Book Review

Tom Holland’s ‘Dominion’: A review

In Dominion Tom Holland sets out to demonstrate the centrality of Christianity to Western European civilisation, and claims that it has shaped even our most secular institutions and beliefs. Christianity can thus be seen as a kind of ‘hyperobject’ – a force which we may fail to recognize precisely because it is so vast and pervasive.

An important strand of Holland’s argument is the way Christ combines divine status (framed in rather different ways by Christianity’s various traditions) with poverty, pain, meekness and a humiliating death.  Such a combination would have been viewed by many – the Greeks and Romans for example – as grotesque. Christian individuals and institutions might of course flout Jesus’ teachings on poverty or meekness – but not ‘without some measure of reproof from their consciences.’ (2%)

Holland argues that various apparently secular and even explicitly anti-religious upheavals – including the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – reflect a Christian worldview which is culturally contingent rather than universal. Even the concept of ‘human rights’, he suggests, is embedded in Christianity, and its emphasis on the creation of man in God’s image.

Some elements of his case for a kind of Christian exceptionalism seemed straightforward enough – the Greek pantheon, for example, certainly offers a completely different kind of theology to Christianity. It has many gods, none utterly good or evil, and all subject to caprices. The concept of the agon privileged strength, mastery and brilliance – in contrast to the paradoxical elevation of weakness in Christian thought. It was interesting to read how, even in apostasy, the emperor Julian betrayed his Christian heritage in his ‘irredeemably Christian’ concern for the poor and weak.’ (18%)

Intriguingly the very concept of secularism – even though it proposes treating all religions equally – is revealed, if we accept Holland’s reasoning, to be a very Christian concept. Only with difficulty, at first, could it be accommodated to Hinduism or Judaism. Protestantism, in particular, by emphasising an unmediated communication with God, is well aligned with secularism. Religion was redefined as a private experience to be left to the individual conscience. Indeed Holland’s discussion of a shift in the use of the word ‘religion’ is a good example of the way Christian ideas are hardwired into our culture.

A word once used to describe the communal life in an abbey or a convent had come to take on a very different meaning: the private relationship that a Protestant might have with the workings of the Spirit. (45%)

In rather similar vein, Holland argues that the logical conclusion of Protestantism, with its emphasis on the individual’s personal interpretation of Scripture, was the agnosticism or scepticism of a thinker such as Spinoza. The Reformation, like the revolution, eats its own.

Faced with assertions such as this, on the Enlightenment  – ‘there was nothing quite so Christian as a summons to bring the world from darkness into light’ (48%) – I found mysekf wondering whether Holland was guilty of a kind of Fluellenism in his desire to make every Western development an outgrowth of Christianity. However it could be that it is precisely my own cultural Christianity which makes me see the darkness/light image as inevitable and generic rather than Christian.

I’ve always been an atheist but don’t (I think) find Holland’s thesis in any way disturbing.  I found much of the book pretty persuasive but was constantly aware that gaps in my knowledge – particularly of non-Christian cultures and philosophies – made it difficult to fully evaluate the arguments. I would have been interested to have Holland anticipate objections still more forcibly in order to stress-test his central claims. Some discussion of Gandhi, of the doctrine of Ahimsa, perhaps of Virgil’s Aeneas (who seems so different from Greek epic heroes), and Druze teachings on slavery and the separation of church and state, would have been welcome.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Holland does have a fair amount to say about Islam. He suggests that both Judaism and Islam emphasised the importance of ‘a great corpus of divine legislation’ (25%) whereas Christians searched for God’s laws ‘upon their hearts’ (12%).  I wondered whether some of the qualities Holland associates with Christianity might also be found in Islam. Holland emphasises the links between Christianity and anti-slavery movements (while acknowledging that some have found justifications for this practice in the Bible). Although it is certainly true that some Muslims believe Islam condones slavery, a case might be made for detecting the seeds of abolitionism in its teachings.  Freeing slaves is frequently promoted as a virtue in the Qur’an and Hadith, whereas the authors of the New Testament often articulate conservative or neutral views about the practice.

Holland also suggests that Islam’s move away from literalism was influenced by (Protestant) Christianity:

For a century and a half, ever since the first Muslim rulers had been persuaded to abolish slavery, Islam had been on an ever more Protestant course. That the spirit trumped the letter of the law had come to be widely accepted by Muslims across the globe.’ (62%)

This harks back to an earlier discussion of the acceptance that reason and logic might be deployed by Christians in order to ‘behold Christian truth in its proper perspective’ (30%).  Might the Islamic practice of Ijtihad, which can be traced back far longer than ‘a century and a half’ be seen as a parallel to this Christian accommodation of reason? It might also have been helpful to compare the place of reason and logic in Christianity with the polysemy of the Mishnah.

It would of course be odd if one finished such an ambitious volume without having any questions, or some ideas about other paths it might have taken. Dominion is a consistently thought-provoking book which demonstrates the same narrative verve which made Tom Holland’s earlier studies of ancient and Medieval history so popular.