Lead book review

Did Christianity make the western mind — or was it the other way round?

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

Nobody can accuse Tom Holland of shying away from big subjects. Dominion is nothing less than a history of Christianity with an underlying theme. The subtitle says it all. It is dedicated to the idea that Christianity has formed the western mind, not just in its moral and intellectual conventions but in their opposites, such as atheism or the natural sciences.

An argument so paradoxical provokes thought, whether one agrees with it or not. This one is sustained with all the breadth, originality and erudition that we have come to associate with Holland’s writing. The technique is a sort of literary pointillism. An incident, an image, an individual, a place are presented as capturing the spirit of an epoch. They coalesce to form a pattern which Holland presents as revealing the contribution of Christianity to the modern world.

Over the centuries, Christianity has stood for many inconsistent things and for many things which the ‘western mind’ has rejected. It has favoured both peace and war, authority and anarchy, freedom and despotism, individualism and collectivism, often at the same time. It was for centuries a consistent enemy of liberty of conscience, scientific investigation, social and gender equality and unconventional sexuality. These things all reflect its fundamental conservatism, an inevitable feature of a creed that has at its heart a historic revelation of truth based on authority rather than empirical enquiry. So the notion that it has ‘made’ the western mind calls for a rather selective view of both Christianity and the western mind.

What is the essence of Christianity? How many of the beliefs that we associate with it are really no more than the ephemeral social prejudices of people who happened to be Christians? Holland does not in terms answer these questions. But his answers are implicit in his narrative. The essence of Christianity, he suggests, is the nobility of suffering, the moral equality of human beings and the empire of love. This is a defensible view, although hardly a complete one. These three things have indeed been among the basic aspirations of Christianity. The problem is that Dominion is a work of history, not moral theology. It is not always easy to trace essential Christian values through the alternating highs and lows of Christian history.

Holland’s starting point is Christianity’s conquest of the Roman world before the conversion of Constantine, i.e. at a time when it did not have the support of government or social convention, and was certainly not the way to worldly fame or fortune. This was when Christianity developed its basic corpus of doctrine and moral precept. How was it able to sweep the civilised world? The key figure is St Paul, the Jew who transformed Christianity from a Jewish sect to a universal faith, the teacher and orator who skilfully adapted the message to the audience wherever he went.

Of course, experience varied. But there are three common and closely connected themes. In the first place, Christianity’s emphasis on the moral equality of men was fundamental. It offered an escape from the mental and emotional constraints of an intensely hierarchical society. This was particularly attractive to the humble, urban groups from whom early Christian communities were mainly recruited. Secondly, it promised personal salvation and eternal life on conditions that were within every individual’s personal control. The hardships of the world were the more bearable for being just a phase of human existence. Thirdly, there was a significant element of mysticism, at a time when the worship of the man-gods of the ancient world seemed emotionally unsatisfying to growing numbers of people. The soil had been prepared by a variety of mystical sects, some home-grown, others adopted from Indo-Iranian models such as Mithraism and Zoroastrianism.

Yet many of the things which explained the spread of Christianity in its first three centuries were found to be extremely inconvenient once it became an established religion. Christianity has always been a didactic creed, claiming to be a collective embodiment of truth. It could hardly have made so many converts otherwise. But from the 4th to the 18th century, it was also a creed of government which both sustained authority and was sustained by it. If this had not happened, it would probably not have survived. It would have lost all coherence, disintegrating into a mass of warring sects, each with its own beliefs, as it had already begun to do in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. But the price of coherence was high. Christianity was transformed from a religion into something more, namely a church characterised by a high degree of organisation and considerable coercive power.

The promise of personal salvation was still there. So too were the moral equality of human beings and the message of love, albeit in a rather attenuated form. But Christianity acquired a hardening sense of hierarchy, and a growing suspicion of alternative routes to truth which did not depend on the mediation of an organised church. Thus mysticism, which had been an important element of early Christian practice, was frozen out. It seemed to offer a direct connection to God which was too varied and personal to be encompassed by a single organised and homogeneous faith.

More significantly for the development of the modern mind, empirical science was viewed with hostility as another alternative route to truth, especially when — as with cosmology or anthropology — it touched on the myths of creation which almost all religions have claimed as their own. Galileo, Bruno and Darwin all discovered this to their cost. These attitudes survived the break-up of the universal church in the 16th century. But they have not survived the decline of religion itself, which has been one of the most notable developments of the western mind since the 19th century.

The ‘western mind’ is too large a concept for any one thing to have ‘made’ it. But on any view, a rejection of revealed authority and a belief in empirical enquiry are a fundamental part of the ‘western mind’ as it has developed since the 17th century. It is difficult to accept that Christianity has contributed anything to that. It may even have hindered it.

What Christianity has always contributed is something equally important but more limited: a framework of moral values which is fundamental to our ability to live together as social animals. But in this, Christianity is not unique. All religions that are not just inward-looking sects have this character-istic in common. And the moral framework is generally very similar in all of them. The same is true of most purely secular theories of social obligation.

Voltaire once told the Prince of Prussia that ‘if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’. What he meant by this was that without a religious under-pinning, no moral code could retain its power over the human mind, and human societies would disintegrate. The experience of the increasingly agnostic 20th century has undermined this view. It would probably be truer to say that the western mind made Christianity, rather than the other way round. And the western mind is in the process of discarding it, now that its practical utility as a foundation of social existence is no longer so obvious.

Religious feeling will not die, even in an age of belligerent secularism. It is too basic a part of human instinct. But religion is in the process of reverting to the worship of nature and of humankind itself, notions surprisingly close to the religions of the ancient world that Christianity supplanted.

Should we rejoice? I think that Tom Holland would say not, and I am inclined to agree. Christianity may be founded on myth, but it is a beautiful and uplifting myth which expresses some fundamental truths about ourselves. It has also given rise to some of the noblest literary and artistic expressions of the human mind. The myths which seem likely to replace it will not necessarily be as benign. Even Christianity’s organisational framework, its buildings, its hierarchies and its ministers, which many regard as its most expendable features, represent a form of human sociability more attractive than the atomistic social models offered by more personal styles of religious practice.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments