Christianity is one of the most explosive and dynamic phenomena in human history, Tom Holland tells Caspar Henderson in a discussion of his new book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind
What are you trying to achieve with Dominion?
Ultimately, it’s a highly personal book. As you know yourself, works of non-fiction can be as personal to a writer as a novel. It was really after writing about Greece, about the Spartans and the Romans that I found them increasingly frightening and increasingly alien. This drew my attention to what had changed since ancient Greece and Rome. I had grown up with them, and had always strongly identified with them, and casually thought, well I am an heir of Greece and Rome. But the process of writing about them and inhabiting their mentalité, I found that increasingly that this was not true.
So I started to ask where my assumptions came from and by the extension the assumptions that govern our society. That was sharpened for me by writing about early medieval Europe in its essential formative age — the tenth and eleventh centuries — and then about Islam, which is in many ways incredibly similar to our world: if you’re a Hindu then Christians and Muslims are very hard to tell apart. But I found by trying to inhabit a Muslim frame of mind that I found it very different, very strange. I wasn’t sure why.
I came to the conclusion that the broadest sense these were all Christian. Christianity was the water in which I, as a goldfish, was swimming.
I began to ask, why? As someone who was essentially liberal, secular, agnostic, where did my assumptions, about morality, ethics, sex, society come from? And when I worked it out it felt like finding an itch on a back: when you finally find it and scratch it, it is so satisfying. I came to the conclusion that the broadest sense these were all Christian. Christianity was the water in which I, as a goldfish, was swimming.
Just as we can talk about Islam as a civilisation, so I think the term ‘Christendom’ is useful because it’s a civilisational thing, From the very beginning, Christians claimed universal application for their beliefs. This is good news for the entire world, and today liberals in the West feel exactly the same.
People have often said something along these lines, but I wanted — like Theseus in the labyrinth — to follow the threads. The process of writing the book was very exciting for me.I finished the book feeling entirely confident that the thesis is correct.
What makes Christianity so powerful a force in history in different times and in different ways?
I don’t know if you saw the Chernobyl TV series. I’m not comparing Christianity to radioactive poison — though Richard Dawkins might approve of that comparison! But the sense of that all the concrete and cladding which contains that power is ruptured and that great plume of radioactivity goes up into the air and ionises it — that people and animals from Kiev to Cumbria are being affected. They can’t see it but they’re all breathing the stuff in. That seems to me a good image for how Christianity functions. It generates power like no other belief system, and it does it because it advances various radical notions of which I think two are most significant.
One, Christianity fuses the idea from Genesis that all human beings, male and female, are created in the image of God, with the Stoic idea of a cosmopolis — a commonwealth of human beings that spans the whole world. Two, it valorises in the most symbolically and mythically potent way the idea that strength can be found in weakness, that victory found in defeat, that a new beginning can be found in what seems to be the most terminal form of death.
These two notions radically reconfigure assumptions that had been fundamental to the way all ancient societies viewed the world. And then Christianity takes a distinctive form in the West because it is there that the doctrine of baptism — the idea that sins can be washed away, that you can be born again — gets projected onto the state, onto the notion that a whole society can be cleansed, and find a new and better beginning. This notion becomes politically practicable in the 11th century, when people who essentially are heretics by the standards of earlier generations of Christians seize the commanding heights of the most prestigious office – that of the bishop of Rome. And out of Rome they create a radically potent institution that ends up humbling the kings, that ends up sending warriors armed with an ideological fervour to the ends of the world, that ends up constructing an entire new framework of law, with notions such as that even the poorest beggar has rights as a human being.
These ideas pulse and ripple through what we will subsequently call the middle ages. Medieval Christendom is actually a radically revolutionary society. But what happens in all revolutionary societies is that the magma cools, and solidifies: one age’s revolutionaries become the next age’s elite. And so the Christian message that the first shall be last the last shall be first starts to rouse new revolutionary yearnings. The movement that in the eleventh century that was called reformatio was repeated many times in subsequent centuries. ‘The’ Reformation is just one spasm of reformatio. The French revolution is another. All those elements you see in the eleventh century – the toppling of kings, the ideological fervour of armies drawn from people who’d never thought to fight in that way, new frameworks of law and constraint — these are thrown up in the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and I would say in the 1960s, which was another massive spasm of ideological fervour. They are all recognisably Christian.
