Dominion | Reflections & Notes

Tom Holland. Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade The World. Basic Books, 2019. (612 pages)


In this sweeping history, Holland profiles an astonishingly diverse swath of humanity through Western Civilization. Given the focus on Christianity, there is no surprise to see Augustine, Marcion, Constantine, and Eusebius covered and explicated. But I was amazed that the thesis was threaded all the way through to Andrew Carnegie, Nelson Mandela, Charlie Hebdo, The Beatles, George W. Bush, and even Harvey Weinstein, and #MeToo. Along the way various complications such as Popes, Mussolini and Hitler, and the Inquisitions must be addressed, with a considerable look at Islam, of course. But we also meet new friends such as Benjamin Lay, a 19th century abolitionist, and Macrina, the 4th century sister of Basil and Gregory who saved abandoned babies from the trash heap.

Through it all, there is one driving thesis. Christianity, beginning obviously with Christ, was the all-encompassing stage upon which the human drama of Western civilization played itself out. From the soil of the Christian religion grew the most fundamentally assumed, and cherished values in our culture, and they continue to this day. While the full scope of the argument requires hundreds of pages, perhaps a few select areas of significance might suffice as a simple and quick snapshot for consideration:

  • Where did the idea of compassion come from? Christianity. “Love your neighbor.” (Mark 12:31)
  • What about charity, that we should materially express our compassion? Christianity. “I was hungry and you fed me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)
  • Humility? Christianity. After all, who in their right mind honors the humiliating death of someone on a cross?
  • What about science? It was Christianity that posited an ‘ordered universe.’ Even geology was bred from the Christian conception of time as linear–going somewhere, to an end, a “telos”–rather than cyclical, repetitive.
  • Human Rights? Genesis, that we are all created in God’s image and likeness and therefore have equal worth and value.
  • Tolerance, even of other religions? It was a Christian (Quaker) idea that God is both love and beyond comprehension at the same time. It is therefore Christian to respect a diversity of views and to honor your fellow man.
  • Consent? Christianity limited sex to marriage, a mutual agreement between two adults, forming the only allowable context for sexual expression. No other attempt had been made to recalibrate men’s desire and power based upon Paul’s teaching that every human being was a “holy vessel.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)
  • Liberty? “It is for freedom that Christ sets us free.” (Galatians 5:1)
  • Orphanages, asylums, and hospitals? Those are all Christian too. They’re rooted in the idea that the lowliest amongst us bear the image of Christ, and are of great value. “The last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:16)
  • Agnosticism? Yup. Even that has Christian roots, a development and awareness of not knowing God truly and fully, coupled with a desire to know that drove the Reformation.

Holland does acknowledge the Jewish roots of Christianity, though I wish there were a stronger emphasis on Jesus and his coherence with Jewish thought and philosophy.

Perhaps most important to note is that while the roots of Western morals may have stemmed from Christianity, the plights of many Western sins are rooted in the same soil. Are they not? Holland does acknowledge that there has always been a tension, a complex mix of progress and compromise throughout Christianity’s history. However, this is no insignificant conundrum, that Christianity has both angels and demons in its closet. The advancement of human rights was profound, but precisely because it fought against the papacy and other hierarchies that are also within the Christian stream. Liberation, compassion, and human rights are incredible values to combat the hierarchies and slavery that was also nourished by stated Christian dogmas. While there are moments in history that directly tie a disdain for Christianity with existential tragedy (e.g. The Holocaust), there are plenty of moments that are less clear (e.g. American slavery). This paradox is one that I did not feel was resolved in Dominion, though perhaps there is no real resolution. However, it is a paradox that I warmly embrace.

I see Christianity’s history not as a lesson in what is true, but in what we want to be realized. It is ultimately a vision of humanity, an expression of our imagination. And gosh darn it, I want love, compassion, mercy, human rights, liberty, freedom, consent, and scientific advancements to be fully and completely realized here on earth, as it is in heaven. And for that, we have to go back to the source. Should there be any sins in Christianity’s history (and there are plenty of them) I have become persuaded once again that the solutions, the way forward, is not to dismiss Christianity for its negligence, but rather to exploit the core central driving values of Jesus for what Christianity could become. Put another way, the only way to redeem the failings of Christianity is with Christ himself.

Thank you, Tom Holland, for a fantastic read, a compelling engagement with Christianity’s influence, and a subtle call for humanity to consider carefully the fount of every blessing.


Love, and do as you will. – Saint Augustine

That you feel something to be right may have its cause in your never having thought much about yourself and having blindly accepted what has been labelled right since your childhood. – Friedrich Nietzsche

All you need is love. – John Lennon and Paul McCartney


Rome’s first heated swimming pool was built on the Esquiline Hill. … For many centuries, from the very earliest days of Rome, it had been a place of the dead. … Vultures, flocking in such numbers that they were known as ‘the birds of the Esquiline’, picked the bodies clean. (1)

Yet in the exposure of the crucified to the public gaze there lurked a paradox. So foul was the carrion-reek of their disgrace that many felt tainted even by viewing a crucifixion. (2)

Everything about nailing a man to a cross–a ‘crux‘–was repellent. ‘Why, the very word is harsh on our ears.’ [Varro, fragment] It was this disgust that crucifixion uniquely inspired which explained why when slaves were condemned to death, they were executed in the meanest, wretchedest stretch of land beyond the city walls; and why when Rome burst its ancient limits, only the planting of the world’s most exotic and aromatic plants could serve to mask the taint. … Criminals broken on implements of torture: who were such filth to concern men of breeding and civility? Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely. (3)

| The surprise, then, is less that we should have so few detailed descriptions in ancient literature of what a crucifixion might actually involve, than that we should have any at all. [Indeed, so sparse are descriptions of the punishment in ancient sources that Gunnar Samuelsson, in a recent monograph, has (controversially) argued that ‘there was no defined punishment called crucifixion before the execution of Jesus’ (p.205).]

[Althought Jesus is described in the Gospels as carrying a stauros, the Greek word for a cross, the likelihood is that he carried what in Latin was termed a patibulum: a horizontal cross bar. ‘Let him carry his patibulum through the city, and then be nailed to his cross.’ So wrote the Roman playwright Plautus, a couple of centuries before the crucifixion of Jesus.] (4)

The utter strangeness of all this, for the vast majority of people in the Roman world, did not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. The border between the heavenly and the earthly was widely held to be permeable. (5)

Divinity then, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself: to nail them to the rocks of a mountain, or to turn them into spiders, or to blind and crucify them after conquering the world. That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. The ultimate offensiveness, though, was to one particular people: Jesus’ own. The Jews, unlike their rulers, did not believe that a man might become a god; they believed that there was only the one almighty, eternal deity. (6)

‘The mystery of the (6) cross, which summons us to God, is something despised and dishonourable.’ [Justin]

In Christ’s agonies had been the index of his defeat of evil. This was why, triumphant even on the implement of his torture, he was never shown as suffering pain. His expression was one of serenity. It proclaimed him Lord of the Universe. (7)

| So it was, in an empire that–although today we call it Byzantine–never ceased to insist that it was a Roman, a corpse came to serve as an icon of majesty.Increasingly, there were Christians who, rather than keeping the brute horror of crucifixion from their gaze, yearned instead to fix their eyes fully upon it. (8)

That the Son of God, born of a woman, and sentenced to the death of a slave, had perished unrecognised by his judges, was a reflection fit to give pause to even the haughtiest monarch. This awareness, enshrined as it was in the very heart of medieval Christianity, could not help but lodge in its consciousness a visceral and momentous suspicion: that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich. Any beggar, any criminal, might be Christ. ‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’ [Matthew 20.16] (9)

To be human was to be Christian; to be Christian was to believe. (11)

Time itself had been Christianized. (12)

How was it that a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire came to exercise such a transformative and enduring influence on the world? (12)

Today, at a time of seismic geopolitical realignment, when our values are proving to be not nearly as universal as some of us had assumed them to be., the need to recognise just how culturally contingent they are is more pressing than ever. To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions. … The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored to its Christian past. (13)

Just as the Bishop of Oxford refused to consider that he might be descended from an ape, so now are many in the West reluctant to contemplate that their values, and even their very lack of belief, might be traceable back to Christian origins. (15)

So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted. (17)

This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain–for good and ill–thoroughly Christian. (17)


Part I:


1. Athens
479 BC: The Hellespont

A thousand years and more before Darius, a king named Hammurabi had declared himself charged with a divine mandate: ‘to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, and to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers, so that the strong should not harm the weak’. [Hammurabi, Prologue] (24)

Tell Me Lies

‘Are there no guidelines set by heaven for mortal men, no path to follow that will please the gods?’ This question, which the sick, the bereaved or the oppressed could hardly help but ask, had no ready answer. The gods, inscrutable and whimsical as they were, rarely deigned to explain themselves. They certainly never thought to regulate morals. The oracle at Delphi might offer advice, but not ethical instruction. ‘The god does not rule by issuing commands.’ [Aristotle. Eudemian Ethics 1249b.] Such guidelines as mortal men had set for them derived from tradition, not revelation. Law was so dependent on custom as to be indistinguishable from it. With the coming of democracy, though, that assumption was challenged. The right of the people to determine legislation emerged as something fundamental to their authority. ‘For everyone (33) would agree that it is in the city’s laws which are chiefly responsible for its prosperity, its democracy and its freedom.’ [Demosthenes. Against Timocrates 5.] Only in the assemblies, where citizens met as equals to deliberate and vote, was there to be found a source of legitimacy appropriate to the rule of Athens by the people. What value liberty otherwise? (34)

| Nevertheless, the Athenians could not help but be nagged by a certain anxiety. To submit themselves to laws of human origin was to run the risk of tyranny: for what was to stop an over-ambitious citizen from framing legislation designed to subvert the democracy? … There were many, though, who believed in something infinitely more venerable: indeed, a law so transcendent that it had no origin at all. (34)

These laws, unlike those of mortal origin, were not written down: it was precisely their lack of an author which distinguished them as divine. ‘Neither today or yesterday were they born; they are eternal, and no one knows when they first appeared.’ [Sophocles. Antigone 456-7.]

The chiefest part of happiness is wisdom–that, and not to insult the gods. [Sophocles. Antigone 1348-50.] (35)

Lovers of Wisdom

For two centuries and more, while most Greeks had been perfectly content to rely upon Homer for their understanding of the gods, and upon local tradition, and upon what custom defined as the dues of sacrifice, there had been some who were not. To these thinkers, the contradictions between the timeless laws that were presumed to prescribe correct behaviour, and the readiness of the immortals in the Iliad to ignore them, were a scandal. Homer and his fellow poets, so the philosopher Xenophanes complained, ‘have attributed to the gods all kinds of things that among human sare shameful and matters of reproach: theft, adultery, deceit’. [Xenophanes. Quoted by Sextus Empiricus. Against the Professors 1.289.] Were cattle only capable of drawing, he scoffed, they would portray their deities as bulls and cows. Yet this bracing scepticism–although in time it would tempt some thinkers to atheism–did not in the main result in a godless materialism. Quite the opposite. If philosophers disdained to believe in the quarrelsome and intemperate immortals of song, then it was generally so that they might better contemplate what was truly divine about both the (37) universe and themselves. To fathom what underlay matter was also to fathom how humans should properly behave. ‘For all the various laws of men are nourished by the single law–which is divine.’ [Heraclitus. Quoted by Stobaeus, 3.1.179.] (38)

To love wisdom, so Aristotle taught, was to train the mind in the skills required to trace its laws. … The goal, as ever with Aristotle, was not merely to compile a catalogue, but to distinguish the lineaments of a cosmic order. (39)

How, when the affairs of the world so signally failed to mimic the smooth and regular movement of the heavens, was a city best to be ordered? … ‘He used to say, it is reported, that he thanked FOrtune for three things: “first, that I am a human and not a beast; second, that I am a man and not a woman; third, that I am a Greek and not a barbarian”.’ [Diogenes. Laertius 1.33.] (39)

Satisfied as he was that humans were superior to all the other 494 species he had identified over the course of his researches, that man was the master of woman, and that barbarians were fitted by nature to be the slaves of Greeks, he drew the logical–indeed, the only possible–conclusion. ‘That one should command and another obey is not just necessary but expedient.’ [Aristotle. Politics 1.1254a.] (40)

Under his [Demetrius] rule, the poor were disenfranchised. Property was defined as the qualification for having a vote. Assemblies were abolished, laws revised, spending cuts imposed. The machinery of government, no longer subject to the chaotic whims of the people, was set on a new and regular course. His labour of reform completed, Demetrius then settled back and devoted his attention to prostitutes and young boys. What else was there for him to do? Athens’ new constitution had not been crafted by a philosopher for nothing. Like the stars in their orbits, revolving with smooth precision around the earth, it was designed to be obedient to the eternal and unchanging laws that governed the cosmos. (40)

…the yearning of the Greeks for what they termed a parousia, the physical presence of a deity,… (42)

It is not intelligence which guides the affairs of mortals, but Fortune. [Theophrastus, quoting Chaeremon. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Fragment 2 (p.782).] … Fortune–Tyche [τύχη], as the Greeks knew her–had revealed herself the most terrible and powerful of deities. ‘Her influence on our lives,’ wrote Demetrius, ‘is as beyond computation as the manifestations of her power are unpredictable.’ [Polybius 29.21.5.] (43)

Yet even Tyche, perhaps, could be tamed. (44)

…the great Roman orator Cicero, described as ‘the highest reason, ingrafted in nature’. [Cicero. On Laws 1.6.18.] Rome had become a superpower in obedience of ‘natural law’. (45)

Zeno, its founder [the Athenian school] had himself arrived in Athens from Cyprus back in 312, when Demetrius of Phaleron was still in power. He and his followers had come to be known–from Zeno’s habit of teaching students in a painted stoa, or colonnade–as ‘Stoics’. Just as Aristotle had done, they wrestled with the tension between the perfection of a heavenly order governed by mathematical laws and a sublunar realm governed by chance. Their solution was as radical as it was neat: to deny that any such tension existed. Nature, the Stoics argued, was itself divine. Animating the entire universe, God was active reason: the Logos. [λογος] ‘He is mixed with matter, pervading all of it and so shaping it, structuring it, and making it into the world.’ [Alexander. On Mixture 225.1-2.] To live in accordance with nature, therefore, was to live in accordance with God. Male or female, Greek or barbarian, free or slave, all were equally endowed with the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Syneidesis, the Stoics termed this spark of the divine within every mortal: ‘conscience’. ‘Alone of all creatures alive and treading the earth, it is we who bear a likeness to a god.’ [Cleanthes. Hymn to Zeus 1.537.] (45)

It was unsurprising, perhaps, that Rome’s leaders should have come to see their city’s empire as an order destined as universal. Not for the first time, sway of a global scope served to foster a matching conceit. Pompey did not, however, cast himself as an agent of truth and light. The notion of the world as a battleground between good and evil was foreign to him. Iron courage, unbending discipline, mastery of body and soul: these were the qualities that had won the Roman people their rule of the world. The role of Greek philosophers was merely to gild this self-image. ‘Always fight bravely, and be superior to others.’ [Strabo. 11.16.] Such was the admonition with which Posidonius sent Pompey on his way. The tag, though, was not his own. It came from the Iliad. As on the battlefield of Troy, so in the new world order forged by Rome–it was only by putting others in the shade that a man most fully became a man. Setting sail at the head of his war fleet, Pompey could reflect with satisfaction upon the perfect elision of his own ambitions and a beneficent providence. All was for the best. The whole world was there to be set in order. The future belonged to the strong. (46)

2. Jerusalem
63 BC: Jerusalem

This practice, of identifying the gods worshipped in one land with those honoured in another, was a venerable one. For a millennium and more, diplomats had depended upon it to render practicable the very concept of international law. How, after all, were two powers to agree to a treaty without invoking gods that both parties could acknowledge as valid witnesses to their covenant? (49)

…Mount Moria. Past and future, earth and heaven, mortal endeavour and divine presence: all had stood revealed as conjoined. (52)

[*It is possible that the categorisation of the various Jewish holy books–what Jews today call the Tanakh and Christians the Old Testament–derived originally from the way that they were catalogued in the Library of Alexandria.] (56)

[✝︎The phrase ta biblia ta hagia first appears in 1 Maccabees 12.9] (56)

The Romans might have the rule of the world; the Greeks might have their philosophy; the Persians might claim to have fathomed the dimensions of truth and order; but all were deluded. Darkness covered the earth, and thick darkness was over the nations. Only once the Lord God of Israel had risen upon them, and his glory appeared over them, would they come into the light, and kings to the brightness of dawn. (57)

| For there was no other god but him. (57)

Like Humans You Shall Die

cf. the Esagila

Reconstruction of the peribolos at Babylon, including the temple of Esagila, from The excavations at Babylon (1914)

From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die. – Jesus Ben Sirah [Ben Sirah {Sirach}, 25.24.] (59)

Yet these scriptures were a chronicle of mutiny as well as of submission; of whoring after idols as well as of faithfulness to God. The narratives of the conquest of Canaan portrayed a land filled with altars that demanded to be smashed, and sanctuaries that required to be despoiled–but which, even as they were destroyed, exerted an awful fascination. Not even the gift of the Promised Land had been able to keep Israel from idolatry. ‘They chose new gods.’ [Judges 5.8.] In book after book the same cycle was repeated: apostasy, punishment, repentance. Jews, reading of how their forebears had been seduced by the gods of neighbouring peoples–the Canaanites, the Syrians, the Phoenicians–knew as well what the ultimate, the crowning, chastisements had been: Israel enslaved; Jerusalem sacked; the Temple destroyed. These were the traumas that haunted every Jew. Why had God permitted them to happen? …but there was hope in their scriptures as well as warning. Even if ruin were to be visited on Jerusalem again, and the Jews dispersed to the ends of the earth, and salt and brimstone rained down upon their fields, God’s love would endure. Repentance, as it ever did, would see them forgiven. ‘And the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.’ [Deuteronomy 30.3.] (60)

| Here, in this demanding, emotional and volatile deity, was a divine patron like no other. Apollo might have favoured the Trojans, and Hera the Greeks, but no god had ever cared for a people with (60) the jealous obsessiveness of the God of Israel. …but the key to his identity, vivid though it was, lay in its manifold contradictions. … Long after the death of Cyrus, with the temples of Babylon in ruins, and their idols lost to mud, Jews could read in their synagogues assurances given centuries previously to the Persian king–and know them to be true. ‘I will strengthen you,’ the One God of Israel had announced to Cyrus, ‘though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other.’ [Isaiah 45.6] (61)

[ולא ידעתני למען ידעו ממזרח-שמש וממערבה כי-אפס בלעדי אני יהוה ואין עוד]

Nothing better illustrated the variety of sources from which these had been spun than the sheer range of names given throughout the Jewish biblia to God: Yahweh, Shadda, El. (62)

[*The worship of Yahweh in the form of a bull is attested by 1 Kings 12.28 and Hosea 8.6. The description of Yahweh coming from Edom appears in the Song of Deborah–a hymn that most scholars identify as one of the oldest passages in the Bible.] (62)

That the Israelites, far from announcing their arrival in Canaan by toppling idols and smashing temples, might originally have shared in the customs of their neighbours, and indeed been virtually indistinguishable from them, was a possibility that Jewish scripture emphatically, and even violently, rejected. [*It is telling, perhaps, that the author of Chronicles, a history of Israel written in the fourth century BC, does not describe an Israelite conquest of Canaan. ‘Israel’s presence in and right to the land is presented as an unproblematic and established fact.’ (Satlow, p.93)] But did it, perhaps, protest too much? Indeed, had there even been a conquest of Canaan at all? (63)

The insistence in the Book of Joshua that the Israelites had come as conquerors to Canaan hinted at a nagging and persistent anxiety: that the worship of their god might originally have owed more to Canaanite practice than Jewish scholars cared to acknowledge. (64)

Yet Job had never doubted God’s power–only his justice. On that score, God had nothing to say. The Book of Job–written when, for the first time, the existence of a deity both omnipotent and all-just was coming to be contemplated–dared to explore the implications with an unflinching profundity. That Jewish scholars should have included it in their great compilation of scripture spoke loudly of their struggle to confront a novel and pressing problem: the origin of evil. For other peoples, with their multitudes of deities, the issue had barely raised its head. After all, the more gods there were in the cosmos, the more explanations there were for human suffering. How, though, to explain it in a cosmos with just a single god? (67)

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster. I, the LORD, do all these things.

יוצר אור ובורא חשך עשה שלום ובורא רע: אני יהוה עשה כל אלה

-Isaiah 45.7

Nowhere else in Jewish scripture was there anything resembling this bald assertion. If God was omnipotent, then so too was he all-just. These were twin convictions that the Jews, no matter the patent tension between them, had come to enshrine as the very essence of their understanding of the divine. That God might have sponsored the Roman storming of the Temple, not as a punishment for the faults of his chosen people but because he was as much the author of chaos as of order, was a possibility so grotesque as to be inconceivable. All his works served the cause of order. That his purposes might sometimes be veiled in mystery did not prevent him from fathoming human despair, from caring for the wretched, and from providing comfort where there was grief. (68)

The poor and needy search for water, but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst,
But I the LORD will answer them,
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.

-Isaiah 41:7

Never before had such incongruities been so momentously combined within a single deity: power and intimacy, menace and compassion, omniscience and solicitude. (68)

| And this god–all-powerful, all-good, who ruled the entire world, and upheld the harmony of the cosmos–was the god who had chosen for his especial favour the Jews. Helpless before the might of Rome’s legions though they might be, unable to prevent a conqueror (68) from intruding upon even their holiest shrine, a people with no prospect of ever winning global rule, they had this consolation: the certitude that their God was indeed the one, the only Lord. (69)


In 49 BC, the Roman world collapsed into civil war, and the following year, in Greece, the man who had dominated Rome for two decades was routed in battle by a rival warlord: Julius Caesar. (69)

Here, then, in a world where the gods tended to bestow their favours upon kings and conquerors, was yet another mark of the distinctive character of the God of Israel: that he had chosen as his favourites slaves. (70)

…for you have found favour in My eyes and I have known you by name.

