The Revolution No One Sees

Review of "Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World"

There are many articulate explicators and defenders of the intellectual and moral legacy of Christianity in the modern world. Writers like David Bentley Hart, Larry Siedentop and Charles Taylor are incredibly erudite and persuasive, yet their books do not easily fit into the category of leisure reading, given their need for full consciousness, uninterrupted focus, and ready access to dictionaries. For those lacking such resources in sufficient quantities, but who remain interested in the subject matter, Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, is a welcome gift.  

Tom Holland is an English historian who earned his authorial spurs as a writer of thriller novels.  He later turned his narrative skills to writing popular histories that read like adventure novels.  He has written about the Greco-Persian wars (Persian Fire), the Roman Revolution (Rubicon), late antiquity (Shadow of the Sword), and the lurid soap opera that was the Julio-Claudian Principate (Dynasty). Dominion covers a much bigger time period than these earlier works – roughly 2,500 years – so we do not get a continuous story but rather a series of stops along the way to explore key events and ideas.

Holland approaches his subject as a confessed outsider. Holland is well-versed in the stories and the history, but his study of Christianity does not concern what it says about God, but rather what it says about humans. Dominion is not about the truth or metaphysics of Christianity – the book is the study of the sociological, cultural, political and ontological consequences of that story for those that heard it. 

When the Gospel began to spread through the Mediterranean world, it brought in its wake a serious of assumptions that were radical departures from prevailing understandings of the world.  The crucifixion, the identification of the highest power in the universe with the lowliest victim turned traditional ideas of hierarchy, which linked power and virtue, on their heads. The idea of a single God, presiding over a single divine order who was knowable by, and related to, all equally was antithetical to Greco-Roman plenitude of fickle, quarrelsome divinities. And perhaps most importantly, the idea that anyone regardless of rank or status had the ability to commune with God and achieve salvation created the idea of individual equality and moral agency.  

Yet the ideas underlying Christianity were never co-extensive with the official doctrines and institutions of the Christian churches. In many ways, Holland sees Christianity as being inherently paradoxical. Like many other institutions, it asserted a monopoly on its truth and demanded adherence, loyalty and respect from its followers. But its ideas were inherently revolutionary. Personal salvation implies an ever-increasing sphere of personal autonomy and agency, the equality of believers demanded an ever increasingly egalitarianism in all other spheres, and the idea of a single, ultimate, divinely ordained order dangled the tantalizing possibility that perfect truth could be obtained, and implemented, in this world.  

The next 2000 years would see a repeated clash between Christianity’s institutional legacies and the revolutionary ideas inherent in it. Initially these clashes played out inside Christendom and the Church itself, with events like the investiture controversy and the Reformation being prime examples; but they later spread outside the bounds of institutional Christianity. The rise of religious toleration in the wake of the early modern wars of religion flowed directly from the Christian idea of moral agency. The scientific revolution owed much to the Christian idea of a universal order. Indeed the very project of the Enlightenment itself – the great intellectual repudiation of medieval superstition – was inconceivable without Christian assumptions. The philosophes who preached a world organized on reason were simply repeating Christianity’s “summons to bring the world from darkness into light.” The criticisms that were levelled against Christianity: that it oppressed the weak, that it violated the integrity of the individual, that it prevented a better world from being achieved, all were founded on the moral assumptions underlying the Christian message.

In the modern era, according to Holland, we have witnessed the way in which Christian moral assumptions have survived the retreat of the Christian Church and Christian belief. Many of the great social reforms and upheavals of the last 200 years were based on Christianity’s moral assumptions of universalism and individual worth. Holland argues that the “culture wars” of the recent past, which are usually portrayed with Christianity as either a target, or a participant (usually on the reactionary and, eventually, defeated side), were actually civil wars between different factions and interpretations of Christian ideas. In a very timely illustration of this argument, Holland cites the recent revelations of sexual exploitation of women by powerful men in the entertainment industry and emergence of the #MeToo movement. The sexual exploitation of the weak and the poor by the powerful had been a hallmark of the pre-Christian world, and the worst offenders of the recent past had behaved no differently than the Olympian gods. The idea that such actions were innately wrong was never self-evident. That idea had to be drawn upon something, which turned out to be ingrained Christian ideas about personal integrity, sexual continence and individual equality. A related (and very fitting) example of how deeply buried Christian assumptions are, according to Holland, is in the popularity of the Handmaid’s Tale television series. The series is based in a dystopian future where the United States has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists where fertile woman are consigned to a servile class that is subject to legalized rape. Christianity (or, more properly, a shallow and bizarre caricature of it) is cast as the villain of the story, being the justification for the handmaids’ status, but its blatant evil is only recognizable as such if one accepts certain assumptions that are entirely Christian in origin. Someone who accepts the ideas of the Sermon on the Mount would rightly recoil in horror, but someone who took their moral cues from the Iliad would not have any qualms about what goes on in the Republic of Gilead. 

Holland stops his story at the present, and doesn’t really look into the future. As such, he doesn’t address what seems to be the question Dominion poses: how well will Christian assumptions survive with the waning of the Christian religion? Holland credits a loving aunt and godmother – who took her duties of religious instruction seriously but also humoured the dinosaur obsession of the adolescent Holland that eventually led to a shipwreck of faith – with inculcating him with the Christian message. But what happens as generations pass and the story is no longer told?  Will the unseen revolution hold its sway over the moral lives of people? And if it doesn’t, what sort of moral world will follow?


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