How Christianity's Revolution Built the World We Know

For any screenwriter or producer from TV, cinema or the newborn streaming universe, telling the “greatest story of all time” is a feat to be pursued with care. In increasingly intricate multiverses, large companies bet on consecrated heroes, for whom the fight of good against evil is revamped once again. It is not today that men and women are interested in her, after all. Stories about supernatural individuals who survived mortal challenges to save the universe populate man’s imagination since before his first traces, constituting the raw material of a phenomenon exclusive to the species: religion.

Sprouted in the heart of an inhospitable region, one of these stories had an unusual “plot twist”. It was not uncommon for children of gods to be subjected to terrifying experiences so that they would then take possession of their divinity. It was the first time, however, that the figure in question, worshiped as the son of the God of Israel himself, had moved away from the familiar stereotype: he had lived like a wretch and been humiliated, tortured and killed like a delinquent, before being resurrected to life. eternal. The rest… Well. The rest is the history of the West.

“How could a cult inspired by the execution of a shady criminal in a long-vanished empire exert such a transformative and lasting influence on the world?” It was this question that the award-winning British historian Tom Holland turned to in his bestseller “Dominion: Christianity and the creation of the western mentality”, which has just arrived in a Portuguese version, after garnering effusive praise from intellectuals on the left and right in Europe and the United States.

Often confused on Twitter with his fellow countryman who brings Spider-Man to life, Holland combines erudition, didacticism and elegance in the description of how the most convinced of progressives owes – and a lot – to the Christianity that so many aim to “deconstruct”. His own saga as an atheist researcher who realizes that he is still immersed in Christian waters is narrated in the introduction to the work, available to subscribers of Gazeta do Povo (download the text here). Read his interview below:

As you noticed for the first time that, even being an atheist historian, you were imbued with values ​​not only associated with Christian religion, but from a whole worldview inherited from Christianity?

Everyone knows that those who write fiction usually deal with subjects that go back to their own childhood and youth, and I think the same goes for non-fiction. I became a historian because I wanted to convey to readers some of the excitement I felt as a child when I contemplated the world of the Ancient Mediterranean – Greece and especially Rome. I loved this universe. I liked the Greek gods a lot more and was completely on Pontius Pilate’s team rather than Jesus’ team, you know? Jesus was the bearded loser type, and Pilate wore a toga, had soldiers, was powerful.

But while I was writing about Julius Caesar, or the Spartans, I needed to get inside their heads . I had to bring them to life for readers. As a researcher, I wanted to make people really understand the way they saw the world and feel some empathy. At the same time, it was a disturbing experience, because as I progressed through this project, I realized more and more clearly how terrifying and ruthless they were.

And while super predators are always fascinating – no no wonder people are obsessed with them – you don’t want one of these in your house. So I began to realize how disturbing ancient Greece and Rome were, and I began to wonder why. Why, after all, is the world I live in so different? I began to notice that, essentially, everything is due to what this great revolution – the rise of Christianity – represents.

This became even clearer to me after writing two of my books. One was about the beginning of the second millennium in Latin Europe . Although the Catholic Church is predominantly seen as a rigid and conservative institution, I understood that the way the papacy was established in Europe, and therefore in the West, was truly revolutionary. It sharpened in me the sense that Christianity is inherently subversive. I came to see it as a big meeting of tectonic plates on which big cities are built, you know? Like the city of San Francisco and the San Andreas fault. Any movement on these plates can bring everything down.

In addition, I wrote another book on the rise of Islam. It was a very controversial book because I deeply questioned what Muslims think about Mohammed and the Quran, and as you know, people are very sensitive about that. And I remember once, while I was giving a talk, there was a Muslim in the audience who said, “Why did you do that? You would never question your own beliefs like that.” I thought it was a fair question, not least because I was already questioning the origins of my own beliefs which were basically secular and progressive. I wrote “Domain” because I began to suspect that if I really asked myself where my most cherished values ​​and principles came from, they would take me long before the Enlightenment.