כי מצאת חן בעיני ואדעך בשם

-Exodus 33.17

To contravene these dictates as to call down upon Israel the most terrifying punishment; and yet, like the Ten Commandments, they served as an expression not of tyranny, but of devotion. The Lord God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, had granted to the Children of Israel a momentous and unprecedented honour: a covenant. No other people had so much as contemplated that such a thing might be possible. Gods served to witness treaties, after all–not to enter into one themselves. Who were mortals, to imagine that they might contract an alliance with a deity? Only the Jews had dared entertain such a novel, such a blasphemous conceit. That they had entered into an accord with the Lord God provided the foundation-stone of their entire understanding of the divine. (72)

Monarchy in Jerusalem was extirpated in 587 BC by the triumphant King of Babylon; but Torah endured. Great powers rose and fell, and conquerors came and went; but still, amid all the ebb and surge of the passing centuries, the EJws held fast to the Covenant. Without it, they, like so many other peoples, would surely have been dissolved in the relentless churning of empires: Babylon, Persia, Macedon, Rome. … To abandon God’s law was to cease to be ‘a wise and understanding people’. [Isaiah 11.6] It was the Covenant, and the Covenant alone, that enabled the Jews to make sense of the world’s affairs. That infractions would be punished as swiftly as they had ever been was evident from the legions’ capture of Jerusalem; that the Lord God held to his own side of the bargain was evident from Pompey’s miserable end. (74)

| Yet it was not merely the flux of past events that Jewish scholars, when they contemplated the implications of the Covenant, believed (74) themselves able to explain. There was the future as well. … Already, in the visions of a prophet named Isaiah, the title had been applied to Cyrus; but now, in the wake of Pompey’s desecration of the Temple, it had come to possess a far more urgent significance. Anticipation of a messiah sprung from David’s line, who would impose the covenant with a new vigour, winnowing the wheat from the chaff and restoring the lost tribes to Jerusalem, crackled in the air. All foreign practices were to be purged from Israel. The messiah would smash the arrogance of unrighteous rulers like a potter’s vessel. ‘And he shall have the peoples of the nations to serve him under his yoke, and he shall glorify the LORD in the sight of all the earth, and he shall purify Jerusalem in holiness as it was at the beginning.’ [Isaiah 11.4] (75)

Nor were the Jews alone in looking to the heavens and dreaming of better times to come. (75)

Now virginal Justice and the golden age returns,
Now its first-born is sent down from high heaven.
With the birth of this boy, the generation of iron will pass,
And a generation of gold will inherit all the world.

-Virgil. Eclogues 4.6-9

Distinctiveness, in the age of an empire that proclaimed itself universal, might well rank as defiance. The more that different peoples found themselves joined together under the rule of Rome, so the more did Jews, hugging the Covenant close to their hearts, assert their status as a people apart. (77)

Everything that we hold sacred they scorn; everything that we regard as taboo they permit.

-Tacitus. Histories 5.4

Even as it was, there were converts. (78)

The first lesson absorbed by converts is to despise the gods, to renounce their country, and to view their parents, their children and their brothers as expendable.

-Tacitus. Histories 5.5

A tension that had always existed within Jewish scripture was being brought to a head. How was the deity whose words and deeds it recorded best understood: as the God of the Covenant or as the Creator of all humanity? (78)

Perhaps, far from speaking of God’s anger, the absorption of the Jews into the universal empire ruled by Augustus signalled something very different: the imminent fulfillment of his plan for all humankind. (79)

3. Mission
AD 19: Galatia

To visit the cities of Galatia was constantly to be reminded of the sheer scale of Augustus’ achievements. His birth had set the order of things on a new course. War was over. The world stood as one. Here, so inscriptions proclaimed to a grateful people, was Euangelion–‘Good News’. [ευαγγελιον] [‘He brings war to an end; he orders peace; by manifesting himself, he surpasses the hopes of all who were looking for good news.’ This inscription, written in 29 BC, was recorded on a stone slab in the city of Priene, on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. It uses the plural form of euangelion–euangelia.] (82)

The Galli, men dressed as women, were (82) servants of Cybele, the Mother Goddess who sat enthroned amid the highest peaks of Galatia; and the mark of their submission to this most powerful and venerable of all the region’s gods was the severing with a knife or a sharp stone of their testicles. (83)

Command and swagger were the very essence of the cult of the Caesars. To rule as an emperor–an imperator–was to rule as a victorious general. In every town in Galatia, in every square, statues of Caesar served as a reminder to his subjects that to rank as the son of a god was, by definition, to embody earthly greatness. No wonder, then, that Paul, proclaiming to the Galatians that there was only the one Son of God, and that he had suffered the death of a slave, not struggling against it but submitting willingly to the lash, should have described the cross as a ‘scandal’. [Galatians 5.11] (85)

Once, like a child under the protection of a tutor, the Jews had been graced with the guardianship of a divinely authored law; but now, with the coming of Christ, the need for such guardianship was past. No longer were the Jews alone ‘the children of God’. [Deuteronomy 14.1] The exclusive character of their covenant was abrogated. The venerable distinctions between them and everyone else–of which male circumcision had always been the pre-eminent symbol–were transcended. Jews and Greeks, Galatians and Scythians: all alike, so long as they opened themselves to belief in Jesus Christ, were henceforward God’s holy people. This, so Paul informed his hosts, was the epochal message that Christ had charged him to proclaim to the limits of the world, ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ [Galatians 5.6] (86)

Once, in a town called Gordium, before the coming there of the Galatians, who had adorned it with the severed heads and twisted corpses of their foes, Alexander the Great had been confronted by a celebrated wonder: a cart that for generations had been knotted to a post. ‘Whoever succeeds in untying it,’ so a prophecy ran, ‘is destined to conquer the world.’ [Plutarch. Alexander 18.1] Alexander, rather than waste time trying to pick at the knot with his fingers, had severed it with his sword. Now, with his preaching that Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s plans for the world, long foretold by the prophets, Paul had achieved a similar feat. A single deft stroke, and the tension that had always been manifest within Jewish scripture, between the claims of the Jews upon the Lord of all the Earth and those of everyone else, between a God who favoured one people and a God who cared for all humanity, between Israel (86) and the world, appeared resolved. To an age which–in the shadow first of Alexander’s empire, and then of Rome’s–had become habituated to yearnings of a universal order, Paul was preaching a deity who recognised no borders, no divisions. Paul had not ceased to reckon himself a Jew; but he had come to view the marks of his distinctiveness as a Jew, circumcision, avoidance of pork and all, as so much ‘rubbish’. [σκυβαλον, Philippians 3.8] It was trust in God, not a line of descent, that was to distinguish the children of Abraham. The Galatians had no less right to the title than the Jews. The malign powers that previously had kept them enslaved had been routed by Christ’s vicory on the cross. The fabric of things was rent, a new order of time had come into existence, and all that previously had served to separate people was now, as a consequence, dissolved. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ [Galatians 3.28-9] (87)

Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave, had plumbed the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused mortals were confined. … That Christ–whose participation in the divine sovereignty over space and time he seems never to have doubted–had become human, and suffered death on the ultimate instrument of torture, was precisely the measure of Paul’s understanding of God: that He was love. The world stood transformed as a result. Such was the gospel. (87)

The Spirit of the Law

By the end of Paul’s life, it has been estimated, he had travelled some ten thousand miles. (88)

I wish they would go the whole way, and castrate themselves!

οφελον και οι αναστατουντες υμας αποκοψονται

[Galatians 5.12]

Scabrous and bitter, the joke dramatised for the Galatians the twin perils that Paul dreaded now threatened them. Circumcision was little better than castration. To submit to the Law of Moses would be as sure a betrayal of Christ as to take the roads in praise of Cybele. … To demand of the Galatians that they submit to the knife would be to assume that Christ had been inadequate to save them. It would be to reinstate precisely the division between the Jews and the other peoples of the world that Paul believed to have been ended by his Lord’s crucifixion. (89)

To repudiate a city’s gods was to repudiate as well the rhythms of its civic life. It was to imperil relations with family and friends. It was to show disrespect to Caesar himself. … By urging his converts to consider themselves neither Galatian nor Jewish, but solely as the people of Christ, as citizens of heaven, he was urging them to adapt an identity that was as globalist as it was innovative. … If he was willing to grant the Law of Moses any authority at all, then it was only to insist that what God most truly wanted was a universal amity. ‘The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”‘ [Galatians 5.14] All you need is love. (90)

‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’ [2 Corinthians 3.6] What need, then, for Gentiles touched by the divine to obey the Law of Moses? ‘For the Lord is the Spirit–and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ [2 Corinthians 3.17] (91)

To preach the gospel of Christ was to stand like an actor before the gaze of an entire people; it was to train for the great games staged on the Isthmus, as a runner, as a boxer. (92)

Between the rupture in the fabric of things preached by Paul and the interminable challenges of daily life, between the volcano-blast of revolution and the shelter from it provided by tradition, a tension existed that he could never entirely resolve. Why, for instance, if male and female were indeed ‘all one in Christ Jesus’, should women not take on the full prerogatives of men? Paul, wrestling with this question, found himself torn. Revelation and upbringing pulled him in opposite directions. …the possibility that the church in Corinth might be serving to incubate the mirror image of the Galli, women who looked like men, was one that he refused to countenance. Short hair on a woman, so Paul sternly informed the Corinthians, was as repellent (94) as long hair on a man; a woman praying without a veil was unacceptable, because–among other horrors–it would offend any visiting angels. So might a man who had just scuttled a ship clutch on the swelling of a wave after its wreckage. ‘The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man.’ [1 Corinthians 11.3] (95)

His correspondence was no second Torah. Rather than lay down the law of Christ, his role as an apostle was altogether more modest: to help his converts recognise it within themselves. ‘You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.’ [2 Corinthians 3.3] … Since God had never given them a Law, it could only have derived ‘from nature’. [Romans 2.14] This, for a Jew, was an astonishing acknowledgment to make. The concept of natural law had no place in Torah. Yet Paul–as he struggled to define the law that he believed, in the wake of the crucifixion and the resurrection, to be written on the heart of all who acknowledged Christ as Lord–did not hesitate to adapt the teachings of the Greeks. The word he used for it–syneidesis [συνειδησεως]–clearly signalled which philosophers in particular he had in mind. Paul, at the heart of his gospel, was enshrining the Stoic concept of conscience. (95)

Light My Fire

The resources of the entire world were at his service. Coins, statues, banners: all promoted Nero as a being haloed with divine fire. In the streets of the capital he would pose as the charioteer of the sun. When he made his public debut on the lyre, an instrument to which he had devoted much practice, he pointedly chose to sing of the punishment of Niobe. Apollo, radiant in his cruelty and splendour, seemed to Nero’s dazzled admirers manifest on earth. (97)

Nero, as the son of a god and the ruler of the world, was not bound by the drab and wearisome conventions that governed the affairs of mortals. Instead, like some figure sprung from tragedy, he killed his mother; he kicked his pregnant wife to death; he was married, dressed as a woman, to a man. Such it was to live as a hero of myth. What, in a city ruled by a superhuman figure, were mere properties? Rome itself was rendered complicit in their repeated and spectacular subversion. In the summer of AD 64, a great street party was thrown to celebrate the new order of things. In the very heart of the city, a lake was filled with sea-monsters. Along its edge, brothels were staffed with whores ranging from the cheapest streetwalkers to the most blue-blooded of aristocrats. For a single night, to the delight of the men who visited them and knew that the women were forbidden to refuse anyone, there was no slave or free. ‘Now a minion would take his mistress in the presence of his master; now a gladiator would take a girl of noble family before the gaze of her father.’ [Dio. 62.15.5.] (98)

the potency of a Roman penis. Sex was nothing if not an exercise of power. As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually were to the Roman man. To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile. While the body of a free-born Roman was sacrosanct, those of others were fair game. ‘It is accepted that every master is entitled to use his slave as he desires.’ [Musonius Rufus. Fr. 12.] … In Rome, men no more hesitated to use slaves and prostitutes to relieve themselves of their sexual needs than they did to use the side of a road as a toilet. In Latin, the same word, meio, meant both ejaculate and urinate. (99)

It was hardly surprising, then, in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction, and with Jesus starting to pass out of living memory, that Christians should have set to transcribing reports of his life and (103) sayings. … Repeatedly, the familiar was rendered strange. Seed falling among thorns; a lost sheep; bridesmaids waiting for a wedding to start: all, in Jesus’ teaching, shed a haunting light on the purposes of God. (104)

‘Feed my sheep.’ [John 21.17] | So ended a gospel that had begun with the Word that was with God, and was God, at the moment of creation: beside a barbecue on the shores of a lake. Hope from despair; reconciliation from betrayal; healing from trauma. (106)

| It was a message, amid the convulsions of the age, to which man would find themselves drawn–and for which some, as time would prove, were more than willing to die. (106)

4. Belief
AD 177: Lyon

The Christians of Rome were advised not to court death at the hands of Caesar, but rather to ‘honour’ him. Irenaeus himself, that seasoned traveller, knew full well on what the order of the world depended, and did not hesitate to acknowledge it. ‘It is thanks to them,’ he wrote of the imperial authorities, ‘that the world is at peace. It is thanks to them that we are able to walk along well-kept roads without fear, and take ship wherever we wish.’ [Irenaeus. Against Heresies 4.30.3.] (108)

The lack of any systematic persecution did not mean that Christians could ever afford to relax. Despite a legal obligation on governors not to disturb the order of their provinces by rooting them out, mobs were perfectly happy to take on the task themselves. … Nor did it help, in Lyon and Vienne, that the churches were largely peopled by immigrants. Hostility towards foreigners who refused to engage in the cities’ rituals of sacrifice, who scorned so much as to swear by ‘the fortune of Caesar’, [Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.] who hailed a crucified criminal as Lord, was easily stoked. (109)

Not that the Christian concept of martyrdom–original though it certainly was–would have seemed altogether unfamiliar to spectators in the amphitheatre. Greeks and Romans were no strangers to tales of self-sacrifice. The more edifying histories were rife with them. A philosopher might gnaw off his own tongue and spit it in a tyrants’ face; a warrior, captured by an enemy, might demonstrate his resolve by plunging his hand into a blazing fire. Exemplars such as these had always been a feature of the Roman schoolroom. The values that they instilled in the young were precisely what had (110) enabled Rome to conquer the world. They served to illustrate the qualities of steel that had made the Roman people great. All the more grotesque, then, that criminals condemned to the arena, obliged to submit to the ministrations of torturers, penetrated by spears or swords, should have presumed to lay claim to them as well. (111)

That a slave, ‘a slight, frail, despised woman’, [Eusebius. History of the Church 5.1.17.] might be among the elite of heaven, seated directly within the splendour of God’s radiant palace, ahead of those who in the fallen world had been her immeasurable superiors, was a potent illustration of the mystery that lay at the heart of the Christian faith. … This was the assurance that steeled a martyr for death. The willingness of Christians to embrace excruciating tortures–which to those who sentenced them could only appear as (111) lunacy–was founded on an awesome conviction: that their Saviour was by their side. More than the temples and the fields for which the antique heroes of Rome had been willing to sacrifice themselves, Christ’s presence was something real. He was there in the arena, as once he had been nailed to the cross. To emulate his sufferings was to impose meaning on the blankness and inscrutability of death. (112)

…[Marcion] had instead proposed, as a means of calibrating God’s true purpose, a precise and infallible measuring device, like the chalked string used by carpenters to mark a straight line: in Greek, a canon [κανον]. Christians, so Marcion had taught, should regard as definitive only a closed selection of writings: ten of Paul’s letters, and a carefully edited version of the gospel written by his follower Luke. Here, in place of Jewish scripture, was a witness to the divine purpose that Christians could authentically regard as their own: a new testament. (115)

As the generations passed, and the (115) memories of those who had known the apostles with them, so could the faithful find in the gospels of Irenaeus’ canon a sure and certain mooring to the bedrock of the past: a new testament indeed. (116)

Christians did believe they belonged to a common ethnos [εθνος]: a people. The bonds of their shared identity spanned the world, and reached back across the generations. (116)

They led an organisation that, in its scale and scope, was not merely one among a crowd of churches, but something altogether more imposing: the ‘Great Church’. Never before had there been anything (116) quite like it: a citizenship that was owed not to birth, nor to descent, nor to legal prescriptions, but to belief alone. (117)

Living Stones

In 212, an edict was issued that would have warmed the old Stoic’s heart. By its terms, all free men across the vast expanse of the empire were granted Roman citizenship. Its author, a thuggish Caesar by the name of Marcus Aurelius Severus Antonius, was a living embodiment of the increasingly cosmopolitan character of the Roman world. The son of an African nobleman, he had been proclaimed emperor in Britain and was nicknamed Caracalla–‘Hoodie’–after his fondness for Gallic fashions. …despite the sneers of his critics that he was only interested in broadening the tax-base, he had granted a common citizenship to all peoples of the empire. The more Roman they became, the more pleasing to the heavens their cults were bound to be. ‘So it is that I think my act worthy of the majesty of the gods.’ [Recorded on a papyrus fragment, [P. Giss. 40] Caracalla’s divine patrons, who had bestowed on him and on Rome the rule of the world, were at last to receive their proper due: their religio. (117)

| The word came incensed-trailed in the imaginings of pious Romans by a sense of deep antiquity. It conjured up for them visions of primordial rites: of the honours paid to the gods back in the very earliest days of their city, and which had first served to win divine (117) favour for Rome. As in Greek cities, the abiding dread was of what might happen should rituals be neglected. Any obligation owed the gods in exchange for their protection, any tradition or custom, constituted a religio. ‘Sacrificial offerings, the chastity of virgins, the whole range of priesthoods garlanded with dignity and titles’ [Minucius  Felix. Octavius 6.2]: all were religiones. … In the wake of his grant of citizenship to all the peoples of the empire, it was Caesar alone who could worthily mediate between them and their various gods. The great web of dues and obligations that had always bound the Roman people to the dimension of the supernatural now spanned the world. To poke a hole in it was not merely sacrilege but treason. (118)

| The full implications of this were soon to drench the streets of Alexandria in blood. (118) … Sacrilege was intolerable. To be a Roman citizen brought responsibility as well as honour. Any insult to Caesar was an insult to the gods. (119)

In 202, when [Origen] was only seventeen, his father had been arrested and beheaded; Origen himself, in the years that followed, frequently had to evade angry lynch mobs, ‘moving from house to house, driven from pillar to post’. [Eusebius. History of the Church 6.3.6.] The son of Christian parents, his precocious commitment to the defence of his faith was steeled by adversity. (119)

It was Ignatius, a century before Origen, who had first given it the name that would endure forever after. Christianismos, he had called it: ‘Christianity’. (120)

Origen, who knew perfectly well that many of those who made offerings to idols ‘do not take them for gods, but only as offerings dedicated to the gods’, [Celsus, quoted by Origen. Against Celsus 7.66] shuddered before the horror that such rituals seemed to imply. To spatter an altar with gore betrayed much about the beings that could demand such an offering. That they battened onto carcasses. That they were vampiric in their appetites. ‘That they delighted in blood.’ To propitiate them was to feed the very forces that threatened humanity with darkness. (121)

In the great library of Alexandria, scholars had long been honing methods for making sense of ancient texts: treating their subject matter as allegory, and their language as an object of the most methodical study. Origen, in his own commentaries, adopted both techniques. Jewish the great mansion of the Old Testament may have been; but the surest method for exploring it was Greek. (122)

Christianity, in Origen’s opinion, was not merely compatible with philosophy, but the ultimate expression of it. ‘No one can truly do duty to God,’ he declared, ‘who does not think like a philosopher.’ [Origen. Against Celsus 7.5] …in 234…he settled in Casarea…and established there a school that embodied the very best of his native city. ‘No subject was forbidden us,’ one of his students would later recall, ‘nothing hidden or put away. Every doctrine–Greek or not–we were encouraged to study. All the good things of the mind were ours to enjoy.’ [Gregory Thaumaturgus. Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen 6.](122)

How, when Christians accorded Jesus a status that was somehow divine, could they possibly claim to worship only the single god? Greek philosophers no less than Jewish scholars, when they deigned to take note of the upstart faith, would relentlessly home in on this point. … It was not just Jesus who had to be integrated into the oneness of God, but his Spirit as well. The solution, by the time Origen came to this puzzle, was already clear in its outline. The unity of God came, not in spite of his Son and Spirit, but through them. One was Three; Three were One. God was a Trinity. (123)

| It was Origen, though, more comprehensively and more brilliantly than anyone before him, who drew on the resources of philosophy to fashion for the church an entire theologia: a science of God. (123) … No one, after Origen’s labours in the service of his faith, would be able to charge that Christians appealed only to ‘the ignorant, the stupid, the unschooled’. … The claim of Christianity to a universal message could not rest merely on the presence of churches from Mesopotamia to Spain. It had to appeal to people of every class, and of every level of education. In a society that ranked philosophy alongside vintage statuary and exotic spices as one of the perks of the rich, Origen was a living, breathing paradox: a philosopher who defied elitism. (124)

The genius of Origen was to create out of the inheritance of Greek philosophy an entire new universe of the mind–one in which even the least educated could share. When he hailed God as ‘pure intelligence’, [Origen Against Celsus 7.38.] he was arguing nothing that Aristotle had not long previously said. Philosophy, though, was only the beginning of what Origen had to teach. The divine nous, [νους] far from lingering in the motionlessness of a chilly perfection, had descended to earth. The mystery of it was at once beyond the comprehension of even the greatest scholars, and a cause of wonder that labourers (124) and kitchen maids could admire. If Origen, drawing on the great treasury of Greek and Jewish literature, would sometimes describe Christ as divine reason, and sometimes as ‘the stainless mirror of the activity of God’, [Wisdom of Solomon 7.26.] then there were times as well when he confessed himself quite as stupefied as the littlest child. When contemplating how the Wisdom of God had entered the womb of a woman, and been born a baby, and cried for milk, the paradox of it all was too much even for him. ‘For since we see in Christ some things so human that they appear to share in every aspect in the common frailty of humanity, and some things so divine that they are manifestly the expression of the primal and ineffable nature of the Divine, the narrowness of human understanding is inadequate to cope. Overcome with amazement and admiration, it knows not where to turn.’ [Origen On First Principles 2.6.2.] (125)

…early in 250, a formal decree was issued that everyone–with the sole exception of the Jews–offer up sacrifice to the gods. Disobedience was equated with treason; and the punishment for treason was death. For the first time, Christians found themselves confronted by legislation that directly obliged them to choose between their lives and their faith. …  Among those arrested was Origen. Although put in chains and racked, he refused to recant. Spared execution, he was released after days of brutal treatment a broken man. He never recovered. A year or so later, the aged scholar was dead of the sufferings inflicted on him by his torturers. (126)

‘Should the Romans embrace the Christian faith,’ [Origen] had declared, ‘then their prayers would see them overcome their enemies; or rather, having come under the protection of God, they would have no enemies at all.’ [Origen Against Celsus 8.70.] (126)

