Tuesday, March 31

Catholicism and its critics history today

Capitals in the middle of the main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Auguste Salzmann, 1854. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tom Holland's amazing new book argues that although we might think we live in an irreligious culture, almost everything in the West is actually a legacy of Christianity. "Dreaming of a world that has been changed by a reformation, an enlightenment, or a revolution is nothing exclusively modern," he writes. "It's much more about how medieval visionaries dreamed: like a Christian."

Holland started his career in history as a classic, but the more he understood the pagan world and its "extremes of calluses", the better Christianity looked. In fact, this book often reads like a European's journey to self-discovery. The Romans believed that strength was good, moral, and encouraging: violence and rape were facts of life. However, early Christians worshiped the weak and outcast – and after the Roman Empire was converted, this radical vision replaced European thinking. We became embryonic egalitarians:

The fact that the son of God, who was born of a woman and sentenced to the death of a slave, had died unrecognized by his judges, was a consideration that could give even the most arrogant monarch a break.

However, there was a tension between a church that turns everything upside down and a church that was built to last. Holland's central thesis is that for over 2,000 years this conflict has been a series of struggles between the church establishment and a number of revolutionaries, the latter being an ongoing effort to return Christianity to its basic ideals.

This argument is persuasive in that it refers to the Donatists (who wanted a church of visible saints) or the Protestants (who questioned the alleged distortions of Rome), but Holland takes a controversial route in arguing that the 18th Century and the modern era. Even free thinking philosophiesChristian in a dream of a new world order, he says. Even Karl Marx viewed history as a "battlefield between the cosmic forces of good and evil". Even the French Revolution wanted to nationalize the Catholic Church instead of destroying it, which is technically true, although it is much more difficult to identify Christian roots in the cult of the Supreme Being or in the beheading of nuns.

Holland recognizes a clear break from Christianity in the 19th century with the advent of Darwinism, which implicitly removed the divine plan from human development. If life was indeed a jungle determined by the survival of the fittest, then weakness was not a strength at all, it was just a burden on society. It is an argument that Hitler's neo-pagans have drawn to his terrible conclusion. And although the West returned to Roman ethics in the First and Second World Wars, Holland still sees Christianity as the driving force behind the debate – almost all debates. He even argues that the contemporary abortion battle is shaped by Christian interpretations of human rights – women's autonomy versus the right to life – and that America's cultural wars are "less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions".

Holland is no doubt accused of trying to wrap an incredibly long amount of time in one argument, which leads to some sins of omission – because things that don't go with the thesis tend to be cut. For example, the author rightly argues that Martin Luther King Jr. was an excellent example of Christianity's ability to spur conscience in the 1960s. But the assertion that he gave Christianity an open centrality in American politics that it had not enjoyed since decades before the civil war is an embellishment. What about the debates about prohibition, imperialism or evolution teaching in schools? My suspicion is that American evangelicalism is in rule because it's not the kind of Eurocentric Christianity that the author likes to write about. Nor do I think I saw the poor old Copts mentioned. Orthodoxy hardly gets a look inside.

Ignore the title of this text. It is not really a history of Christianity, but a history of Catholicism and its critics, and it is not really about the West, but about Western Europe. Not that I'm complaining. There is no page in this great book that doesn't contain intriguing details, and the narrative, along with a novelist's eye, is believed to be of character and theme.

Saint Martin of Tours disappears and reappears with every age, for example: first as an exemplary Christian who refused money and position, then his shrine in death became a symbol of authority (Martin, who had avoided life). The insignia of the worldly Power … had become the model of a powerful lord. & # 39;) His resting place was a line in the sand during the Islamic invasion of Europe, but the Muslims did not destroy it. It was the Huguenots who set fire to the St. Martin shrine in 1562 and the French revolutionaries who later turned the basilica into a stable for their horses. Who were the real Christians in all of this? Those who try to preserve a tradition or those who want to tear everything down and return to the humble origins of Christianity?

Historians can look at the details of this book. Christians will enjoy their powerful, overarching perspective on their faith. One possible conclusion is that we must not fall into the trap of thinking that Christianity with its common decency is the "natural order" of civilization – that would be paganism with its very human gods, its worship of power, desire and longing encouragement to ambition. Christianity is characterized by a wild, wonderful statement that challenges us to put "the last thing first". Jesus' birth sparked a revolution. The consequences are still uncertain.

Dominion: The emergence of the western spirit
Tom Holland
Little, Brown
624 pp £ 25

Tim Stanley is a historian, columnist and lead author for the Daily Telegraph,

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