His book arrived in Brazil with the title “Dominion: Christianity and the creation of the western mentality”. In the American version, the subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World”. After all, is Christianity revolutionary or is it a force that is conservative, that guarantees stability and continuity?

I think it is both. There is a central and revolutionary point in Christianity: it believes that a single moment in history functions as a kind of axis of time itself. Christ’s life, death and resurrection make up a moment in history that explains all that was before and all that will come after. On the other hand, it is clear that the desire for things to go back to the way they were is an absolutely primary instinct in the history of Christianity, as is the idea that you need to be born again, that your sin needs to be redeemed.

If, as happened in Europe in the 11th century on a level that has not been reproduced anywhere else in the world, the idea spreads that all society needs to be cleansed, purified and reborn, we have the recipe for a revolution. And, as you know, the revolutionary radicals of one age become the conservatives of another. The rebels who built the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century become the hierarchy that Luther and the Protestant reformers want to overthrow in the 16th century. So the Catholic and Protestant churches become the “repository of superstitions” that Enlightenment icons criticize in the 18th century.

Part of the paradox of the history of Christianity is the fact that, because Christianity is so hegemonic—more people practice Christianity than any other kind of worldview—when it comes under criticism, it usually comes from Christian reasons, even if the critics don’t realize it. When they say that “the last must become first”, they are obviously referring to the words of Christ.

It is spoken all the time in the “decline of Western Civilization”. You close your book by saying that Christianity remains Christianity. Based on your view of Christianity, do you believe that the idea of ​​a Western civilization is an idealization of the past, or is there something in it that is, in fact, dying, and that needs to be saved?

The term “Christendom” appears precisely in the 11th century, with the aim of describing the mentality of the Christian people. So of course it has a Western connotation, and I think in the West this Christian culture remains as alive and vibrant as it ever was. The upheavals that are happening at this moment in the United States and in the countries influenced by it seem to me a new spasm of that revolutionary moment of the sixteenth century: a reform absolutely grounded in our Christian heritage. Simultaneously, Christianity is spreading with incredible speed in Africa, East Asia and even in Brazil, through Pentecostal evangelicals.

I would even say that there are two great revolutionary forces in the religious sphere in the 21st century: one is radical Islam, which is quite evident, and the other is Pentecostalism that grows under the surface and is also convulsive. So I continue to believe that it is impossible to understand the West without understanding Christianity. However, it is clear that there are aspects of what we call the “decadence of the West” that have more to do with the decline of its economic, military and cultural power.

Doesn’t this stem, on some level, from the decay of Christianity?

In fact, I would say that this battle should serve to show the people how Christian the assumptions of the West are. Look: one of the great assets of Western power is to disguise Christian assumptions – which are culturally very specific – as universal. Universal human rights enshrined by the UN are an obvious example of this. We all accept that these rights simply exist, they are for everyone. Notice that now that the West is in retreat, they don’t seem so obvious: just look at China or any other part of the world that doesn’t accept Western ideas.

Another example is the secularism, which is an absolutely Christian invention. When the British say they “made India a secular republic”, or when Marshal Kemal Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman Empire and declared that “Turkey is now a secular republic”, they are assuming that the idea of ​​a secular state is something universal. , simple, that today we understand that it is not. So, as Western power retreats, we see Narendra Modi in India, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Notice how the very understanding of “secular” is specifically Christian. Therefore, as Western power retreats, understanding of the secular will also come under pressure.

O historiador britânico Tom Holland, autor de O historiador britânico Tom Holland, autor de
British historian Tom Holland, author of “Domain: Christianity and the Making of the Western Mindset”

The legacy of Christianity is always at the heart of culture wars. What do you mean when you say that there are Christian heritages on both sides?

Are you right when you say that the whole universe of culture wars is rooted in different interpretations of Christianity. Abortion is a classic example: the idea that all life is sacred is central to the Christian tradition. It explains the abolition of infanticide in the Roman world, which was a common practice. On the other hand, what many people ignore is that the idea that every human being has a bodily integrity which they have the right to control is also a very fundamental Christian idea.