Keeping the Faith

…in 303, when an imperial edict was issued commanding Christians to hand over their books of scripture or face death, Africa had been at the forefront of resistance to the decree. … The death of its [Carthage’s] bishop, Majorinus, served as a lightning rod for various tensions. One question predominated. How, in the wake of a concentrated effort to wipe the CHurch from the face of Africa, were Christians best to defend the sanctity of their faith? (127)

[via: Here’s the edict as recorded in Eusebius: “It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian’s reign [AD 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour’s Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honour would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. Such was the first edict against us. Soon afterwards other decrees arrived in rapid succession, ordering that the presidents of the churches in every place should all be first committed to prison and then coerced by every possible means into offering sacrifice.” Eusebius, History of the Church (VIII.2)]

The claim that there existed a single, all-powerful deity was hardly original to Jews or Christians, after all. Philosophers had been teaching it since at least the time of Xenophanes. That the Supreme Being ruled the universe much as an emperor ruled the world, delegating authority to functionaries, was an assumption that many in the Roman world had come to take for granted. Caracalla, arriving in Alexandria, had essentially been auditioning Serapis for the role. Others had awarded it to Jupiter or to Apollo. The ambition, as it had been for a century, was to define for all Roman citizens a single, universally accepted due of religiones–and thereby to provide for the empire, amid all the many crises racking it, the favour of the heavens. (130) … In 313, issuing a proclamation that for the first time gave a legal standing to Christianity, [Constantine] coyly refused to name ‘the divinity who sits in heaven’. [Lactantius. On the Deaths of the Persecutors 48.2.] The vagueness was deliberate. Christ or Apollo, Constantine wished to leave the choice of whom his subjects identified as ‘the supreme divinity’ [Lactantius. On the Deaths of the Persecutors 48.3.] to them. Where there were divisions, he aimed to blur. (131)

…324… it was dawning on Constantine that these questions might be naïve. The issues of who Christ had truly been, in what way he could have been both human and divine, and how the Trinity was best defined, were hardly idle ones, after all. How could God properly be worshipped, and his approval for Rome’s rule of the world thereby be assured, if his very nature was in dispute? … ‘It matters not how you worship, but what you worship.’ [Lactantius. Divine Institutes 4.28.] True religio, Constantine was coming to understand, was a matter less of ritual, less of splashing altars with blood or fumigation them with incense, than of correct belief. (132)

| A decisive moment. In 325, only a year after he had been advising rival theologians to resolve their differences, Constantine summoned bishops from across the empire, and even beyond, to a council. Its ambition was fittingly imperious: to settle on a statement of belief, a creed, that churches everywhere could then uphold. Canons, measures to prescribe the behaviour of the faithful, were to be defined as well. … When at length, after an entire month of debate, a creed was finally settled upon, and twenty canons drawn up, those few delegates who refused to accept them were formally banished. The fusion of theology with Roman bureaucracy at its most controlling resulted in an innovation never before attempted: a declaration of belief that proclaimed itself universal. … For the first time, orthodoxy possessed what even the genius of Origen had struggled to provide: a definition of the Christian god that could be used to measure heresy with precision. … A new formulation, written, as Origen’s had been, in the language of philosophy, declared the Father and the Son to be homoousios: ‘of one substance’. Christ, so the Nicaean Creed proclaimed, was ‘the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made’. (133) … Constantine had hit upon a momentous discovery: that the surest way to join a people as one was to unite them not in common rituals, but in a common belief. (134)

[via: Where did the banished bishops go? To “the East?” Also, the full text of the council is at]

| Yet faith, as he had already discovered, could divide as well as unify. His triumph at Nicaea was only a partial one. Bishops and theologians continued to quarrel. Even Constantine himself, in the final years of his life, found his l loyalty to the provisions of the Nicaean Creed starting to fray. On his death in 337, he was succeeded to the rule of the eastern half of the empire by a son, Constantius, who actively rejected them, and promoted instead an understanding of Christ as subordinate to God the Father. Disputes that previously had been of concern only to obscure sectarians were now the very stuff of imperial politics. Approval or repudiation of the Nicaean Creed added to the endless swirl of dynastic ambitions an entirely new dimension of rivalry. At issue, though, was not merely personal ambition. The entire future of humanity, so Constantine and his heirs believed, was at stake. The duty of an emperor to secure the stability of the world by practising the correct religio meant, increasingly, that theologians were as likely to feature in his concerns as generals or bureaucrats. Unless the favour of God could be secured, what value armies or taxes? Christianity was ‘the true worship of the true god’, [Tertullian. Apology 24.] or it was nothing. (134)

For the first time, two fundamental dimensions of Christian behaviour had been brought into direct conflict on the public stage of an imperial province. Whether God’s people were best understood as an elect of the godly or as a flock of sinners was a question without a conclusive answer. … Throughout Christian history, the yearning to reject a corrupt and contaminated world, to refuse any compromise with it, to aspire to a condition of untainted purity, would repeatedly manifest itself. The implications of this tendency would, in time, be felt far beyond the Church itself. A pattern had been set that, over the course of millennia, would come to shape the very contours of politics. Constantine, by accepting Christ as his Lord, had imported directly into the heart of his empire a new, unpredictable and fissile source of power. (136)

5. Charity
AD 362: Perssinus

Julian, in his struggle to explain why the worship of Cybele had fallen into such desuetude, did not content himself with blaming the ignorant and weakminded. The true blame, he charged, lay with priests themselves. Far from devoting themselves to the poor, they lived lives of wild abandon. This had to end. In a world rife with suffering, why were priests getting drunk in taverns? Their time would be better spent, so Julian sternly informed them, in providing succour for the needy. To that end, subsidies of food and drink would be provided out of his own funds, and sent annually to Galatia. ‘My orders are that a fifth be given to the poor who serve the priests, and that the remainder be distributed to travellers and to beggars.’ [Julian. Letter 22.] Julian, in committing himself to this programme of welfare, took for granted that Cybele would approve. Caring for the weak and unfortunate, so the emperor insisted, had always been a prime concern of the gods. If only the Galatians could be brought to appreciate this, then they might be brought as well to renew their ancient habits of worship. ‘Teach them that doing good works was our practice of old.’ [Julian. Letter 22.] (138)

| An assertion that would no doubt have come as news to the celebrants of Cybele themselves. Behind the selfless ascetics of Julian’s fantasies there lurked an altogether less sober reality: priests whose enthusiasms had run not to charity, but to dancing, and (138) cross-dressing, and self-castration. The gods cared nothing for the poor. To think otherwise was ‘airhead talk’. [Porphyry] … The heroes of the Iliad, favourites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden. So too, for all the honour that Julian paid them, had philosophers. The starving desired no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control. Only fellow citizens of good character who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on evil days might conceivably merit assistance. Certainly, there was little in the character of the gods whom Julian so adored, nor in the teachings of the philosophers whom he so admired, to justify any assumption that the poor, just by virtue of their poverty, had a right to aid. The young emperor, sincere though he was in his hatred of ‘Galilean’ teachings, and in regretting their impact upon all that he held most dear, was blind to the irony of his plan for combating them: that it was itself irredeemably Christian. (139)

The roots of Christian charity ran deep. The apostles, obedient to Jewish tradition as well as to the teachings of their master, had laid it as a solemn charge upon new churches always ‘to remember the poor’. [Galatians 2.10] … Over time, as congregations swelled, and ever more of the wealthy were brought to baptism, the funds available for poor relief had grown as well. Entire systems of social security had begun to emerge. Elaborate and well-organised, these (139) had progressively embedded themselves within the great cities of the Mediterranean. Constantine, by recruiting bishops to his purposes, had also recruited the networks of charity of which they served as the principal patrons. … The wealthy, the men who in previous generations might have boosted their status by endowing their cities with theatres, or temples, or bath-houses, had begun to find in the Church a new vent for their ambitions. … Christians did not merely inspire in Julian a profound contempt; they filled him with envy as well. (140)

| His adversaries named him the Apostate, a turncoat from his faith; but Julian likewise felt betrayed. (140)

Divine love for the outcast and derelict demanded that mortals love them too. (141)

| This was the conviction that in 369, on the outskirts of a Caesarea ravaged by famine, prompted Basil to embark on a radical new building project. Other Christian leaders before him had built ptocheia, or ‘poor houses’–but none on such an ambitious scale. The Basileias, as it came to be known, was described by one awe-struck admirer as a veritable city, and incorporated, as well as shelter for the poor, what was in effect the first hospital. … The more broken men and women were, the readier was Basil to glimpse Christ in them. … ‘The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the clock in your wardrobe to the naked; the shoes you let rot to the barefoot; the money in your vaults to the destitute.’ [Basil of Caesarea. Homily 6: ‘I Will Pull Down My Barns’. (Rhee. Wealth and Poverty, p. 60.] (142)

Basil’s brother went even further. Gregory was moved by the existence of slavery not just to condemn the extremes of wealth and poverty, but to define the institution itself as an unpardonable offence against God. Human nature, so he preached, had been constituted by its Creator as something free. As such, it was literally priceless. ‘Not all the universe would constitute an adequate payment for the soul of a mortal.’ [Gregory of Nyssa. On Ecclesiastes 4.1.] … Unsurprisingly, then, Gregory’s abolitionism met with little support. The existence of slavery as damnable but necessary continued to be taken for granted by most Christians–Basil included. Only when heaven was joined with earth would it cease to exist. Gregory’s impassioned insistence that to own slaves (142) was ‘to set one’s own power above God’s’, [Gregory of Nyssa. Homily 4 on Ecclesiastes (Hall. Gregory of Nyssa, p.74.)] and to trample on a dignity that was properly the right of every man and woman, fell like seed among thorns. (143)

Across the Roman world, wailing at the sides of roads or on rubbish tips, babies abandoned by their parents were a common sight. Others might be dropped down drains, there to perish in the hundreds. The odd eccentric philosopher aside, few had ever queried this practice. Indeed, there were cities who by ancient law had made a positive virtue of it: condemning to death deformed infants for the good of the state. … Those who were rescued from the wayside would invariably be raised as slaves. Brothels were full of women who, as infants, had been abandoned by their parents–so much so that it had long provided novelists with a staple of their fiction. Only a few peoples–the odd German tribe and, inevitably, the Jews–had stood aloof from the exposure of unwanted children. Pretty much everyone else had always taken it for granted. Until, that was, the emergence of a Christian people. (143)

When famine held Cappadocia in its tip, and ‘flesh clung to the bones of the poor like cobwebs’, [Gregory of Nyssa. Homily 8: In Time of Famine and Drought. (Rhee. Wealth and Poverty, p. 65.)] then Macrina [Basil and Gregory’s sister] would make a tour of the refuse tips. Those infant girls she rescued she would (143) take home and raise as her own. Whether it was Macrina who had taught Gregory, or Gregory Macrina, both believed that within even the most defenceless newborn child there might be glimpsed a touch of the divine. … Obliged by a Roman tax-demand to travel from her native Galilee to Bethlehem, Mary had given birth to Christ in a stable, and laid him down on straw. Macrina, taking up the slight form of a starving baby in her arms, could know for sure that she was doing God’s work. (144)

Here, in a world where lepers could be treated with dignity, and the abolition of slavery be urged on the rich, was yet another subversion of the traditional way of ordering things. Solid as these hierarchies were, very ancient, and with foundations deeply laid, they were not to be toppled as readily as Gregory might have hoped; and yet, for all that, in his homilies there was an intimation of reverberations that lay far distant in the future. (144)

Sharing and Caring

Treasure in Heaven

The Senate, an assembly that could trace its origins back to the very beginnings of Rome, constituted the apex of a rigidly stratified society. Its members–albeit in private–might even sneer at emperors as parvenus. There was no snob quite like a senatorial snob. (150)

When, after many years of trying the couple [Paulinus and Therasia] had a son, only to lose him eight days later, their minds were made up. Their plan was ‘to purchase heaven and Christ for the price of brittle riches’. [Paulinus. Letters 1.1.] All their property and possessions, Paulinus announced, would be sold, and the proceeds given to the poor. (151)

Here was the comfort to which Paulinus clung. ‘It is not riches in themselves that are either offensive or acceptable to God, but only the uses to which they are put by men.’ [Luke 16.24-25.] (152)

| This, as a means for resolving the anxieties of wealthy Christians, was a proposition that seemed to offer something for everyone. The poor profited from the generosity of the rich; the rich stored up treasure for themselves in heaven by displaying charity to the poor. (152)

‘Pirates on the ocean waves, bandits on the roads, thieves in towns and villages, plunderers everywhere: all are motivated by greed.’ [On Riches 17.3. Tr. B. R. Rees in The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge, 1998).] … The very existence of wealth was a conspiracy against the poor. (153)

Man, Pelagius believed, had been created free. Whether he lived in obedience to God’s instructions or not, the decision was his own. (153) … ‘There is no reason why we should not do good, other than that we have become accustomed to doing wrong from our childhood.’ [Pelagius. Letter to Demetrias 8.3.] … There was no coin dropped into a beggar’s shrivelled palm that had not ultimately been won by criminal means: lead-tipped whips, and cudgels, and branding irons. Yet if, as Pelagius argued, individual sinners could cleanse themselves of their sin and win perfection by obedience to God’s commands, then so too could all of humanity. (154)

…in the years that followed the sack of Rome, the western half of the empire became ever more a playground for the strong. The sinews that had long held it together were starting to snap. The mighty bulk of it was falling apart. A century on from Paulinus’ great gesture of (154) renunciation, and the complex infrastructure that had sustained the existence of the super-rich was gone for good. In place of a single Roman order extending from the Sahara to northern Britain, there was instead a patchwork of rival kingdoms, spear-won by an array of barbarous peoples; Visigoths, Vandals, Franks. In this new world, those among the Christian nobility who had managed to avoid utter impoverishment were rarely inclined to feel guilty about it. … What they wanted from bishops and holy men was not admonishment on the inherent evils of riches, but something very different: an assurance that wealth might indeed be a gift from God. And this, sure enough, in the various barbarian kingdoms of the West, was precisely what churchmen had come to provide. (155)

To Augustine of Hippo, it was precisely the diversity of the Christian people, the joining together of every social class, that constituted its chief glory. ‘All are astonished to see the entire human race converging on the Crucified One, from emperors down to beggars in their rags.’ [Augustine, Dolbeau Sermon 25.25.510. Quoted by Brown. Augustin of Hippo, p. 460.]

‘Get rid of pride, and riches will do no harm.’ [Augustine. Sermon 37.4.] Augustine’s message, in the centuries that followed the collapse of Roman rule in the West, was one that found many listeners. Amid the rubble of the toppled imperial order, it offered both to local aristocrats and to barbarian warlords a glimpse of how their authority might be set upon novel and secure foundations. If the old days of marble-clad villas were gone for ever, then there was now another index of greatness that might more readily win God’s blessing: the ability to defend dependants, and to grant them not just alms, but armed protection. Power, if employed to defend the powerless, might secure the favour of heaven. (157)

There was no reach of the fallen world so dark, it seemed, that it could not be illumined by the light of heaven. (158)

6. Heaven
492: Mount Gargano

Gargano, a rocky promontory jutting out from south-eastern Italy into the Adriatic Sea, had long been a haunted spot. (159)

The same convulsions that, over the course of the third century, had inspired various emperors to attempt the eradication of Christianity had proven devastating to the cults of the ancient gods. (160)

By the end of the fifth century, it was only out in the wildest reaches of the countryside, where candles might still be lit besides springs or crossroads, and offerings to time-worn idols made, that there remained men and women who clung to ‘the depraved customs of the past’. [Gregory I. Letters 5.38.] Bishops in their cities called such deplorables pagani: not merely ‘country people’, but ‘bumpkins’. The name of ‘pagan’, though, had soon come to have a broader application. Increasingly, from the time of Julian onwards, it had been used to refer to all those–senators as well as serfs–who were neither Christians nor Jews. … The concept of ‘paganism’, much like that of ‘Judaism’, was an invention of Christian scholars: one that enabled them to hold up a mirror to the Church itself. (161)

| And to much more besides. Reflected in the idols and cults of pagans, Christians beheld a darkness that imperilled the very reaches of time and space. … The forces of darkness were both cunning and resolute in their evil. That they lurked in predatory manner, waiting for Christians to fail in their duty to God, sniffing out every opportunity to seduce them into sin, was manifest from the teachings of Christ himself. His mission, so he had declared, was to ‘drive out demons’. [Luke. 14.32.] (161)

The first generation of Christians, when they sought to fathom why their Saviour had become man, and what precisely might have been achieved by his suffering on the cross, had identified as the likeliest answer the need to put Satan in his place. Christ had taken on flesh and blood, so one of them explained, ‘that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the Devil’. [Hebrews 2.14.] Unsurprisingly, then, in the centuries that followed, Christian scholars had parsed scripture with great care for clues as to Satan’s story. It was Origen who had pieced together the definitive account: how originally the Devil had been Lucifer, the morning star, the son of the dawn, but had aspired to sit in God’s throne, and been cast down like lightning from heaven, ‘to the depths of the pit’.  [Isaiah. 14.15.] More vividly than Persian or Jewish scholars had ever done, Christians gave evil an individual face. Never before had it been portrayed to such dramatic and lurid effect; never before endowed with such potency and charisma. (164)

| ‘Two companies of angels are meant by the terms “Light” and “Darkness”.’ [Augustine. City of God 11.33.] Augustine, when he wrote this, had known the heresy that he was skirting: the Persian conviction that good and evil were principles equally matched. (164)

Why, if Christ had defeated death, was Satan’s reach still so long? (165)

Christians knew that they were not mere spectators in the great drama of Satan’s claim on the world, but participants–and that the stakes were cosmically high. The shadows cast by this conviction were deep ones–and destined to extend far into the future. (165)

War in Heaven

In November 589, the Tiber bursts its banks. … In the spring of 590, in the great basilica that Constantine had raised over the site (165) of Saint Peter’s tomb, a man from the very heart of the Roman establishment was consecrated as pope. [Gregory] (166)

‘God is full of mercy and compassion, and it is his will that we should win his pardon through our prayers.’ [Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks 10.1.] … Only a century before, in February 495, a predecessor of Gregory’s had been scandalised by the spectacle of young men in skimpy loincloths haring through Rome, lashing the breasts of women with (166) goat-skin thongs, just as young men had been doing every February since the time of Romulus; half a century before that, another pope had been no less shocked to see some among his flock greet the dawn by bowing to the sun. Those days, though, were past. The rhythms of the city–its days, its weeks, its years–had been rendered Christian. The very word religion had altered its meaning: for it had come to signify the life of a monk or a nun. (167)

Pagans, brought up on Homer, had been perfectly capable of attributing pestilence to the murderousness of an indignant and vengeful Apollo. Christians, though, knew better. Gregory never doubted that the sufferings of the times in which he lived were bred in part of human sinfulness. (167)

[via: Consider, “Sin as investigation and formal inquiry into free will and responsibility.”]

Time, so most people assumed, went in cycles. (168)

Here, in this apocalypse, [Revelation] was a vision of the future more overwhelming in its impact than that of any pagan oracle. No fiddling pronouncement of Apollo had ever served to reconfigure the very concept of time. Yet this, across the Roman world, was what the Old and New Testaments ha combined to achieve. Those who lacked the Christian understanding of history, so Augustine had written, were doomed to ‘wander in a circuitous maze finding neither entrance nor exit’. [Augustine. City of God 12.15.] The course of time, as sure and direct as the flight of an arrow, proceeded in a straight line: from Genesis to Revelation; from Creation to the Day of Judgement. (170)

And yet there was, for all that, a certain pulling of punches. … Pointedly, they refused to draw a precise correspondence between the events described in Revelation and the convulsions of their own age. The chance to identify who the Beast might be, or the Whore of Babylon, was spurned. Leaders of the Church had long dreaded the speculations that St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse might foster among those given to wild and violent imaginings. (170)

The new Jerusalem and the lake of fire were sides of the same coin. (171)

‘When death comes to a man, the mortal part of him perishes, or so it would seem. The part which is immortal, though, retires at death’s approach, and escapes unharmed and indestructible.’ [Plato. Phaedo 106e.]

That the soul was immortal; that it was incorporeal; that it was immaterial: all these were propositions that Augustine had derived not from scripture, but from Athens’ greatest philosopher. (172)

Here, then, as Christians in the West began to go their own way, was a deep paradox: that the more distinctive a vision of the afterlife they came to have, the more it bore witness to its origins in the East. Jewish scripture and Greek philosophy, once again, had blended to potent effect. (172) … What awaited the soul after it had slipped its mortal shell? If not angels, and the road to heaven, then demons black as the Persians had always imagined the agents of the Lie to be; Satan armoured with an account book, just as tax officials of the vanished empire might have borne; a pit of fire, in which the torments of the damned echoed those described, not by the authors of Holy Scripture, but by the poets of pagan Athens and Rome. It was a vision woven out of many ancient elements; but not a vision that Christians of an earlier age would have recognised. Revolutionary in its implications for the dead, it was to prove revolutionary as well in its implications for the living. (173)

Powerhouses of Prayer

Nowhere else in the Christian West (173) were saints quite as tough, quite as manifestly holy, as they were in Ireland. (174)

Columbanus—‘the Little Dove’–…had brought with him from Ireland a novel doctrine: that sins, if they were regularly confessed, were manageable. Penances, calibrated in exacting detail, could enable sinners, once they had performed them, to regain the favor of God. Punitive though Columbanus’ regime was, it was also medicinal. To those who lived in dread of the hour of judgement, and of the Devil’s accounting book, it promised a precious reassurance: that human weakness might be forgiven. (175)

‘Let us, since we are travellers and pilgrims in this world, keep the end of our road always in our minds–for the road is our life, and its end is our home.’ [Columbanus. Sermons 8.2.]

