Sparta, Rome and Christianity
Historian Tom Holland made a name for himself as a historian before his namesake was cast as Spider Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.. I first came across his books in the library and I read three of them: Persian Fire, which is about the wars between Greece and Rome, Rubicon, which is about the fall of the Roman Republic, and the Forge of Christendom which is about the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom. If you like entertaining and accessible history, he’s a good one to check out.
In an article a few years ago, Holland told how he came to realize that as much as he admired historical figures like Leonidas (King of Sparta) and Caesar, he was nothing like them. Though Holland is not a Christian by practice, he realized that growing up in Western culture made his morality distinctly Christian whether he realized it or not. This realization culminated in the publication of his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Changed the World. Dominion was the final book I read in 2019 and was my favorite for the whole year. Holland begins his story about 500 years before the birth of Jesus and moves through, culminating with a chapter on, essentially, current events. Its not an easy book, as it is LONG, but it is also not difficult as it could be, for it is written as a story. Throughout, Holland focuses on ways the morals and ethics, as well as assumptions, of culture changed.
In the introduction he wrote:
“The more years I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, so the more alien I increasingly found it. The values of Leonidas, whose people practiced a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extreme callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value. Why did I find this disturbing? Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be a Christian. For a millennium and more, the civilisation into which I had been born was Christendom. Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should be properly organised, and the principles it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past. So profound has the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted” (16-17))
The ways in which Christianity permeated our culture become most apparent in the final part of the book where Holland tells the story of the time from the Reformation into modernity and the increasingly secularization of our culture. In discussing philosophers of the Enlightenment who deemed the Medieval era when the Church reigned supreme “the Dark Ages” and their clarion call to bring humanity out of the grip of the hold of false religion, Holland points out “there was nothing quite so Christian as a summons to bring the world from darkness to light” (391). When French philosopher Voltaire, and others, turned their poison pen to attack religion, they were merely echoing attacks laid against the Catholic church by Luther and Calvin two centuries before. Even the idea of a universal brotherhood that drew all people together into some sort of equality is an idea birthed by Christianity. Holland notes that “just as Paul had proclaimed 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. Their every difference would be dissolved. Humanity would be one” (392).
From the beginning Christianity had provided revolutionary and reforming tendencies. Holland talks at length about the reforming movements within the church prior to the Reformation, stories we do not often hear. There has always been a tension within Christianity between reforming and staying true to tradition, between tearing down all institutions and building up institutions. The revolutionaries in France who criticized clergy and destroyed churches in the late 1700s were actually, in some way, merely taking up the tradition of figures such as St. Martin of Tours who, in the 300s, sold all he had to give to the poor and spent the rest of his life criticizing the church for having lots its way and calling on the church to be more like Jesus.
The Forgotten Revolution
The Christian revolution was so successful, Holland argues, it is forgotten. Near the end of the book he looks at #MeToo movement which shed light on the sexual abuse so often ignored in our culture. Even here Holland sees assumptions rooted in Christianity:
“Implicit in the #MeToo was the same call to sexual continence that had reverberated througout the church’s history. Protestors who marched in the red cloaks of handmaids were summoning men to exercise control over their lusts just as the Puritans had done. Appetites that had been hailed by enthusiasts for sexual liberation as Dionysiac stood condemned once again as predatory and violent. The human body was not an object, not a commodity, to be used by the rich and powerful as and when they pleased. Two thousand years of Christian sexual morality had resulted in men as well as women widely taking this for granted. Had it not, then #MeToo would have had no force” (531).
In the ancient world the human body was an object, a commodity, used by the rich and powerful whenever they pleased. Holland notes the only person in ancient Rome who had complete sexual freedom was a freeborn adult male and that such men could have sex with pretty much whomever they wanted. It took a revolution that saw all humans, from the highest emperor to the lowest slave, as equally created in God’s image to slowly change the assumptions of the entire culture. As Holland says, “the freedom to fuck when and as one liked had tended to be, in antiquity, the perk of a very exclusive subsection of society: powerful men. Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus: all had been habitual rapists. So too, in the Rome to which Paul had traveled with his unsettling message of sexual continence, had been many a head of household. Only the titanic efforts of Christian moralists, the labour of a millennium and more, had managed to recalibrate this” (527-528).
These ideas – that all people have control over their body, that powerful men cannot rape whomever they please, that consent in sexuality is for both men and women – are so taken for granted that many in our culture see them as just given. We’ve so forgotten they are rooted in Christianity that some people (maybe a good many people!) think they somehow come from science, as if science says anything about how one ought to live.
