“It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those who triumph is to be taken for granted,” writes Tom Holland in his new book, Dominion. Illustrations of this pithy observation aren’t hard to find. Just a couple of years ago we celebrated the centenary of the October Revolution, which turned out to be not only incomplete but, in the long run, a spectacular failure. One might even venture to say that the noisier the remembrance, the more dubious the event being remembered. Yet who doesn’t love a good failure once in a while? Be that as it may, Holland’s book is not about failed or incomplete revolutions, but about one that has succeeded, reshaping the world in a decisive, if sometimes unassuming, manner.
Indeed, the “Christian revolution” has proved so successful in remaking the West that, two millennia on, it has become virtually impossible to separate Christianity from Western civilization. Whether we like it or not, we in the West inhabit a world that remains structured by Christian assumptions and informed by Christian ideas. Political and civic institutions, legal systems, codes of behavior, artistic tastes, practices of everyday life—they all, in one way or another, visibly or invisibly, bear the mark of Christ. The Christian revolution has been so complete, observes Holland, that two thousand years after his birth, it is no longer necessary to believe “that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable—indeed the inescapable—influence of Christianity.” However secular one’s lifestyle might be, to live in today’s West is “to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions.” And that’s the case not only with the Christians living there; it is “no less true for Jews and Muslims than it is for Catholics and Protestants,” writes Holland.
Ironically, the Christian revolution has been so successful that even to criticize or oppose Christianity has required borrowing some of its tools. One of the accomplishments of Holland’s book is to show not just that some of the most anti-Christian, or even overtly atheist figures, from Voltaire to Marx to Nietzsche, were philosophically dependent on the position they attacked, but also that some of their objections and criticisms had already been formulated in Christian circles at one point or another. Fierce freethinkers though they were, they were not completely free from using concepts, ideas, and arguments that originated in the Christian camp. The charges that Voltaire brought against Christianity, for example—that it produced bigots and spread superstitions, or that the Bible was full of contradictions—were not exactly his invention. As Holland observes, such accusations “had been honed, over the course of two centuries and more, by pious Christians.” You could tell Voltaire learned something from the Jesuits with whom he studied in his youth.
But it wasn’t only in their negative approaches that the West’s progressive figures borrowed from Christianity even as they eviscerated it. When they formulated programs and put together various proposals for the betterment of their fellow humans, they helped themselves just as liberally from the religion they rejected. Holland skillfully demonstrates how some of the more emblematic moments in the modern West were informed, though not always obviously, by Christian ideas. For all its anticlerical notes, such was the case with the Enlightenment, for instance. Voltaire’s “dream of a brotherhood of man” often felt like a reheating of similar visions we find in St. Paul. Just as Paul had proclaimed that “there was neither Jew nor Greek in Jesus Christ, so—in a future blessed with full enlightenment—was there destined to be neither Jew nor Christian nor Muslim.” The deliverance of humanity from darkness, on which the philosophes would gleefully swear, was something that generations of Christian educators and reformers knew a thing or two about. These visionaries had been “counting down the hours to an upheaval in the affairs of the earth” that would deliver it from darkness. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”