One of the things that makes Christianity so radical and so unusual is that it turns on itself. Because it has at its core the toppling of hegemonies. The cross — the most recognisable cultural symbol humanity has ever come up with — takes back from a hegemonic imperial power its emblem of the right to torture and kill those who oppose it, and plants it on the ruin of that ambition.
a cycle of instability and revolutionary impulse is fundamental to the entire fabric of Christian and what we would now call Western civilisation
The desire to topple hegemonies is fundamental to the Christian message but the paradox is that Christianity itself has become the most hegemonic framework for understanding the world that humanity has ever had. Christianity itself has become a target of that impulse. The Christian urge to purge a world haunted by demons of cancerous superstition — an urge that goes back to the Hebrew prophets — is one that the reformers in the eleventh century turn against older manifestations of the Church. It’s one that Protestants turn against the Catholic Church in the 16th century, that the revolutionaries in France turn against Christianity as a whole. And its one that increasingly since the sixties those who the heirs of the Christian tradition — the Universities and others— have begun to turn in a kind of Oedipal manner against Christian heritage.
So there is an inherent cycle of instability and revolutionary impulse that is fundamental to the entire fabric of Christian and what we would now call Western civilisation.
Christianity has had many critics. Is your book in part a response to one of those, Edward Gibbon, who argued that Christianity was largely responsible for the destruction of the Roman Empire?
Gibbon was a huge influence. He is one of the reasons I wanted to write the kind of history that I do. I admire him hugely. His take on Christianity — that essentially there had been an age of reason and enlightenment, and then all these appalling monks had come along and everything had gone dark, and only with the renaissance and enlightenment had everything been restored — is hugely influential, and one that the very word ‘medieval’ sustains. It seems to me deeply wrong now. The rupture is not a tripartite one, between Antiquity, the Medieval period, and the modern period , Modern, but a bipartite one: between Antiquity and everything since.
However Gibbon himself was in some sense a Christian. He never went the full Diderot. He was a Protestant on that wing where Protestantism fades into Agnosticism. And I think that he was shrewd enough an historian to recognise that what he objected to in Christianity as he portrayed it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — that the impulse for his condemnation is itself essentially Christian. That is part of what makes it so fascinating. And many of those who follow in his footsteps haven’t fully recognised that quality in his work. I certainly hadn’t, and when I reread it I was much more alert to that
Let’s jump to Darwin? He was not so much a critic of Christianity as an explorer of an hypothesis which challenges many religious beliefs.
Almost everything in Western culture is shot through with Christian assumptions. However Darwin’s theory of evolution is the exception to that rule. That makes it a seismic shock. Darwin himself recognised this – the parasitoid ichneumon wasp is the nightmare that haunts him. Because either he has to contemplate a deity who has made that possible or, as he prefers to conclude, there is no Divine Artificer, it’s all generated by the forces he identifies. Darwin himself does not coin the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ And the ends to which that doctrine is pushed by eugenists and the Nazis is not the only way to interpret Darwin. Nevertheless, I think it is telling that that is where Darwinism first leads.
Darwin himself is very tortured by this. Although he has lost his faith in a benign god and the tenets of Christianity, he wants to hold on to the convictions he’s inherited from his father, grandfather and immediate family that slavery is wrong, that the weak should be cared for — even though he worries that this will result in the degeneration of the human race and the European race. In his understanding of the imperial European spread around the globe he laments the fact that this is highly destructive of people he terms aboriginal, be they native Americans or Tasmanians peoples or Fuegians. But his own theory leads him to assume that it is kind of inevitable that they are going to be swept away
It is telling that the crisis of faith that afflicts lots of Christian also afflicts liberals like Huxley, who sees himself as Darwin’s bulldog against superstition. Huxley — who is so significant in promoting the idea that there is something called ‘science’ that can be opposed to something called ‘religion’, which feeds into the narrative of there having been a timeless conflict between them — plays a key role in neutering the idea the Darwinism and science generally might be a threat to the assumptions and conventions that scientists as much as anyone else have inherited from Christian civilisation. And ‘science’ as it is constructed is a kind of doppelgänger of religion. Those who speak to the public, of whom Huxley was the prototype, and from whom there are many descendants — perhaps, Caspar including yourself! — they tend to share the idea that science is in some way charged with a moral force. They tend to hold that science teaches us fundamental things about humanity and the wonders of the world, and that it provides us with a way to clinging onto ideals that to me are clearly Christian however much they deny this.