De Sade and Nietzsche Tell the Truth
Every now and then during the last few centuries, someone would point out the Christian roots of the culture’s morality and, in their opinion, the need to move beyond it. Marquis de Sade was one example in the 1700s. He wrote, “The doctrine of loving one’s neighbour is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature” (407). Holland says of de Sade: “The true division in society lay not between friends and enemies of the people, but between those who were naturally masters and those who were naturally slaves. Only when this was appreciated and acted upon would the taint of Christianity finally be eradicated, and humanity live as Nature prescribed…he could see that the existence of human rights was no more provable than the existence of God” (408).
Frederick Nietzsche said the same in the late 1800s when he wrote, “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet” (464). Nietzsche despised Christians, but he also despised those who seemingly rid themselves of God while thinking they could live the same way, with the same morals and ethics, they always had. Holland notes that for Nietzsche, “It was not from reason that their doctrine of human dignity derived, but rather from the very faith that they had believed themselves – in their conceit – to have banished. Proclamations of rights were nothing but flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating tide of Christianity” (464).
I imagine that, for most skeptics, Nietzsche and de Sade are still ignored. Most in our culture move through life living by assumptions of human rights and freedoms that are not natural or deposits of pure reason. Holland notes in his conclusion “that human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths” (540). This is a point that people of faith must make again and again. So many of the values and morals and ethics of our culture are not, nor were they ever, self-evident truths. This, of course, does not prove that God exists or Jesus actually rose from the dead. But it does serve as a warning that our culture ought to be aware that, if we move further towards being a post-Christian culture, the morals and values we take for granted might not always be taken for granted.
Post-Christian Culture Still Full of Christians
Holland, who remains agnostic himself about God’s existence, ends with this:
“For two thousand year, though, Christians have disputed this. Man of them, over the course of time, have themselves become agents of terror. They have put the weak in their shadow; they have bought suffering, and persecution, and slavery in their wake. Yet the standards by which they stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem that these standards will quickly change. ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ This is the myth that we in the West still persist in clinging to. Christians, in that sense, remains Christendom still” (542).
In other words, the standards that so many, often rightly, appeal to in condemning the moral and ethical failings of Christians are often themselves rooted in Christian assumptions about human rights and dignity.
Overall, Holland’s book is brilliant. I cannot highly recommend it enough. If you enjoy history and wrestling with big ideas, or if you need to be reminded of the Christian roots of our culture, check it out.
Let’s Give Girard a Word
Holland is not unique in noting the unique roots of our values in the Christian story. French literary theorist Rene Girard concluded the same thing through his years of research into ancient writings. Girard demonstrated that the Jewish and Christian scriptures were unique among all ancient literature in portraying innocent victims. Religion, Girard argued, was rooted in scapegoating certain people or groups as the problem, then committing violence against this person, only to create a story where this person deserved it. Uniquely in the Jewish scriptures, and culminating in the story of Jesus, the scapegoat is shown to be innocent. This changed our entire culture as we developed a compassion for victims. This compassion we just call humanism, but Girard, like Holland, notes the Christian roots of humanism.. Girard writes: “From one country to the other the sudden turns of fortune are different, but they cannot conceal the true origin of our modern concern for victims; it is quite obviously Christian. Humanism and humanitarianism develop first on Christian soil” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 163)
Our culture preserves this care for victims, which Girard calls “the secular mask of Christian love” (165). Should we take this care for granted? Girard notes, at the end of his book, “If our world were really to escape the influence of Christianity, it would have to renounce the concern for victims” (180). Will our culture always take such care for granted? After all, caring for victims is not a mere deposit of science, just waiting out there in the observable world to be discovered. Such care comes from religion, uniquely from the religion of Christianity rooted in the Jewish scriptures. If our culture leaves that behind, why continue to care for victims?
What This Means for Us?
The application is NOT to be smug and mock our non-religious friends and family, pointing out their values, even if they are atheists, come from Christianity. I would say the primary application us for we who are practicing Christians is to examine ourselves. What have we forgotten? In our tendency to live comfortable lives as good Americans, what have we missed about discipleship to Jesus? A primary way to be confronted by the message and teaching of Jesus is to turn off news and social media (whichever side of the political divide we find ourselves on) and read the Gospels. We may be surprised what we find.
As we relearn some things we may have forgotten, we can enter into discussion with our friends and neighbors, asking them to think through where their morals and ethics have come from. We can even ask tough questions, asking whether some of our mostly deeply held beliefs (such as caring for victims and creating a society where people are equal) will survive when the divine foundation is completely forgotten.
Finally, within all this we can be humble. Honestly, I am not surprised the secular world has forgotten where their moral roots come from when it appears the Christian church is not more moral (or perhaps even, less moral) than any other institution. There is nothing unique about churches in the present, it may appear, so why would there be in the past? Honestly, we’ve all met people who, though they are not Christians, live better moral lives than we do. Again, this is why, in the midst of asking tough questions, I think more focus has to be on us to, as Jesus would say, take the planks out of our own eyes first.