What I understand what has happened since the decade of 1960, certainly in the United States and its cultural “colonies”, is that, although their instincts remained Christian, some of the doctrine, teachings and scriptures were forgotten, so these instincts went in ways quite foreign to the standards of Christianity.

The debate on the issues surrounding transgender rights is another good example. Why do people tend to have such intense feelings about this subject? Trans rights advocates feel that these people represent the most oppressed group, which has suffered the worst prejudices. They are, therefore, the “last who must become the first”. I also think that, to some extent, the growing calls to identify as trans or gender fluid stem from a desire to identify with the weakest — almost like San Francisco exchanging his wealth for the rough robes of a poor man. It is a very recognizable Christian impulse.

But, of course, the idea that men and women are different is an absolutely fundamental principle of Christianity that lies behind the conservative impulses. traditional advocates or even feminists. There is also the whole understanding that the human body was created by God: the Gnostic tradition, which teaches that the whole body is evil, was never part of the orthodox Christian faith. The essence of the body has always been incredibly important to Christianity. It is, therefore, a discussion of what is more important: identifying with those who are weak or with the fact that men and women are separate. But as the discussion is no longer framed in Christian terms, its expressions are becoming more and more… Innovative.

In “Domain”, you make several references to a “new order” in the world; a complete reorganization of political and cultural actors. It caught my attention because, among Christian conservatives, there is great concern about the establishment of a “new world order.” Judging by your book, it appears that there have already been dozens of “new orders”. What have Christians learned from the ones we’ve seen so far?

Again, this takes us back to how different and strange the world is for us. pre-Christian. The novelty has always been viewed with suspicion: it is no wonder that Christians are treated with such suspicion in the Roman world, especially because they are so young. Even the Jews had ancient roots and therefore were to be respected as a traditional people. Here, then, appears a religious group that does not identify with any particular people, claiming universal beliefs. This is radically new, it is deeply unsettling.

It turns out that since the idea of ​​a universal identity has become so common in the West, it is very difficult for us to imagine a world in which the things are not always changing. The revolutionary impulse is not seen simply as something dangerous and intolerable. Even the most conservative figures of the 21st century, the French Revolution or the Reformation do not realize that it was Christianity itself that provided, for the first time, the feeling that things were born anew, that there is a new configuration in the world. , a new alliance.

Furthermore, it is impossible to have a society without elites. Their very existence, sooner or later, generates a reaction, especially when you are in a society founded on Christian principles. In the end, the revolutionaries become the establishment, which becomes oppressive and stirs up revolt for the same Christian reasons – “the last shall be first”, etc. It is a timeless process, a revolution that goes round and round – and of which Christians have always been a part.

You strongly defend that human rights derive from Christianity. Today, however, there are Christians who associate human rights with secularism and human rights advocates who preach the “deconstruction” of Christianity. How to build this bridge?

The origin of the idea of ​​human rights is in the Catholic Church of the 2nd century. It is extremely revealing that when Spaniards arrive in the new world, tradition provides the basis for the belief that native peoples have rights. When Spanish explorers wanted to oppose it, they had to rely on pre-Christian ideas that “natural” slaves exist.

Later, Protestants also developed their own way of arguing. that all human beings enjoy the same rights, based on traditions that emerged in 17th century England and that will be imported to the United States and to the Congress of Vienna, held at the end of the 19th century Napoleonic wars. The abolitionist movement, as well as the notion of international law, grew out of this idea that there is something that is above the cultural differences that used to divide Catholics and Protestants. That’s the only way Britain, Spain, France and Portugal can speak the same language.

About establishing conversations: as I’m not a politician or a sociologist, I don’t have any specific views on how these wounds can be healed – or even if they can be healed. I, in particular, would bet on the recognition of how apparently very disparate and contradictory opinions are, in fact, generated from the same matrix, they are traces of the same cultural process. Perhaps it is a way of acknowledging that the differences in our societies are not as fundamental as people might think. In the end, we are all swimming in the same waters.

You have already written that no one would “woke” if the West were not Christian. It’s a very controversial phrase. What do you mean by it?

