Dominion, by Tom Holland

Summary: An absorbing and convincing account of the influence of Christianity on contemporary Western society.

Dominion is essentially a history of thought, specifically how Christian thought, and its offshoots, have shaped Western civilisation over two millennia.

Because it has been with us so long it is easy to lose sight of just what a revolutionary philosophy Christianity was when it first arose in Roman Palestine and then swept across the empire.

The central symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a reminder that Christianity was the antithesis of the prevailing religions and sects which dominated the Mediterranean basin at the time which, often literally, deified prestige and power. The cross was a means to humiliate and torture political prisoners to death, and hence terrorise Roman subjects into obedience to the empire. It was the means of execution of Jesus, a young rabbi whose teachings of love and forgiveness had so unsettled the leaderships of both the Jewish and Roman administrations in Palestine.

Having initially been a supporter of the persecutions of Christians, Paul, on the road to Damascus of course, changed his mind and became one of the new religion’s most powerful advocates. As a Roman citizen he was able to travel the empire and so ensure the spread of this new religion that so radically emphasised the importance of loving each other and good works.

The refusal of Christians to participate in the sacrifices to the Roman gods, including the emperor, marked them apart as subversive to the order of the empire and so a handy scapegoat as the occasion demanded,

Things changed when the murderously psychotic Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and began to transform Christianity into a state religion. This process was briefly interrupted by his successor, Julian, who having grown up watching his family being murdered on the orders of Constantine, a threat that he lived under himself for many years, repudiated Christianity and tried to reinstall the old gods. But even this was irrevocably tainted by Christian thought as Julian insisted that the pagan temples must display charity to the poor, a wholly Christian idea hitherto unknown in paganism.

Holland traces the evolutions in Christian thinking, and the schisms, wars and Reformations that resulted over the subsequent two millennia. Certainly this includes many tales of hypocrisy, intolerance and bloodshed. But alongside these, there are also stories of courage and redemption, such as the ending of Apartheid in South Africa, which show what may be achieved when flawed people endeavour to hold to the ideals that Jesus was assassinated for.

If many in secular Europe with its assertion of universal human rights feel that much of what Christianity had to offer is no longer relevant it is worth bearing in mind that secularism is itself a specifically Christian concept, and human rights, as Holland points out, originally a Catholic idea.

Dominion is a fine, gripping book that helps to understand the origins of Western society and how these origins still reverberate, often unacknowledged, in so much contemporary Western thought.

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