You might not buy the thesis of Dominion: How the Christion Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland (A galloping tour of Christianity’s influence across the last 2,000 years, NYT), but I bought the book precisely because of its promise to prove something I have come to believe. That will we or nill we, the Western World is Christian.
I am an atheist, but yet I am Christian as well. If it weren’t for my inability to buy the central theological thesis of Christianity (the existence of a god), my butt would be in a pew on most Sundays.
In the 12th century, a jurist known as Gratian made a collection of canon law known as the Decretum Gratiani.. Holland writes,
[St.] Paul’s authority … was definitive. ‘The entire law is summed up in a single command. Love your neighbor as yourself'. Here, for Gratian, was the foundation-stone of justice. So important to him was the command that he opened the Decretum by citing it. Echoing the Stoics much as Paul had done, he opted to define it as a natural law – and the key to fashioning a properly Christian legal system. All souls were equal in the eyes of God.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
St. Paul was one of the first to carry this Christian message throughout the towns and villages of the Graeco-Roman world: Galatia, Ephesus, Corinth, Phyrgia, Thessalonica, Phillipi – even into Rome itself. And the message he carried, that all souls are equal in the eyes of God, helped propel the words of a penniless Jewish preacher, who had died the most ignominious of deaths, in an age when only Emperors became new gods, into a movement that would shortly take Rome by storm. And not only Rome.
It was a message that Bartolome de las Casa cited when he asked, Who are the true barbarians? The Indians, a people ‘gentle, patient and humble,’ or the Spanish conquerors, whose lust for gold and silver is no less ravening than their cruelty?
And that inspired Benjamin Lay to declare, at an annual assembly of Quakers, that the enslavement of Africans 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 thrust a sword throuoght their hearts as I do through this book. Whereupon he thrust a sword through a hollowed out Bible full of pokeberry juice. But before he died, the Quaker Assembly had disavowed slavery in its entirety and become one of the pillars of the abolitionist movement.
Perhaps even more startling than the discovery that one of our founding documents enshrines the doctrine that all souls are equal in the sight of God, known to us as all men are created equal, is the notion that most reform movements can be traced back to this simple ideal. You would have to read the book, and follow Holland’s arguments to learn why he concludes that even secular humanism derives not from reason nor from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution …
Indeed, he argues, For two thousand years…Christians … [during times when they] have themselves become agents of terror…the standards by which they stand condemned for this are themselves Christian…
It’s a fascinating argument, with a conclusion of which I was already convinced before I read the book. Having read it, I am even more a “convert.”