Throughout Rome’s history, from its earliest days to the time of Constantine, games to mark the passing of a saeculum had repeatedly been held: ‘a spectacle such as no one had ever witnessed, nor ever would again’. [Zosimus. 2.] This was why Augustine, looking for a word to counterpoint the unchanging eternity of the City of God, had seized upon it. Things caught up in the flux of mortals’ existence, bounded by their memories, forever changing upon the passage of the generations: all these, so Augustine declared, were saecularia–‘secular things’. [Augustie. City of God 16.26.] (177)

Form Italy to Ireland, the charisma of the warrior archangel came to radiate across the entire West. In time, even the furthermore spike of rock, as far out into the ocean as it was possible for monks to go and not vanish beyond the horizon, would end up under his protection. Skellig became Skellig Michael. There was nowhere so remote, it seemed, nowhere so far removed from the centres of earthly power, that the presence of an angel–and perhaps even his voice–might not be experienced there. (178)

[via: Culture note. It was Skellig Micahel that was used as the setting for Star Wars, The Force Awakens:]

| The summons to be born anew, to repent and be absolved of sin, was one that would prove to have many takers. (178)

7. Exodus
632: Carthage

On 31 May, Heraclius‘ command was put into effect. All the Jews in Africa–‘visitors as well as residents, their wives, their children, their slaves’ [‘Letter of Saint Maximus’, quoted by Gilbert Dagron and Vincent Déroche in Juifs et Chrétiens en Orient Byzantin (parish, 2010), p. 31.)]–were forcibly baptised. (179)

Here was a brutal solution to what had always been a source of frustration. Ever since the time of Paul, Christians had been fretting over the obdurate refusal of God’s original chosen people to accept his Son as the Messiah. Their perplexity was compounded by the fact that the Jews, according to the unimpeachable evidence of the gospels, had willingly accepted responsibility for the death of Christ. ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’ [Matthew. 27.25.] Why, then, confronted by this transparent act of deicide, had the Almighty not exacted a terrible vengeance? The response of theologians was to insist that he had. The Temple was no more, after all, and the Jews’ ancient homeland–its name long since changed by the Romans from Judaea to Palestine–reconsecrated as a Christian ‘Holy Land’. (180)

So it was, in Carthage, that the emperor’s policy was punctiliously applied. Any Jew who landed in the city risked arrest and forcible baptism. All he had to do was cry out in Hebrew when twisting an ankle, or perhaps expose himself at the baths, to risk denunciation. …in the summer of 634…Palestine…had been invaded by ‘Saracens’: Arabs. (181)

No one will be able to resist you in battle. For God is with you. [Sebeos. 30.]

What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion. [Qur’an. 90.12-17.]

The Dome of the Rock, as it would come to be known, occupied the very spot where the Holy of Holies was supposed to have stood, and was a deliberate rubbing of Jewish noses in the failure, yet again, of all their hopes: of their messiah to appear; of the Temple to be rebuilt. Even more forthright, though, was the lesson taught to Christians: that they clung to a corrupted (183) and superseded faith. Running along both sides of the building’s arcade, a series of verses disparaged the doctrine of the Trinity. ‘The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of God.’ [Qur’an. 4.171.] This was not merely to reopen theological debates that Christians had thought settled centuries before, but to condemn the entire New Testament, Gospels and all, as a fabrication. (184)

Most of the verses on the Dome of the Rock derived from a series of revelations that Muhammad’s followers believed he had been given to him by none other than the angel Gabriel. These, assembled after his death to format single ‘recitation’, or qur’an, constituted for his followers what Jesus represented to Christians: an intrusion into the mortal world, into the sublunar, into the diurnal, of the divine. Muhammad had not written this miraculous text. He had merely served as its mouthpiece. Instead, every word, every last letter of the Qur’an derived from a single author: God. This gave to its pronouncements on Christians, as on everything else, an awful and irrevocable force. Unlike pagans, but like Jews, they were owed the respect due a people who had their own scriptures, as a ‘People of the Book’. Self-evidently, though, the errors in these same scriptures ensured that God had no choice but to ordain their perpetual subjugation. The very deal that the Roman authorities had prescribed for the Jews was now, to Christians’ dismay, imposed on them as well. Tolerance, so it was written in the Qur’an, should be granted both Peoples of the Book; but only in exchange for the payment of a tax, the jizya, and humble acknowledgement of their own inferiority. Stubbornness could not (184) be allowed to go unpunished. Why, for instance, when it had been revealed conclusively in the Qur’an that Jesus, rather than suffering execution, had only appeared to be crucified, did Christians persist in glorifying the cross? (185)

Even more threatening to Christian assumptions than the Qur’an’s flat denial that Jesus had been crucified, however, was the imperious, not to say terrifying, tone of authority with which it did so. … Many of the words attributed to him had served as a direct inspiration to Muhammad’s own followers. ‘My people! Enter the Holy Land which God has prescribed for you!’ [Qur’an. 5.21.] The Arab conquerors, in the first decades of their empire, had pointedly referred to themselves as muhajirun: ‘those who have undertaken an exodus’. A hundred years on from Muhammad’s death, when the first attempts were made by Muslim scholars to write his biography, the model that they instinctively reached for was that of Moses. (185)

Heraclius, two years before the Arab invasion of Palestine, had commanded that Jews be forcibly baptised out of dread for the security of the Christian empire. … ‘Love, and do as you want.’ [Augustine. Homily on the Letter of John to the Parthians 7.8.] (186)

| So Augustine had declared. Nowhere in the Latin West had the implications of Christian teaching been more brilliantly elucidated than in Africa–or to such influential effect. (186)

But now a new understanding of the laws of God had emerged–and those who proclaimed it enjoyed, unlike the Jews, the muscle of a mighty and expanding empire. In 670, terrified reports reached Carthage of a raid on Africa that had carried away thousands of Christians into slavery. … Finally, in the autumn of 695, sentries on the walls of Carthage spotted a smudge of dust on the horizon–and that it was growing larger. Then the glint of weapons catching the sun. Then, emerging from the dust, men, horses, siege-engines. | The Saracens had arrived. (187)

The Full English

In the event, two sieges were required to wrest Carthage from Christian rule. After the city had been captured the second time, and its inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved, its conqueror razed its buildings to the ground. The masonry was then loaded into wagons and carted along the bay. (187)

Faced by a confusing multitude of dating systems, Bede saw, more clearly than any Christian scholar before him, that there was only the one fixed point amid the great sweep of the aeons, only the single pivot. … Years, for the first time, were measured according to whether they were before Christ or anno Domini: in the year of the Lord. The feat was as momentous as it was to prove enduring: a rendering of time itself as properly Christian. (190)

What, though, might this confluence, this blending of the Roman and Irish, imply about God’s plans for Bede’s own people? This, in the final years of his life, was the question to which the great scholar sought to provide an answer. (191) …Bede, when he sought to make sense of his own people’s history, turned to the Old Testament. … If baptism had brought the Angels into membership of the universal Church, then so also, in Bede’s history, had it brought them something else: the hint of a possibility that the might be a chosen people. (192)

In his history, he cast the glamour of the angelic over all the kingdoms founded in Britain by those who had made their (192) exodus across the northern sea: Saxon and Justish as well as Anglian. Not merely a new Israel, they were lit by something of the blaze of the heavenly. Such, at any rate, was Bede’s hope. …The Angles, let alone the Saxons and the Jutes, did not think of themselves as a single people. Their lands remained, in the wake of their baptism, what they had always been: a patchwork of rival kingdoms, governed by ambitious warlords. Yet the allure of Bede’s vision would prove too bright to be snuffed out. In time, the Saxons and the Jutes would indeed come to think of themselves as sharing a single identity with the Angles–and even to accept their name. Their kingdoms, following their union, would be known as Anglia and, in their own language, Englalonde. Just as the inheritance of scripture had inspired a momentous new configuration of identities in the Near East, so also in Britain. The elements of Exodus, so evident in the stories that Muslims told of their origins, were shaping, at the far end of the world, the cocoon of myth in which another people were being formed: the English. (193)

A Clash of Civilisations

Far distant from their kingdom, in the great cities of the Near East, Muslim scholars were in the process of shaping a momentous new legitimacy for Islam, and its claim to a global rule. The Arabs, after their conquest of what for millennia had been the worlds’ greatest concentration of imperial and legal traditions, had been faced with an inevitable challenge. How were they to forge a functioning state? Not every answer to the running of a great empire was to be found in the Qur’an. Similarly absent was guidance on some of the most basic aspects of daily life: whether it was acceptable for the faithful to urinate behind a bush, for instance, or to wear silk, or to keep a dog, or for men to shave, or for women to dye their hair black, or now to best brush one’s teeth. For the Arabs simply to have adopted the laws and customs of the peoples they had subdued would have risked the exclusive character of their rule. Worse, it would have seen their claim to a divinely sanctioned authority fatally compromised. Accordingly, when they adopted legislation from the peoples they had conquered, they did not acknowledge their borrowing, as the Franks or the Visigoths had (196) readily done, but derived it instead from that most respected, that most authentically Muslim of sources: the Prophet himself. Even as Poitiers was being fought, collections of sayings attributed to Muhammad were being compiled that, in due course, would come to constitute an entire corpus of law: Sunna. Any detail of Roman or Persian legislation, any fragment of Syrian or Mesopotamian custom, might be incorporated within it. The only requirement was convincingly to represent it as having been spoken by the Prophet–for anything spoken by Muhammad could be assumed to have the stamp of divine approval. (197)

| Here, then, for Christians was a fateful challenge. Their time-honoured conviction that the true law of God was to be found written on the heart could not have been more decisively repudiated. No longer was it the prerogative of Jews alone to believe in a great corpus of divine legislation that touched upon every facet of human existence, and prescribed in exacting detail how God desired men and women to live. The Talmud, an immense body of law compiled by Jewish scholars–rabbis–in the centuries prior to the Arab conquest of the Near East, had never threatened the inheritance of Paul’s teachings as the Sunna did. (197)

Increasingly, it was the empire ruled by the heir of Charles Martel–the Carolignians–that defined for the papacy the very character of Christian rule. Paul I, unlike his predecessors, had failed to notify the emperor in Constantinople of his election. Instead, he had written to Pepin. The Byzantines, struggling for survival as they were against relentless Muslim onslaughts, appeared to Christians in Rome–let alone in Francia or Northumbria–an ever more alien and distant people. Even more spectral were the lands that for centuries had constituted the great wellspring of the Christian faith: Syria and Palestine, Egypt and Africa. The days when a man like Theodore might freely travel from Tarsus to Canterbury were over. The Mediterranean was now a Saracen sea. Its waters were perilous for Christians to sail. The world was cut in half. An age was at an end. (198)


Part II:


8. Conversion
754: Frisia

The rhythms of life and death, and of the cycle of the year, proved no less adaptable to the purposes of the Anglo-Saxon Church. So it was that hel, the pagan underworld, where all the dead were believed to dwell, became, in the writings of monks, the abode of the damned; and so it was too that Eostre, the festival of the spring, which Bede had speculated might derive from a goddess, gave its name to the holiest Christian feast-day of all. Hell and Easter: the grabbing of the Church’s teachings in Anglo-Saxon robes did not signal a surrender to the pagan past, but rather its rout. (204)

At Geisner, where Thuringia joined with the lands of the pagan Saxons, there stood a great oak, sacred to Thunor, a particularly mighty and fearsome god, whose hammer-blows could split mountains, and whose goat-drawn chariot made the whole earth shake. Boniface chopped it down. Then, with its timbers, he built a church. The woodman’s axe had long served to humble demons. … The bare stump of the oak served as proof of what the missionary had been claiming. Christ had triumphed over Thunor. Pilgrims still travelled to Geisner; but now, when they did so, it was to worship in an oratory made from freshly sawn oaken planks. (205)

| Boniface had not been so naïve as to think that his mission was thereby done. The task of winning people for Christ could not be achieved merely by cutting down a tree. Converts, even after baptism, continued to practise any number of pestiferous customs: offering sacrifice to springs, inspecting entrails, claiming to read the future. Such backsliding was not the worst. Travelling through the lands east of the Rhine that lay under the rule of the Franks–Hesse, and Thuringia, and Swabia–Boniface had been horrified by what he found. Chruches that in many cases reached back centuries seemed rotten with pagan practices. Merchants who sold (205) slaves to the Saxons for sacrifice; noblemen who hid their worship of idols ‘under the cloak of Christianity’ [Willibald. Life of Boniface 6.]; priests who made sacrifice of goats and bulls; bishops who fornicated, and inherited their sees from their fathers and indulged in spectacular blood-feuds: these were not the kinds of Christian that Boniface was content to leave to their own devices. Rather than venture further into the forests of Saxony, as he had long dreamed of doing, he had embarked instead on ag great labour of reform. (206)

To convert was to educate. … A new and altogether more militant approach to paganism was being prepared. The willingness of Boniface to meet death rather than permit his attendants to draw their swords was not one that the Frankish authorities tended to share. Three days after his murder, a squad of Christian warriors tracked down the killers, cornered them and wiped them out. Their (206) women and children were taken as slaves. Their plunder was plundered. The news, spreading through the pagan redoubts of Frisia, achieved what Boniface himself had failed to do. ‘Struck with terror at the visitation of Gods’ vengeance, the pagans embraced after the martyr’s death the teaching which they had rejected while he still lived.’ [Willibald. Life of Boniface 8.] (207)

| It was not a model of conversion that the Carolingian monarchy, for one, would not forget. (207)

Sword and Pen

King of the Franks and ‘Christian Emperor’, [Einhard. 31.] he would be remembered by later generations as Charles the Great: Charlemagne. (208)

| Many were his conquests. … Yet of all Charlemagne’s many wars, the bloodiest and most exhausting was the one he launched against the Saxons. … In 782, when Charlemagne ordered the beheading of 4500 prisoners on a single day, it was the example of David, who had similarly made a great reaping of captives, that lay before him. ‘Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live.’ [2 Samuel. 8.2.] (208)

Charlemagne aimed as well at something altogether more novel: the winning of the Saxons for Christ. (208) … Like any king in the post-Roman world, he had been raised to view pagans primarily as a nuisance. The point of attacking barbarians was to keep them in order and plunder plenty of loot. … The taint of the demonic lay heavy on the Saxons. Only by washing away all that they had been, and erasing entirely their former existence, could they be brought to a proper submission. In 1776, Charlemagne imposed a treaty on the Saxons that obliged them to accept baptism. Countless men, women and children were led into a river, there to become Christian. Nine years later, after the crushing of yet another rebellion, Charlemagne pronounced that ‘scorning to come to baptism’ [Alcuin. Letters 113.] would henceforward meet death. So too, he declared, would offering sacrifice to demons, or creating a corpse, or eating meat during the forty days before Easter. Ruthlessly, determinedly, the very fabric of Saxon life was being torn apart. There would be no stitching it back together. Instead, dyed in gore, its ragged tatters were to lie for ever in the mud. As a programme for bringing an entire pagan people to Christ, it was savage as none had ever been before. A bloody and imperious precedent had been set. (209)

[via: Sounds a bit like Antiochus IV.]

| But was it Christian? Forcing pagans to convert at sword-point was hardly the cause for which Boniface had died, after all. Perhaps it was telling, then, that the most pointed criticism of the policy should have come from a compatriot of the sainted martyr. ‘Faith arises from the will, not from compulsion.’ [Alcuin. Letters 113.]

‘Let peoples newly brought to Christ be nourished in a mild manner, as infants are given milk–for instruct them brutally, and the risk then, their minds being weak, is that they will vomit everything up.’ [Alcuin. Letters 110.]

It was not only Saxons, though, who caused Alcuin anxiety. Christians in lands from which paganism had been scoured many centuries before still laboured in darkness. How, when they were illiterate, and their priests semi-lettered, could they possibly profit from the great inheritance of writings from the ancient past: the Old and New Testaments, the canons of Nicaea and other councils, the teachings of the fathers of the Church? How, without these timeless texts, could they be brought to a proper knowledge of God’s purposes and desires? How could they even know what Christianity was? It was not enough to take the light of Christ into the forests of Saxony. It had to be taken into the manors, and farms, and smallholdings of Francia. An entire society needed reform. (210)

Without education, they were doomed; without education, they could not be brought to Christ. Correctio, Charlemagne termed his mission: the schooling of his subjects in the authentic knowledge of God. (211)

| ‘May those who copy the pronouncements of the holy law and the hallowed sayings of the fathers sit here.’ [Alcuin: cited in Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, ed. Peter Godman (London, 1985), p. 139.] … Under his leadership, the monastery became a powerhouse of penmanship. Its particular focus was the production of single-volume collections of scripture. Edited by Alcuin himself, these were written to be as user-friendly as possible. No longer did words run into one another. Capital letters were deployed to signal the start of new sentences. For the first time, a single stroke like a lightning-flash was introduced to indicate doubt: the question mark. Each compendium of scripture, so one monk declared, was ‘a library beyond compare’.  [Gesta abbatum Fontanellensium, in MGH SRG 28 (Hanover, 1886), p. 54.] In ancient Alexandria, it had been called ta biblia ta hagia, ‘the holy books’–and in time, so as to emphasise the unique holiness of what they were producing, monks in Francia would transliterate the Greek word biblia into Latin. The Old and (211) New Testaments would come to be known simply as Biblia‘the Books’. The sheer number of editions produced at Tours was prodigious. Large-format, easy to read, and distributed widely across Charlemagne’s empire, they gave to the various peoples across the Latin West something new: a shared sense of God’s word as a source of revelation that might be framed within one single set of covers. (212)

Four decades on [from Charlemagne’s death in 814], the archbishop of Reims could urge the priests under his charge to know all forty of Gregory the Great’s homilies, and expect to be obeyed. One was jailed for having forgotten ‘everything that he had learned’. [Flodoard. Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, III, 28, p. 355.] Ignorance had literally become a crime. (213)

| Increasingly, in the depths of the Frankish countryside, there was no aspect of existence that Christian teaching did not touch. Whether drawing up a charter, or tending a sick cow, or advising on where best to dig a well, rare was the priest who did not serve his flock as the ultimate fount of knowledge. The rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, repeated daily across the Frankish empire and beyond, in the kingdoms of Britain, and Ireland, and Spain, spoke of a Christian people becoming ever more Christian. The turning of the year, the tilling, the sowing, the reaping, and the passage of human life, from birth to death–all now lay in the charge of Christ. As a generation succeeded generation, so the teachings of priests to labourers in the fields, and to expectant mothers, and to old men and women on their deathbed, and to children mouthing their first prayers, came to seem ever more set on foundations that transcended time. Christian order could proclaim itself eternal, and be believed. (213)

Turning Back the Tide

Yet there was a paradox. Even as kings bowed the knee to him, the hideousness of what he had undergone for humanity’s sake, the pain and helplessness that he had endured at Golgotha, the agony of it all, was coming to obsess Christians as never before. (219)

The closer that 1033, the millennial anniversary of Christ’s death, drew near, so the more did vast crowds, in an ecstasy of mingled yearning, and hope, and fear, begin to assemble. Never before had a movement of such a magnitude been witnessed in the lands of the West. Many gathered in fields outside towns across France, ‘stretching their palms to God, and shouting with one voice, “Peace! Peace! Peace!”, as a sign of the perpetual covenant which they had vowed between themselves and God’. [Rudolf Glaber. Histories 4.16.]

In 1028, a monk from Bavaria named Arnold travelled there [Hungary], and was startled to see a dragon swooping over the Hungarian plains, ‘its plumed head the height of a mountain, its body covered with scales like shields of iron’. [Arnold of Regensburg. Vita S. Emmerami, in MGH SS 4 (Hanover, 1841), p. 547).] What marvel was this, though, compared to the true wonder: a land that was once the home of blood-drinking demons brought to Christ, its king serving as the guardian to thousands of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem, its towns filled with cathedrals and churches sounding to the praises of God? Arnold could recognise the shock of the new when he saw it. Far from unsettling him, the prospect of even further change filled him with a giddy excitement. In a world animated as never before by the fire-rush of the Holy Spirit, why should anything stand still? ‘Such is the dispensation of the Almighty–that many things which once existed be cast aside by those who come in their wake.’ (221)

| Arnold was right to foretell upheaval. Much that had been taken for granted was on the verge of titanic disruption. Revolution of a new and irreversible order was brewing in the Latin West. (221)

9. Revolution
1076: Cambrai

A succession of popes as astute as they were devout had laboured to set it on a new course. Reformatio, they had termed this great project: ‘reformation’. Its ambition was not merely the redemption of the papacy from the canker of worldliness and parochialism, but the whole world. (225)

Gregory, no less than the angel, felt himself called to a mighty labour of cleaning. The clergy were leprous. Only he, the heir of Saint Peter, could bring them to purity. Priests had to be virginal, like monks. ‘To pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ [Jeremiah. 1.10.]]: such was Gregory’s mission. (226)

| Never before had a pope made the foundations of the Christian world tremor so palpably. (226) … When Ramihrd refused to acknowledge Gerard as a priest, he had done so in direct obedience to a decree of the Roman Church. Issued only the year before, it had formally prohibited ‘the King’s right to confer bishoprics’. [Arnulf of Milan. 4.7.] A momentous step: for this–prohibiting kings from poking their noses into the business of the Church–had struck at the very heart of how the world was ordered. (227)

‘The pope is permitted to depose emperors.’ This proposition, one of a number of these on papal authority drawn up for Gregory’s private use in March 1075, had shown him more than braced for the inevitable blow-back. No pope before had ever claimed such a licence; but neither, of course, had any pope dared to challenge imperial authority with such unapologetic directness. Gregory, by laying claim to the sole leadership of the Christian people, and (227) trampling down long-standing royal prerogatives, was offending Henry IV grievously. (228)

Gerard, faced with open insurrection, found himself with no choice but to beg the assistance of a neighbouring count. A humiliating recourse–and even once the rebels had been routed, and their leaders put to death, the sense of a world turned on its head would not go away. ‘Knights are armed against their lords, and children rise against their parents. Subjects are stirred up against kings, right and wrong are confounded, and the sanctity of oaths is violated.’ [Wido of Ferrara. De Scismate Hildebrandi 1.7.]

