The popular historian Tom Holland has written an extraordinary book called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The subtitle sums up his argument. Holland is deeply impatient with the secularist ideology that reigns supreme in the academy and that tends to regard Christianity as a debunked, outmoded religion, a holdover from a primitive, pre-scientific age, a block to progress both moral and intellectual. In point of fact, he argues, Christianity has been and continues to be the most powerful shaper of the Western mind, though its influence is so pervasive and so deep that it is easily overlooked.
His very effective strategy for bringing this out into the open is first to de-familiarize Christianity through a brutally realistic accounting of what crucifixion meant in the ancient world. To be put to death on a Roman cross was just about the worst fate that anyone at that time could have imagined. The very fact that our word “excruciating,” which designates the most agonizing kind of pain, comes from the Latin ex cruce (from the cross) fairly gives away the game. But more than the awful physical suffering of the cross was its unsurpassed humiliation. To be stripped naked, nailed to two pieces of wood, left to die in the course of several hours or even days, while exposed to the mockery of passersby, and then, even after death, to have one’s body given over to be devoured by the birds of the air and the beasts of the field was just about as degrading an experience as possible. That the first Christians, therefore, proclaimed a crucified criminal as the risen Son of God could not have been a more comical, unnerving, and revolutionary message. It turned upside down all of the ancient world’s assumptions about God, humanity, and the right ordering of society. If God could be identified with a crucified man, then even the lowest and most forgotten members of the human family are worthy of love. And that the earliest followers of Jesus not only declared this truth but concretely lived it by caring for the homeless, the sick, the newborn, and the aged made their message even more subversive.
Though he explores many other ways that the Christian philosophy influenced Western civilization, Holland identifies this idea, radiating out from the crucified Jesus, as the most impactful. That we take for granted that every human being is worthy of respect, that all people are bearers of equal rights and dignity, that compassionate love is the most praiseworthy ethical attitude is, quite simply, a function, whether we acknowledge it or not, of our Christian cultural formation. Proof of this can be found by looking back to ancient civilization, where none of these notions held sway, and by looking, even now, at societies unshaped by Christianity, where these values are by no means unquestioningly revered.
The bulk of Holland’s book is taken up with analyses of key moments in Western history, which reveal the influence of the master idea of the cross. I would put special stress on his reading of the Enlightenment, whose political values are unthinkable apart from the Gospel, and of the contemporary “woke” movements, whose preoccupation with the suffering of victims and the marginalized is the fruit of a culture at whose heart, for two thousand years, has been a crucified and unjustly condemned man. I particularly appreciated his coverage of the Beatles’ famous 1967 Abbey Road recording of “All You Need is Love” in front of a live audience. The sentiment conveyed by that iconic song is one with which neither Caesar Augustus nor Genghis Khan nor Friedrich Nietzsche would be the least bit sympathetic, but which in fact is deeply congruent with the thought of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Paul the Apostle. Like it or not, the Christian revolution massively shapes the way that we in the West continue to see the world.
With this part of Holland’s argument—and it takes up 90% of the book—I am in complete agreement. The point he is making is not only true; it is of crucial importance at a time when Christianity is, so often, put down or set aside. That said, for me, the entire book unravelled at the end, when the author admitted that he believes neither in God nor, obviously, in the divinity of Jesus or his Resurrection. The revolutionary ethic that flowed from those beliefs he finds compelling, but the convictions themselves are, he feels, without warrant. This distilling of an ethical system out of deeply questionable dogmas is a familiar move among the modern philosophers. Both Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson endeavored to do just that. But it is a foolish enterprise, for it is finally impossible to separate Christian ethics from metaphysics and from history. If there is no God and if Jesus did not rise from the dead, how in the world is it the case that every human being is worthy of infinite respect and a subject of inviolable rights? If there is no God and if Jesus did not rise from the dead, how could we not conclude that, through the power of his awful cross, Caesar won? Jesus might be vaguely admired as an ethical teacher with the courage of his convictions, but if he died and remained in his grave, then power politics prevails, and the affirmation of the dignity of every person is just a silly wish-fulfillment.
It is instructive that, when the first Christians evangelized, they did not speak of human rights or the dignity of all or of other such abstractions; they spoke of Jesus risen from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit. They insisted that the one whom Caesar’s empire put to death God had raised up. Tom Holland is absolutely right that many of the best ethical and political instincts of the West have come from Christ. But just as cut flowers will last only a short time in water, so those ideas will not long endure if we deracinate them from the startling facticity of the cross of Jesus.