Tom Holland’s Dominion

Tom Holland’s Dominion July 14, 2020

Okay, I’ve been slowly reading Tom Holland’s Dominion and it is easily one of the best books of the year.

In sum, the book is a breath-taking analysis of western history and Holland shows through episode after episode how much of our western values and beliefs are umbilically connected to Christianity. A good summary of the book is this quote:

Just as a bishop of Oxford refused to consider that he might be descended from an ape, so now are many in the West reluctant to contemplate that their values, and even their very lack of belief, might be traceable back to Christian origins. (p. 15).

There have been several reviews of Holland’s book (see here and here), and I have no desire to add to them, but I will present my favourite quotes from the book as a kind of entree for any interested readers:

On the scandal of the cross:

So vast had the scope of Roman power become that any man who succeeded in making himself its master was liable to seem less human than divine. …  Divinity, then, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’ enemies, not to suffer it oneself: to nail them to the rocks of a mountain, or to turn them into spiders, or to blind and crucify them after conquering the world. That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. The ultimate offensiveness, though, was to one particular people: Jesus’ own (p. 6).

On Paul as anti-imperial:

His [Paul’s] scorn for the pretensions of the Divi Filius was total. The Son of God proclaimed by Paul did not share his sovereignty with other deities. There were no other deities. ‘For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’ This conviction, that a crucified criminal might somehow be a part of the identity of the one God of Israel—a conviction that Paul, in all his correspondence, took absolutely for granted—was shocking to Galatians as well as to Jews. Command and swagger were the very essence of the cult of the Caesars. To rule as an emperor—an imperator— to rule as a victorious general. In every town in Galatia, in every square, statues of Caesar served as a reminder to his subjects that to rank as the son of a god was, by definition, to embody earthly greatness. No wonder, then, that Paul, proclaiming to the Galatians that there was only the one Son of God, and that he had suffered the death of a slave, not struggling against it but submitting willingly to the lash, should have described the cross as a ‘scandal .’ (p. 85).

On Gregory of Nyssa’s opposition to slavery:

Gregory was moved by the existence of slavery not just to condemn the extremes of wealth and poverty but to define the institution itself as an unpardonable offence against God. Human nature, so he preached, had been constituted by its Creator as something free. As such, it was literally priceless. ‘Not all the universe would constitute an adequate payment for the soul o£ a mortal,’? This, for his congregation, was altogether too radical, too seditious a perspective to take seriously: for how, as Basil himself put it, were those of inferior intelligence and capabilities to survive, if not as slaves? Unsurprisingly, then, Gregory s abolitionism met with little support. The existence of slavery as damnable but necessary continued to be taken for granted by most Christians – Basil included. Only when heaven was joined with earth would it cease to exist. Gregory’s impassioned insistence that to own slaves was ‘to set one’s own power above God’s’, and to trample on a dignity that was properly the right of every man and woman, fell like seed among thorns. (pp. 142-43).

On medieval reformatio and its question not the Christianisation of sexual practice:

It was not just Venus who had been banished. So too had the gods feted for their rapes. A sexual order rooted in the assumption that any man in a position of power had the right to exploit his inferiors, to use the orifices of a slave or a prostitute to relieve his needs much as he might use a urinal, had been ended. Paul’s insistence that the body of every human being was a holy vessel had triumphed. Instincts taken for granted by the Romans hack been recast as sin. Generations of monks and bishops, of emperors and kings, looking to tame the violent currents of human desire, had laboured to erect great dams and dykes, to redirect their floodtide, to channel their flow. Never before had an attempt to recalibrate sexual morality been attempted on such a scale. Never before had one enjoyed such total success (pp. 279-80).

On Christian influences on Karl Marx and Communism:

Marx’s interpretation of the world appeared fuelled by certainties that had no obvious source in his model of economics. They rose instead from profounder depths. Again and again, the magma flow of his indignation would force itself through the crust of his scientific-sounding prose. For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil. Communism was a ‘spectre’: a thing of awful and potent spirit. Just as demons had once haunted Origen, so the workings of capitalism haunted Marx. ‘Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ This was hardly the language of a man emancipated from epiphenomena. The very words used by Marx to construct his model of class struggle—‘exploitation’, ‘enslavement’, ‘avarice’—owed to the chill formulations of economists than to something far older: the claims to divine inspiration of the biblical prophets. If, as he insisted, he offered his followers a liberation from Christianity, then it was one that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it. (pp. 457-58).

The godlessness of the Soviet Union was less a repudiation of the Church than a dark and deadly parody of it.  (p. 470)

The Christan basis for human rights:

That every human being possessed an equal dignity was not remotely self-evident a truth. A Roman would have laughed at it. To campaign against discrimination on the ground s of gender or sexuality, however, was to depend on large numbers of people sharing in a common assumption: that everyone possessed an inherent worth. The origins of this principle—as Nietzsche had so contemptuously pointed out—lay not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible. (p. 494).

In reality, Evangelicals and progressives were both recognisably bred of the same matrix. If opponents of abortion were the heirs of Macrina, who had toured the rubbish tips of Cappadocia looking for abandoned infants to rescue, then those who argued against them were likewise drawing on a deeply rooted Christian supposition: that every woman’s body was her own and to be respected as such by every man. (p. 530).

A great summary of the book is also in the conclusion:

If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound—as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued—a myth can be true. To be a Christian is to believe that God became man and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross  (pp. 540-41).

In sum, a terrific read, well-read on sources, well-written, full of amazing anecdotes, highly-informative, and it truly shows how the Christian revolution has shaped our world.

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