The dream of Gregory and his fellow reformers–of a Church rendered decisively distinct from the dimension of the earthly, from top to bottom, from palace to meanest village–no longer appeared a fantasy, but eminently realisable. … No longer would it be monasteries and nunneries alone that stood separate from the flux of the saeculum, but the entire Church. (230)

Gregory and his fellow reformers did not invent the distinction between religion and the saeculum, between the sacred and the profane; but they did render it something fundamental to the future of the West, ‘for the first time and permanently’. [Moore. First European Revolution, p. 12.] (230) … It was no longer enough for Gregory and his fellow reformers that in individual sinners, or even great monasteries, be consecrated to the dimension of religion. The entire sweep of the Christian world required an identical consecration. That sins should be washed away; the mighty put down from their seats; the entire world reordered in obedience to a conception of purity as militant as it was demanding: here was a manifesto that had resulted in a Caesar humbling himself before a pope. ‘Any custom, no matter how venerable, no matter how commonplace, must yield utterly to truth–and, if it is contrary to truth, be abolished.’ [Gregory VII. Letters 67.] … Nova consilia, he had called his teachings–‘new counsels’. (231)

Laying Down the Law

The most intoxicating of all the reformers’ slogans was libertas–‘freedom’. (231)

Then, on 27 November, the Pope travelled outside the town walls, and addressed an eager crowd in a muddy field. No less than Gregory, Urban understood the value of harnessing popular fervour. The great cause of reformatio could not merely be the stuff of councils. If it failed to liberate the Christian people across the entire globe, to light heaven and earth, to prepare the fallen world for the return of Christ and the day of judgement, then it was nothing. The Church, so the bishops and abbots gathered in Clermont had proclaimed, should be ‘chaste from all contagion of evil’. [Quoted by Morris. Papal Monarchy. p. 125.] … Urban, who gloried in the convulsions that reformatio had brought to Christian kingdoms, dared to dream of a greater convulsion still. Daringly, he offered his listeners (232) an electrifying new formula for salvation. Listed as an official decree of the council held at Clermont, it promised warriors a means by which their trade of arms, rather than offending Christ and requiring penance to be forgiven, might itself serve to cleanse them of their sin. ‘For, if any man sets out from devotion, not for reputation or monetary gain, to liberate the Church of God at Jerusalem, his journey shall be reckoned in place of all penance.’ [Quoted by Cowdrey, H. E. J. ‘Pope Urban II’s Preaching of the First Crusade’ (History 55. 1970), p. 188.]

…in the summer of 1099, the great army of warrior pilgrims had arrived before Jerusalem. On 15 July, they stormed its walls. The city was theirs. Then, once the slaughter was done, and they had dried their dripping swords, they headed for the tomb of Christ. There, in joy and disbelief, they offered up praises to God. Jerusalem–after centuries of Saracen rule–was Christian once again. (233)

The Church that had emerged from the Gregorian reformatio was instead an institution of a kind never before witnessed: one that had not merely come to think of itself as sovereign, but had willed itself into become so. ‘The Pope,’ Gregory VII had affirmed, ‘may be judged by no one.’  [Gregory VII. Dictatus Papae.] All Christian people, even kings, even emperors, were subject to his rulings. The Curia provided Christendom with its final court of appeal. A supreme paradox: that the Church, by rending itself free of the secular, had itself become a state. (235)

It was clerks with pens, not knights with lances, who were the papacy’s shock-troops. ‘Who but God has written the law of nature in the hearts of men?’ [Augustine. On the Sermon on the Mount 2.9.32.] So Augustine had once asked. Here, in a conviction that reached ultimately back to Saint Paul, lay the surest basis for the papacy’s claim to a universal authority. The order defined by the Roman Church was one that consciously set itself against primordial customs rooted in the sump of paganism, or ephemeral codes drawn up on the whims of kings, or mildewed charters. Only one law could maintain for the entirety of Christendom the ties of justice and charity that bound together a properly Christian society: ‘the eternal law, that creates and rules the universe’. [St. Bernard. Letter 120.] (236)

For centuries, ever since the great assembly of bishops convened by Constantine at Nicaea, councils of the Church had been meeting and issuing canons. No one, however, had ever thought to collate them. Various efforts had been made to rectify this in the decades that followed the millennium; but only in the wake of Irnerius’ labours was it definitively achieved. The Decretum–ascribed by the tradition to a single monk named Gratian, and completed around 1150–was a labour of decades. … The challenge faced by Gratian in making sense of them was freely acknowledged by the alternative title given to the Decretum: the Concordance of Discordant Canons. (237)

How to iron out the inconsistencies? … God, so they believed, wrote his ruling on the human heart. Paul’s authority on this score was definitive. ‘The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”‘ Here, for Gratian, was the foundation-stone of justice. (238)

Age-old presumptions were being decisively overturned: that custom was the ultimate authority; that the great were owed a different justice from the humble; that inequality was something natural, to be taken for granted. … Gratian, by providing them with both a criterion and a sanction for weeding out objectionable customs, had transfigured the very understanding of law. No longer did it exist to uphold the differences in status that Roman jurists and Frankish kings alike had always taken for granted. Instead, its purpose was to provide equal justice to every individual, regardless of rank, or wealth, or lineage–for every individual was equally a child of God. (238)

By 1200, half a century after the completion of the Decretum, a solution had finally been arrived at–and it was one fertile with implications for the future. A starving pauper who stole from a rich man did so, according to a growing number of legal scholars, iure naturali–‘in accordance with natural law’. As such, they argued, he could not be reckoned guilty of a crime. Instead, he was merely taking what was properly owed him. It was the wealthy miser, not the starving thief, who was the object of divine disapproval. Any bishop confronted by such a case, so canon lawyers concluded, had a duty to ensure that the wealthy pay their due of alms. Charity, no longer voluntary, was being rendered a legal obligation. (239)

| That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, though, was a matching principle: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was–in a formulation increasingly deployed by canon lawyers–a human ‘right’. (239)

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Shortly after a clandestine marriage, [Peter] Abelard had been cornered by thugs hired by his new wife’s [Héloïse] uncle, pinned down in his bed and castrated. The humiliated victim had retired to a monastery; Héloïse, on his insistence, to a convent. (240) …in his seventh decade, there came the gravest crisis of all: his formal condemnation as a heretic…in the summer of 1140. (241)

His goal, like that of Gratian, was to bring harmony where there was discord. He too believed in progress. ‘By doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we perceive the truth.’ [Sic et Non, ed. B. B. Boyer and R. McKeon (Chicago, 1976), p. 103.] Here was the maxim that defined Abelard’s entire theology–and enabled him to promise his students an understanding more profound than that of the Church Fathers themselves. By applying the standards of reason to their writings, so he taught, a scholar could aspire to behold Christian truth in its proper perspective: clear, and whole, and logically ordered. Not even Abelard was so immodest as to claim a stature equivalent to that of Origen or Augustine; but he did aspire, by standing on their shoulders, to see further than they had done. This, to his accusers, was the expression of a monstrous arrogance, one that, ‘by assuming the entire nature of God to lie within the grasp of human reason, threatens the good name of the Christian faith’. [Bernard of Clairvaux. Letters 191.] But to his admirers, it was thrilling. (242)

By 1200, Paris could boast a university as vibrant as Bologna’s. … Universities were soon mushrooming across Christendom. Not merely tolerated, the methods of enquiry pioneered by Abelard had been institutionalised. (243)

It is by God’s laws that the whole scheme of things is governed. [Augustine. City of God 5.11.]

Although theology, unsurprisingly, reigned in Paris and Oxford as the queen of sciences, there was no lack of other fields of study in which God’s laws were also to be distinguished. The workings of nature–of the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and of the elements, and of the distribution of matter, and of wild animals, and of the human body–all bore witness to their existence. It was no offence against God, then, to argue, as Abelard did, ‘that the constitution or development of everything that originates without miracles can be adequately accounted for’. [Quoted by Huff. Intellectual Curiosity, p. 106.] Quite the contrary. To identify the laws that governed the universe was to honor the Lord God who had formulated them. … Philosophy, which to many of Abelard’s opponents had been a dirty word, came to lie at the heart of the curriculum. Investigation into the workings of nature provided its particular foundation. The study of animals and plants, of astronomy, even of mathematics: all came to be categorised as natural philosophy. The truest miracle was not the miraculous, but the opposite: the ordered running of heaven and earth. (244)

Abelard, following in Anselm’s wake, had been more subtle. Christ had submitted to torture on the Cross, not to satisfy the demands of the Devil, but to awaken humanity to love. ‘This it is to free us from slavery to sin, to gain for us the true liberty of the sons of God.’ [Abelard. Commentary on the Epistel to the Romans, tr. Steven R. Cartwright (Washington DC, 2011), p. 168 (adapted).] (245)

Mystery and reason: Christianity embraced them both. God, who had summoned light and darkness into being by the power of his voice, and separated the seas from the land, had ordained as well that the whole of his creation be a monument to harmony. (245)

‘The dull mind rises to the truth through material things.’ [Abbot Sugar. On What Was Done in HIs Administration 27.]

10. Persecution
1229: Marburg

‘The only men fit to preach are those who lack earthly riches, because–possessing nothing of their own–they hold everything in common.’ [Peter Damian. Against Clerical Property 6.]

The scorching lava-flow of reformatio, which for decades had swept away everything before it, had begun to cool, to harden. Its supreme achievement–the establishment across Christendom of a single, sovereign hierarchy–was no longer best served by the zeal of revolution. Its leaders had won too greatly to welcome the prospect of further upheaval. Their need now was for stability. (249)

The passions of revolution were not easily calmed. The more reformers who had risen to power in the Church sought to stabilise the condition of Christendom, so the more did those on the extreme fringes of reformatio accuse them of betrayal. A momentous pattern was being set. Revolution had bred an elite–and this elite had bred demands for revolution. (249)

It was with a renewed sense of urgency, then, that Conrad, in the wake of Elizabeth‘s death, embarked upon a fresh campaign to win them back for Christ. … In 1184, bishops who previously might have been content to let sleeping heretics lie had been instructed actively to sniff them out. Then, in 1215, at the great Lateran Council presided over by Innocent III, sanctions explicitly targeting heresy had provided the Church with an entire machinery of persecution. Now, in 1231, there came a fresh refinement. A new pope, Gregory IX authorised Conrad not merely to preach against heresy, but to devote himself to the search for it–the inquisitio. No longer was it the responsibility of a bishop to bring heretics to trial, and sit in judgement on them, but rather that of a cleric especially appointed to the task. Even though, as a priest, Conrad could not himself ‘decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood’, [18th canon of the Fourth Lateran Council.] he was licensed by Gregory to compel the secular authorities to impose it. Never before had power of this order been given to a campaigner against heresy. Now, when Conrad rode on his mule from village to village, summoning the locals to answer his interrogation of their beliefs, he did so not merely as a preacher, but as a whole new breed of official: an inquisitor. (254)

With Master Conrad, the yearning to cleanse the world of sin, to heal it of its leprosy, had turned murderous. (255)

A Great and Holy War

…in July 1209, when an immense army of knights unmatched since the time of Urban assembled at Lyon, they too were crucesignati: ‘signed with the cross’. It marked them as pilgrims who, like their Saviour, were so aflame with love of mankind that they were ready to be killed in the cause of redeeming them from hell. ‘The cross that is fixed to your coats with a soft thread,’ a preacher reminded them, ‘was fixed to His flesh with iron nails.’  [Jacques de Vitry. Quoted by Pegg. Most Holy War, p. 67.] … A crozada, they called the campaign: a ‘crusade’. Yet although the word would in time be applied retrospectively to the great expedition that had (260) been launched by Urban, the crusade against the Albigensians was war of a kind that Christians had never fought before. It was not, as Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons had been, an exercise in territorial expansion; nor was it, in the manner of the crusades that aimed at the liberation of Jerusalem, an armed pilgrimage to a destination of transcendent holiness. Rather, it had as its goal the extirpation of dangerous beliefs. Only blood could wash Christendom clean of the pollution presented to the Christian people by heresy. (261)

The Eternal Jew

The sense of Spain as a great battlefield between good and evil, between the heavenly and the infernal, had a long heritage in Christendom. (263) … In 1142, its great Abbott, Peter the Venerable had crossed the Pyrenees, the better to understand what the Saracens actually believed. Meeting with scholars fluent in Arabic, he had employed them on a momentous project: the first translation of the Qur’an into Latin. … Far from building bridges, Peter’s translation of the Qur’an had only confirmed Christians in their darkest suspicions of its contents. Islam was the sump of all heresies, and Muhammad ‘the foulest of men’. [Peter the Venerable. Writings Against the Saracens (tr. Irven M. Resnick), p. 75.] (264)

Aristotle, far from lending succour to the enemies of the Church, was successfully summoned to its defence. Institutionalised by the universities, and licensed by the papacy, the study of his philosophy was made ever safer for Christian scholars. If the standard of investigation into heresy benefited from this trend, then so too did investigation into the workings of the universe. To fathom these workings was to fathom the very ordinances of God. (266)

In 1323, the seal was set on his [Thomas, a native of Aquino] reputation when the pope proclaimed him a saint. The result was to enshrine as a bedrock of Catholic theology the conviction that revelation might indeed co-exist with reason. A century after the banning in Paris of Aristotle’s books on natural philosophy, no one had to worry that the study of them might risk heresy. The dimensions that they had opened up–of time, and of space, and of the unchanging order of the stars–were rendered as Christian as scripture itself. (267)

Aristotle was not the only philosopher cited by Aquinas in his great work. There were other pagans too; there were even Saracens and Jews. His readiness to acknowledge them as authorities was a sign, not of any cultural cringe, but of the opposite: an absolute confidence that wisdom was Christian, no matter where it might be found. Reason was a gift from God. Everybody possessed it. (267)

Perhaps it was hardly surprising, then, that the course of reformatio, impatient as it was of rivals, should have brought much suffering (268) to Jews. (269)

‘We are confined and oppressed,’ Abelard had imagined a Jew lamenting, ‘as if the whole world had conspired against us alone. It is a wonder we are allowed to live.’ A century on, there were few Christians ready to follow Abelard’s example and think themselves into Jewish shoes. As never before, the ambition of the church to (269) provide a salvation to peoples of every race and background had become a weapon to be turned against all who spurned its offer. … It was a measure of this, perhaps, that increasingly, when referring to the scripture that were the common inheritance of both themselves and the Jews, they no longer used the word biblia as a plural, but rather as a singular: the Bible. In other ways too, any hint of a common fellowship that Jews might once have shared with Christians was beings systematically razed. No longer, it had been ordained at the Fourth Lateran Council, were they to dress as those they lived among dressed, but were instead ‘at all times to be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their clothing’.  [68th canon of the Fourth Lateran Council.] Christian artists, for the first time, began to represent Jewish men as physically distinctive: thick-lipped, hook-nosed, stooped. In 1267, sexual relations between Jews and Christians was banned by formal decree of a church council; in 1275, a Franciscan in Germany drew up a law code that made it a capital offence. In 1290, the king of England, pushing the logic of this baneful trend to its ultimate conclusion, ordered all the Jews in his kingdom to leave for good. In 1306, the king of France followed suit. [Recalled on and off throughout the fourteenth century, the Jews were finally expelled for good from France in 1394.] (270)

| A Church that proclaimed itself universal had, it seemed, no response to those who rejected it, save persecution. (270)

11. Flesh
1300: Milan

‘The female,’ Aristotle had written, ‘is, as it were, an inadequate male.’ [Aristotle. On the Generation of Animals 2.3.737a. Medieval scholars variously translated peperomenon, the adjective used by Aristotle to describe the female, with words that suggested the sense of something lacking.] Just as the great philosopher had provided inquisitors with a model of how to conduct an interrogation, so had his writings on biology swung the immense weight of his prestige behind a perspective on female inferiority that many clerics were all too ready to embrace. Steeled as they were to see in their own virginity the proof of an almost angelic fortitude, they found in the model of physiology taught by the ancients confirmation of all their darkest, their most festering fears. Women oozed; they bled; like bogs at their most treacherous, they were wet, and soft, and swallowed up men entire. Increasingly, wherever Aristotle was taught, “Eve’s daughters were being measured by standards that were less biblical than Greek. (274)

Thomas Aquinas–great admirer of Aristotle though he was–had struggled to square the assumption that a woman was merely a defective version of a man with the insistence in Genesis that both had been divinely crafted for precise and specific purposes. Eve’s body, ‘ordained as it was by nature for the purposes of generation’, was no less the creation God, ‘who is the universal author of nature’, than Adam’s had been. [Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.92.1.] The implications of this for the understanding of the divine were too glaring to be ignored. ‘But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother?’ Anselm had asked. ‘Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chickens under wings? Truly, master, you are a mother.’ [Quoted by Bynum. Jesus as Mother, p. 114. Anselm is echoing the words of Jesus himself (Matthew. 23.37).] Abbots, even as they lived their lives in chastity, might not hesitate to compare themselves to a nursing woman, breasts filled (274) with ‘the milk of doctrine’. [Bernard of Clairvaux. Quoted in Bynum. Jesus as Mother, p. 118.] It was no shame for a priest to talk of himself in such a manner–for the feminine as well as the masculine was a reflection of the divine. God the Father was also a mother. (275)

The virgin mother who had redeemed the fault of Eve, the mortal who had conceived within her uterus the timeless infinitude of the divine, Mary could embody for even the humblest and most unlettered peasant of all the numerous paradoxes that lay at the heart of the Christian faith. … Enshrined at the very heart of the great mysteries elucidated by Christianity, of (276) birth and death, of happiness and suffering, of communion and loss, was the love of a woman for her child. (277)

[via: This reminds me of the conclusion to The Passion of The Western Mind.]

Brides of Christ

the Great Dying, reached Siena in May 1348.

In that time, the understanding of the erotic had been transfigured to a degree that would have been unimaginable to those who, in cities across the Roman world, had offered sacrifice to the goddess of love. Convulsive though the experience of reformatio had certainly been, it was merely the aftershock of a far more seismic event: the coming of Christianity itself. Nowhere, perhaps, was this more evident than in the dimensions of desire. It was not just Venus who had been banished. So too had gods fêted for their rapes. A sexual order rooted in the assumption that any man in a position of power had the right to exploit his inferiors, to use the orifices of a slave or a prostitute to relieve his needs much as he might use a urinal, had been ended. Paul’s insistence that the body of every human being was a holy vessel had triumphed. Instincts taken for granted by the Romans had been recast as sin. Generations of monks and bishops, of emperors and kings, looking to tame the violent currents of human desire, had laboured to erect great dams and dykes, to redirect their floodtide, to channel their flow. Never before had an attempt to recalibrate (279) sexual morality been attempted on such a scale. Never before had one enjoyed such total success. (280)

[via: Curious if this is similar to the thesis of Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin?]

Three decades after the coming of the plague to Siena, a young woman from the city by the name of Catherine wrote to a monk much troubled by how chill and inscrutable the workings of the universe appeared. Nothing, she reassured him–not disease, not despair–could snuff out a gift that was given in love to every mortal by God: free will. The phrase was one with an ancient pedigree. First coined by Justin, the great apologist of the generation before Irenaeus, it had offered to Christians a transformative reassurance: that they were not the slaves of the stars, nor of fate, nor of demons, but were instead their own masters. No surer way existed to demonstrate this, to stand free and autonomous in defiance of all the manifold evils of the fallen world, than to exercise continence. (280)

Navigating the tides and currents of a cruelly troubled age, she came to offer to great multitude of Christians a precious (280) reassurance: that holiness might indeed be manifest on earth. (281)

That Roman law–unlike the Talmud, and unlike the customs of most other ancient peoples–defined marriage as a monogamous institution had not for a moment meant that it required men to display lifelong fidelity. Husbands had enjoyed a legal right to divorce–and, of course, to forcing themselves on their inferiors–pretty much as they pleased. This was why, in its long and arduous struggle to trammel the sexual appetites of Christians, the Church had made marriage the particular focus of its attentions. … Joined together under the watchful eye of Christ, men were commanded to be as faithful to their wives as their wives were to them. … The bonds of a Christian marriage, mutual and indissoluble as they were, served to join man and woman together as they had never been joined before. (282)

It was consent, not coercion, that constituted the only proper foundation of a marriage. The Church, by pledging itself to this conviction, and putting it into law, was treading on the toes of patriarchs everywhere. Here was a development pregnant with implications for the future. Opening up before the Christian people was the path to a radical new conception of marriage: one founded on mutual attraction, on love. Inexorably, the rights of the individual were coming to trump those of family. God’s authority was being identified, not with the venerable authority of a father to impose his will on his children, but with an altogether more subversive principle: the freedom of choice. (282)

The Church, in its determination to place married couples, and not ambitious patriarchs, at the heart of a properly Christian society had tamed the instinct of grasping dynasts to pair off cousins with cousins. Only relationships sanctioned by canons were classed (284) as legitimate. No families were permitted to be joined in marriage except for those licensed by the Church: ‘in-laws’. The hold of clans, as a result, had begun to slip. Ties between kin had progressively weakened. Households had shrunk. The fabric of Christendom had come to possess a thoroughly distinctive weave. (285)

Casting the First Stone

‘Men committed indecent acts with other men.’ [Romans. 1:27] Here, in Paul’s formulation, was a perspective on sexual relations that Roman men would barely have recognised. The key to their erotic sense of themselves was not the gender of the people they slept with, but whether, in the course of having sex, they took the active or the passive role. … ‘Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.’  [Romans. 1.26.] A momentous denunciation. By mapping women who slept with women onto men who slept with men, Paul had effectively created an entire new category of sexual behaviour. The consequence was yet another ramping-up of the revolution brought by Christianity to the dimension of the erotic. Just as the concept of paganism would never have come into existence without the furious condemnation of it by the Church, so the notion that men and women who slept with people of their own sex were sharing in the same sin, one that obscenely parodied the natural order of things, was a purely Christian one. (288)

‘Copulation with a member of the same sex, male with male, or female with female, as stated by the Apostle–this is called the Vic of sodomy.’ – Thomas Aquinas

12. Apocalypse
1420: Tabor

The poor, it seemed had inherited the earth. (292)

A New Earth

Across Christendom, then, dread of what the future might hold continued to be joined with hope: of the dawning of a new age, when all of humanity would be gathered under the wings of the Spirit, that holy dove which, at Jesus’ baptism, had descended upon him from heaven. (302)

Formulating his objections to Spanish imperialism, [bartolomé de las Casas] drew on the work of Quinas. ‘Jesus Christ, the king of kings, was sent to win the world, not with armies, but with holy preachers, as sheep among wolves.’ [‘Commentaria Cardinalis Caietani ST II-II Q.66 a.8’ in Sancti Thomae Aquinatis: Opera Omnnia, Iussu Impensaque Leonis XIII, P.M. Edita, vol. 9 (Rome, 1882), p. 94).] Such was the judgement of Thomas Cajetan, an Italian friar whose commentary on Aquinas was the great labour of his life. Appointed the head of the Dominicans in 1508, and a cardinal in 1517, he spoke with a rare authority. News (308) of the sufferings inflicted on the Indians filled him with a particular anger. ‘Do you doubt that your king is in hell?,’ [Quoted by Isacio Pérez Fernández in ‘La doctrine de Santo Tomás en la mente ye en la ación del Padre Las Casas’ (Stadium 27, 1987), p. 274.] he demanded of one Spanish visitor to Rome. Here, in his shock that a Christian ruler should think to justify conquest and savagery in the name of the crucified Christ, was the expression of a scholarly tradition that reached all the way back to Alcuin. Cajetan, in his efforts to provide the Indians with a legal recourse against their oppressors, never imagined that he was breaking new ground. The discovery of continents and peoples unimagined by Aquinas did not render the great Dominican any the less qualified to serve as a guide as to how they should be treated. The teachings of Christ were universal in their reach. That the Kingdom of the Indians were legitimate states; that Christianity should be imposed, not by force, but solely by means of persuasion; that neither kings, nor emperors, nor the Church itself had any right to ordain their conquest: here, in Cajetan’s opinion, were the principles fit to govern a globalised age. (309)

| There was, in this innovative programme of international law, a conscious attempt to lay the foundations of something enduring. (309)

