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What has Christianity ever done for us?

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Posted by Jonathan Frais, 4 Mar 2021

Jonathan Frais reviews Tom Holland's history of the impact of the church on the world.

Cover image of Dominion

What has Christianity ever done for us? Tom Holland, historian, gives us a readable and enthralling survey of the impact of the church in three parts. Unashamedly, because of their relevance, he quotes biblical texts from Jesus and Paul. In this way, he tells history according to the worldview of those within it. The result is a compelling study of cause and effect, replete with memorable scenes and graphic encounters. (The author does not write as a believer, as his concluding word makes clear, and he often doubts the authorship or editing of scriptural texts. But he takes the Bible as it is and follows its effects.) In his preface, Holland tells us that there are only four surviving records of a Roman crucifixion (the perpetrators, for all their use of such barbarity, preferring not to describe it). These are the Gospels (p. xv), and they drive the changes that follow. The book has three parts.

Part One, Antiquity, starts all the way back with the retreat from Athens in 479 BC by Xerxes, King of Persia. Xerxes was deposed by Barius who worshipped Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, who was said to have created both the heavens and the earth (p. 6). A thousand years before him, Hammurabi of Babylon spoke of bringing righteousness to the land. But Xerxes took this further and declared anything other than his religion to be the darkness known as “the Lie” (p. 8). Meanwhile, in Greece, Aristotle taught that the regular movement of the planets indicated one divine principle, and wisdom was to train the mind to trace the eternal structure of the cosmos. He died in 322 BC, and Demetrius ‘the Beseiger’ entered Athens in 295 BC and was hailed as god in physical form, thus establishing a yearning among the Greeks for a parousia, the appearance of god on earth (p. 24). But the Stoics taught that “God was active reason”, the Logos that animates the universe and whose spark within man is the conscience which gives us a likeness to a god (p. 27).

Across the Mediterranean, the Jews were returning from exile. Suffering does not need an explanation if there are competing gods, but the Jewish holy books said God is one and so Job wrestles with the problem which only the devotees of Ahura Mazda had faced before (p. 49). However, with the globalised world of Roman Empire, the idea of a single great King over all the earth looked to some like a good fit (p. 59); and, in 9 BC, on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, the new reign of peace brought in by Caesar Augustus was inscribed in stone as euangelion – Good News (p. 64).

Christianity arrived, and spread. It encountered ‘religion’ – obligation and custom owed the gods in exchange for their protection. There was persecution, but the right to own property was granted in AD 260 (p. 109); and then came Constantine’s gathering which produced the Nicene Creed (AD 325) because “the surest way to join the people as one was to unite them not in common rituals, but in a common belief” (p. 115). We fast forward several decades to Julian, who forsook Christian faith in his youth, became Emperor, and introduced a welfare scheme in honour of the gods. But the attribution was misplaced: the gods, like the philosophers, had no sympathy for the starving. The action was “irredeemably Christian” (p. 121). Someone with earthly power had acted Christianly without Christ.

By the end of the fifth century, ‘pagan’ (countryside dweller) had come to mean anyone not a Christian or Jew; and, in the plague-ravaged Rome of 590, Bishop (Pope) Gregory re-set the faith with a call to repentance which saw ‘religion’ change its meaning from the trappings of old paganism to the work of monks and nuns (p. 149). Meanwhile, Augustine, writing The City of God, had switched the meaning of ‘secular’ from the span of a life to “the flux of mortals’ existence” (p. 160). But where was its focus? As Islam conquered Christian north Africa, Bede (in northern Britain) identified the one fixed point in history and introduced a new dating system called anno Domini. Time itself became “properly Christian” (p. 173).

Part Two, Christendom, begins with the death of Boniface in the German lands in 754. Missionary monks took over the terms of the lands they claimed for Christ. Hel, the pagan underworld, became the abode of the damned. Eostre, festival of the spring, became our holiest feast-day. The “garbing of the Church’s teachings in Anglo-Saxon robes did not signal a surrender to the pagan past, but rather its rout” and the “victory of the new was adorned with the trophies of the old” (p. 188).

Following his appointment as abbot of Tours, Alcuin made the monastery “a powerhouse of penmanship” whose “particular focus was the production of single-volume collections of scripture” (p. 195). Gaps were introduced between words, with capital letters at the start of sentences. The question mark was invented, and the finished work was known by the Greek word for books - Biblia. Learning was being spread.

And social structures were changing. In 1380, Catherine of Siena died. She had been famed for her piety, and it was declared that she had been within her rights as a Christian to refuse her parents’ choice of a husband. Pope Urban VI agreed. “Priests were authorised to join couples without the knowledge of their parents – or even their permission. It was consent, not coercion, that constituted the only proper foundation of a marriage. The Church, by pledging itself to this conviction, and putting it into law, was treading on the toes of patriarchs everywhere” (p. 267). In the Latin West, familia was no longer the clans and dependents of ambitious dynasts. Instead, the growing body of canon law defined family as husbands, wives and children.

