We had a written note through our letterbox from the young woman who lives next door. She was kindly offering that in this time of coronavirus, if we needed anything we should contact her. She gave us her mobile number. She is a one-parent family with a lot on her plate, but nevertheless was reaching out to us. It was really sweet of her.
Why is such caring in the British psyche? Some would say it’s just the better side of human nature. But the historian Tom Holland questions that in his latest book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.1 He would say it has much more to do with the pervasive influence of Christianity.
Across the centuries
The author is a respected academic who, it appears, is teetering on the brink of becoming a Christian. The volume brings tremendous encouragement to believers as he builds up his case. Like a stone skimming across the water unleashed by a powerful arm, the book skips delightfully across the past two and a half thousand years of European history. There are introductions to little known martyrs, monastics, popes and firebrand reformers of enormous interest, as well as brief analyses of major thinkers. It is in a more popular style and much broader in its purview than Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. There are forays into stories from tucked away corners of our continent of which I had never heard. And the outcome is that we find our faith has a truth about it that is more contagious and has influenced and continues to influence our world far more than the secular mind would ever want to admit.
Questions and embarrassments
You will have questions if you read it. Why, for example, apart from Luther and Calvin, are evangelicals hardly mentioned? Why does Wilberforce not get a look in with regard to the abolition of slavery – which is mostly attributed to the Quakers? Holland tries hard to be even-handed, so that Christians, rightly, don’t always come out smelling of roses. There are some very dark and blameworthy days amidst the story of our faith – including for Protestants.
Nevertheless he argues how it is that classic Christianity, rooted in Scripture, won through and made the West the best place on earth to live.
The author’s thrust is that Christianity has brought compassion to the world which otherwise would not have been there. The truths of the dignity of all mankind, made in the image of God, and kindness to the vulnerable and the weak prevail among us because of Christianity’s informing of the conscience. The shaming of the strong, used to such great effect by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, has won the day in the West. And this shapes the way we all see things right down to the current attitudes on Green and the PC issues of ‘Woke’ folk. Even though greater numbers of people than ever will tick the ‘No religion’ box in the UK census due next year, there is still more of the teaching of Jesus in their system than they know.
Though we evangelicals would see this ethical stance as a consequence of our faith rather than the heart of it, Christians can hold their heads up because of it.
Today’s crusades and a godmother
There were certain highlights for me. His exploration of the Nazi and also Marxist ideologies based on their reading of Darwinism is explosive. The German Reich did not see itself as evil (which, of course, it was). It thought it was doing the right thing in exterminating ‘lesser’ races to facilitate the upward advance of mankind. This is where the ‘God is dead’ philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche so convincingly led them. One wonders how many of today’s crusades – on which, rooted in secularism, people take the moral high ground – will be shown by history to be in a similar category.
The book finishes with Holland’s tribute to his godmother who died in 2009 – a faithful Anglican, she had a profound effect on him. ‘Above all, through her unfailing kindness, she provided me with a model of what, to a committed Christian, the daily practice of her faith could actually mean.’2 That’s encouraging for old aunts and uncles, grannies and grandpas!
The evangelist Glenn Scrivener, seeing the importance of this publication, got Tom Holland to talk about himself and his book in an interview you can find on Youtube. It is well worth a watch – though you will probably get more out of it if you read the book first.
Previously Holland saw himself as a typical European liberal humanist. From a child, apart from dinosaurs, he had been fascinated by the ancient civilizations. He thought of himself as being in the noble line of the Greeks and the Romans. But as he more recently researched thoroughly into those lost empires he saw just how barbaric they were and felt deeply alienated from them. They were arrogant and brutal. This led him to question where his ethical outlook, especially his cherishing of compassion for the poor and marginalized, came from. It began to dawn on him that much of what he had taken for granted actually came from Christianity. He says things like ‘It mediates all we think’; ‘It is time we owned up to our Christian heritage.’
Keep Christianity strange
Humanists try to argue that the West would have got to our stance of compassion even without Christ. Holland finds this totally implausible. Without Jesus and Christianity you do not end up with a worldview which sees all people as equal. You are more likely to arrive at the caste system of old India. ‘The idea of Human rights is as theological as the Ascension’, he says.
Even in today’s ‘Woke’ culture the shrillness of those convinced of their own liberal virtue brings a terrible self-righteousness and looking down upon others. Holland would rather see a culture in which each of us acknowledges our failings. This points in the direction of humanity being a fallen race. He finds the Christian doctrine of original sin far closer to reality than anything else.
And this leads him to question churches which try to make Christianity simply blend in, chameleon like, with today’s secular outlook. ‘It is the very strangeness of Christianity which is essential to it.’ Without committing himself to the historicity of the gospels, it is the miracles such as the deity of Christ and his resurrection which the church must declare. Christianity’s ‘incredible’ distinctives, found nowhere else, have laid the foundations of compassion and have made all the difference in a world which otherwise always tends towards callousness.
In the midst of the current Covid 19 outbreak I talked with someone who said that we should just let it run. It is nature’s way of ‘culling the species’. Thankfully that is not the general attitude. Many of the civilizations and ideologies of the past would have taken just that stance. But Christ has made all the difference. Thank goodness that the government sees older people as precious and those with respiratory problems as worth saving. That’s why many of our supermarkets are allotting the first hour of opening to customers over 70 years old.
 Dominion: The Making of The Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019).
 Dominion, p. 518.