One may note in passing that the Anglican Church, has “no problem” with Darwin. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey
They are wrong not to!
Perhaps we can agree on this: Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a first step in understanding how evolution works, and its relation to ecology and Earth systems. There has been 150 years of discovery and analysis since. Also, one might note that in The Descent of Man, Darwin writes about the evolution of morality as something you would necessarily expect in highly social animal species — that you can find a ground for morality in natural selection, in other words. But that aside, cannot someone who recognises the force and strength of your thesis, as I think I do, say, yes I can see that I am formed by a society that is in large part but not exclusively formed by Christianity, but to be shaped by something is not the same as to be it? There can be innovation and change.
That’s true, but I think the assumptions that govern liberal society in the West today remain fundamentally theological. What’s wrong with racism as practiced by the Nazis? Why should we care about the poor? Why should we have a welfare state? Why should men care about women being harassed. Why should straight people care about rights for gay people? The reason that we instinctively hold to these doctrines, which are of course not givens, derive from the two fundamental assumptions of Christianity. One, that we are all created equal in the image of God. Two that Christ died on the cross as a slave in the most excruciating death imaginable and that therefore those at the bottom of the pile have a greater claim on god than those at the top.
I’d like to touch on the relationship between Christianity and responses to the environmental crisis. Many non-Christians will recognise that Christianity has made a huge contribution in that regard. One can point to laudato si’, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, or Christians taking part in movements such as Extinction Rebellion, and many others.
It is in the dimension to natural history and our relationship to other species that the great threat to Christianity happens. I do think that that is the aspect of Western civilisation that not just contradicts but threatens Western assumptions. And partly it’s because as Heinrich Himmler says, there is nothing particular about man, he is a part of the world.
To go Nietzschean on it, I think we cling to our illusions, and our illusions are Christian.
Western industrial civilisation clearly threatens the survival of the planet as we’ve known it. It is expediting the sixth extinction, and I think that undermines pretty much every belief system that evolved in a period when humans were not aware what they were doing to the fabric of the planet.
To go Nietzschean on it, I think we cling to our illusions, and our illusions are Christian. We don’t want to face up to the fact that there is a tension between the Christian dignity of man, and the idea that we have a unique status — which of course underlies all kinds of things that you and I and most things that people in the West instinctively support — against the fact that if we have a particular status we can do what we like to the natural world. There is a tension there that nihilist and fascists have not been slow to point out! But we don’t want to face up to the implications.
In the conclusion of the book you write about your godmother. Why did you do this in a book which is not, after all, a history of Tom Holland!
The argument of the book throughout is that everyone, at least in the West — be they Catholic Protestant, Hindu, Jewish Muslim – is affected by Christendom in ways that we often don’t understand. I wrote this book because it is part of my attempt to understand where I came from. It would be ridiculous of me to pretend I could stand outside this process and adopt a position of omniscient authority. So much of what we think and feel is a result of inchoate ideas we pick up in childhood.
When I look back at what I thought about Christianity, about why I had lost my faith as a child, I also remember my godmother who was a devout, inspirational, loving Christian — a model of everything I admire about the Christian faith while at the same time she lived very near the Jurassic coast in Dorset, and as a dinosaur-obsessed boy she would take me to fossil shops, and she would buy me plastic dinosaurs and all kinds of things.
I try to be as objective as I possibly can in the book. I have written what I think the history of the West justifies me in writing. I have not tried to palliate the crimes of Christianity or overstate what I think are its virtues. And I recognise that even to talk about crimes and virtues in that sense is to talk in a Christian framework of judgement. But I have to accept that I am not neutral because I have absorbed all this framework well. So I thought it was important to give the reader a sense of where I was coming from, and possibly to inspire them to think, maybe I likewise have absorbed this stuff without realising it.
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland is published by Little, Brown on 5 September 2019
Images: 1. ‘Kiss of Judas’, Giotto (between 1304 and 1306), Public domain; 2. A Cereal Leaf Beetle after being parasitised by a wasp which lays its eggs inside the larva of the beetle. The eggs hatch within the larvae and begin to feed on the beetle while it is still alive, before they burst out and kill it, 0lwurst