[Martin] Luther understood, infinitely better than his adversary [Cajetan], how important it was to seize control of the narrative. His very life now seemed likely to depend on it. ‘I was afraid because I was alone.’ [Quoted by Roper. Martin Luther, p. 119.] Yet fear was not Luther’s only emotion. He felt exhilaration as well, and a sense of exultation. Now that he was no longer a monk, and his bonds to the dimension of Catholic religio had been cut once and for all, he was free to forge something different: a new and personal understanding of religio. (312)

Only by means of a new reformatio, Luther was coming to believe, could the Christian people hope to be redeemed from its darkening shadow. (313)

13. Reformation
1520: Wittenberg

Luther’s mission, no less than Hildebrand’s had been, was to redeem Christendom from darkness, to purify it of corruption, to Baptist it anew. He could not, though, as the earlier reformers had done, seize control of the commanding heights of the Roman Church–for that was precisely the strategy that had resulted in everything he aspired to reverse. (317)

Luther, reading Paul, had been overwhelmed by a similar consciousness of divine grace. ‘I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’ [Luther. Luther’s Works, 32, p. 112.] Unworthy though he was, helpless and fit to be condemned, yet God still loved him. Luther, afire with the intoxicating and joyous improbability of this, loved God in turn. There was no other source of peace, no other source of comfort, to be had. It was in the certitude of this that Luther, the day after his first appearance before Charles V, returned to the bishop’s palace. Asked again if he would renounce his writings, he said that he would not. (318) … Instead, so he declared, he was bound by the understanding of scripture that had been revealed to him by the Spirit. ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’ [‘The account and Actions of Doctor Martin Luther the Augustinian at the Diet of Worms’ in Luther’s Works, 34, p. 337.] (319)

At Worms, the emperor had charged him with arrogance, and demanded to know how it was that a single monk could possibly be right in an opinion ‘according to which all of Christianity will be and will always have been in error both in the past thousand years and even more in the present’. [‘The Account and Actions of Doctor Martin Luther the Augustinian at the Diet of Worms’ in Luther’s Works, 32, p. 114, n. 9.] It was to answer that question, to share his good news of God’s grace, that Luther kept to his writing desk. (320)

Eleven weeks it took him to finish his rendering of the New Testament. (320)

‘If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.’ [Luther. Table Talk, 1877.] Now, with his translation, Luther had given Germans everywhere the chance to do the same. All the structures and the traditions of the Roman Church, its hierarchies, and its canons, and its philosophy, had served merely to (320) render scripture an entrapped and feeble thing, much as lime might prevent a bird from taking wing. By liberating it, Luther had set Christians everywhere free to experience it as he had experienced it: as the means to hear God’s living voice. Opening their hearts to the Spirit, they would understand the true meaning of Christianity, just as he had come to understand it. There would be no need for discipline, no need for authority. Antichrist would be routed. All the Christian people at long last would be as one. (321)

Here I Stand

‘Ah, but how splendid it is, ‘[Argula von Grumbach] wrote, ‘when the spirit of God teaches us and, more, helps us understand first this passage then that one, God be praised! revealing to me the real, authentic light shining forth.’ [Argula von Grumbach. ‘Letter to the rector and council of the University of Ingolstadt’, in Reformation Thought: An Anthology of Sources, ed. Margaret L. King (Indianapolis, 2016), p. 74.] Yet the coming of enlightenment, it turned out, revealed different things to different people. Many of Luther’s followers, inspired by the premium that he had put on freedom, complained that he was dragging his feet. (322)

In 1525, when thousands of peasants assembled in Baltringen, a village in northern Swabia, they proclaimed it in their ambition ‘to hear the gospel and live accordingly’. [From the preamble to the 12 Articles, in Blickle. The Revolution of 1525, p. 195.] (322)

Ruthers inspired by Luther, laying claim to an exclusive authority over their subjects, were able to set about designing a model of the state that no longer ceded any sovereignty to Rome. Meanwhile, in the privacy of their souls, true Christians had lost nothing. In place of canon lawyers, they now had God. Subject though they might be to a newly muscular understanding of the secular, liberty was theirs in a parallel dimension: the one dimension that truly mattered. Only those who opened their hearts to the gift of divine grace, to a direct communion with the Almighty, could feel themselves truly free. No longer was it the religiones–the monks, the friars, the nuns–who had religio. All believers had it–even those who, lacking Latin and speaking only German, might call it ‘religion’. (324)

In 1534, papal authority was formally repudiated by act of parliament. Henry was declared ‘the only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England’. Anyone who disputed his right to this title was guilty of capital treason. (325)

‘Here I stand. I can do no other.’ So Luther, appearing before the emperor at Worms, was said to have declared. (326)

The genius of Gregory VII and his fellow radicals had been to attempt its resolution with a programme of reform so far-reaching that the whole of Christendom had been set by it upon a new and decisive course. Yet the claim of the papacy to embody both the ideal of liberty and the principle of authority had never been universally accepted. For centuries, various groups of Christians had been defying its jurisdiction by making appeal to the Spirit. Luther had lit the match–but others before him had laid the trail of gunpowder. … Every claim by a reformer to an authority over his fellow Christians might be met by appeals to the Spirit; every appeal to the Spirit by a claim to authority. The consequence, detonating across entire reaches of Christendom, was a veritable chain reaction of protest. (327)

Luther, fretting where it all might lead, had not shrunk from contemplating a nightmarish prospect: a world in which the very concept of truth might end up dissolving, and everything appear relative. ‘For whoever has gone astray in the faith may thereafter believe whatever he wants.’ [Luther. ‘The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ–Against the Fanatics’ in Luther’s Works 36, p. 336.] (328)

If you desire to have me as your pastor then you will have to correct the disorder of your lives.’ -Jean Calvin [Quoted by Ozment. Age of Reform, p. 366.]

The Clearing Mist

Ture authority lay instead with the fellowship of the godly, led by its elected pastors and presbyters. Their charge it was to continue the great labour of cleansing the world of delusion and of scraping away from the ark of Christianity all the accumulated barnacles and seaweed of human invention. … The task was nothing less than to right the disorder of the cosmos. To join God with man. (335)

Puritans, then, even as they rejected the old and familiar, could not entirely deny a lurking paradox: that their rejection of tradition was itself a Christian tradition. (336)

If reason had no role to play in fathoming the mysteries of faith, then in its proper sphere, where the stars moved on their inexorable course, and the birds sang their songs of love to their creator, and ‘grass and flowers (336) laugh out to him’, [Calvin. ‘Preface to the New Testament’] it existed to reveal to mortal the traces and purposes of God. (337)

| A century on from Luther, Protestants could cast themselves as their heirs of a revolution that had transformed Christendom utterly. No longer merely a staging post in a lengthy process of reformatio, it was commemorated instead as an episode as unique as it had been convulsive: as the Reformation. It had been, in the opinion of its admirers, a liberation of humanity from ignorance as well as error. Once, when the world had been lost to darkness, there had been no limit to the stories of marvels and wonders that Christians had greedily swallowed; but then, ‘when the mist began to clear up, they grew to be esteemed but as old wives’ fables, impostures of the clergy, illusions of spirits, and badges of Antichrist’. [Francis Bacon. The Advancement of Learning 1.4.9.] If God was to be found in the interior experience of individual believers, then so also could he be apprehended in the immensity and complexity of the cosmos. (337)

| The truest miracles need no property to be rendered miraculous. (337)

14. Cosmos
1620: Leiden

On 9 November 1620, one day after the battle of the White Mountain, a ship named the Mayflower arrived off a thin spit of land in the northern reaches of the New World. (341)

Settled in a new world the Puritans may have been, in flight from the degeneracy of the old, and proudly born again; but the challenges that they faced as Christians, and the ambivalences of their solutions, had no less an ancient pedigree for that. (344)

All Things to All Men

Lifa–the science of correctly calculating a calendar–had been assiduously sponsored by dynasty after dynasty. To neglect the movement of the stars was to risk calamity: for nothing ever happened in the heavens, so Chinese scholars believed, that was not interfused with the pattern of events on earth. (345)

| This was why, in China, the compilation and promulgation of calendars was a strict monopoly of state. Only by accurately keeping track of eclipses could an emperor hope to avert disaster. (345)

The fall of Mexico to Christian arms had been followed by the subjugation of other fantastical lands: of Perus, of Brazil, and of islands named–in honour of Philip II [king of Spain]–the Philippines. (346)

Who were the true barbarians, he had demanded: the Indians, a people ‘gentle, patient and humble’, or the Spanish conquerors, whose lust for gold and silver was no less ravening than their cruelty? Pagan or not, every human being had been made equally by God and endowed by him with the same spark of reason. To argue, as las Casas’ opponent had done, that the Indians were as inferior to the Spaniards as monkeys were to men was a blasphemy, plain and simple. ‘All the peoples of the world are humans, and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational.’ [Bartolomé de las Casas. Quoted by Tierney. Idea of Natural Rights, p. 273.] Every mortal–Christian or not–had rights that derived from God. Derechos humanos, las Casas had termed them: ‘human rights’. It was difficult for any Christians who accepted such a concept to believe themselves superior to pagans simply by virtue of being Christian. (347)

Although Confucius, the ancient philosopher whose teachings served as the fountainhead of Chinese morality, had plainly not been a Christian, [Matteo] Ricci [an Italian who had arrived in China in 1582…transformed himself into Li Madou] had refused to dismiss him as merely a pagan. That he had been able to do this in good faith had owed much to two particular convictions: first, that Confucius had been illumined by the same divinely bestowed gift of reason that was evident in the writings of Aristotle; and second, that his teachings had been corrupted over the centuries by his followers. Only strip the accretions away, so Ricci had believed, and Confucians might be led to Christ. Confucian philosophy, in its fundamentals, was perfectly compatible with Christianity. (349)

‘Man is born from amidst heaven and earth, which means that his origin is fundamentally the same as Heaven.’ [Xu Guangqi. Quoted by Nicolas Standaert, ‘Xu Guangqi’s Conversation’, in Jami et al. Stagecraft and Intellectual, p. 178.]

Even Xu, though, had failed to recognise the full scale of the threat that Christian assumptions about the universe repressed to China’s traditions. … The autonomy of such institutions, guaranteed as early as 1215 by papal statute, had endured through war and reformation. Nothing in China, where access to learning had always been strictly regulated by the state, could compare. If to be a Jesuit was to serve in obedience to the pope, then it was also to know that God’s purposes were revealed through the free and untrammelled study of natural philosophy. (351)

‘Holy Scripture naturally leads men to contemplate the celestial bodies.’ [Aquinas. On the Power of God 3.17.30]

| To take that path was the very essence of being a Christian. (351)

The Starry Messenger

The Jesuits never doubted what they were living through: a revolution in the study of the cosmos without precedent in history. (352)

How was the appearance of a moon pitted with craters to be reconciled with the philosopher’s understanding of it as unchanging, imperishable, incorruptible? (353)

[via: Could we say that the craters on the moon put a dent in Aristotelian Natural Philosophy?!]

‘Sometimes [Venus] is obscure, sometimes it is completely illuminated, sometimes it is illuminated either in the superior quarter or in the inferior quarter.  … This proves that Venus is a satellite of the sun and travels around it.’ -Johann Schreck [Quoted by D’Elia. Galileo in China, p. 40.]

Galileo, in his own way a devout Christian, never thought to argue that the Bible was wrong. All of scripture was true. That did not mean, however, that every passage had to be read literally. In support of this opinion, Galileo could–and did–cite the authority of the church fathers: Origen, Basil, Augustine. ‘Thus, given that in many places the Scripture is not only capable but necessarily in need of interpretations different from the apparent meaning of the words, it seems to me that in disputes about natural phenomena it should be reserved to the last place.’ [Quoted in The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, ed and tr. Maurice A. Finocchiaro (Berkeley & Los Angeles), p. 50.]

It had never been the rival claims of scripture and natural philosophy that wee at issue: for, as Cardinal Bellarmino had pointed out back in 1616, both served to confirm that definite backing for Copernicus did not exist. Nor even, in the final reckoning, was it an argument about whether the sun moved: for a much more seismic issue was at stake. Galileo had been put on trial as Catholic fortunes, amid the killing fields of Germany, appeared in desperate straights. (357)

‘There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.’ – John Milton

Galileo, looking to the future, had imagined his successors set on a course that was impossible for him to contemplate. ‘There will be (359) opened a gateway and a road to a large and excellent science, into which minds more piercing than mine shall penetrate to recesses still deeper.’ It was not only sciences, though, that waited. There were many gateways, many roads. (360)

| The only constant was that they all had their origins in Christendom. (360)


Part III:


15. Spirit
1649: St George’s Hill

…Thomas Müntzer had proclaimed that scripture itself was a less certain witness of truth than God’s direct speaking to the soul; and (365) now, in the hothouse of the English Commonwealth, the Spirit was once again bringing enlightenment to common men and women. ‘I have nothing,’ [Gerrard] Winstanley insisted, ‘but what I do receive from a free discovery within.’ [The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. I, p. 98.] The proofs of God’s purpose were more surely to be found in a ploughboy whose heart had been suffused with an awareness of the essential goodness of mankind than they ever were in churches. Just as Müntzer had done, Winstanley despised the book-wrangling of pastors. ‘All places stink with the abomination of Self-seeking Teachers and Rulers.’ True wisdom was the knowledge of God that all mortals could have, if only they were prepared to open themselves to the Spirit: for God, Winstanley proclaimed, was Reason. It was Reason that would lead humanity to foreswear the very concept of possessions; to join in building a heaven on earth. (366)

The course of true reform was never done. It was always a work in progress. Every (367) Christian had to be free to seek his own path to God. It was not the business of a state, still less that of a church, to trammel the workings of the Spirit. ‘No man or body of men in these times can be the infallible judges or determiners in matters of religion to any other men’s consciences but their own.’ [Milton. ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in The Prose Works of John Milton, ed. J. A. St John (London, 1984), 2,  p. 523.] (368)

By terms of a series of treaties signed in the German territory of Westphalia, a ‘Christian, general and permanent peace’ had been brought to the blood-manured lands of the Empire. The princes who signed it pledged themselves not to force their own religion on their subjects. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists: all were granted the freedom to worship as they pleased. This formula, far from an attempt to banish religion from the workings of the state, constituted the precise opposite: a project to establish a properly Christian order. Rather than a betrayal of Christ, who had urged his followers to love their enemies, and to turn the other cheek, it expressed a conscious ambition to measure up to his teachings. Toleration of religious difference had been enshrined as a Christian virtue. (369)

[Oliver] Cromwell…had rather see Islam practised in England, he declared, ‘than that one of God’s Children should be persecuted’. Books might be burnt; but not the men who wrote them. … Toleration, then, was a principle that even God’s most faithful servants might opt to uphold in a range of ways. The illumination of the Spirit was not always easy to translate into policy. On occasion, rather than in an ecstasy of certainty, it might need to be answered with compromises. Godliness, it seemed, might sometimes be expressed through ambiguity. (371)

No Other Teacher but the Light

[Baruch] Spinoza‘s Dutch friends, like his Quaker contacts, believed that true holiness was enlightenment. ‘This it is which leads man in truth, into the way to (374) God, which excuseth him in well-doing, giving him peace in his conscience, yea, brings him to union with God, wherein all happiness and salvation consist.’ [Spinoza. Theological-Political Treatise: Prologue, 8.] (374)

It was Calvin himself who had proposed that true obedience to God should be grounded in liberty. [See his Commentary on 1 Peter. 2.16.] (375)

Spinoza, it was reported, believed every substance to be infinite, and incapable of producing another. That being so, there could exist only a single substance. God was ‘nothing other than the whole universe’. [The report of a Danish savant, Olaus Borch, on Spinoza’s philosophy. Quoted by Jonathan Israel in Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity (Oxford, 2001), p. 170.] (376)

Spinoza’s genius was to turn strategies that Luther and Calvin had deployed against popery on Christianity itself. When he lamented just how many people were ‘in thrall to pagan superstition’, [Theological-Political Treatise Preface, 8.] when he dismissed the rituals of baptism or the celebration of feast days as mere idle ‘ceremony’, [Ibid. 5.13.] and when he lamented that the original teachings of Christ had been corrupted by popes, he was arguing nothing that a stern Reformed pastor might not also have argued. (377)

Paul, unlike Moses or the prophets, had adopted the methods of a philosopher: debating with his opponents, and submitting his teachings to the judgement of others. Spinoza’s critique of Judaism, for all that it might be disguised by a tone of scholarly detachment, was recognisably Christian. He admired Paul much as Luther had done: as the apostle who had brought to all of humanity the good news that God’s commandments were written on their hearts. (378)

Liberty–the cause which he valued above all others, and to which he had devoted his entire career–he identified directly with ‘the Spirit of Christ’. [Ethics 4.68.] (379)

The Hunchback’s Progress

To be a Christian was to be a pilgrim. (379) … it meant to journey through life in the hope that at its end the pilgrim would be met by shining angels, and dressed in raiment that shone like gold, and led into heaven, a city on a hill. (380)

To cross the Atlantic, then, was to lay claim to the liberty that Paul had proclaimed to be every Christian’s. ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ [Galatians. 5.1] (381)

The God that [Bejamin] Lay could feel as enlightenment had bought his Chosen People out of slavery in Egypt; his son had washed feet, and suffered a death of humiliating agony, and redeemed all of humanity from servitude. To trade in slaves, to separate them from their children, tow hip and rack and roast them, to starve them, to work them to death, to care nothing for the mixing into raw sugar of their ‘Limbs, Bowels and Excrements’, [Lay, p. 34.] was not to be a Christian, but to be worse than the Devil himself. The more that the Lays, opening their home and their table to starving slaves, learned about slavery, the more furiously they denounced it–and the more unpopular they became. Forced to beat a retreat from Barbados in 1720, they were never to escape the shadow of its horrors. For the rest of their lives, their campaign to abolish slavery–quixotic though it seemed–was to be their pilgrims’ progress. (383)

‘God has made of one blood all nations’ [Acts 17.26, quoted by William Penn in The Political Writings of William Penn, ed. Andrew R. Murphy (Indianapolis, 2002), p. 30.] When William Penn, writing in prison, cited this line of scripture, he had been making precisely the same case as las Casas: that all of humanity had been created equally in God’s image; that to argue for a hierarchy of races was an offence against the very fundamentals of Christ’s teaching; that no peoples were fitted by the colour of their skins to serve as either masters or slaves. … Particularly popular was  passage that related a curse laid by Noah on his grandson, whose descendants–by means of various tortuous deductions–had come to be identified with Africans. So unconvincing was this argument, however, that no one ever took it very seriously. Slave-owners with delicate consciences, and who wished to salve them, preferred instead an altogether more solidly founded justification: that the enslavement of pagans, and their transportation to Christian lands, was done for the good of their souls. (384)

To Lay, all this was the rankest hypocrisy. In 1731, when he and his wife arrived in Philadelphia, he was appalled to discover whips, and chains, and slave-markets in the City of Brotherly Love. Rather than stay in such a Babylon, they settled instead in the nearby town of Abington. There, much as Elizabeth of Hungary had once done, they sought to boycott anything that might have been procured at the cost of another creature’s suffering. The couple made their own clothes; drank nothing but water and milk; lived entirely on vegetables. Unlike Elizabeth, though, they did not attempt to keep their commitment to ethical living between themselves and God. Their ambition instead was to draw attention to their lifestyle: to make a public spectacle of it. In 1735, when Saray Lay died, her husband mourned her by pushing his activism to a new level. By 1737, the Quaker slave-holders in Abington had grown so fed up with his endless protests that they banned him from their meeting hall. The following year, attending the annual assembly of Philadelphia Friends, Lay pulled off his most spectacular publicity stunt yet. Called to address his fellow Quakers, he rose to his feet, smoothed back his coat, and drew out a sword that he had been concealing within its folds. The enslavement of Africans, he declared in a resounding voice, was ‘as justifiable in the sight of the Almighty, who beholds and respects all nations and colours of men with an equal regard, as if you should trust a sword through their hearts as I do through this book.’ [Vaux. memoirs of the Lives, p. 27.] Then, holding up a hollowed-out Bible in which he had concealed a bladder full of blood-red pokeberry juice, he ran it through. The juice spattered everywhere. The meeting hall erupted in indignation. Lay, turning on his heel, hobbled out. He had made his point. (385)

| Summons to repentance were, of course, nothing new. The Bible was full of them. Yet Lay’s campaign, for all that it drew on the example of the prophets, and for all that his admonitions against (385) slavery were garlanded with biblical references, did indeed constitute something different. To target it for abolition was to endow society itself with the character of a pilgrim, bound upon a continuous journey, away from sinfulness towards the light. It was to cast slavery as a burden, long borne by fallen humanity, but which, by the grace of God, might one day loose from its shoulders, and fall from off its back, and begin to tumble. It was at once a startling repudiation of an institution that most Christians had always taken utterly for granted, and yet bred of Christianity’s marrow. It bore witness, no less than did the spirit of toleration in neighbouring Philadelphia, no less than did those who in distant Amsterdam pondered the writings of Spinoza, to the workings of the Spirit. It was founded upon the conviction that had for centuries, in the lands of the Christian West, served as the great incubator of revolution: that society might be born again. ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’ [Vaux. Memoirs of the Lives, p. 51.] (386)

