which the Romans had wanted. They wanted to generate the sense of dread and terror and intimidation deep in the gut, and I felt that. I’m not a brave person. I felt very scared to be there. I did feel intimidated by it.

“At the same time, I experienced it as blasphemy, and what I experienced transcended rationality, or consciousness even. I felt it as a blasphemy that anyone could crucify people, and it had no reference to the Christian story at all.

“I realised how important it was to me to believe that, in some way, someone being tortured on the cross illustrated the truth of the possibility that power might be vanquished by powerlessness, and that the weak might vanquish strong, and that death and hope might be found in the teeth of life in despair.”

Dominion: The making of the Western mind is published by Little, Brown at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50).

Listen to the full conversation between Tom Holland and Andrew Brown on the Church Times Podcast, available on SoundCloud (below), Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.

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