I have long admired Tom Holland’s writing, and following his Twitter feed is pleasure, but my regard for him has gone up even further as a result of reading his piece in the latest New Satesman – entitled Why I was wrong about Christianity. Now it is a rare enough thing to find anyone admitting they are wrong about anything, and it is rarer still to find the old ‘Staggers’ running a piece favourable to Christianity: so to find both together is a red letter day. Holland’s experience as he describes it, it not, I suspect atypical. Knowing little of the faith save what was floating around in the culture (which was not a lot) he found the arguments of Gibbon and the Enlightenment seers convincing enough:
I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values. My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised
It would be interesting to know how many people have been down that same route. What makes Holland’s piece so interesting is how he came to realise how simplistic this was. Immersed, as he bacame, in the world of Classical Antiquity which his books portray so well, he found himself replused by the values he found there, they seemed alien to him. He found the callousness of the leaders he was studying abhorrent, and their attitude to anyone outside their elite circles utterly alien: the poor had no value – unless they could be enslaved and sold. There was no reason why such attitudes should ever have changed, and of course in many parts of the world they did not change. But there was one Empire where it did begin to shift – the Roman Empire. That, he found, was the result of the influence of Christianity. Naturally, many features of the old order remained, but the fact that Jesus preached about the poor and about the value of every human life changed the game – an ethical system, and a legal one, emerged and evolved, and it is impossible to imagine the concept of ‘human rights’ without the change which Holland observed.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
The elephant in the room here is the question of whether that ethical system can survive without the Churches? In a world of relativism, we are back to the sort of callousness with which Holland was familiar. We don’t expose unwanted infants on hillsides, but we do a great job of pretending they are not human and killing them in the womb; we have people arguing with all seriousness that the useless elderly should be allowed to kill themselves, or have others kill them. Holland has realised that we have been spitting on our luck for some time. But he has no answer to the question which ethical liberals such as George Eliot did not even ask – they assumed you could have the ethics and not the dogma. You can’t – and that’s why the future looks dark.