16. Enlightenment
1762: Toulouse

Whether in Edinburgh or in Naples, in Philadelphia or in Berlin, the men most celebrated for their genius were increasingly those who equated churches with bigotry. To be a philosophe was to thrill to the possibility that a new age of freedom was advancing. The demons of superstition and unwarranted privilege were being cast out. People who had been walking in darkness had seen a great light. The world was being born again. Voltaire himself, in his more sombre moments, worried that the malign hold of priestcraft might never be loosened; but in general he was inclined to a cheerier take. His age was a siècle des lumières: ‘an age of enlightenment’. For the first time since the reign of Constantine, the commanding heights of European culture had been wrested from Christian intellectuals. The shock of Calas’ conviction was precisely that it had happened when la philosophies had been making such advances. ‘It seems, then, that fanaticism, outraged by the progress of reason, is thrashing about in a spasm of outrage.’ [Voltaire. Treatise on Tolerance. Chapter 1.] (391)

| Yet in truth, there was nothing quite so Christian as a summons to bring the world from darkness into light. When Voltaire joked that he had done more for his own age than Luther and Calvin had done for theirs, it was a typically feline display of ingratitude. … Voltaire, as a young man, had spent time in England. There, he had seen for himself how faith, in the transformative potency of enlightenment, from aristocratic salons to the meeting halls of Quakers, had resulted in what appeared to him an enviable degree of tolerance. ‘If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.’ [Voltaire. Letters on England. Letter 6.] Voltaire, though, as he surveyed this religious landscape with an amused condescension, did not rest content with it. The impact of Calas’ execution was precisely that it served to jolt him out of any complacency. Christian sects were incorrigible. They would always persecute one another, given only half a chance. The ideal, then, was a religion that could (391) transcend their mutual hatreds. The wise man, Voltaire wrote in the midst of his campaign to exonerate Calas, knows such a religion not only to exist, but to be ‘the most ancient and the most widespread’ of any in the world. The man who practises it does not quibble over points of doctrine. He knows that he has received no divine revelations. He worships a just God, but one whose acts are beyond human comprehension. ‘He has his brethren from Beijing to Cayenne, and he reckons all the wise his brothers.’ [Voltaire. Philosophical Dictionary. ‘Theist’.] (392)

| Yet this of course, was merely to proclaim another sect–and, what was more, one with some very familiar pretensions. The dream of a universal religion was nothing if not catholic. Ever since the time of Luther, attempts by Christians to repair the torn fabric of Christendom had served only to shred it further. The charges that Voltaire levelled against Christianity–that it was bigoted, that it was superstitious, that its scriptures were rife with contradictions–were none of them original to him. All had been honed over the course of two centuries and more, by pious Christians. Voltaire’s God, like the Quakers’, like the Collegiants’, like Spinoza’s, was a deity whose contempt for sectarian wrangling owed everything to sectarian wrangling. ‘Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, that is the very foolish daughter of a wise and intelligent mother.’ [Voltaire. Treatise on Tolerance. Chapter 20.] Voltaire’s dream of a brotherhood of man, even as it cast Christianity as something fractious, parochial, murderous, could not help but betray its Christian roots. Just as Pual had proclaimed that there was neither Jew nor Greek in Christ Jesus, so–in a future blessed with full enlightenment-was there destined to be neither Jew nor Christian nor Muslim. Their every difference would be dissolved. Humanity would be as one. (392)

Woe to You Who Are Rich

For the first time since the age of Constantine, Christianity was being targeted by a government for eradication. Its baleful reign, banished on the blaze of revolution, stood revealed as a nightmare that for too long had been permitted to separate twin ages of progress: a middle age. (397)

| This was an understanding of the past that, precisely because so flattering to sensibilities across Europe, was destined to prove infinitely more enduring than the makeshift calendar of the Revolution. Nevertheless, just like many other hallmarks of the Enlightenment, it did not derive from the philosophies. The understanding of Europe’s history as a succession of three distinct ages had originally been popularised by the Reformation. To Protestants, it was Luther who had banished shadow from the world, and the early centuries of the Church, prior to its corruption by popery, that had constituted the primal age of light. By 1753, when the term ‘Middle Ages’ first appeared in English, Protestants had come to take for granted the existence of a distinct period of history: one that ran from the dying (397) years of the Roman Empire to the Reformation. (398)

‘The foundation of our Empire,’ George Washington had declared,’ was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.’ [Quoted by Joh R. vile in the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Emerica’s Founding (Santa Barbara & Denver, 2005), vol. I, p. xliv.] This aunt, however, had implied no contempt for Christianity. Quite the opposite. Far more than anything written by Spinoza or Voltaire, it was New England that had provided the American republic with its model of democracy, and Pennsylvania with its model of toleration. That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible: to the assurance given equally to Christians and Jews, to Protestants and Catholics, to Calvinists and Quakers, that every human being was created in God’s image. The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic–no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think–was the book of Genesis. (400)

[via: “After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words ‘sacred & undeniable,’ and suggested that ‘these truths’ were, instead, ‘self-evident.’ This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.” Jill Lepore, These Truths, p. xv.]

Franklin, like the revolution for which he was such an effective spokesman, illustrated a truth pregnant with implications for the future: that the surest way to promote Christian teachings as universal was to portray them as deriving from anything other than Christianity. (401)

In France,…The founding document of the country’s revolution, the sonorously titled ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’, …drew heavily on the example of the United States. … The evolution of the concept of human rights, mediated as it had been since the Reformation by Protestant jurists and philosophes, had come to obscure its original authors. It derived, not from ancient Greece or Rome, but from the period of history condemned by the all right-thinking revolutionaries as a lost millennium, in which (401) any hint of enlightenment had at once been snuffed out by monkish, book-burning fanatics. It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages. (402)

That anything of value might have sprung from the mulch of medieval superstition was a possibility too grotesque even to contemplate. Human rights owed nothing to the flux of Christian history. They were eternal and universal–and the Revolution was their guardian. ‘The Declaration of Rights is the Constitution of all peoples, all other laws being variable by nature, and subordinated to this one.’ -Maximilien Robespierre [Robespierre. Quoted by Edelstein. Terror of Natural, p. 190.] (402)

So Christ, at the day of judgment, was destined to tell those who had failed to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick in prison. There was no requirement, in an age of enlightenment, to take such nonsense seriously. The only heaven was the heaven fashioned by (404) revolutionaries on earth. Human rights needed no God to define them. Virtue was its own reward. (405)

The Misfortunes of Virtue

And so it was, in 1807, in the midst of a deadly struggle for survival against Napoleon, that the British parliament had passed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade; and so it was, in 1814, that Lord Castlereagh, faced across the negotiating table by uncomprehending foreign princes, had found himself obliged to negotiate for the eradication of a business that other nations still took for granted. Amazing Grace indeed. (411)

On 8 February 1815, eight powers in Europe signed up to a momentous declaration. Slavery, it stated, was ‘repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality’. [Declaration relative to the Universal Abolition of the Slave Trade.] The language of evangelical Protestantism was fused with that of the French Revolution. Napoleon, slipping his place of exile three weeks after the declaration had been signed, and looking to rally international support for his return, had no hesitation in proclaiming his support for the declaration. That June, in the great battle outside Brussels that terminally ended his ambitions, both sides were agreed that slavery, as an (41) institution, was an abomination. The twin traditions of Britain and France, of Benjamin Lay and Voltaire, of enthusiasts for the Spirit and enthusiasts for reason, had joined in amity even before the first cannon was fired at Waterloo. The irony was one that neither Protestants nor atheists cared to dwell upon: that an age of enlightenment and revolution had served to establish as international law a principle that derived from the depths of the Catholic past. Increasingly, it was in the language of human rights that Europe would proclaim its values to the world. (412)

17. Religion
1825: Baroda

To Protestants, the essence of religion appeared clear: it lay in the inner relationship of a believer to the divine. Faith was a personal, a private thing. As such, it existed in a sphere distinct from the rest of society: from government, or trade, or law. There was the dimension of the religious, and then there was the dimension of everything else: the ‘secular’. That other societies too could be divided up in this manner might–to a people less self-confident than the British–have appeared farfetched: for it was, in truth, a most distinctive way of seeing the world. (416)

The more that British official identified Hindus with a religion native to India, so the more they required a convenient shorthand for it. ‘Hindooism’, the word that came to fill the gap, had originally been coined back in the 1780s. The first man known to have used it was an Evangelical. Charles Grant… (417)

That there existed a religion called Hinduism, and that it functioned in a dimension distinct from entire spheres of human activity–spheres called ‘secular’ in English–was not a conviction native to the subcontinent. Instead, it was distinctively Protestant. That, though, would not prevent it from proving perhaps the most successful of all British imports to India. In time, indeed-when, after two centuries, Britain’s rule was brought at last to an end, and India emerged to independence–it would do so as a self-proclaimed secular nation. A country did not need to become Christian, it turned out, to start seeing itself through Christian eyes. (420)


Supporters of the Declaration of Rights had always been explicit on that score. The shackles of superstition were forged in synagogues no less than in churches. ‘We must grant everything to Jews as individuals, but refuse to them everything as a nation!’ This was the slogan with which, late in 1789, proponents of Jewish emancipation in France had sought to reassure their fellow revolutionaries. ‘They must form neither a political body nor an order in the state, they must be citizens individually.’ [The Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre. Quoted by Graetz. Jews in Nineteenth-Century France, p. 177.] And so it had come to pass. When the French Republic granted citizenship to Jews, it (424) had done so on the understanding that they abandon any sense of themselves as a people set apart. No recognition or protection had been offered to the Mosaic law. … Heraclius, a millennium and more previously, had attempted something very similar. The dream that Jewish distinctiveness might be subsumed into an identity that the whole world could share–one in which the laws given by God to mark the Jews out from other peoples would cease to matter–reached all the way back to Paul. … That the Declaration of Rights claimed an authority for itself more universal than that of Christianity only emphasised the degree to which, in the scale of its ambitions and the scope of its pretensions, it was profoundly Christian. (425)

A Crime Against Humanity

Meanwhile, in the heart of Africa, missionaries were starting to venture where Europeans had never before thought to go. Reports they brought back, of the continuing depredations of Arab slavers, confirmed the view of many in Britain that slavery would never e wholly banished until the entire continent had been won for civilisation. That this equated to their own rule was, of course, taken for granted. ‘I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.’ So God had declared in the Bible. ‘I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy.’ [Ezekiel. 34.16.] Here–not just for Britain, but for any power that might plausibly lay claim to it–lay a licence for conquest that, in due course, would foster a headlong scramble for colonies. It was not the slavers who would end up settling Africa, and subjugating it to foreign rule, but–by an irony familiar from Christian history–the emancipators. (434)

[via: Is Holland suggesting that colonists were “emancipators?”, that abolition was the catalyst for colonization?]

18. Science
1876: The Judith River

‘Of old,’ the psalmist had written in praise of the Creator, ‘You founded the earth, and the heavens–Your handiwork. They will perish and You will yet stand. They will all wear away like a garment.’ [Psalms. 102. 25-6.] Here, in this vision of a world that had both a beginning and a history, linear and irreversible, lay an understanding of time in decisive contrast to that of most peoples in antiquity. To read Genesis was to know that it did not go round in endless cycles. Unsurprisingly, then, scholars of the Bible had repeatedly sought to map out a chronology that might reach back before humans. ‘We must not suppose,’ Luther had declared, ‘that the appearance of the world is the same today as it was before sin.’ [Lectures of Genesis 1-5, in Luther’s Works, vol. I, p.99.] Increasingly, though, enthusiasts for what by the late eighteenth century had come to be termed geology were basing their investigations not on Genesis, but directly on their study of God’s creation: rocks and fossils, and the very contours of the earth. (436)

In 1650, when James Ussher, the archbishop of Armagh…sought to establish a global chronology, his exclusive reliance on written records–and in particular on the Bible–led him to identify the date of the Creation as 4004 BC. In 1822…William Buckland…pusblished a paper demonstrating the life on earth, let alone the deposition of rocks, was infinitely older than Noah’s flood, it was his (436) dating of the fossils he had found in a Yorkshire cave that enabled him to demonstrate his point. Two years later, he wrote the first full account of a dinosaur. In 1840, he argued that great gouges across the landscape of Scotland bore witness to an ancient–and decidedly unbiblical–Ice Age. … Although some, clinging to a literal interpretation of Genesis, refused to accept that the earth’s history might stretch back immeasurable distances before man, the vast majority felt only awe before a Creator capable of working on such a prodigious scale. Geology, bred as it was of the biblical understanding of time, seemed less to shake than to buttress Christian faith. (437)

In Britain and America especially, the conviction that God’s workings were manifest in nature–‘natural theology’–had become, by the middle of the nineteenth century, a key weapon in the armoury of Christianity’s defenders. … And yet this confidence had been shown up as something grievously misplaced. What appeared an unassailable support of the Christian religion had proved to be nothing of the kind. A position of strength had been transformed into a grievous source of weakness. Natural theology had become, almost overnight, an Achilles’ heel. (438)

‘I had no intention to write statistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.’ [Charles Darwin. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 224.]

‘I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designed created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.’ [Charles Darwin. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 224.]

‘It may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers,–ants making slaves,–the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars,–not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.’ [Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species (London, 1859), pp. 243-4.]

‘The ascending development of the bodily structure in higher animals has thus been, in all probability, a concomitant of the evolution of mind.’  [Speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Quoted by Wallace. Beasts of Eden, p. 57.] The modern horse, in other words, had willed itself into being. Far from being at the mercy of its environment, the species had always been in charge of its own destiny. (440)

The Britain of Darwin’s day, though, could boast what no one in Augustus’ Rome had ever thought to sponsor: campaigns to redeem the poor, the exploited, the diseased. Darwin himself, the grandson of two prominent abolitionists, knew full well the impulse from which these sprang. The great cause of social reform was Christian through and through. ‘We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.’ [Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man (London, 1871), part I, pp. 133-4.] And yet the verdict delivered by Darwin on these displays of philanthropy was a fretful one. Much as the Spartans had done, when they flung sickly babies down a ravine, he dreaded the consequences for the strong of permitting the weak to propagate themselves. ‘No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.’ [Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man (London, 1871), part I, pp. 134.] (442)

How were these differences, between a white and a native American, between a European and a Tasmanian, most plausibly to be explained? The traditional response of a Christian would have been to assert that between two human beings of separate races there was no fundamental difference: both had equally been created in the image of God. To Darwin, however, his theory of natural selection suggested a rather different answer. As a young man, he had sailed the seas of the world, and he had noted how, ‘wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal’. [Charles Darwin. Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle (London, 1839), p. 520.] His feelings of compassion for native peoples, and his matching distaste for white settlers, had not prevented him from arriving at a stark conclusion: that there had come to exist over the course of human existence a natural hierarchy of races. The progress of Europeans had enabled them, generation by generation, to outstrip ‘the intellectual and social faculties’ [The Descent of Man, p. 180.] (443) of more savage peoples.

[via: This conflict is incredible.]

A New Reformation

‘Few see it, but I believe we are on the Eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live thirty years, it is that I may see the foot of Science on the necks of her Enemies.’  [Quoted by Desmond. Huxley, p. 262.]

But what did Huxley mean by ‘Science’? The answer was not at all obvious. Branches of knowledge ranging from grammar to music had all traditionally ranked as sciences. Theology had long reigned as their queen. At Oxford, ‘science’ still, even in the 1850s, meant ‘attainment in Aristotle’. [Mark Pattison, rector of Lincoln College. Quoted by Harrison. Territories of Science, p. 148.] … Huxley, with the assiduity of a general keen to make sure of a recently annexed province, went to great pains to secure it borders. ‘In matters of the intellect,’ he warned, ‘do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.’ [Thomas Henry Huxley. collected Essays. Volume 5: Science and the Christian Tradition (London, 1894), p. 246.] Such was the principle of ‘agnosticism’, a word that Huxley had come up with himself, and which he cast as the essential requirement for anyone who wished to practise science. It was, he flatly declared, ‘the only method by which truth could be ascertained’. [The Mechanics’ Magazine (1871). Quoted by Harrison. Territories of Science, p. 170.] Everone reading him knew his target. Truth that could be neither demonstrated nor proven, truth that was dependent for its claims on a purportedly supernatural revelation, was not truth at all. Science–as a practitioner of the fashionable new art of photography might have put it–was defined by its negative: religion. (445)

Here, then, lay a striking paradox. Although the concept of science, as it emerged over the course of the nineteenth century, was defined by men who assumed it to be the very opposite of novel, something timeless and universal, this was conceit of a very familiar kind. Science, precisely because it was cast as religion’s doppelgänger, inevitably bore the ghostly stamp of Europe’s Christian past. Huxley, however, refused to recognise this. The same man whose genius as an anatomist enabled him to identify what only now has become almost universally accepted, that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs that once, millions of years ago, were scampering through Jurassic forests, had no problem in believing that ‘science’ had always existed. Just as colonial officials and missionaries, travelling to India, had imposed the concept of ‘religion’ on the societies they found there, so did agnostics colonise the past in similar manner. The ancient Egyptians, and Babylonians, and Romans: all were assumed to have had a ‘religion’. Some peoples–most notably the Greeks–were also assumed to have had ‘science’. It was this that had enabled their civilisation to serve as the wellspring of progress. Philosophers had been the prototypes of scientists. The library of Alexandria had been ‘the birthplace of modern science’. [John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (London, 1887), p. 33.] Only Christians, with their fanatical hatred of reason and their determination to eradicate pagan learning, had prevented the ancient world from being set on a path towards steam engines and cotton mills. Wilfully, monks had set themselves to writing over anything that smacked of philosophy. The triumph of the Church had been an abortion of everything that made for a humane and civilised society. Darkness had descended on Europe. For a millennium and more, popes and inquisitors had laboured to snuff out any spark of curiosity, or enquiry, or reason. The most notable martyr to this fanaticism had been Galileo. Tortured for demonstrating beyond all shadow of a doubt that the earth revolved around the sun, ‘he groaned away his days,’ as Voltaire had put it, ‘in the dungeons of the Inquisition’. [Voltaire. Quoted by Finocchiaro. Retrying Galileo, p. 116.] Bishops who scoffed at Darwin’s theory (446) of evolution by asking sneery questions about gorillas were merely the latest combatants in a war that was as old as Christianity itself. (447)

| That nothing in this narrative was true did not prevent it from becoming a wildly popular myth. Nor was its appeal confined solely to agnostics. There was much in it for Protestants to relish as well. The portrayal of medieval Christendom as a hellhole of backwardness and bigotry reached all the way back to Luther. Huxley’s sense of himself as a member of an elect had–as contemporaries were quick to note–a familiarly radical quality. ‘He has the moral earnestness, the volitional energy, the absolute confidence in his own convictions, the desire and determination to impress them upon all mankind, which are the essential marks of the Puritan character.’ [T. S. Bynes. Quoted by Desmond. Huxley, p. 624.] Yet in truth, the growing conviction of many agnostics that science alone possessed the ability to answer questions about life’s larger purpose derived from a much older seedbed. Once upon a time, the natural sciences had been natural philosophy. The awe felt by medieval theologians before the works and the wonders of creation was not absent from The Origin of Species. Darwin, in its concluding lines, described his theory in sonorous terms. ‘There is grandeur in this view of life,’ he proclaimed. The conviction that the universe moved in obedience to laws which might be comprehended by human reason, and that the fruit of these laws was ‘most beautiful and most wonderful’, was one that joined him directly to the distant age of Abelard. [On the Origin of Species, p. 490.] When, in Germany, Darwinists fantasised that churches might soon feature altars to astronomy and be decked out with orchids, their hankering after the venerable gravitas of Christianity was rendered explicit. The war between science and religion reflected–at least in part–the claims of both to a common inheritance. (447)

[Richard von] Krafft-Ebing believed, ‘homosexuals’ were the victims of an underlying morbid condition. Whether this was to be viewed as something hereditary, an ailment passed down the generations, or as the result of an accident suffered in the uterus, it was clear to him that homosexuality should be regarded not as sin, but as something very different: an immutable condition. Homosexuals, he argued, were the creatures of their proclivities. As such–Christian concern for the unfortunate being what it was–they deserved to be treated with generosity and compassion. (449)

When Krafft-Ebing invented the word ‘sadism’ to describe those who took erotic pleasure in inflicting pain, he was implicitly associating the Marquis with inquisitors such as Conrad of Marburg. (449)

Raised a Catholic, he took for granted the primacy of the Christian model of marriage. The great labour of the Church in fashioning and upholding monogamy as a lifelong institution was one that he deeply valued. ‘Christianity raised the union of the sexes to a sublime position by making woman socially the equal of man and by elevating the bond of love to a moral and religious institution.’ [Krafft-Ebing. Psychopathia Sexualis, tr. F. J. Redman (London, 1899), p. 210.] It was not despite believing this, but because of it, that Krafft-Ebing, by the end of his career, had come to believe that sodomy should be decriminalised. Homosexuals, he declared, might be no less familiar with ‘the noblest inspirations of the heart’ than any married couple. [Quoted by Robert Beachy in ‘The German Invention of Homosexuality’ (Journal of Modern History 82, 2010), p. 819.] … It was on the basis of this correspondence that Krafft-Ebing was able to arrive at a paradoxical conclusion. The sexual practice condemned by the Church as sodomy was perfectly compatible with the ideal that he saw as Christianity’s great contribution to civilisation: life-long monogamy. Homosexuality, as defined by the first scientist ever to attempt a detailed categorisation of it, constituted the seamless union of Christian sin with Christian love. (450)

| In cool and dispassionate language, Krafft-Ebing put the seal on a revolution in the dimensions of the erotic that was without parallel in history. (450) … Categories that had taken almost two millennia to evolve were now impregnably defined. … In the sexual order as in so much else, the roots of modernity reached deep into Christian soil. (451)

Visiting Diplodocus

Contemptuous of any notion of the supernatural, [Andrew] Carnegie was contemptuous as well of what America’s most distinguished social scientist had termed ‘the old ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich’. William Graham Sumner, a professor at Yale, had once felt a calling to the ministry; but the experience of serving as a clergyman had led him to reject the Church’s teachings on poverty. ‘In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism.’ [William Graham Sumner. What Social Classes Owe To Each Other (New York, 1833), pp. 44-5.] (452)

The article in which he [Carnegie] wrote this had appointed title: ‘The Gospel of Wealth’. Charity was only pointless if it failed to help the poor to help themselves. ‘The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise.’ [Andrew  Carnegie. The Gospel of Wealth, And Other Timely Essays (New York, 1901), p. 18.] (453)

Capitalism, in Lenin’s [Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov]’s opinion, was doomed to collapse. The workers of the world–the ‘proletariat’–were destined to inherit the earth. The abyss that yawned between ‘the handful of arrogant millionaires who wallow in filth and luxury, and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism.’ [V. I. Lenin, Letter To American Workers.] (454)

‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution as it applies to organic matter, so Marx discovered the law of evolution as it applies to human history.’ [Engels. Marx-Engels Collected Works (Moscow, 1989), vol. 24, p. 467.] Communists could be certain of their cause, not because it was moral, or just, or written–as Marx himself had mockingly put it–‘in vaporous clouds in the heavens’, [Marx. MECW (1975), vol. , p. 150.] but because it was scientifically proven. … Once, in the beginning, man and woman had lived in a condition of primitive equality; but then there had been a fall. Different classes had emerged. Exploitation had become the norm. The struggle between the rich and the poor had been relentless: an unforgiving tale of greed and acquisition. Now, under the blood-stained reign of capital, in the era of plutocrats like Carnegie, it had become pitiless as never before. Workers were reduced to machines. Marx, sixty years previously, had foretold it all: what the clamouring, hammering genius of capitalism had revealed. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ [Marx and Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party (London, 1888), p. 16.] (455)

Capitalists like Andrew Carnegie were the grave-diggers of their own class. It was capitalism itself that would give birth to the classless society. (456)

The ambitions of Christianity to change the world, its claims to have done so, were delusions. ‘Epiphenomena’, Marx termed them: mere bubbles thrown up on the heaving surface of things by the immense currents of production and exchange. (456)

‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ [Marx. Critique of the Gotha Program (London, 1891), p. 23.] Here was a slogan with the clarity of a scientific formula. (457)

‘Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need.’ Repeatedly throughout Christian history, the communism practised by the earliest Church had served radicals as their inspiration. Marx, when he dismissed questions of morality and justice as phenomena, was concealing the true germ of his revolt against capitalism behind jargon. … For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil. (457)

19. Shadow
1916: The Somme

Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?–for even gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ [Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science, 125.]