Things did not stop there: “Just as the concept of paganism would never have come into existence without the furious condemnation of it by the Church, so the notion that men and women who slept with people of their own sex were sharing in the same sin, one that obscenely parodied the natural order of things, was a purely Christian one” (p. 273). But the author sees this as but one point on a journey: “In the matters of the flesh – as in so much else – the Christian revolution still had a long way to run” (p. 275).

Across the Atlantic, Columbus found a new world in 1492. Cortes arrived, and slaughtered his way to native gold; but Thomas Cajetan, an Italian friar, dissented. He said that “the kingdoms of the Indians were legitimate states; that Christianity should be imposed, not by force, but solely by means of persuasion” – this was “an innovative programme of international law” (p.293). And to this, in 1550, Las Casas argued that all humans were rational and had rights derived from God – “human rights” (p. 331).

Science was also developing: Galileo’s conviction that the Earth revolved around the sun (for which Protestant astronomers were also making the case) was rejected in Rome because of a lack of final proof (although heliocentrism was never illicit). Meanwhile, Jesuit missionaries in China – impressed by the civilisation they encountered – managed to make their mark by drawing up calendars more accurate than those of Chinese Emperor’s own advisers who relied on divination, as Confucian scholarship directed. Many roads in science were opening up. “The only constant was that they all had their origins in Christendom” (p. 343).

Part Three, Modernitas, begins with diggers in 1649 laying claim to common land. In the previous year, the Treaty of Westphalia concluded the bloody Thirty Years’ War and the German princes pledged themselves to allow freedom of worship. “Toleration of religious difference had been enshrined as a Christian virtue” (p.353). And Christian agitation was set to overthrow the slave trade, led by Quakers in America and Evangelicals in Britain.

But not, with heavy irony, in the French Revolution: “Voltaire’s dream of a brotherhood of man, even as it cast Christianity as something fractious, parochial, murderous, could not help but betray its Christian roots. Just as Paul had proclaimed that there was neither Jew nor Greek in Christ Jesus, so – in a future blessed with full enlightenment – was there destined to be neither Jew nor Christian nor Muslim” (p. 376). Voltaire’s blindness went further:  “The standards by which he judged Christianity, and condemned it for its faults, were not universal. They were not shared by philosophers across the world. They were not common to Beijing or Cayenne. They were distinctively, peculiarly Christian” (p.378). In fact, the work of the revolutionaries “was shot through with Christian assumptions. The dreams of the philosophes were both novel and not novel in the slightest” (p. 379).

Likewise for the Constitution of the USA written in the 1780s. “That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths” and the “truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic – no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think - was the book of Genesis” (p. 384). The writers of the Constitution garbed radical Protestantism in the robes of the Enlightenment. Here “was a truth pregnant with implications for the future:  that the surest way to promote Christian teachings as universal was to portray them as deriving from anything other than Christianity” (p. 385).

In Britain, after Darwin, came Huxley. He set about portraying the church as being opposed to reason, eager to snuff out any spark of curiosity that civilise society, and obstructing progress. “That nothing is this narrative was true did not prevent it from becoming a wildly popular myth,” notes Holland (p. 430). And Karl Marx, writing in London, was “oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done:  as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil.” Indeed, “the very words used by Marx to construct his model of class struggle – ‘exploitation,’ ‘enslavement,’ ‘avarice’ – owed less to the chill formulations of economists than to something far older:  the claims to divine inspiration of the biblical prophets” (p. 441). Worldwide, after World War, as nations threw off colonial masters, “it was Christianity that had provided the colonised and the enslaved with their surest voice” (p. 488). Christianity had provided a language and vision for everyone.

So where does this leave us today? Our assumptions are now so embedded that we are shocked when others do not share them. In 2003, President Bush was surprised that “Iraqis did not have their hearts opened to the similarity of Islam to American values” (p. 491). Then Holland looks west at the struggle for racial equality, women’s liberation, and gay rights. “In a country as saturated in Christian assumptions as the United States, there could be no escaping their influence – even for those that imagined that they had. America’s culture wars were less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions” (p. 514). Holland wryly observes that “Christianity, it seemed, had no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish” (p. 517). So, the next time you are told that the gospel opposes human flourishing, point out to your critics how indebted to it they are, show them the essential texts, and seek to win them for the Master’s Dominion.

Jonathan Frais is Rector of St Mark's Church, Bexhill-on-Sea.

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