Note that the very expression “woke” means “to wake up”, and the idea of ​​awakening to the consciousness of your own sin and need for repentance is central to Anglo-American Protestantism throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

The idea that you can have a personal relationship with God without needing to of a priest, that the spirit will descend upon you and you will be redeemed from sin is very, very Protestant. These are the beliefs that were exported to America, producing the cycle of “great awakenings” in which multitudes gathered to read the Bible and hear sermons. All this culminated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960 anddecades. led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, whose language is absolutely Christian.

What has happened since then is that, although the impulse towards the awakening and repentance remain, the specifically Christian context is gone. Without reference to the Scriptures that gave rise to it, it becomes controversial. Possessed by the secular spirit, people believe their hearts have been opened, they have seen the truth, and they are enraged at those who do not. And since the Christian heritage of everyone being a sinner has been abandoned, they are reimposing the racial categories that King and his companions worked so hard to dissolve.

Remember that one of the elements that leads to abolitionism is precisely the scale with which it is witnessed in the Americas. Although slavery was a global phenomenon, it had never been imposed in the way the British and Americans did, and in a racialized way. And while there were attempts to justify slavery through religion, these excuses never really worked: it is very, very difficult for a Christian with a knowledge of the Bible, that man is made in the image and likeness of God, to maintain the idea that one race can be inferior to another.

But once abolition takes place, the emergent Darwinism provides racial imperialism with a new justification for its power – an argument which, of course, in the 20th century will lead to the Holocaust. It is ironic how excessive concentration on the difference between races runs the risk of importing an idea from the 19th century, which did not exist until then.

We are witnessing , in some parts of the world, the growth of traditionalist currents: the increase in demand for Latin Masses, for example, or the rejection of modernity and liberalism, especially in the East. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?

As we have already mentioned, Christian civilizations have always harbored these two contradictory impulses: to look back and regret to the time when things were better, when everyone was Catholic, or, for Protestants, to the times of the early Church, before sinister cardinals arrived and messed everything up with their knick-knacks. At the same time, there is this revolutionary instinct that acts as if a spirit had possessed you and impelled you to reform the world.

In a rather reductionist explanation, I would say that the Catholic Church has traditionally it is more interested in maintaining its traditions, whereas Protestantism tends to surrender to the spirit of the times and see where it goes. But I realize that, in a sense, the opposing trends are, in fact, the most vibrant within the religions themselves: whether in the form of people returning to Latin Masses or praying in tongues.

This is a reflection of the fact that we live in an age where everything is changing so fast that, in a way, the most “exciting” options are to embark on the “yeah, let’s change everything, uhul” or “Oh my God, it’s okay” speech. everything is wrong, let’s go back”. Again, I think that in 200 years from now, historians will look back at this period that we’ve been living in since the decade of 1960 as the second reformation of Christianity. And it is very difficult to be at the center of a renovation, there is practically no option “leave me alone in my corner”. In the end, it’s about when you can withstand the shaking without falling to one side.

Last question. Perhaps you have heard from a loved one that “great power comes with great responsibilities”…

Oh no. I never heard that phrase (laughs).

I needed to make this joke. Sorry.

Okay. It was very original. It has been some time since I last heard it in 463 BC. But since forgiveness is a Christian virtue, I apologize.

Thank you very much. What I wanted to know is: in your opinion, what is the great power of Christianity, and what is, currently, its greatest responsibility?

I truly believe that the great, unexpected and priceless subversive power of Christianity is the recognition that the weak can overcome the strong. That the victim can be greater than the oppressor. It’s such a counterintuitive proposition, so radically opposed to everything that came before it. You know, the cross, for the Romans, was a cruel instrument of torture, and it served as a symbol of that power. Christianity turns that meaning upside down. Its great responsibility lies in the fact that it has been, and will presumably continue to be for a long time to come, the most effective and most culturally accepted way of explaining why human beings are born, why the world exists. This is priceless power and, as you say, or someone else out there has said, with great power comes great responsibility.

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