Christianity had reigned for two millennia. It could not easily be banished. Its myths would long endure. They were certainly no less mythical for casting themselves as secular. ‘Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour’: [Friedrich Nietzsche. ‘Preface to an Unwritten Book’ in Early Greek Philosophy and Other Essays, tr. M Mügge (London, 1911), p. 4.] these were Christian through and through. (464)

| Nietzsche did not mean this as a compliment. … Concern for the lowly and the suffering, far from serving the cause of justice, was a form of poison. … ‘To devise something which could even approach the (464) seductive, intoxicating, anaesthetising, and corrupting power of that symbol of the “holy cross”, that horrific paradox of the “crucified God”, that mystery of an inconceivably ultimate, most extreme cruelty and self-crucifixion undertaken for the salvation of mankind?’ [Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals, 1.8.] Like Paul, Nietzsche knew it to be a scandal. Unlike Paul, he found it repellent. (465)

As so often before, when Christians had found themselves enmired in misery and slaughter, the veil that lay between the earth and heaven (466) could appear to many hauntingly thin. (467)

The Triumph of the Will

[Benito] Mussolini posed in ways that consciously sought to erase the entire span of Christian history. Although, in a country as profoundly Catholic as Italy, he had little choice but to cede a measure of autonomy to the Church, his ultimate aim was to subordinate it utterly, to render it the handmaid of the fascist state. Mussolini’s more strident followers exulted nakedly in this goal. ‘Yes indeed, we are totalitarians! We want to be from morning to evening, without distracting thoughts.’ [Roberto Davanzati. Quoted by Burleigh. Sacred Causes, p. 61.] (471)

…they called themselves Nationalsozialisten: ‘National Socialists’. Their opponents, in mockery of their pretensions, called them Nazis. But this only betrayed fear. The national Socialists courted the hatred of their foes. An enemy’s loathing was something to be welcomed. It was the anvil on which a new Germany was to be be [sic] forged. ‘It is not compassion but courage and toughness that save life, because war is life’s eternal disposition.’ [‘It’s Him or Me’, an article in the SS-Leitheft. Quoted by Chapoutot, p. 157.] (472)

[Adolf] Hitler’s policies, although rooted in a sense o race as something primordial ancient, were rooted as well in the clinical formulations of evolutionary theory. The measures that (472) would restore purity to the German people were prescribed equally by ancient chronicles and by Darwinist textbooks. To eliminate those who stood in the way of fulfilling such a programme was not a crime, but a responsibility. ‘Apes massacre all fringe elements as alien to their community.’ Hitler did not hesitate to draw the logical conclusion. ‘What is valid for monkeys must be all the more valid for humans.’ [Hitler. Quoted by Chapoutot, p. 156.]

Hitler, who in 1928 had loudly proclaimed his movement to be Christian, had come to regard Christianity with active hostility. Its morality, its concern for the weak, he had always viewed as cowardly and shameful. Now that he was in power, he recognised in the claim of the Church to a sphere distinct from the state–that venerable inheritance from the Gregorian revolution–a direct challenge to the totalitarian mission of National Socialism. Although, like Mussolini, Hitler was willing to tread carefully at first–and even, in 1933, to sign a concordat with the papacy–he had no intention of holding to it for long. Christian morality had resulted in any number of grotesque excrescences: alcoholics breeding promiscuously while upstanding national comrades struggled to put food on the table for their families; mental patients enjoying clean sheets while healthy children were obliged to sleep three or four to a bed; cripples having money and attention lavished on them that should properly be devoted to the fit. Idiocies such as these were precisely what National Socialism existed to terminate. The churches had had their day. The new order, if it were to endure for am millennium, would require a new order of man. It would require Übermenschen. (475)

| By 1937, then, Hitler had begun to envisage the elimination of Christianity once and for all. The objections to church leaders to the state’s ongoing sterilisation of idiots and cripples infuriated him. His own preference–one that he fully intended to act upon in the event of war–was for euthanasia to be applied in a comprehensive manner. This, a policy that was sanctioned both by ancient example and by the most advanced scientific thinking, was something that the German people needed urgently to be brought to accept. (475) Clearly, there was no prospect of them fulfilling their racial destiny while they were still cancerous with compassion. … ‘Harping on and on that God died on the cross out of pity for the weak, the sick, and the sinners, they then demand that the genetically diseased be kept alive in the name of a doctrine of pity that goes against nature, and of a misconceived notion of humanity.’ [From an SS magazine (1939), quoted by Chapoutot, p. 190.] (476)

Yet if Christianity–as Hitler had come to believe–was ‘the heaviest blow that ever struck humanity’, [Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944: His Private Conversations, ed. Hugh Trevor-Roper (London, 1953), p. 7.] then it was not enough merely to eradicate it. A religion so pernicious that it had succeeded both in destroying the Roman Empire and in spawning Bolshevism could hardly have emerged from nowhere. What source of infection could possibly have bred such a plague? (476)

In the Darkness Bind Them

Across Europe, the readiness of Christians to identify themselves with the Jews had become the measure of their response to the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history. [John Ronald Reuel] Tolkien–ever the devout Catholic–was doing nothing that popes had not also done. In September 1938, the ailing Pius XI had declared himself spiritually a Jew. …the response from Nazi theorists was vituperative. To them, it appeared self-evident that universal morality was a fraud perpetrated by Jews. ‘Can we still tolerate our children from being obliged to learn that Jews and Negroes, just like Germans or Romans, are descended from Adam and Eve, simply because a Jewish myth says so? Not merely pernicious, the doctrine that all were one in Christ ranked as an outrage against the fundamentals of science. (481)

‘He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’ [Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146.]

In 1948, three years after the death of Hitler, Tolkien finally completed The Lord of the Rings. Its climax told of the overthrow of Sauron. Over the course of the novel, he and his servants had been searching for a terrible weapon, a ring of deadly power, that would have enabled him, had he only been able to find it, to rule of all of Middle-earth. Naturally, Sauron’s dread had been that his enemies–whom he knew had found it–would turn it against him. But they did not. Instead, they destroyed the ring. True strength manifested itself no in the exercise of power, but in the willingness to give it up. So Tolkien, as a Christian, believed. It was why, in the last year of the war against Hitler, he had lamented it as an ultimately evil job. ‘For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you know, to been new Saurons.’ [J. R. R. Tolkien. Letters, p. 78.]

The fall of Mordor, so Tolkien specified, occurred on 25 March: the very date on which, since at least the third century, Christ was believed to have become incarnate in the womb of Mary, and then to have been crucified. (486)

‘I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a “long defeat”–though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpse of final victory.’ [J. R. R. Tolkien. Letters, p. 255.] The success of The Lord of the Rings–while it bore witness, Tolkien hoped, to the ‘final victory’ of Christianity–bore witness as well to its fading. The novel offered Tolkien’s religion to its readers obliquely; and, had it not done so, it would never have enjoyed such unprecedented success. The world was changing. A belief in evil as Tolkien believed in it, and as Christians for so long had done, as a literal, satanic force, was weakening. Few doubted, in the wake of the first half of the twentieth century, that hell existed–but it had become difficult to imagine it as anything other than a muddy cesspool surrounded by barbed wire, and with crematoria silhouetted against aw wintry sky, but by men from the very heartlands of what had once been Christendom. (487)

20. Love
1967: Abbey Road

Sunday, 25 June. In St John’s Wood,… The Beatles were booked to play…a programme featuring live sequences from different countries to be broadcast simultaneously around the wrold–and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and put up John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. … John Lennon, alternately singing and chewing heavily on a wad of gum, offered the watching world a prescription with which neither Aquinas, nor Augustine, nor Saint Paul would have disagreed: ‘all you need is love’. (488)

| God, after all, was love. This was what it said in the Bible. For two thousand years, men and women had been pondering this (488) revelation. Love, and do as you will. … Across the world, like napalm in a Vietnamese jungle, hatreds seemed to be burning out of control. Most terrifying of all were the tensions between the world’s two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. … Armed as both sides were with nuclear missiles, weapons so lethal that they had the potential to wipe out all of life on earth, the stakes were grown apocalyptic. Humanity had abrogated to itself what had always previously been viewed as a divine prerogative: the power to end the world. (489)

| How, then, could love possibly be enough? (489)

The campaign for civil rights gave to Christianity an overt centrality in American politics that it had not had since the decades (490) before the Civil War. … To talk of love as Paul had talked of it, as a thing greater than prophecy, or knowledge, or faith, had once again become a revolutionary act. … In the 1950s, on picket lines and marches, black protestors had sung songs from the dark days of bondage: about Moses redeeming his people from slavery; about Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho. In the 1960s, it began to seem that voices honed in gospel choirs might transform the world: that a change was gonna come. (491)

Simultaneously, to racists unpersuaded by the justice of the civil rights movement, it provided an opportunity to rally the troops. The Ku Klux Klan leapt at the chance to cast themselves as the defender of Protestant values. (492)

Cut loose from its theological moorings, the distinctively Christian understanding of love that had done so much to animate the civil rights movement began to float free over an ever more psychedelic landscape. (493)

To many Evangelicals, feminism and the gay rights movement were an assault on Christianity itself. Equally, to many feminists and gay activists, Christianity appeared synonymous with everything that they were struggling against: injustice, and bigotry, and persecution. (494)

That every human being possessed an equal dignity was not remotely self-evident a truth. A Roman would have laughed at it. To campaign against discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality, however, was to depend on large numbers of people sharing in a common assumption: that everyone possessed an inherent worth. The origins of this principle–as Nietzsche had so contemptuously pointed out–lay not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the bible. (494)

Now, though, the Spirit had taken on a new form. No longer Christian, it had become a vibe. … The concept of progress, unyoked from the theology that had given it birth, had begun to leave Christianity trailing in its wake. The choice that faced churches–an agonisingly difficult one–was whether to sit in the dust, shaking their fists at it in impotent rage, or whether to run and scramble in a desperate attempt to catch up with it. (495)

Long Walk to Freedom

The ending of apartheid and the election in 1994 of Mandela as South Africa’s first black president was one of the great dramas of Christian history: a drama woven through with deliberate echoes of the Gospels. Without protagonists long familiar with the script they had been given to speak, it could not possibly have succeeded. ‘When confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say “We forgive you.”‘ [Desmond Tutu, speaking at a conference of South Africa’s churches in December 1989. Quoted by Ryrie, p. 357.] … The same faith that had inspired Afrikaners to imagine themselves a chosen people was also, in the long run, what had doomed their supremacy. The pattern was a familiar one. (503) …the confidence that had enabled Europeans to believe themselves superior to those they were displacing was derived from Christianity. Repeatedly, though, in the struggle to hold this arrogance to account, it was Christianity that had provided the colonised and the enslaved with their surest voice. The paradox was profound. No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors, dismissing with contempt the gods of other peoples, had installed in their place an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power. No other conquerors, exporting an understanding of the divine peculiar to themselves, had so successfully persuaded peoples around the globe that it possessed a universal import. (504)

Easter is a festival of human solidarity, because it celebrates the fulfilment of the Good News! The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind! [Nelson Mandela. Address to the Zionist Christian Church Easter Conference, 3 April 1994.]

Secularism; liberal democracy; the concept of human rights: these were fit for the whole world to embrace. The inheritance of the Enlightenment was for everyone: a possession for all of mankind. It was promoted by the West, not because it was Western, but because it was universal. The entire world could enjoy its fruits. It was not more Christian than it was Hindu, or Confucian, or Muslim. There was neither Asian nor European. Humanity was embarked as one upon a common road. | The end of history had arrived. (505)

The Management of Savagery

to imagine, then, that the insurgency in Iraq was a campaign of decolonisation such as [Frantz] Fanon would have understood it was to view the Muslim world through spectacles barely less Christian than those worn by Bush himself. Insurgents fighting the Americans tended not to object to empires per se–only to empires that were not legitimately Islamic. Muslims, like Christians, had their dreams of apocalypse; but these, amid the killing fields of Iraq, tended to foster fantasies of global conquest rather than of social revolution. As the world had once been, so it would be again. The fighting against the American was a mirror held up to the fighting, back int he early centuries of Islam, against the Romans and the crusaders–and foreshadowed what was yet to come. ‘The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify–by Allah’s permission–until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.’ [al-Zarqawi. Quoted by Weiss and Hassan. ISIS, p. 40.] (509)

To be a Muslim, though, was to know that humans did not have rights. There was no natural law in Islam. There were only laws authored by God. Muslim countries, by joining the United Nations, had signed up to a host of commitments that derived, not from the Qur’an or the Sunna, but from law codes devised in Christian countries: that there should be equality between men and women; equality between Muslims and non-Muslims; a ban on slavery; a ban on offensive warfare. Such doctrines, al-Maqdisi sternly ruled, had no place in Islam. To accept them was to become an apostate. (510)

Yet the very literalness with which the Islamic State sought to resuscitate the vanished glories of the Arab empire was precisely what rendered it so inauthentic. Of the beauties, of the subtleties, of the sophistication that had always been the hallmarks of Islamic civilisation there was not a trace. The god they worshipped was not the god of Muslim philosophers and poets, all-merciful and all-compassionate, but a butcher. The licence they drew upon for their savagery derived not from the incomparable inheritance of Islamic scholarship, but from a bastardised tradition of fundamentalism that was, in its essentials, Protestant. Islamic the Islamic State may have been; but it also stood in a line of descent from Anabaptist Münster. It was, perhaps, the most gruesome irony in the whole history of Protestantism. (512)

21. Woke
2015: Rostock

To trample on superstition was to lay claim to the light. (522)

Now, in the age of Charlie Hebdo, Europe had new expectations, new identities, new ideals. None, though, was neutral; none was anything other than the fruit of Christian history. To imagine otherwise, to imagine that the values of secularism might indeed be timeless, was–ironically enough–the surest evidence of just how deeply Christian they were. (523)

Blessed Be The Fruit

America was a country shaped by a tradition that, for two thousand years, had sought to regulate desire. Sexual appetite, in particular, had always been regarded by Christians with mingled suspicion and anxiety. This was why, beginning with Paul, such a supreme effort had been made to keep its currents flowing along a single course. (526)

One music journalist writing in San Francisco as 1967 turned to fall, had cast America as a stagnant swamp suddenly brought to life by the shimmering through its waters of a god. Ralph Gleason, the founder of Rolling Stone, most successful of all the many magazines inspired by the counterculture of the 1960s, had identified its spirit of sexual freedom with that of classical Greece. Society, he had declared, was being ‘deeply stirred by Dionysiac currents’. [Ralph Gleason. Quoted by Milton Himmelfarb. p. 89.]The ancient gods were back. (527)

| Except that the freedom to fuck when and as one liked had tended to be, in antiquity, the perk of a very exclusive subsection of society: powerful men. Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus: all had been habitual rapists. So too, in the Rome to which Paul had travelled with his (527) unsettling message of sexual continence, had been many a head of household. Only the titanic efforts of Christian moralists, the labour of a millennium and more, had managed to recalibrate this. Their insistence on marriage as the only legitimate way to obtain erotic fulfilment had prevailed. (528)

There had always existed, in the hearts of the Christian people, a tension between the demands of tradition and the claims of progress, between the prerogatives of authority and the longing for reformation, between the letter and the spirit of the law. The twenty-first century marked, in that sense, no radical break with what had gone before. That the great bottles in America’s culture war were being fought between Christians and those who had emancipated themselves from Christianity was a conceit that both sides had an interest in promoting. It was no less of a myth for that. In reality, Evangelicals and progressives were both recognisably bred of the same matrix. If opponents of abortion were the heirs of Macrina, who had toured the rubbish tips of Cappadocia looking for abandoned infants to rescue, then those who argued against them were likewise drawing on a deeply rooted Christian supposition: that every woman’s body was her own, and to be respected as such by every man. Supporters of gay marriage were quite as influenced by the Church’s enthusiasm for monogamous fidelity as those against it were by biblical condemnations of men who slept with men. To install transgender toilets might indeed (53) seem an affront to the Lord God, who had created male and female; but to refuse kindness to the persecuted was to offend against the most fundamental teachings of Christ. In a country as saturated in Christian assumptions as the United States, there could be no escaping their influence–even for those who imagined that they had. America’s culture wars were less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions. (531)

Implicit in #MeToo was the same call to sexual continence that had reverberated throughout the Church’s history. Protestors who marched in the red cloaks of handmaid were summoning men to exercise control over their lusts just as the Puritans had done. Appetites that had been hailed by enthusiasts for sexual liberation as Dionysiac stood condemned once again as predatory and violent. The human body was not an object, not a commodity to be used by the rich and powerful as and when they pleased. Two thousand years of Christian sexual morality had resulted in men as well as women widely taking this for granted. Had it not, then #METoo would have had no force. (531)

God might be dead, but his shadow, immense and dreadful, continued to flicker even as his corpse lay cold. … Any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive derived from a framework of values that was itself utterly Christian. (532)

Christianity, it seemed, had no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish. Whether this was an illusion, or whether the power held by victims over their victimisers would survive the myth that had given it birth, only time would tell. As it was, the retreat of Christian belief did not seem to imply any necessary retreat of Christian values. Quite the contrary. Even in Europe–a continent with churches far emptier than those in the United States–the trace elements of Christianity continued to infuse people’s morals and presumptions so utterly that many failed even to detect their presence. Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists, and those who never paused so much as to think about religion. (533)

| Had it been otherwise, then no one would ever have got woke. (533)

The Weak Things of the World

I have written much in this book about churches, and monasteries, and universities; but these were never where the mass of the Christian people were most influential shaped. It was always in the home that children were likeliest to absorb the revolutionary teachings that, over the course of two thousand years, have come to be so taken for granted as almost to seem human nature. The Christian revolution was wrought above all at the knees of women. (535)

The hope offered by the Christian story, that there was an order and a purpose to humanity’s existence, felt like something that had forever slipped my grasp. ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible,’ as the physicist Steven Weinberg famously put it, ‘the more it also seems pointless.’ [Steven Weinberg. The First Three Minutes (New York, 1977), p. 154.] (537)

‘There is nothing particular about man. He is but a part of this world.’ [Heinrich Himmler. Quoted by Chapoutot, p. 27.] Today, in the West, there are many who would agree with Himmler that, for humanity to claim a special status for itself, to imagine itself as somehow superior to the rest of creation, is an unwarrantable conceit. Homo sapiens is just another species. To insist otherwise is to cling to the shattered fragments of religious (537) belief. Yet the implications of this view–which the Nazis, of course, claimed as their sanction for genocide–remain unsettling for many. Just as Nietzsche had foretold, freethinkers who mock the very idea of a god as a dead thing, a sky fairy, an imaginary friend, still piously hold to taboos and morals that derive from Christianity. In 2002, in Amsterdam, the World Humanist Congress affirmed ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others’. [Amsterdam Declaration, 2002.] Yet this–despite humanists’ stated ambition to provide ‘an alternative to dogmatic religion’ [Amsterdam Declaration, 2002.]–was nothing if not itself as statement of belief. … As in the days of Darwin and Huxley, so in the twenty-first century, the ambition of agnostics to translate values ‘into facts that can be scientifically understood’ [Sam Harris. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York, 2010), p. 2.] was a fantasy. It derived not from the viability of such a project, but from medieval theology. It was not truth that science offered moralists, but a mirror. Racists identified it with racist values; liberals with liberal values. The primary dogma of humanism–‘that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others’ [Amsterdam Declaration, 2002.]–found no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated. The wellspring of humanist values lay not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history. (538)

The more the evidence is studied, the hazier the dividing line between birds and dinosaurs has become. The same, mutatis mutandis, might be said of the dividing line between agnostics and Christians. (539)

Agnosticism–as Huxley, the man who coined the word, readily acknowledged–ranks as ‘that conviction of the supremacy of private judgment (indeed, of the impossibility of escaping it) which is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation’. [Thomas Henry Huxley. Collected Essays. Volume 5: Science and the Christian Tradition (London, 1894), p. 320.]  Secularism owes its existence to the medieval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible: (539) that humans are made in God’s image; that his Son died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, Christianity has sent reverberations across the world. First there was the primal revolution: the revolution preached by Saint Paul. Then there came the aftershocks: the revolution in the eleventh century that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course; the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to enfold within its embrace every other possible way of seeing the world; the claim to a universalism that was culturally highly specific. That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths. (540)

[via: Again, “After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words ‘sacred & undeniable,’ and suggested that ‘these truths’ were, instead, ‘self-evident.’ This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.” Jill Lepore, These Truths, p. xv.]

Just as he lived in dread of Satan, so do we of Hitler’s ghost. … If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution–a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead–then how are its values anything more than a shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? (540)

| A myth, though, is not a lie. … To be (540) Christian is to believe that God became man and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it–the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe–that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.” (541)

About VIA


  1. Pingback: Reading While Black | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

  2. Pingback: The Power Worshippers | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

  3. Pingback: Why You’re Christian | Reflections | vialogue

  4. Pingback: The Patterning Instinct | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: