Tom Holland: Dominion

February 12, 2020

91jqczH5FaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    This is a very thought-provoking and demanding read. There is an interesting trend in recent history-writing to not merely regurgitate, repeat, or go over the same ground again in the same way, but to seek new angles and perspectives on old material; sometimes this can be perverse and gratuitous, but it’s often enlightening how it can suggest connections not previously made, and explore a different narrative. It seems obvious to me that such enterprises cannot and should not exclude or over-write conventional histories, but that they do offer illuminating possibilities…

Holland sets out to show how Christ and Christianity shaped and made the West, and allowed the West to shape the world in its image; in some ways this ties in with what I’ve always known as ‘cultural Christianity’. Initially he surveys different Middle Eastern peoples and their gods, and their attempts to explain the cosmos and find a sense of order and meaning; there is the gradual evolution of the idea of evil being in the world because of people ‘disobeying’ the gods. For the Jews, this explained their plight, and in addition it was all the fault of a woman…

Holland also enlightens us on the complex development of the Hebrew Bible, and it was helpful to be reminded of how monotheism itself took time to evolve: there are numerous references to a multiplicity of gods in the Old Testament.

When we get to New Testament times, the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message was underlined by Paul, and it is at times mind-boggling to see unpicked and laid out clearly the gradual development and articulation of a Christian theology over time. It was certainly not a coherent totality from the outset as some would like us to think.

Although Holland attempts a flowing narrative of the development of specifically Christian thought and practice, I didn’t find it completely coherent, particularly in the way he develops a particular strand thoroughly in a chapter and then leaps ahead to a completely different starting-point for his next chapter. This disjointed effect was initially quite annoying and had the effect of negating the sense of continuity he wanted to show.

We see clearly how the new religion was quite rapidly militarised and identified with secular power, which was a major factor in the unification of Europe over the centuries. As time passes we see the monumental struggle between royalty and papacy, the increasing corruption of the Church, the separation of church and state, the institution of clerical celibacy, and the crystallisation of the idea of sacred and profane. Where everything becomes totally warped and light-years away from the original, simple message of Jesus is, of course, in the way that religious power came to fear and then to seek ruthlessly to extirpate all possible signs of disagreement, independent thought or unorthodoxy, under the label of heresy.

Holland also shows how the religious regulation of marriage was about controlling sexual appetites and expecting men to be monogamous as well as women; this was to lead to individual ‘rights’ moving to the foreground, as well as creating the modern concept of the family. Here his analysis is newer and more interesting, I think. The labelling of same-sex pleasure as sinful and evil is a specifically Christian development, too.

Luther’s challenges reflected the angry mood of the times across Europe, and ushered in the mood of individualism in questions of religion, salvation, interpretation of the Bible, and these anarchist tendencies are shown leading to everything flying apart; certainly the contrast between the highly centralised Roman Catholic Church and the plethora of different Protestant churches and sects reflects this. Secular power eagerly colluded in the inevitable transfer of authority from church to state; Luther was driven to compromises very quickly, and we are in the transitional state which eventually, after much warfare and slaughter was to lead to the toleration of the individual’s right to worship where, when and how they pleased; from these originally religious beginnings was to flow the concept of ‘human’ rights as espoused in the French and American revolutions.

In the wider world, as the dynamism of Christianity led Europe to colonise large tracts of the world, it saw other belief systems as replicas of its own, and so non-Christians were made to identify with ‘a’ religion: thus Holland sees Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, as externally imposed categories. Ultimately the narrative takes us to the development of international law, another Western concept which, as we can see, is not necessarily accepted by all peoples (nor by the USA when it doesn’t suit!).

As we move closer to our times, Holland shows how Marx’ communism goes back to the early Christian communities’ sharing of goods and property, how the Nazis’ anti-Jewish ideology was spawned by Christianity, and how the roots of the messages of Martin Luther King, the Beatles and the summer of love may all be traced back to such earlier roots. The other important point he emphasises is the fragmentation of Christianity into liberal and evangelical camps, both of which lay claim to authority from two millennia ago. I have still not thought through his interesting parallel between Protestantism as a fundamentalist approach to faith, and Muslim fundamentalism…

Holland’s narrative of how all these developments ultimately flow from Europe’s Christian history is convincing to me, but I am not a professional historian, so I would be interested to hear historians’ take on his book. I find myself wondering where the tipping point was, at which the Christian West had so much the upper had that it was able to more or less shape the entire world, in terms of conquest, empire and industrial revolution. Equally, what might have prevented it, and would that have been a good or bad thing? There is an imperialism in the West seeing its values and beliefs as universal, its way of looking at the world as the only valid one and expecting all cultures to worship at its altar. Christianity comes across as an enigma, a hydra, and the roots of the Western control of the entire world…

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